Why Again? Respect Bloomington’s Comprehensive Plan

By Jim Rosenbarger

When the Bloomington City Council debated amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance in 2019, the proposed reintroduction of multi-plex housing into what have been single family zoned neighborhoods took center stage. One of the recurring points of contention was over whether concentrating development in the core neighborhoods is consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan.

To make a long story short, focusing development predominately on the core neighborhoods is radically inconsistent with the Comp Plan. Does this matter? What even is the Comp Plan, and what does it have to do with the UDO?

Indiana State Statute calls for cities’ Plan Commissions to prepare comprehensive plans, which must include a statement of objectives and policies for land use development. After many years of work and public meetings, Bloomington’s Plan Commission approved the Comp Plan in 2017 and forwarded it to the Common Council for adoption. The Council began its review that August, added two rounds of amendments, and then returned the Plan to the Plan Commission where it was adopted. Mayor Hamilton signed the Plan on March 21, 2018.

The Plan’s Acknowledgements listed 82 residents as contributors, including members of the city staff, the Plan Commission, the Vision Statement Steering Committee, and mayors Mark Kruzan and John Hamilton. The very broad community input and years of work invested in the Plan’s development reflect the City’s intent that it should provide guidance for decades.

“…While planning decisions for specific zones may evolve over the long term, these land use policies are the overall consistent framework guiding Bloomington’s development to 2040.”

Comp Plan p. 6 Executive Summary

The long, projected life span of the Comp Plan seems at odds with the fast tempo of modern life. Yet home buyers and investors still sign mortgages for 20 or 30 years. Those investments rely on long term stability. Decades of the City’s support for home ownership have been crucial to preserving core neighborhoods. The Comp Plan’s long horizon makes sense and should be respected.

The targeted introduction of high-density housing in older core neighborhoods is a clear reversal of the Plan’s policy and should be undertaken only with similar study and community input.

Such a radical change just a year after its rejection – without an in-depth public process – isn’t legitimized by an election result. The abrupt change may be legal…or maybe not. It’s certainly a slap in the face to Bloomington’s culture of public participation.

Comp Plan Specifics

The city’s justification for increasing density in already-dense core neighborhoods employs vague language and inexplicably ignores the Plan’s very specific and repeated direction to avoid, to discourage, to hinder, to reverse and to protect from, higher density housing in core neighborhoods.

“Most core neighborhoods are stable but are trending towards a lower percentage of new single-family homes…Existing core neighborhoods should not be the focus of the city’s increasing density.”

Comp Plan p. 60 Chapter 5 Housing and Neighborhoods

With 1,900 new apartments in the downtown, “market opportunities may exist to convert single-family homes from student-rental to owner occupied.”

Comp Plan p. 61

“They are built at higher densities than the Neighborhood Residential district.”

“It is important to protect the existing single-family housing stock within this district. The conversion of dwellings to multifamily…. should be discouraged.”

“Safeguards should be considered to hinder or reverse the conversion of owner-occupied residential units to multifamily units.”

Comp Plan p. 84 Chapter 7 Land Use, Mixed Urban Residential (Core neighborhoods)

“Support incentive programs that increase owner occupancy and affordability…for all income levels.”

Comp Plan p. 85

What is the UDO?

The UDO’s primary purpose is to define and locate land uses that comply with the Comp Plan. (The Comp Plan tells the UDO what to do!)

“This UDO is adopted to promote the orderly, responsible, and sustainable development and redevelopment of the areas within the City in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan and its components….”

UDO p.1 Chapter 20.01 Ordinance Foundation Title, Purpose

Instead of complying, the proposed zoning for high-density rental housing in single family neighborhoods flagrantly violates the Comp Plan.

“Why again?” was the first comment from many core residents when they learned of the administration’s intentions. Why, for example, is the city ignoring the clear directions of the Comp Plan and risking the transformation of entire core neighborhoods, especially Elm Heights, into student rental enclaves? Were the years invested in the Comp Plan, and the many hours of Council meetings wasted?

The recent election of new Council members has created an opportunity, or an excuse, for the city to not just try again, but to ramp up proposed density over last year’s proposal. Superficially, following national trends from Seattle and Minneapolis, cities very different from our own, the new proposal again disregards Bloomington’s policy plan and our long history of valuing owner occupancy.

Former mayors, starting with Tomi Allison in the 1980s, wisely responded to the market-distorting impact of student rentals. Allison initiated a maximum occupancy of three unrelated adults to reduce neighborhood impacts and slow the transition of houses from owner occupied to rental. Other mayors also encouraged owner occupancy by developing the Quiet Nights program, historic preservation districts, and rental inspections.

We still have many rental houses dating from pre-occupancy limits. Now grandfathered with more than three tenants and increased rental income, they don’t transition back to owner-occupied. We learned, but apparently have forgotten, that once a street becomes dominated by dense student rentals it doesn’t re-transition to owner-occupied. Where’s the diversity in that result? Walk along Hunter Ave. or East 2nd St. between Woodlawn Ave and Henderson St. It’s all student rental.

Are existing core neighborhoods really at risk of becoming all rental?

In Elm Heights from 1999 to 2020, 75 houses changed from owner occupied to rental. Twenty-five changed from rental to owner occupied, a 3 to 1 ratio favoring rentals. (The source for this is a 1999 Elm Heights Area map from HAND showing all houses, with rentals flagged. I updated the map with current information from Elevate. If the owner’s address varied from the property address it was counted as a rental.)

In Defense of Homeowners

In the sometimes acrimonious Council zoning meetings last year, core residents were portrayed as the greedy, selfish “haves,” standing in the way of diversity, etc. Yard signs have since appeared in core neighborhoods saying, “Stop segregation.”

In my 30 years of living and working in core neighborhoods I have found residents to be mostly liberal, green, and tolerant. Many bought small, neglected houses and over time made repairs and added onto them. Core residents often live in close proximity to undergraduates and co-exist with them amicably. In contrast with transient student renters, homeowners typically stay put, get to know their neighbors, learn about the city, and improve their properties.

The City’s upzoning plan explicitly targets the core neighborhoods, which have the smallest houses on the smallest lots, for additional density. Meanwhile, many of Bloomington’s suburban subdivisions still come with “protective” covenants mandating minimum house sizes and targeted to defined income ranges.

The covenants spawned the spread-out, car-dependent suburbs made up of divided classes and ethnicities. (These are the neighborhoods where covenants with explicit racial segregation clauses were most common, before the Supreme Court made them unenforceable.) The suburbs are still popular. Their “protections” are increasingly problematic.

It’s still unclear how many subdivision covenants will ban the ostensibly city-wide zoning density increases. This important issue was discussed during last year’s zoning amendment meetings, and a study was promised. During the City’s public outreach presentations this fall, it became clear that the Administration has made little or no progress in cataloguing neighborhood covenants to gauge their impact on its proposed introduction of plexes into the subdivisions.

Suburbia makes up a very large percentage of Bloomington. Its development pattern is probably our most significant environmental problem.

The financial and social success of the core neighborhoods – their current mix of homeowners, renters, duplexes, small lots, higher density, large and small houses, walkability, and street grids – is a pattern to hold up to suburbia and say, “Look, this works!” We need to replicate core neighborhoods, not eradicate them. The South Dunn Street project is a highly successful example of replication.

Blocking our city’s progress is our mono-centricity, our over-emphasis on the city’s historic center. The center is our favorite child and we are literally spoiling it. Meanwhile we neglect the center’s siblings.

We need to think and act poly-centrically. We are a city, not a single village. A good, green, diverse, and more affordable city is a collection of walkable villages, not a ring of urban density around one singular core.

This is precisely the guidance the Comp Plan provides for us.

“With greater density in the city comes the challenge to preserve neighborhood character and the opportunity to strengthen neighborhoods by developing small commercial nodes as community gathering places. Existing core neighborhoods should not be the focus of the city’s increasing density.”

Comp Plan p. 60

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