Zoning amendment supports additional housing in Grand Rapids business districts

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A new zoning amendment is expected to give a boost to the future development of much-needed housing stock.

The Grand Rapids City Commission last week unanimously approved a zoning text amendment that will allow ground-floor residential units in buildings located in business districts.

In addition, the amendment will allow four-story buildings by eliminating the bonus height structure but does not increase the allowed height within the district. The amendment results in a 50% increase in floor area eligible for residential use citywide.

Planning Director Kristin Turkelson said the approved amendments come as the city experiences a significant shortage in affordable housing, housing supply and COVID-19-related impacts, which have further strained an already challenging retail market. The policy changes provide greater flexibility in ground-floor use requirements, giving building owners a chance to convert vacant or underutilized ground-floor space intended for businesses into residential space.

“The impact of the public health crisis has exacerbated an already challenged commercial market,” Turkelson said, “and, although the demand for commercial space has lessened, the amount of available space has not changed. Additionally, the need for housing units, generally and affordable units, specifically, is well documented. These changes were necessary and critical to the continued vitality of our neighborhood business areas.”

The city of Grand Rapids is experiencing a significant shortage of affordable housing and housing supply. The 2020 Housing Needs Assessment found a need for 5,340 additional rental units by 2025 and a need for more than 3,548 additional homes for sale.

In a separate report, Housing Next emphasized the relationship between inadequate housing supply and the increasing lack of affordability. It also stressed new housing supply will not be affordable, but that unnecessary restrictions on new supply will continue to push prices upward and increase the likely displacement of residents who can no longer afford housing.

“Vibrant business districts are critical in creating a livable city and strong local economy,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said. “Great neighborhoods and vital business districts go hand-in-hand. Permitting first-floor residential will support reinvestment in our traditional business corridors while creating much-needed additional housing in our city.”

The Housing Next Needs & Opportunities Report highlighted several options to create additional housing at all price points. Allowing for residential use on the ground floor within commercial or mixed-use zone districts was one of the recommendations.

Turkelson said the planning department worked closely with building owners, investors and developers over the past several years and became aware of their interests and how they are affected by the community’s needs, market conditions and code requirements.

Under the new zoning text amendments:

  • Ground floor residential is permitted in traditional business areas and commercial zone districts.
  • Office use is permitted in traditional business areas when located at the rear of building and when fronting on secondary/side streets. Special land use approval still is needed when the office fronts a primary street.
  • Building heights of four stories are now permitted in traditional business areas without a height bonus. Building height allowances were not changed in commercial zone districts.

The zoning amendments take effect March 1. Building owners who might consider converting their ground floor space into residential should consult with an architect to fully understand the building code implications.

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