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  • Eric Lipson

The Downsides of Up-Zoning

By Eric B. Lipson, J.D

We are all in favor of walkability, sustainability and affordability of neighborhoods.

But right now, in Ann Arbor in 2022 all we are getting, in the form of TC1*, is a land speculator’s dream come true. (*TC1=Transit Corridor 1 at State and Eisenhower and Stadium Blvd)

Up-zoning Is the latest craze in zoning, promising, without evidence, that it will create affordability, walkability, and sustainability by giving developers free-rein to develop as densely as the market will bear without heeding the consequent impact on the quality of life for residents.

The Mayor and City Council provided no incentives nor requirements in TC1 for affordability, or sustainability, nor any requirements for green space.

Requiring or incentivizing amenities would seem a fair exchange for the immediate benefit given to real-estate interests whose properties immediately appreciate in value. Many municipalities have such “Community Benefit” ordinances.

The fact that the TC1 up-zoning at State and Eisenhower enriches the Mayor’s largest donors makes the whole process suspect. This is no way to promote the best interests of all of Ann Arbor's citizens and is extremely disturbing.

Studies of up-zoning experiments in such areas as New York, Portland, Chicago or Minneapolis warn: “the evidence that up-zoning actually provides much of the promised benefits is lacking.”* In fact one study done of the effects of up-zoning in New York City titled: “Use Up-zoning sparingly” from notes that gentrification, paradoxically, can be an unanticipated side-effect, especially in marginal neighborhoods where existing residents are priced out of the market.

I still have not heard a good answer to 1) What’s the big hurry? 2) Why not wait until AFTER revising the Comprehensive Plan scheduled for the upcoming fiscal year?

One conclusion by the skeptical is that this TC1 is designed to attract more developer and real estate money to the Mayor’s campaign. The timing is sure suspicious. Certainly the Mayor’s donor list gives some clues.

In any event, at the public Zoom meeting, I asked, "Can you point to a single example of a city approximately the size of Ann Arbor, say up to 200,000 people, where up-zoning has provided any of the promised benefits of affordability and walkability?" Mr. Lenart’s answer: “Not offhand.”

So let’s look at how up-zoning has worked in reality in Ann Arbor:

Look at the unintended consequences of up-zoning of S. University where we lost all the charm of that area and got $1,200 month per-bed student high-rises, chain stores and bars.

Look at E. Huron at Division St. where upzoning and “unanticipated” land combinations allowed higher buildings and resulted in the Old Fourth Ward falling into the shadow of The Foundry Lofts.

Will we lose Stadium Hardware, Bell’s Diner, Chela’s, Taco King, A-1 Rental, Pilars and Faz Pizza as low-rise developments give way to “downtown” high-rises and 7-11s? What will replace those small businesses if they become financially expendable?

So far planners' attempts to promote mixed use are dismal. There is zero retail at The George on Packard nor the 600 Block of S. Main street at The Yard, the former South Main Market.

Up-zoning or non-zoning is an experiment and we are the guinea pigs. I’ve heard NO examples of where the espoused goals have been achieved by merely up-zoning in a similarly sized city.

For these reasons, I am highly skeptical that this blanket rezoning will live up to its promise. Add to that the clearly suspect motives of our current mayor and council majority. Why not delay this process until it can be incorporated into the new Comprehensive Land Use Plan for the whole city, scheduled for the coming year?

Bibliography / supplemental information

Use Upzoning Sparingly, New Report Suggests

A new report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development finds that blanket re-zonings in New York City have the potential to "cause more harm than good." August 31, 2021

Gentrification that occurs in part from an influx of units that are out of reach of current residents.

In How Important Was the Single-Family Zoning Ban in Minneapolis? Janne Flisrand and Neighbors for More Neighbors were at the heart of one of the biggest land use stories of recent years, a move to legalize triplexes and duplexes wherever single-family homes are allowed. This so-called single-family zoning ban captured headlines nationwide in 2018. The move is often highlighted by outside observers as a powerfully progressive piece of policymaking that other cities should emulate. St. Paul is now considering a similar policy.

But the actual number of units produced by this change is, so far, not impressive. In the last two years, the number of duplex, triplex and fourplex units permitted has increased from 13 in 2015 to 53 in 2021 with 2022 on pace for an even higher count. (Fourplexes are not covered by the law, but the data does not allow them to be broken out.) Not the stuff of revolutions, and certainly not enough to address the larger supply crunch.

Does upzoning drive new development?

Recent research finds that upzoned land in Portland, Oregon, produced three times as much new housing as parcels that remained unchanged, but overall development remained low.

By Jake Blumgart from City Monitor: Does upzoning drive new development?

As more US cities and states explore zoning reform as a way to increase housing supply, one big question remains unanswered: how well does it really work?

There’s surprisingly little research on how upzoning – or remapping a tract of land to allow the possibility of a greater density of units – affects housing construction. But the policy has been getting much more attention in recent years: Minneapolis and Oregon made waves by adopting new upzoning policies to boost housing density in urban areas. Other states and cities across the country have explored efforts to do the same.

A new paper from California State University, Fresno attempts to shed light on this question by investigating how more localized upzoning efforts in one city played out. By looking at development across Portland, Oregon, over a period of 17 years, professor Hongwei Dong found that upzoned land is more likely to see development and that it results in greater housing density.

Oregon now allows duplexes on all residential land in all cities with a population over 10,000 and many other kinds of denser living in cities over 25,000.

“We can always reform our land use regulations to allow higher-density homes to be built with the same amount of land,” says Dong, an associate professor of city planning. “Hopefully, that will relieve the pressure on the housing market.” (While this could ease market-rate housing prices, he emphasizes that federal government intervention is needed to address the far more pervasive housing crisis among poorer Americans.)

The new research finds that Portland’s upzoned parcels produced three times more dwelling units in 15 years than their counterparts that remained unchanged. Still, overall development was quite low: the probability of development on an upzoned parcel was only 5.1% because the great majority of the studied land was already developed.

Analysis of Detroit’s Community Benefits Ordinance

,Journal of the American Planning Association Volume 87, 2021 - Issue 2

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