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An overview of Detroit’s rezoning process

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The Planning Commission is undertaking a major update to the city’s zoning ordinance—here’s what you need to know

Spirit of Detroit Plaza
Michelle Gerard

One of the most powerful but unrecognized forces for shaping the look and function of a city is its zoning ordinance. Every single parcel of land in Detroit is designated for a certain use, and all of those uses are determined by how it’s zoned.

In 2018, the city’s Planning Commission, a nine-member board appointed by City Council to three-year terms and supported by staff at the Legislative Policy Division (LPD), decided that the zoning ordinance needed a major update.

That process, now known as ZoneDetroit, began in earnest in September 2018 when the commission hired the firm Code Studio, based out of Austin, to be the head consultant. Since then, it’s been reviewing the current ordinance and gathering information from important stakeholders: city departments, developers, and residents.

The ordinance has been updated and overhauled several times throughout the years, most recently in an eight-year process completed in 2005. Many feel that the zoning ordinance as currently written is cumbersome and not intuitive. It’s also over 800 pages long.

“There are professionals who use this every day who don’t understand it,” said Kimani Jeffrey, a planner with the LPD, at an April 30 presentation on ZoneDetroit. “I recently spoke with an attorney who’s not happy with this project because it’s going to affect his job security.”

The commission hopes to have some new policies drafted for review by those stakeholders by the end of summer, with the goal of getting it passed by City Council by the end of 2020.

This undertaking seems to be spurred by new urban planning theories being implemented by developers and the Planning and Development Department based around greater flexibility in building and land use, more walkable corridors, and other modern city designs.

For example, developers are very fond of mixed-use buildings, but those require a special zoning designation that’s much less common in Detroit. Requesting a variance can be a difficult and needlessly lengthy process.

According to LPD, 65 percent of land in Detroit is zoned for low-density single-family housing. A mere 3.5 percent are zoned for multi-family and another 3.5 percent have “special development” designations that allow for some combination of residential and commercial.

Other areas under consideration are “right-sizing” parking to reduce the number of spots in the city, increasing landscaping and buffering on sidewalks, repurposing vacant industrial buildings, and expanding options for “missing middle” housing—making it easier to build townhomes, carriage houses, four-plexes, and other types of housing that increase density and are relatively affordable.

LPD also promises that the new zoning ordinance will be much more visual and easier to use. Dry charts with codes and terms will be replaced with colored images of building and street types.

Example of how the new zoning ordinance might look
City of Detroit

And the new ordinance won’t be so strict about use, but will instead have a greater emphasis on form—so long as a building meets structural requirements, various kinds of activities could take place inside. A corner “home” could actually be a business, for example.

Many of these priorities were gathered from recommendations by residents. The commission has collected over 700 surveys and done a number of presentations throughout the city with many more to follow. It’s also assembled a Zoning Advisory Group of residents who meet regularly and review proposals, as well as 15 Project Ambassadors who communicate with community members and bring suggestions back to LPD.

Zoning can be wonky, but the Planning Commission seems determined to make it accessible.