Aug. 23 2010 12:00 AM

Public hearing scheduled tonight on easing the restrictions of certain commercial developments

A public hearing is scheduled for tonight’s Lansing City Council meeting on a proposed ordinance to establish four overlay districts in the city. Overlays are land-use planning tools that encourage “smart growth” development and pedestrian-oriented movement in commercial areas.

In this case, the city is looking at reducing the amount of parking space required of property owners and also placing no limits on how close a building can be to the road.

Overlay districts are mapped out in commercial zones based on the historical or geographic uniqueness of an area. The four zones established in this ordinance are Old Town and REO Town and portions of East Michigan Avenue and West Saginaw Street.

Fourth Ward City Councilwoman Jessica Yorko said city standards have high parking requirements and building setback minimums that contribute to “suburban” style development in the city: A parking lot out front with the building set back from the road.

Property owners are required to get a variance from the city for exception from the parking and building setback rules.

“There is a lot of extra work to do the type of development we want to see in those districts. It’s discouraging the development we want to see,” Yorko said. “You can’t build strong cities if they look like suburbs.”

Lansing Zoning Administrator Sue Stachowiak agrees that commercial zoning rules are backwards, and said getting a variance for what the city needs is “ridiculous.”

“We want to encourage good development,” she said. “We are making it so they (commercial property owners) don’t spend 30 or 40 days getting a variance we want to see in the first place.”

Under the ordinance, most areas within the four districts will have no minimum parking requirements. For portions of the East Michigan and West Saginaw districts, there will be an 80 percent reduction of the minimum required. That requirement varies by the nature of the business (for instance, a bowling alley and a barber shop have different minimum parking requirements).

There will also be no distance requirements for how far a building is set back from the road or from a neighboring property to the side.

Stachowiak said this ordinance has been in the works for years, but it has taken a great deal of negotiating with commercial associations to get it right. She said the groups’ main concerns dealt with parking requirements, with some wanting no minimum number of spaces.

“There were a lot of revisions and it’s been a long process but we wanted full support behind this,” she said. “Parking makes good development easier.”

Yorko said that zoning guidelines do not consider public parking lots or structures, which should be an alternative to each business having its own lot.

The draft ordinance also says new structures must be at least two stories, but cannot exceed 80 feet if it is near a residential property.

“So you don’t have skyscrapers popping up in Old Town,” Yorko said.