Emus are out as formed-based zoning takes shape

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Quarantine time on your hands? Comb through Lansing’s 300-page draft on form-based zoning code, available for perusal on the city website, and spot the ban on keeping emus in your yard.

The search will take you through a city that isn’t real — but might be someday. A decade in the making, the code is a citywide set of guidelines on building and land use designed to move Lansing in line with the “new urbanist” trend toward bustling, walkable, high density spaces.

In contrast with former zoning schemes, form-based codes go beyond the traditional usage breakdown of residential, office and retail, and govern the actual look and layout of buildings. In denser areas of town, new developments might sit right next to the sidewalk, “holding the line” of urban activity, with parking in back or on the side of a building.

There’s a lot more detail in the draft, including the prohibition on emus, but the code’s biggest aim is to reverse the haphazard patchwork of parking lots, strip malls and empty big box stores that gradually accreted along urban corridors like South Cedar Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard over decades of piecemeal, auto centric development in the city of Lansing.

At Monday’s virtual City Council meeting, the draft code got a public hearing and garnered a smattering of comments — both pro and con. Next, the draft will go to the council’s Committee on Development and Planning for a closer look, and then back to the full Council for a vote.

Commenters Monday brought up several concerns about the draft, including fears that a citywide code would force disparate neighborhoods to conform to a single approach. Grand Rapids, Birmingham, Midland, Traverse City, Saginaw, Mt. Pleasant, Dearborn and Marquette are among the Michigan cities that have adopted form-based codes, some of them citywide.

Brian McGrain, the city’s director of economic development and planning, admitted the code is “daunting” to read, but he urged people to at least look at the pictures.

“We’ve heard the criticism that it’s one size fits all, but that’s just not true,” he said.

Diagrams lay out different standards for more than a dozen “transects,” or types of neighborhoods, ranging from suburban residential to high-density downtown, with hybrid standards for transitional zones between the zones.

Because of this fine-tuning, McGrain said, the code won’t plop mixed-use projects on the scale of Michigan Avenue’s Capital City Market or The Venue all over town. High-rise buildings won’t pop up in single-family neighborhoods. McGrain said it instead focuses on what’s “appropriate.”

“Michigan Avenue isn’t the same as Edgewood,” McGrain added. “Our plans for Edgewood don’t involve making it a dense, walkable urban neighborhood. Nor are we going to show up in, say, the Tecumseh River neighborhood and encourage hundreds of units of high rises.”

City Planner Andy Fedewa said like in corridors along South Cedar Street, the new codes will bring buildings closer to the road, making them more accessible to bus travelers and pedestrians.

Some at Monday’s Council meeting also expressed fears the dense development encouraged by the codes along the city’s main arteries would push parking into neighborhood streets.

“The code does not remove all parking requirements, as I’ve read on Facebook,” McGrain said.

The form-based code, instead, sets a range of parking minimums, depending on the districts, but allows for shared parking among neighboring businesses. McGrain said the corrective is needed to reverse the “auto-centric” decisions of recent decades.

“Buildings were plowed down to provide parking in excess of what was ever needed,” he said.

The draft code has been a long time coming, starting with the Design Lansing master plan adopted by the city in 2012. The master plan called for “regulatory realignment to reflect new realities,” including “placemaking, quality and community appearance.”

The philosophy behind form-based codes is summed up by a quote from “smart growth” guru Fred Kent on the Design Lansing web page: “If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

When McGrain joined the city in 2018, he worked with former planning director Bill Rieske to push the codes over the finish line.

Many of the features of form-based codes are already familiar to Lansing development watchers. The most conspicuous new projects along Michigan Avenue, including the new 600 Block/Capital City Market project, already follow New Urbanist principles.

McGrain said that’s because “overlay districts” imposing guidelines similar to form-based codes have already been in place in Lansing for several years.

“We’re already requiring things that come closer to the street, better quality builds,” McGrain said. “Form-based codes will move us further in that direction.”

But he cautioned that it will take a long time, as new buildings go up or old ones are redeveloped, for the vision in the draft code to take shape.

“We’re not going to flip a switch and everything changes overnight,” he said. “What’s already there is there. Logan Square isn’t going to disappear overnight. This allows us to move forward in a pattern that’s livable, better placed. It’s a turning point.”

Commenters on Monday also brought up concerns that there hasn’t been enough public notice of the code being under review. Councilwoman Carol Wood also briefly suggested tabling the issue for fear of genuine opposition not yet having an opportunity to voice complaints.

McGrain contended that the draft “has been presented to neighborhood associations, Realtors, and the business community,” and the public had the opportunity to discuss it before the Planning Board before the board passed it in February.

He also cited multiple public meetings leading up to the adoption of the Design Lansing master plan, which includes form-based codes as a central principle.

“It’s been out there for 10 years,” he said. “We finally have it ready to go.”

But even McGrain was surprised to learn of the backyard emu ban. He punted to Fedewa.

“Lansing is not a farming community,” Fedewa said tersely. “Livestock is just not appropriate.”

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