A retooled zoning code will allow buildings taller than 10 stories on the West Side of Grand Rapids and potentially alleviate the city’s affordable housing shortage.
The Grand Rapids City Commission voted to pass the new zoning ordinance last week, creating several districts on the West Side allowing for incrementally taller buildings approaching U.S.-131. The ordinance was amended from a previous zoning code set to be voted on in February, after West Side citizens voiced concerns the city had not adequately engaged the public prior to voting.
In response to the outcry, First Ward Commissioners Jon O’Connor and Dave Shaffer attended a pair of neighborhood meetings during which they discussed the impact of increasing the height of buildings on the West Side. Adjustments to the proposed ordinance were made following the meetings, including the creation of a second overlay district.
To do so, the commission split the previous overlay district, which would have allowed the construction of 16-story buildings directly west of Winter and Alabama avenues. With the new overlay districts, the height restrictions will increase incrementally, with the taller buildings pushed closer toward the highways.
Up to 10 stories will be allowed in DH-2(a), the overlay district south of I-196 and west of U.S.-131, with the ability to build up to 16 stories if the buildings meet certain bonus incentives, like including affordable housing options in development. Overlay district DH-2(b), which jags down Alabama and Summer avenues at the western borders, will allow for buildings up to seven stories tall, with the ability to reach 12 stories with bonus conditions. The current transitional zone, which runs west of the railroad tracks to along Seward Avenue and allows for buildings five stories tall, remains intact.
“It feels like a pretty straightforward transition,” O’Connor said. “There are opportunities to go beyond seven stories, but you have to do some things that create positive public policy outcomes to get there. If you want to get into double-digit stories in your development, a percentage will need to be affordable housing options.”
O'Connor said the city always has offered bonus incentives for developers who make room for 30 percent of a development to include affordable housing options, but rarely, if ever, has the city been taken up on its offer. To further incentivize developers to build affordable housing, the city has reduced the affordable housing incentives in the disputed district, DH-2(b).
In that district, developers can add one story from the seven-story limit for building green space and another story for including public art. An additional story can be added for projects that include 5 percent affordable housing, two stories for projects with 10 percent affordable housing and three stories for 15 percent affordable housing.
“To build 30 percent of a traditional market rate project just doesn’t work,” O’Connor said. “As you talk to developers, putting that into your Pro Forma doesn’t make sense most of the time, given the rise of construction costs and labor. So, we’re trying it out here; if no one can build 30 percent as a market rate project, let’s try 5 percent, and maybe someone can take advantage of that.”
As for concerns about a disconnect between officials and citizens, O’Connor said the city needs to be more intentional about providing notice and encouraging public engagement.
“We have a good framework in which to create opportunities, it’s important that we have that,” he said. “The engagement to create that input takes a lot of work and a lot of research to make sure we’re all on the same page.
“It’s really about striking a balance — it’ll be hard, I don’t have an answer as to how we do that — but it’s something that as a city and body of government, we need to find a best way to move forward.”