Déjà Duplex: Text amendment included in zoning map process would allow plexes in all areas zoned for residential use

A screenshot of a story map to proposed zoning changes that could eventually wind up in front of the Bloomington plan commission and city council in 2021. Image links to the UDO Zoning Map: Public Outreach Draft webpage.

A press release issued Thursday afternoon by the city of Bloomington announced the start of a public engagement process to revise the zoning map of the city.

Action by the plan commission and city council is not scheduled until 2021.

Substantive revisions to the zoning map were the next, expected step after the final adoption of a new unified development ordinance (UDO) earlier this year. The UDO revision created some new zoning categories, among them “mixed use student housing” or MS. That’s a category that could make it onto the zoning map ahead of other new categories, because a specific development is requesting a rezone to that category.

But the general approach is not to wait for specific requests for rezoning to put the new zoning categories from the UDO onto a map of the city. That’s why the public engagement process announced on Thursday was not a surprise.

Also making it an expected bit of news is the fact that the current IU Health hospital on 2nd Street will be redeveloped as something other than a hospital, when the new facility opens out on the SR 46 bypass. The 24-acre site will be handed over to the city in late 2021 by Indiana University Health in a $6.5 million real estate deal. That means a probable rezone from MH (mixed-use health care) to something else, like MN (mixed-use neighborhood scale).

Not necessarily expected as a part of the public engagement process is the re-opening of the kind of question that led to acrimonious community debate last year over the question of duplexes, triplexes and quads in core neighborhoods of the city.

But one of the issues the public will be asked to think about again, according to the city’s press release is “Adding ‘plexes’ as a housing option in all districts that allow residential uses.”

It’s not the same proposal that was considered last year as a part of the UDO, the city’s development development services manager Jackie Scanlan told The Square Beacon. “The plexes proposal is different from the previous proposal.” She added, “We are planning to prepare an exhibit to compare the proposals.”

The first public engagement meeting is five days away, set for Oct. 27 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. by Zoom video conference. Details are supposed to be posted on the project website: UDO Zoning Map: Public Outreach Draft.

According to Scanlan, the plexes text amendment was drafted by planning and transportation department staff “after extensive comprehensive plan review and discussion of community goals such as sustainability and equity with the administration.”

Basic arguments for allowing plexes to be built in areas where only single-family houses are now permitted include: more compact built structures, which reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions; increases to housing supply, which pushes housing costs down and improves social equity; and improved feasibility of public transportation.

Arguments against allowing plexes include: concerns about the elimination of existing affordable housing; the loss of the social fabric that ties single-family neighborhoods together; and the lost benefits of owner-occupied housing.

The Square Beacon asked Scanlan if planning staff was not concerned that the community’s energy would be distracted from the focus of the next phase of UDO implementation, which had been expected by many to be exclusively on the map.

Scanlan said, “We understand that that could be a concern. We are conducting outreach for both the map and text amendments that are proposed. …The map and the amendments are both important, and we hope to make space for both to be addressed.”

The public engagement process sketched out in Thursday’s press release will come before anything is put in front of the plan commission, likely next year.

In the UDO draft first considered by the Bloomington plan commission last year, plexes were proposed to be  conditional uses in core residential areas of the city.

The plan commission considered an amendment to change plexes from conditional use to by-right use in core neighborhoods, but it failed on a 4–5 tally. A parallel amendment that would have prohibited plexes in core neighborhoods, even on conditional use, was not considered by the plan commission.

But after the city council received the draft as recommended by the plan commission, that amendment—which prohibited plexes in core neighborhoods—was considered and passed by the city council on a 6–2 vote.

Of the six who voted against plexes, three no longer serve on the city council. Allison Chopra, who was absent for the UDO vote on plexes, is the fourth who no longer serves on the city council.

Chris Sturbaum, who served on the city council at the time and was one of the six who voted against plexes in core areas, still serves on the city’s historic preservation commission (HPC).

On Thursday night, in the context of an HPC discussion about design guidelines for the New Westside conservation district, Sturbaum alluded to the new zoning map: “Much of the core is proposed to go to R4. I think nobody knows that yet,” Sturbaum said.

Sturbaum called that a “contradiction to what the council did” last year when it amended the UDO.

The R4 district  is described in the UDO as “intended to accommodate residential uses on small urban scale lots that offer a diverse mix of housing opportunities consistent with the comprehensive plan and other adopted plans.”

One of the interactive maps created by planning staff allows users to zoom in on parcels, with popup windows indicating both the current and proposed zoning. It’s possible to spot some areas that are proposed to be rezoned from R3 to R4, which is consistent with Sturbaum’s description.

Planning staff have also created a story map to review the proposed zoning changes.

A separate story map has been created just focused on the plexes proposal.

The cast of characters has changed slightly on the plan commission and the city council since key votes were taken last year on plexes in connection with the UDO revision. Here’s how those votes went. Current members are listed out next to the commissioners or councilmembers they replaced.

Bloomington plan commission voting table: Change plexes from conditional use to by-right (failed 4–5)

Current (October 2020) Sept. 5, 2019
Am 4B: plexes by right in core
Cate Cate no
Cockerham Kappas yes
Wisler Wisler yes
Kopper Kopper yes
Sandberg Sandberg no
Burrell Burrell yes
Herrera Hoffmann no
Kinzie Kinzie no
St. John St. John no

Bloomington city council voting table: Change plexes from conditional use to prohibited (passed 6–2)

Current (October 2020) Nov. 14, 2019 Am 01: prohibit duplexes, triplexes in core
Rosenbarger Sturbaum yes
Sgambelluri Granger yes
Smith Chopra absent
Rollo Rollo yes
Piedmont-Smith Piedmont-Smith yes
Volan Volan no
Flaherty Ruff yes
Sandberg Sandberg yes
Sims Sims no