Mobile took one more step in its comprehensive plan process Tuesday with unanimous City Council approval of a nearly $600,000 contract for zoning, major street and general land use plan consultants.
Although he voted for the measure and said he was “excited” about it, Councilman John Williams also voiced reservations. Among his concerns is the council’s right to stop the work if it isn’t going in a direction they like, which he said administration officials assured him was the case. Williams also said he is concerned about private property rights and worried new regulations could provide a “stumbling block” for businesses.
Councilwoman Bess Rich said the measure is a step toward better long-range planning for the city, which she approved.
White & Smith LLC will help the city fill out parts of the Map for Mobile plan, Executive Director of Planning and Urban Development Dianne Irby said.
“The Map for Mobile was a framework and it set up a lot of other decisions that needed to be made to add levels of detail to that comprehensive plan,” she said. “The goal is to take the policies and principles that came out of Map for Mobile — the input from all of our citizens — and then test that against our current zoning and begin a dialogue, kind of drilling down to the next level about what needs to change to be able to accomplish some of these aspirations of the community.”
The contractor has helped many cities, including Montgomery, rewrite and condense portions of zoning and land use ordinances. The law firm with planning expertise has now been hired to do similar work in Mobile over the next two years.
This process is designed to update the current codes and ordinances, which may not have been changed much since the 1960s. The community’s wants and needs, in terms of what the city can offer development-wise, have changed since then, Irby said.
“A classic example is we had the sprawl just like every other community and moved west, had larger subdivisions,” she said. “You know, [we] have demographic groups who want to live back closer to the urban core, which means redevelopment of some neighborhoods with possibly mixed-use, commercial-residential …”
The mix of commercial and residential, for example, is available to some degree downtown, but is sparse in other areas of the city where it may not be allowed, Irby said. Changing zoning regulations from where there were strict uses in different areas to allow more mixed-use development would be one of the items the consultants could possibly look at, Director of Planning Shayla Beaco said.
“There [are] some useful components from what we’ve done in yesteryear — so we won’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater — but I think, you know, all the communities that we all know and love that we visit, there are certain things about them that appeal to us,” Beaco said. “We see this as an opportunity for reinvestment. When you’re going into perhaps older parts of the city that may not have that mixed-use environment, that may not have the … mobility [and] accessibility from one use to another, this code will provide the parameters to allow that type of development to take place.”
There is demand for more variety, especially as millennials get older and begin purchasing homes, Beaco said. The city wants to be able to attract more millennials to the area.
“When you look at the numbers of who’s buying homes now, the category we want to focus on in terms of the housing market is concerned and they don’t necessarily want the single-family development, cookie-cutter with … a yard,” she said. “They are wanting perhaps the multi-family dwelling, or maybe something that has better connectivity, or access to shopping or something of that nature.”
The consultants will also streamline the various ordinances into one document, Irby said, and will help cut down on confusion among developers and residents.
“People that have been here for a long time kind of know where to go to find things, but it’s not easy to use to a developer coming in and it’s not easily indexed,” Irby said. “And so, just cleaning all of that up, so it’s a concise document … actually will improve our ability to grow.”
The consultants will start by looking into areas of code that haven’t recently been changed, Irby said, but all areas would be reviewed. As an example, the Downtown Development District was created about two years ago and so the consultants wouldn’t be starting there.
Like Map for Mobile, this process will also include a series of meetings that seek public input, Beaco said. The meetings, though, will be a bit different, as they will focus on various communities instead of big, citywide meetings.
“In Map for Mobile, our intent was to create opportunities for citizens to engage and understand the process, so we tried to come up with convenient locations, but with this level we expect that the outreach will be more on the neighborhood level,” Beaco said. “And so, we’ll have a week where — we’re calling it mobile workshops — where we’ll move from neighborhood to neighborhood where there is a facilitated conversation with the community. So, whereas with Map for Mobile it was more vision — a larger vision for the community — we’re going to drill down a little deeper and ask about neighborhood components that will ultimately — their feedback will be ultimately coded into this zoning document.”
At a pre-conference meeting last week, Councilman Fred Richardson asked if the city was adhering to disadvantaged business enterprise requirements. Irby said the consultants have been notified about the code requirements and, like with Map for Mobile, they plan to possibly use DBEs as facilitators for public discussions.