Letter to Ypsi Planning Commission re: Riverside neighborhood zoning

For context, Ypsilanti is in the process of a broad overhaul of its zoning ordinance, based on the new Shape Ypsi master plan.  It’s long overdue–parts of the ordinance date back (as best as I can tell) to the late 1960s and early 1970s, with 40 years of cruft built on those aged foundations, making it a confusing mess of cross-references and contradictions that were a PITA to administer.

There’s a ton of great stuff in the new ordinance text, though with a Planning Commission meeting tonight to review the draft zoning ordinance and zoning map after a serious of neighborhood informational meetings, most of the feedback I’ve seen has taken the form of, “No, my neighborhood needs to changed to a less intensive zoning category.”  Following is my input to the Commission in the other direction.


Ms. Gillotti, Ms. Wessler, and Planning Commissioners:

I am concerned to see that portions of my neighborhood (Riverside) have been changed from a “Core Neighborhood” designation to “CN-Mid” in the most recent proposed zoning map (dated Oct 13). While this designation is reasonable for many of the properties affected, it is the absolute minimum designation appropriate for the area, and I believe any further change to more restrictive designations in the Riverside area would be harmful to our neighborhood and to the larger community.

Please do NOT further restrict this area: Riverside needs zoning that supports the diverse, dense, urban neighborhood that it is now.


Richard Murphy

[address omitted]

More thoughts follow, if you want the long-winded version, numbered for convenience: [note: this WAS part of the original email, not just bloggy commentary]

  1. Diversity of housing stock:  I live in Riverside because I want to raise my kids in the diversity of age, race, class, and life situation offered by the neighborhood—a diversity that relies on having a broad range of housing styles and arrangements: neighborhood rentals allow new residents to fit into and find their place in the Ypsilanti community, in-house apartments provide options for people who don’t need (or want) the hassle and cost of house ownership, group living arrangements support those who, due to age or disability, cannot maintain a home of their own. Overly restrictive zoning threatens this neighborhood diversity by limiting available options.
  1. Density of residents:  I also want to raise my kids in a neighborhood that makes walking, biking, and transit use normal, with access to lots of local businesses and other destinations.  This value relies on a critical mass of residents both to raise drivers’ awareness of pedestrians and cyclists (safety in numbers) and to provide a customer base that serves as the foundation for local businesses (a recent economic impact study by the Michigan Main Streets program found that each “downtown” household contributes approximately $9,000 annually to downtown businesses).  A more restrictive zoning erodes both of these factors.
  1. Community integration of students:  Students are not an exception to the above points, but are particularly important to provide neighborhood options for.  EMU students are our best source of prospective long-term residents—a talent attraction pipeline that many communities would love to have–but giving them a reason to stay here after graduation requires giving them the option of being a part of our neighborhoods and our community, not just relegating them to campus housing or isolated apartment complexes. We need to plan for the inclusion of today’s students in order to create tomorrow’s homeowners, business owners, and civic leaders.
  1. Maintenance of properties:  Creating non-conformities discourages upkeep, by reducing the long-term value of properties, as well as by limiting their appeal to buyers.  By example, over the 8 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, the most significant upgrades to properties have involved adding units to make the finances work: a 2- to 3-unit conversion on the 400-block of Perrin, a house-to-duplex conversion on the 400 block of Ballard, and Barry LaRue’s beautiful restoration and duplex conversion of 505 N Hamilton. By contrast, our visible vacant properties are those that were rendered non-conforming by unit count in 2006: the 4-plex on the 400 block of N. Hamilton that burned in 2008 and has not yet been renovated under the 1- and 2-unit zoning; the apparently stalled 3-to-2 unit conversion on 500 N. Hamilton.

I understand that some have offered potential nuisance concerns about some of the uses included in the CN district, but using zoning to address those concerns is the slowest and least effective tool in our arsenal, and brings collateral damage to our community equity, economic development, and quality of life. We have targeted tools of ordinance enforcement, rental property maintenance, historic preservation, and vacant and dangerous building regulation: let’s not risk what makes the neighborhood unique when we have better ways to resolve our concerns.

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About Me

Michigander, parent of twins, urban planner, role-playing game nerd.


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