Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Legalize Cottage Courts


2 and 4 Marshall Court are located on lots that are 26' by 66' or 1,716 sqft. 

Last year, U of M purchased the properties on Marshall Court to build a new dorm. People lamented the loss of this quaint cottage court and rightfully so. Cottage courts are a good use of Ann Arbor's precious urban land. 

Ann Arbor has several notable cottage courts: Beakes,  Bucholz, and Braun, to name a few. They feature cute houses on small lots. You would be hard pressed to find someone who objects to these, unfortunately, under Ann Arbor's current zoning, cottage courts are illegal to build. The smallest residential lot size permitted is 4,000 sqft in R1E. Most of Ann Arbor's single family residential area is zoned R1B or R1C with 10,000 sqft and 7,200 sqft minimum lot sizes, respectively. And don't even get me started on the obscene R1A where lots have to be at least 20,000 sqft. To put that in perspective, you could fit approximately 1.25 Bran Courts on the smallest legal R1A lot. That's room for 10 homes where you can legally only build one!

Braun Court is about 16,000 sqft. You could fit Braun Court and 2 more similar lots on the smallest legal R1A lot. 

Ann Arbor should legalize Cottage Courts. Specifically, Ann Arbor should make a text change to its residential zoning ordinance to make the minimum lot size for all R1 (and R2) lots 1,400 sqft. Furthermore the city should get rid of lot width minima, set minimum front setback to 6 ft. Side setbacks should be 3 ft or 0 ft if the adjoining property owner agrees. Rear setbacks should be a minimum of 10 ft. Finally, maximum lot height should be set to 45 ft for all of these lots. Why 45 ft? Because you get the lowest cost per sqft with three story buildings. Here's my proposal in chart form: 

Proposals for new R1 lot size requirements. Original table here

The great thing about making this as a text change, is that it would not require any revision of the comprehensive land use plan. The city can (and should) do this quickly. The city could do this quickly, in as few as 2 city council meetings, spaced 6 weeks apart. 

Why should the city do this? Ann Arbor is in a housing crisis. The city is short tends of thousands of homes. Allowing people to split residential lots to build new homes is one way the city can allow people to build more housing. Allowing the changes I'm proposing in the chart above will also help reduce the cost of new housing. First, this will help reduce the cost of building new housing by decreasing the amount of land one needs to own in order to own a house. Gyourko and McCulloch (2023) found that on average, allowing smaller residential lots reduced home costs by about $30,000. Also, allowing 3 story houses in all R1 zones, by right, will also help decrease the cost of building new homes. 3 story homes are a sweet spot with construction costs being lower than both 2 and 4 story homes per square footage (Eriksen 2021). Finally by allowing gentle urban density, we can allow more people to live in Ann Arbor as opposed to new greenfield developments in the hinterlands, which benefits the environment. 

The great thing about these changes is that if you currently own a large lot and like it, you can keep your large lot. Nobody is requiring you to change anything. This will just allow people who want to the ability to build on smaller lots. The current residential zoning essentially requires people to have huge lawns, which is fine for people who want that, but not everyone does. Ann Arbor should not force people to have large lots against their will. Requiring large lots has real negative consequences to Ann Arbor residents. For example, at the March 27 Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, a resident who lives in a 19,937 sqft R1B zoned property asked for a variance so that he could split his lot. He had to come to the ZBA because his lot is 63 sqft too small to allow a lot split for R1B. Shockingly, the ZBA denied this variance. If Ann Arbor allowed smaller lots, splits would be by right and not subject to the whim of ZBA committee members. 

In conclusion, I just think we should allow people to build handsome three-flats on small lots in any residential part of Ann Arbor. 

Hyde Park Three Flat by Phil at Wonder City Studio

Addendum: Ann Arbor should do something similar for setbacks in the R4X districts. This would allow things like City Place to be replaced with better projects. 

Addendum 2: Ypsi City should do something similar with setback reform, etc. But I think Ypsi is already better w/r/t allowing small residential lots than Ann Arbor. 

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