Kalamazoo Planning Commission meetings are usually sparsely attended, but on a wintry day in January the meeting was standing-room-only. A crowd of hundreds filled both the City Hall chambers and the overflow room. The agenda item that brought out these concerned residents was the very unsexy topic of zoning — specifically, a proposed zoning change that would have allowed a Drive & Shine car wash to be located adjacent to Kalamazoo’s Asylum Lake, a popular recreational and natural area.
“When there is a big issue about a beloved property like that, people will come out and speak out,” says Ben Gretchko, a student journalist who covered the event for the Western Herald, the student newspaper at Western Michigan University.
Zoning is about borders, and borders can be created to keep something out or to hold something in. Zoning exists partly to keep everything organized in neatly assigned locations: residential (single family, multi-family), commercial (retail, office), industrial, agricultural, and so on.
Zoning has shaped Kalamazoo in significant ways and this year has been at the forefront of both community reform and controversy. Along with facing conflict over environmental protection and the completion of housing projects set in motion years ago, Kalamazoo city planners are in the middle of overhauling the city’s entire zoning code for the first time since 2005.
Zoning shapes cities
Zoning is a complicated issue for three reasons, says Greg Milliken, chair of the Kalamazoo Planning Commission. First, people do not enjoy change. Second, zoning is not easy for people to understand. And, third, people do not enjoy being told what they can and cannot do with their property.
“Put all of this together,” says Milliken, “and it automatically becomes a negative conversation.”
Despite people having unfavorable associations with zoning, Milliken says that zoning laws, which dictate how land can be used, were created to promote health, safety and well-being. Some of the earliest examples of zoning go back to New York City in the early 1900s. The ever-increasing height of buildings and close proximity of factories to residential areas meant that city residents were cut off from sunlight and fresh air.
Kalamazoo also has zoning laws that divide land by function. Each parcel has a purpose, and the strategic assignment of zoning to each parcel is meant to benefit residents.
However, says Benjamin Ofori-Amoah, professor of geography at WMU, the fundamental nature of zoning is to exclude.
“In every case, (zoning) doesn’t benefit everybody the same way,” Ofori-Amoah says, “and zoning has been used to benefit some segments of the community more than others.”
A car wash next to Asylum Lake?
Kalamazoo residents were outraged when a business owner from Indiana sought to have three residential parcels of land on the corner of Stadium Drive and Drake Road that border Asylum Lake rezoned to commercial. The business had planned to use the land to build a Drive & Shine car wash and retail area, the second such business in Kalamazoo. The proposed car wash was similar to one opened by the same business owner on West Main in fall 2019, reportedly a $10 million facility with detailing and lube services.
“In order to do what the applicant wanted, he needed commercial zoning, the highest-intensity commercial zoning, similar to most of Stadium Drive,” Milliken says.
The land adjacent to Asylum Lake has a Natural Features Protection overlay that went into effect in May 2019. The Kalamazoo City Commission assigns these overlays on parcels that have significant environmental features that the city sees fit to protect. Drive & Shine CEO Haji Tehrani sought to have the NFP removed and the land rezoned.
Asylum Lake Preserve’s 217 acres are one of the last remaining “green spaces” in Kalamazoo. John Kreuzer, a member of the Asylum Lake Policy and Management Council, says it’s important for the city to hold onto its remaining natural areas.
“Another store to shop at, another car wash to drive your car through — those things come and go,” says Kreuzer. “But places like Asylum Lake, once they’re changed, they’re changed, and you can’t get it back.”
Community outrage about the proposed Drive & Shine car wash was significant. Public comments at the Jan. 14 meeting lasted for three hours, with 58 people sharing their concerns about potential light, air, noise and water pollution from the proposed car wash. Ultimately, the Kalamazoo Planning Commission voted to recommend denying the request to rezone the land and remove the NFP overlay, and the City Commission followed that recommendation.
Housing reform made possible
Though zoning conflicts similar to this one are not uncommon, zoning changes can be made to encourage positive reform. In 2018, the Northside Neighborhood Plan was created by the Northside Association for Community Development (NACD) as a framework for revitalizing the neighborhood. According to the city’s master plan, affordable housing is a key piece of the puzzle, but zoning can affect the types of housing available in a community.
“Zoning itself doesn’t make something affordable or not,” says City Planner Christina Anderson. “It talks about what uses can happen on a lot. The way it can impact housing is if the uses restrict a variety of housing types. You are limited to only what it allows.”
In November 2018, the Kalamazoo City Commission adopted a new ordinance to rezone properties in the Northside neighborhood. The commission rezoned the properties as “mixed use” to allow residents access to residential and commercial facilities in the same area. This amendment opened the door for Gwendolyn Hooker’s tiny house project.
Hooker is executive director of the Northside Recovery and Resource Center. The need for more affordable housing was evident to her every time she passed people sleeping outside on her way to work. They used umbrellas to protect themselves from the elements. Finally, Hooker decided that enough was enough, and in 2018 she took the first steps toward helping people in her neighborhood find affordable housing.
“I think everyone needs an advocate to stand up and speak for them,” she says.
She created Tiny Houses for Hope, run through her organization, HOPE (Helping Other People Exceed) Through Navigation. Modeled after a tiny-house community built in Detroit, Hooker’s six 400-square-foot homes are being built specifically for people with a criminal background or history of drug abuse. The highest concentration of these people live in the Northside neighborhood, Hooker says. The houses will be built at the corner of West North Street and North Westnedge Avenue. The money for the land was donated by George Franklin, of Franklin Public Affairs in Kalamazoo.
Groundbreaking was originally scheduled for March, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced postponement of the project. The original completion date was by this summer’s end, but now Hooker is uncertain of when the project will be completed.
Despite uncertain times, this project would not have been possible without Northside zoning reform, according to City Planner Anderson.
Hooker was glad that the zoning was changed prior to her project. She worried that people would be reluctant to help her, knowing the demographic she served. “It’s heartbreaking that, as a basic human right, people are denied housing based on their criminal background or the disease that they have,” she says.
Shaping Kalamazoo’s future
In what will be the first comprehensive zoning overhaul in 15 years, Kalamazoo planning officials are updating the city planning code as part of the city’s “Imagine Kalamazoo 2025” campaign.
Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 seeks community input to create a vision for Kalamazoo’s future. Through information-gathering sessions and meetings with community leaders, city officials are creating a new master plan that seeks to satisfy community goals. The zoning code is meant to align with the city’s master plan, but in reviewing the zoning code, members of the planning committee found significant barriers that hindered the master plan’s community goals.
“One example of this is that the minimum lot width that existed in a lot of our residential districts was bigger than most of our lots are,” says Anderson.
One major goal of the zoning overhaul is to improve street walkability, Anderson says. “If you are walking down the street and all the buildings are set way back behind the parking lots, your ability as a pedestrian to get to the door is kind of tricky if there is not a dedicated path.”
The updated zoning code will require buildings downtown to be built closer to the street, with parking in the back or to the side. It will also require a front door for buildings that face the street.
The Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 campaign allows the community to have a say in the city’s future. Though not everyone is aware of its importance, these changes to the zoning code will have a positive effect on everyone, says Planning Commission Chair Milliken.
“The community has said that this is their vision, and the current ordinance doesn’t support their vision,” he says. “These amendments are designed to help lead us to that future.”