Jeramey Jannene

Zoning Changes Would Clear Path To 1 Million Residents

But the Growing MKE plan is also intended to prevent gentrification and deter spikes in housing prices.

By - May 2nd, 2024 05:01 pm
Park Place Townhomes, 2604 E. Park Pl. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Park Place Townhomes, 2604 E. Park Pl. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson‘s administration unveiled a comprehensive policy proposal this week to expand the number of housing options and reduce housing costs in Milwaukee

Dubbed Growing MKE, the proposal is expected to be publicly reviewed by the Common Council in the coming months. It fits within Johnson’s broader vision of growing Milwaukee to one million residents and was used as the anchor of his 2024 State of the City speech.

“The updates to Milwaukee’s Zoning Code recommended by Growing MKE are designed to remove barriers that perpetuate racial and economic segregation and will allow for a wider mix of housing types in ALL city neighborhoods,” says a goal statement in the draft plan. “The recommendations aim to improve equity by increasing the amount of affordable and attainable housing for all.”

The proposal would allow more housing types, such as live-work units and rear cottages (accessory dwelling units), to be developed throughout most of the city. It would also allow more areas to host three and four-unit buildings, a type of housing commonly called “missing middle,” and provide incentives to develop higher-density housing on transit routes.

At the same time it allows more options across the city, it also has components, based on lot width and other factors, designed to restrict large or wide new buildings from being developed in historic lower-density residential areas. The net result is an attempt to drive the highest density new development to commercial areas or existing high-density areas, while allowing only incremental changes in density on residential side streets.

The plan is intended to make it easier to develop new housing in the city, including housing of smaller sizes that is more affordable to rent but often prohibited or difficult to develop today. The various components are intended to reduce costs by shortening the approval timeline and uncertainty in favor of pre-defined standards and allowing a greater supply of housing to be developed.

Other components also aim to make a more livable, pedestrian-friendly city, including zoning changes to allow higher-density housing near transit routes and better controls on building design components that face the street.

A non-zoning policy proposal would mandate parking be unbundled from the listed cost of an apartment. The proposal is intended to make it more affordable for non-vehicle owners to rent apartments. The Growing MKE plan also calls for adding visuals to the city’s zoning documents, to make it easier to understand and to make minor zoning adjustments easier to obtain to reduce costs.

The proposal would not prohibit the construction of new single-family homes or result in an immediate change to existing neighborhoods. The zoning changes are intended to allow gradual changes in density, with the biggest changes concentrated in commercial corridors or where high-density housing already exists.

For many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, including Bay View and Riverwest, the changes to residential side streets would amount to legalizing what can already be found in existing small apartment buildings and accessory dwelling units.

The Growing MKE effort would make it legal citywide to develop accessory dwelling units, though hundreds of often century-old “granny flats” or “rear cottages” already exist. All neighborhoods would also see their zoning changed to allow duplexes, triplexes and townhomes developed without special approval.

Four-unit buildings would only be legalized in areas where multi-unit housing was historically permitted. Apartment buildings of approximately eight units would be allowed in areas where a variety of building types already exist.

For higher-density areas, the city would ditch its formula-based approach to restricting the number of units based on lot size and other factors in favor of a form-based approach that restricts size based on height, setback and design standards.

Maximum lot width restrictions would be implemented as part of a strategy to preserve existing affordable housing by blocking the development of larger new buildings in targeted residential areas.

Currently, 40% of the city’s residential properties only allow single-family homes and 40% of the approximately 20,000 new housing units built in the past 20 years have required a lengthy “detailed planned development” zoning approval process.

A timeline embedded in the draft document suggests that the administration would like to see the plan adopted this summer and technical changes to the zoning code, which would require council approval, to be made in the months following.

The changes are part of a nationwide movement to update zoning regulations to accommodate growth, avoid gentrification caused by a shortage of housing options and accommodate changing household sizes.

A 2023 report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that falling household sizes are driving demand for different housing types, with the number of one-bedroom households in Milwaukee outnumbering the number of one-bedroom homes.

The effort is being led locally by Department of City Development planning manager Sam Leichtling and project manager and senior planner Amy Oeth. The proposal has been championed on the council by Alderman Jonathan Brostoff, the new chair of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee.

Conceptual details on the plan were first released in November 2023.

The city has received consulting support on the project from Delaware-based PlaceMakers and Miami-based DPZ CoDesign, a national consulting firm connected to the creation of new urbanism and the development of Seaside, Florida. The partner firms have been involved in several code modifications or rewrites across the country. Walnut Way Conservation Corp. has supported a community engagement effort, and a technical advisory committee of citizens and other city departments. A national request for proposals was issued to select the consulting team.

The zoning code was last substantially rewritten in 2002. The original zoning code was established in 1920, long after the city’s urban core was developed.

The latest plan is said to build on other plans, including the 2023 Climate and Equity Plan, the 2021 Collective Affordable Housing Strategic Plan and the 2018 Equitable Growth Through Transit Oriented Development Plan. None of those plans included as substantial, if any, changes to city ordinances.

A copy of the draft plan is available for review on Urban Milwaukee. The City is accepting feedback through May 29 via its EngageMKE platform.

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Categories: Real Estate

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