New zoning map creates more downtown districts; allows for marijuana businesses and more housing types
What was once one downtown district is now three. Read more to learn how downtown Kalamazoo is changing through zoning, and what this could mean for the community.
The Kalamazoo City Commission approved a change in the downtown zoning map on Nov. 2. This zoning change breaks what used to be one large downtown district into three unique districts. Other districts have been added towards the edges of the downtown area to smooth the transition from commercial to residential areas. Kalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson says this change in the zoning map was made to better fit the community vision outlined in the Master Plan.
The work to push this zoning change forward started in early June, but plans for these changes have been in motion since Kalamazoo adopted their Master Plan in October 2017. The 2025 Master Plan is a policy and action driven document shaped through community outreach efforts. It details the development goals for Kalamazoo to work towards to create a more prosperous and equitable city. Changing the zoning in Downtown Kalamazoo was only one piece of this puzzle.
Prior to the completion of the Master Plan, the last big overhaul to the zoning map took place in 2005. More recently, zoning in the Northside Neighborhood was updated in 2018 to create the Northside Cultural Business District. Anderson says that frequent zoning changes are not typical in most cities.
“It takes a lot of effort to update the code so I think that they often stay static for a long time,” Anderson said.
However, the city of Kalamazoo was willing to make the effort to develop a zoning code that better fit the community’s vision.
Kalamazoo’s downtown was once zoned as one large district, but Anderson says that anyone familiar with the area, even if they didn’t know anything about zoning, would see that downtown is made up of many different unique parts.
“(The previous zoning code) treated the Kalamazoo Mall the same way as it did Lovell, or Water Street, even though when you walk down those streets it feels a little bit different based on the scale of development and the types of uses,” Anderson said.
Having more specific districts makes it easier to calibrate the requirements that best serve each area.
Image 1: Downtown zoning old map, Image 2: Downtown zoning updated map
What was once one downtown district is now three. The first district is reserved for the most developed areas, and includes the main entertainment, dining and shopping urban core. These districts are where downtown visitors are most likely to shop and eat, making walkability very important here. These areas have wide sidewalks and less active uses, like residential, are towards the back of the property or in the upper floors.
The districts are less developed as they get further away from the center of downtown. District 2 has more mixed uses on the first floors of buildings, like commercial, residential and civic. District 3 is towards the edge of downtown and serves as the transition to surrounding neighborhoods. This district shows a wide variety of housing types, such as row houses and low-rise apartment buildings.
Two types of Live Work districts have been added at the borders of downtown. These allow a mixture of housing types with commercial uses. Building look here changes repeatedly along the block. Multiple family residential areas are the out-most zones on the altered downtown map.
The new zoning code allows a wider variety of housing types. Low-rise apartments and row houses are allowed in District 3, a type of housing that wasn’t possible with the old zoning map. This will, in the future, create more housing opportunities for residents.
Business owners in downtown will benefit from changes that encourage street walkability, such as storefronts up close to sidewalks, and features like parking pushed towards the back of buildings. Adult use marijuana and medical marijuana businesses are another use that is now permitted in the downtown area.
The new zoning map was approved, but it will be some time before changes are felt in the community. That is because the zoning code itself is only a baseline for development to follow; it does not create housing or finance businesses. More work is needed before changes can be seen downtown. Anderson compares it to preparing for a meal; zoning sets the table, but it does not prepare the food.
Lack of height restrictions around Bronson Park cause resident disapproval
Community members expressed outrage at the Nov. 2 commission meeting over the lack of height restrictions around Bronson Park in the updated zoning codes. Residents worry that tall buildings crowding Bronson Park could potentially block out natural light.
“That history of Kalamazoo’s deliberate urban design has always allowed Bronson Park to survive as a small gem at the heart of our city. To have always been open to the skies through a spacious canopy of large trees,” said a resident at the virtual commission meeting.
The updates to the zoning ordinance do not include building height restrictions around Bronson Park, a fact that has made many residents mad. However, height restrictions around the park never existed in the zoning code in the first place.
Downtown development is regulated by two different layers, says Anderson, the zoning code, and the Downtown Design Review Standards. The Design Review Standards are not mandatory, like guidelines written in the zoning code, but following them is strongly encouraged.
The zoning code never listed a height restriction around Bronson Park, however, that restriction can be found in the Design Review Standards. There, it states that no new buildings around the park can be more than two stories taller than the tallest building within 200 ft. This stipulation still stands in the current document.
Many stipulations found within the Downtown Design Review Standards were moved to the updated zoning code. The height restriction, however, was not.
What happens next for Bronson Park? Anderson says there are a couple options: They could make no changes, since the Design Review Standards are still currently active; they could add more information to the Design Review Standards, or make changes directly to the zoning code. Either way, Anderson says these conversations are far from over.
“Whatever solution we pick,” says Anderson, “we will just need to balance all the voices and make sure it does what we want it to do.”
Anderson is going to the Historic Preservation Committee next month to continue conversations about the future of Bronson Park zoning.