Devil in the Details: A First Look at the City’s Revised Upzoning Proposal

The City of Bloomington has released the revised version of its plan to upzone its residential neighborhoods. The revised zoning map, which sharply reduced the city’s radical overlay of Residential Urban (R4) zoning on much of the core neighborhoods, came out the second week in February. The Mayor’s planning staff posted the clarifying text amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) to the city’s website on Valentine’s Day — Sunday of President’s Day weekend. Highlights:

  • Sharply reduced imposition of Residential Urban (R4) zoning on the core neighborhoods;
  • Plexes are now conditional, as opposed to being permitted by-right; the City claims all will require a public review and approval through the Board of Zoning Appeals;
  • A buffering scheme intended to space out plex development over time.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Here are brief assessments from some Bloomingtonians who have looked the new proposal over.

Anyone who thinks a Board of Zoning Appeals review will be anything other than frustrating should consider the current process.  And think about a variant where less input is solicited and fewer neighbors are involved.  I fully expect these “reviews” to be done with a strong presupposition of approval of new projects.  And that changing that will always be an uphill and exhausting battle, largely fought with city employees who are aggressively  dismissive of community input and lecture us about their expertise.  And that individual zoning reviews will not involve the elected officials who engaged with us more respectfully.

The fact remains that this plan was originally more ambitious in its rezoning than the one we fought back last year and the revised version is not that much less ambitious in its rezoning that the one we fought back last year.   And remains, as far as I can tell, likely to result in more student rental housing in Elm Heights and certainly not provide the additional low income housing the city needs for families making under $25,000 a year.  Or to do much of anything about climate change.  We’re still facing a boondoggle that primarily serves developers while being told it will magically make Bloomington and the world a better place.

Perhaps I am just grumpy because my house is on a two block stretch that was somewhat arbitrarily left as a small island of R4 zoning.  But I did also recently learn that part of why Bloomington has so many student apartment buildings is that they are profitable for developers at 60-70% occupancy.  And that many of those buildings are at much less than full occupancy. So I strongly suspect the city is facilitating the building of housing for a community that is already overserved and not doing anything for any of its other citizens.

David Fisher, Elm Heights

I have had a few days to consider the City’s revised upzoning proposal. The zoning map certainly is a lot less painful to look at than the version released last fall. As for the revised UDO amendments, I think they provide useful clarification — if the question for you is when or how fast the core neighborhoods should take on new duplex development.

For me, that’s not the question. In my mind, the City has yet to show — given all the other places in Bloomington where dense housing development would fit, and given the repeated and specific counsel in the Comprehensive Plan against densifying the core neighborhoods — that it is necessary or even a good idea for the core neighborhoods to absorb new plexes at all. The real question is: Should the core neighborhoods absorb any new duplexes, and if so, why? The Mayor’s new proposal doesn’t move me any closer to an affirmative answer or a sense of comfort with the City’s rationale for upzoning.

Peter Dorfman, Near West Side

The last half century’s dynamics of Bloomington’s housing have been issues of a college town where there are nearly as many students as there are permanent residents. Our current zoning is from a reaction in the ’90s to rental over-occupancy of traditional neighborhoods and the imbalance of rental property to ownership  that this created.

To stabilize these areas and prevent them from becoming all rental, our city’s first Comprehensive Plan was enacted under the leadership of Tomi Allison. The results have been neighborhoods that are balanced between rentals and ownership at a density that is workable for all.  Proposing to open the rental floodgates again shows a failure to understand the local dynamics of our college town and a lack of appreciation or support for local home ownership and quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods. The result would be a loss of affordable homes for ownership and the conversion of currently affordable rentals to duplexes with higher rents. The map change is the right direction but the open invitation to build duplexes in all single family zones is still the wrong answer for Bloomington. It is a stark contradiction to the directives in the Comprehensive Plan: 

Policy 5.3.1: “ Encourage opportunities for infill and redevelopment across Bloomington with consideration for increased residential densities, complementary design,and underutilized housing types such as accessory dwelling units, duplex, triplex, and four-plex buildings, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhouses,  row houses,  and live/work spaces.  Avoid placing these high density forms in single family neighborhoods.

Chris Sturbaum, Prospect Hill

The state legislature is bent on restricting local governments from directing or regulating development in our own towns and cities.  For example, House Bill 1114 “Prohibits a municipality from regulating design elements of residential structures.”  If this bill passes, the idea of “Conditional Use”, with the ability to demand duplexes be compatible with the neighborhood, will be moot. Additional state bills will dictate rental regulations (House Bill 1541) and remove wetland protections (Senate Bill 389).  So, in short order the only protection from developmental blight for neighborhoods will be strict zoning laws.  The provision for “Conditional Use” to build duplexes or convert single-family homes into duplexes in the core neighborhoods must be eliminated.

Patricia Foster, Elm Heights

The proposal to change single family zoning is still that…removing single family zoning.  And, at a time when the state is considering limiting the restrictions a local board can legally make.  So, any “guarantees” on what these new units would look like, size or other restrictions may be meaningless.  This, at a time, we should be doing everything we can to promote more cohesive, stable neighborhoods…yet this will do the opposite.  We already have a problem with low voter turnout.  Transient neighborhoods will not help.  They are not stable places to raise children. These  will not be occupied by families of hairdressers, retail workers and others who desperately need affordable housing in Bloomington.  They will be student occupied with turnover every August. 

Yes, I’m deeply troubled by the continued claim that this will create more affordable housing when there is nothing in this plan that will achieve affordability.  To the contrary, they will drive out those who currently can afford the modest bungalows in these neighborhoods because these properties will be scooped up by builders. We are a unique city in that we are dwarfed by a mega-university.  This housing will be student housing because the neighborhoods are close to campus.  So the arguments that may hold true in other areas don’t work here.  You can’t understand real estate without looking at local conditions. I have yet to hear any concrete arguments that are based on Bloomington trends and history.   This plan is a boondoggle for developers.  Prove to me it isn’t. 

Nancy Hutchens, Eastside

I am glad that we have been able to stop the city’s manic rush to push through unpopular and non-proven (though nice sounding) revised zoning plans. 

I look forward to the city and the Planning Dept showing the public actual statistics from similar college towns of how allowing duplexes in the core neighborhoods accomplished any of the city government’s lofty social, political, demographic, racial and financial goals. From the studies I have read, they absolutely do not.

The city also needs to show verifiable analysis from Bloomington and Monroe County as to what types of housing are needed now and potentially in the future.

Ann Connors, Near West Side

Although the City has retreated from the R4 zoning in the core neighborhoods, it is pretty clear that the City’s real goal of introducing duplexes into the core neighborhoods is still being considered even though this approach was loudly and clearly rejected in the Comprehensive Plan.  Why is the City so bent on giving developers and landlords control over our cherished single family residential neighborhoods? The idea that the City finds duplexes to be the answer to climate change, infrastructure, social egalitarianism, etc. seems disingenuous at best.  The core neighborhoods are not composed of large property parcels and many neighborhoods, such as the area west of Bryan Park, already offer modest and affordable housing which is the stated goal of the City.  The core neighborhoods are composed of houses which map the history and residential character of Bloomington. These neighborhoods are irreplaceable.  Once gone, they are forever gone.  Why does the City have as its goal the destruction of core neighborhoods when there are many other areas of the city which are under-developed and which are served by streets, public transportation, bicycle routes, and the B-Line Trail?  Why destroy the best of Bloomington for the sake of lining developers’ pocketbooks? 

Christine Matheu, Elm Heights

First, I would like to say that this new UDO zoning map looks at first glance to be a positive change, and gives the appearance that concerns of neighbors have been heard and responded to.  That is countered, to a large degree, by the enormous vitriol over “plexes” that has made this process painful and corrosive.  I had come to the conclusion personally, that this was simply becoming too painful to continue to be a part of; thinking that my home of 30 years was on the chopping block, and developers were at the ready to reinterpret this town I’ve called home for 40 years, and that any disagreement would label me a racist or climate denier, or “boomer.”  I had decided it was better to release myself from the discussion, rather than risk more fracturing of the community.  

So, now, after all this misery, we are to try to be objective about this new proposal.  Of course, it is easy to say yes! And leave the pain behind.  But that really, doesn’t resolve anything.  We have duplexes in our neighborhood, and several homes with 4 or 5 apartments, that are grandfathered. We have recently been expanded to allow ADUs by right, at least one in a separate structure, and one as attached to the primary home.   There has been no time to adjust to this situation, because the UDO is only one year old at this point.  In my part of the neighborhood, there has been no “rush” to build accessory dwelling units, but one has, in fact, been built nearby, with no negative consequences.  

However, accessory dwelling units have the caveat of requiring the owner to live on the property where the ADUs are built, so ADUs that will be built, currently, will have to comply with this requirement.  In truth, this formerly single family neighborhood is really, no longer single family, but allows up to three units, or families, per lot.  This is a very significant change.  True, not much has happened, but we have been experiencing an incredibly unusual time, a pandemic that has changed everyone’s lives, and jobs, at least temporarily, and possibly, forever. 

Over time, after the owner has developed the property with ADUs, and now sells the property, what will happen?  Will an investor purchase this property, expecting to rent out each unit?  And, if the City says no, what will the State say?  This “down the line” argument has been the at the core of the opposition to  ADUs for all the years they have been debated, and will continue until, eventually, there will be no owner requirement (under the current political system, the ownership requirement will be attacked and removed by the state).  So, we are in the beginning stages of understanding the implications of this very major change.  While it may have been agreed to in the UDO, it was not the request of neighborhoods, but a conciliatory move, to allow flexibility for density that offered a bit of protection to the neighborhoods. 

Duplexing, with review, or Conditional, now, is being offered as a “consideration” of all the opposition generated by the proposed R4 zone.   However, once it is granted, it exists forever.   Aren’t we back to square one with this proposal?

And, how does this affect ADUs?  If a lot already has an ADU, can a new nonresident owner ask for a Conditional use to have a duplex as well, and keep the ADU?  How many units can a developer have on one piece of property?  And, why, when the Comprehensive Plan calls for protection of the neighborhood, are we now being told that three individual dwellings on one lot is not enough, and we have to also have duplexes, by owners who do not live on site?  How is this protecting the core neighborhoods? 

Sandi Clothier, Near West Side

[A Bryan Park resident offers this extract from a letter to the City Council:]

I oppose the rezoning to Plexes or PUDS, as I did before in the last session to rezone. My husband and I lived on North Indiana when we were in school. It was a nice quiet neighborhood. This was in 1980. We were both attending IU and working full time. The rent was all we could afford, although the rental house could have been condemned. We had a yard and we made it livable, we were young with no money, but had strength. Then in perhaps 1985 rezoning allowed a developer who will remain nameless to come in and build the plexes that remain today — you know where they are. It made living there a nightmare. Fraternities used one as a Party House with a police scanner to alert the party hosts if someone called the police so they could easily pretend the party was just a few playing music. It was UNLIVABLE. We were assaulted. The protection of Bloomington’s Neighborhoods is on your shoulders. You have a huge burden to once again protect the basic core of the town. My husband and I moved to what little we could afford — we called it the low price piece of Bryan Park. We finally afforded to remodel and it took 20 years. We were the working poor, but made it. It is not Ballantine or Hawthorne but now we can pull into a driveway and get into our home OK, as we are now much older. On the corner of E Wylie and S Grant one can hardly turn to the west because of all the cars because of a new Plex. The water runoff now creates an impassable stream around my house. Every week it seems a new water main break occurs. The city will get government funds if  it allows for the new suggested UDO. And that is the final statement and that is what it is really about. Wonder if the Mayor’s house is in the area allowed for the plexes. Be careful — there is NO GOING BACK.

Kim Vint, Bryan Park

Mayor Hamilton and Hamilton administration:

Core neighborhoods must be protected. The core neighborhoods should not absorb any new duplexes. Thanks for removing R4 Zoning of core neighborhoods from the zoning map. 

Patricia Cole, Edgewood Hills

I have to strongly agree with Mayor Hamilton’s sentiment that Bloomington needs to pay close attention to the goals of equity and affordability as expressed in the Comprehensive Plan.  Unfortunately, neither the original UDO amendment proposed in October, nor the recent revision, will in any way effectively address those goals. Far from increasing affordability, upzoning is more likely to raise property values and rents, making housing less accessible and affordable.  Rather than improving equity and inclusion for under-represented groups, upzoning and densification typically increase the construction of higher-priced housing, leading to racial and economic displacement in upzoned areas. Faced with these facts, Planning Department staff have admitted that the City’s upzoning proposal would not address affordability and equity, and most members of the City Council agree.  It is at the very least disingenuous for the Mayor to replay discredited arguments about how these proposed changes would improve the “quality of life” in Bloomington.  Many of those testifying before the City Council felt that the UDO amendment was being pushed through far too rapidly. If the administration is truly serious about addressing issues of housing affordability and equity for under-represented populations in Bloomington, it should table this proposal that has so deeply divided our community. I am sure that opponents (as well as supporters) of the current proposal would be happy to work with the Mayor and City Council to convene community forums and work groups that could consider a wide range of constructive strategies to improve housing affordability, and make a much more serious attempt to address a wide range of equity issues here in Bloomington. 

Russell Skiba, Hoosier Acres

The city needs to follow the Comp Plan in that they put design safeguards in place with a form-based overlay. Without a design overlay anything can be built and it can be as big as the lot allows.

Jan Sorby, Bryan Park

When I bought my home near IU’s campus 30 years ago, owner-occupancy in my neighborhood was @ 60%.

Bloomington’s population is about evenly split between students and non-students. But home ownership today stands at only 35.5%. In an area in which a mortgage payment is lower than a rent payment, ownership is the only sustainable way to live in Bloomington. It was true 30 years ago, and it is more true today.

Upzoning raises land value. That means everything connected to the land also will rise: home prices, rents, property taxes, and the costs of doing business. Densifying through plexes in the core neighborhoods, especially, will simply pour fuel on the fire, making housing more expensive for residents. This proposal doesn’t add housing options: it increases profits and raises the tax base—and that discourages economic development.

If the City truly wants to make housing sustainable for more of its residents, and encourage new residents, it should incentivize home ownership through programs as HAND has already proposed. It shouldn’t offer Bloomington for sale to the highest bidder.

Jean Simonian, Eastside

What does participation of discussion regarding a public issue involve?In my experience, it is two or more individuals discussing issues face to face. We should adhere to Bloomington’s core value of community, so that when we have an issue that has an implicit change in daily life, as well as financial implications, we may have robust discussions.

For this to be a community event, I feel as though there should be community discussion. Written surveys are helpful but they are not open ended when multiple choice, stifling a healthy back and forth discussion. Zoom may reach many people who are at the mercy of the convener, but does not encourage give and take. Too often there is one person speaking at length on a topic and questions in the chat box have been chosen by one person. In human discourse it is far more satisfactory for individuals to discuss in person.

There is no development so important that we need to rush the meeting, causing discord in the community.  

Charlotte Zietlow, Downtown

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