Commissioners approve changes to downtown Kalamazoo zoning

KALAMAZOO (WOOD) — The city of Kalamazoo approved new zoning districts for the downtown area Monday night.  

The Central Business District has been zoned as one large zoning district which restricts street level uses to business purposes. The new three-tiered zoning downtown divides the district into three zones with different available uses for street level spaces.

District 1 is the main shopping core of the city, which includes most of The Kalamazoo Mall and parts of Michigan Avenue east of the mall.  Zoning in this district call for entertainment dining and shopping uses on the first-floor storefront windows.  Pedestrians are the priority user in this district. There are no surface lots in this district and convenient parking spots are on-street and typically metered.

District 2 allows for a mix of uses on the first floor.  This area surrounds District One and makes up the bulk of downtown businesses.

It allows for a mix between commercial, residential, civic and institutional use on the ground floor. There are some limited surface lots in this area, but infrastructure will support a wide variety of travel including walking, biking, public transit and vehicle traffic.

District 3 will be the transition between downtown and the neighborhoods surrounding the district. There are more opportunities for different types of housing, including row houses and low-rise apartment buildings. The first-level floors will have varied designs but still have a clear entrance and transparent windows. Sidewalks in District 3 may have grass in a curb lawn. The streets and sidewalks should still have a focus on being user friendly to a variety of users.

An initial reading of the ordinance happened at the Oct. 26 meeting. Several callers at the meeting asked the commission to put a height limit on buildings surrounding Bronson Park.

Callers at Monday’s public meeting continued to push for a four-story height limit around the park. Some said allowing greater heights will actually encourage demolition of buildings and historic structures currently around the park.

Commissioner Chris Praedel addressed those comments before voting on the zoning change.

“The first that I’ve heard from individuals talking about the height restrictions was last week right before the last city commission meeting.  And you know, although I think it’s very important that we take that into consideration, make sure we bring that up, and make sure we stick with that and have a conversation about that,” the commissioner said.

Praedel also pointed out why he thinks Bronson Park is so vital to the city.

“I think the points made about Bronson Park not being Central Park. You think of the history that has happened in that park and the history that will continue to happen in that park. Everything from presidential candidates who have come to our city to speak to Abraham Lincoln came here and spoke out against slavery for the first time in his political career here in Kalamazoo in 1856. You know, the recent Black Live Matter movement marches that have occurred in the heart of our city. That richness can’t be neglected and that history and the history that is to come can’t be neglected,” he said.  

Praedel urged the commission to have these conversations in the future although he said he was in favor of passing the changes as-is at Monday’s meeting with the promise of revisiting the height restriction in the future.  

City Planner Christina Anderson responded to Praedel by saying there are already studies in the work to look at zoning around both Bronson Park and Arcadia Creek Festival Site.

“So, we have already started to research that work and believe with that information we’ll have conversations with (Historic Preservation Commission) on how to best use that information and set standards that are crafted to Bronson Park and possibly also Arcadia Festival Site,” Anderson said.

Commissioners reiterated they were hearing the comments from the public about height restrictions.

Commissioner Jack Urban told commissioners they have a job where they can’t make everyone happy.

“My experience as a city commissioner has led me to the conclusion, we almost never make everybody happy. We won’t in this case, but I can assure the citizens that this matter about height around Bronson Park is not being decided once and for all tonight. I think the solution will be somewhat more nuanced that what was being proposed as an alternative this evening. We’ll end up at a compromise that will be mutually basically satisfactory so have patience. I urge you.”

Outside of height restrictions at Bronson Park, Commissioner Eric Cunningham asked the city planner if proposed changes to downtown, including the prospect of some streets being converted from one-way to two-way had been taken in to consideration.  

“Coming to this body in January, there is a recommendation for two-way streets on Kalamazoo and Michigan for sure. Lovell and South for sure. And some changes to Westnedge and Park to make sure they are better responsive to the neighborhood nodes they go through and downtown. This code keeps that in mind,” Anderson said.  

“This code uses the street types which are descriptions of different streets and how they function, including vehicle speed, number of lanes, whether they are appropriate for bike lanes. Bike lanes meaning protected lanes. Bike lanes meaning signage. The whole gambit of pedestrian improvements. It uses that information to help tweak or calibrate a lot of the standards, including uses and height. I think the code has tried to both keep an eye of what’s going on today and looking to the future.”

The commission approved the changes unanimously. 

The updated zoning is part of the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 master plan passed in 2017. The goals of the plan include shared prosperity, a connected city, inviting public places, environmental responsibility, a safe community, youth development, complete neighborhoods, strength through diversity, economic vitality and good governance.

The city’s planning department has worked with neighborhood groups to determine the best land use in different parts of the city. Community engagement on this project began in June and included Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership in the process.