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Sunday, 28 September 2014 22:00

New codes could expedite development process in downtown Muskegon

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New codes could expedite development process in downtown Muskegon MAP COURTESY OF WILLIAMS & WORKS AND NEDERVELD INC.

Planners with the city of Muskegon want to make it easier for developers to create new building projects in the core downtown area.

The city is in the midst of implementing expedited zoning processes, known as form-based codes, to establish specifications to guide developers on the particular kinds of buildings that can be developed in downtown Muskegon.

The move aims to capitalize on the recent momentum in commercial businesses in the downtown area, sources told MiBiz.

“With this type of coding, I can sit down with (developers), have a meeting and tell them exactly what the guidelines are,” said Mike Franzak, zoning administrator and economic development planner with the city of Muskegon. “They will have a few options, but they’ll basically have to stay within this framework of development.”

More than anything, the codes provide developers with better clarity than in the past, he said.

“Really, after one meeting they should have good expectations (as to how to design their building),” Franzak said. “After one meeting, they may be able to forego a planning commission meeting if they present a plan that meets all of the codes.”

While form-based codes may restrict developers’ options for projects to some extent, the city’s goal is to make investment a simpler process that’s not as concerned with the use of the buildings, but rather their form, sources said.

Under the proposed codes, developers would be required to develop mixed-use buildings in the middle of downtown Muskegon, meaning that each building would have at least two stories and would need to have some sort of commercial space at the sidewalk level.

The city hopes to have the form-based codes in place by the end of the year, Franzak said.

Gary Post, a principal with Muskegon-based Port City Construction & Development Services LLC who developed the downtown Heritage Square Townhomes, thinks the continuing dialogue and a simple set of mandates will help Muskegon grow into a more vibrant area.

“In the long run, it makes (development) less onerous,” Post said. “It’s just easier to get things done and there’s not as many hoops to jump through. We can eliminate repetitive visits to the city (planners) … and get their input on things like parking and landscaping.”

Muskegon is hardly the first city in West Michigan to create form-based codes. For example, Grand Rapids city planning and consulting firms such as Nederveld Inc. and Williams & Works Inc. have worked on similar codes for areas of Wyoming along 28th Street in recent years.

Luke Forrest, a project manager at the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Municipal League, pointed to Birmingham in Southeast Michigan and Marquette in the Upper Peninsula as perhaps the state’s greatest examples in the use of the codes.

Birmingham, for example, implemented form-based codes in 1996. Since then, the downtown has become “kind of recession-proof,” said Forrest, who touted the considerable investment in the suburban Detroit city’s core business district.

“Developers wind up liking (form-based codes) because it’s less of a guessing game,” Forrest told MiBiz.

The issue of parking is top of mind for many stakeholders when it comes to Muskegon and its quest to reinvigorate and urbanize the downtown area. Sources MiBiz spoke with all said that downtown Muskegon has an excessive amount of parking.

According to an August study commissioned by the city of Muskegon and provided to MiBiz by Mark Miller, an architect, urban planner and engineer at Nederveld, there were 5,525 parking spaces within a 10-minute walk of the city’s downtown center, defined as the intersection of Western Avenue and Third Street.

Taking away parking is a tricky endeavor if people are used to having an excess of mostly free options in the downtown area, sources said. But parking supply and demand needs to be a top consideration as investors continue to look for developable land, Miller said.

Typical zoning laws call for a development to feature a minimum number of available parking spaces based on an “arbitrary number” decided by a city, Miller said. When his firm worked on Wyoming’s codes, they simply changed the minimum requirement to a maximum, he said.

“What we want to do with a form-based code is … (have a maximum threshold for parking at new development sites) and then leave it to the private sector to determine how much parking they actually need,” Miller said. “A developer typically knows how much parking they need better than an arbitrary number established by the city.”

In Muskegon, Port City’s Post agreed that the downtown area has way too much parking, noting that visitors will have to adjust to walking a couple of blocks to their destinations as more development springs up in the area.

Over the past couple of years, developers have focused in particular on the few blocks surrounding the intersection of Third Street and Western Avenue. With the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, two new microbreweries and Muskegon Community College’s recent acquisition of the former Muskegon Chronicle building, the development community sees that corridor as a catalyst for the rest of the city’s downtown and near-downtown areas.

With the hope that projects such as the new MCC campus will spur ancillary development, developers including Post expect to realize an opportunity for more residential units. And with the codes, additional demand for downtown living spaces will also translate into more retail spaces.

“I hope the codes will marry the residential and retail to make it easier to get things done,” he said. “(But future development) will have to be primarily new construction. There’s not a lot of existing property left.”


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