Planning commission meeting 1-12-16

Happy 2016 to all!

Upcoming Planning Commission Meeting
The Flint Planning Commission will meet on Tuesday, January 12 for the first meeting of the year. There are several items on the agenda, including a site plan review for an addition and parking lot expansion at Bay Logistics and MTS Transportation at 4002 James P. Cole and a public hearing on a property re-zoning of the former Coolidge Elementary at 3701 Van Buren Ave. (Communities First, Inc. is the applicant and requests it be re-zoned from A2- Single Family to D5- Metropolitan Commercial Service District, which are both designations under the existing zoning code.)

In addition to these items, we will have a Master Plan implementation update and a presentation from the City Administrator on the draft Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP is required by state law to be adopted annually by the Planning Commission and City Council and is to look at capital needs over the next 7 years. Prior to the CIP adopted in January of 2015, Flint had never complied with this law. The intention of developing a CIP is that it can be a tool used in the annual budgeting process. It also has a prioritized list of needs and cost estimates that can be helpful in matching projects and potential funding as well as coordinating projects to make the most of available funds. (For instance, if you know you are going to re-do a road, it makes sense to upgrade the water line beneath it at the same time to avoid paying for the road work twice.)

Reflections on the January 5 Master Plan Steering Committee Meeting
The Master Plan Steering Committee is winding down its responsibilities, with the last major task being to make recommendations to the Planning Commission regarding the new draft zoning code. At this meeting, we were presented with a summary of all the comments logged so far regarding suggested changes to the draft zoning map. (The draft zoning information, including an updated draft of the zoning use chart, is available at For each comment, staff provided context about whether or not it was possible to accommodate the suggestion. When reviewing the zoning map, it is possible to recommend changes in intensity (such as moving from a less dense to a more dense multi-family residential zone) but is not possible to change the type of zoning entirely, so as to conflict with the land use map that was approved with the Master Plan (such as by changing from a multi-family residential place type to a traditional neighborhood). Some of the comments received so far indicate a desire to zone privately held green spaces as Open Space. While all city-owned parks are proposed to be Open Space in the zoning map, legally we can’t zone private land that way because it would be considered “taking” the potential development value of the land from the property owner, and the city would be liable to compensate them. Where people had made a suggested change in zoning that would also be a change in place type, it was noted as an item to revisit when the city does the required 5-year update to the Master Plan, at which point changes can be made to the land use map.

Staff presented a timeline for completing the zoning code work. There will be a series of community meetings held to gather additional feedback on zoning in February and March with an eye toward starting the formal adoption process with the Planning Commission and City Council in April. These community meetings will build on the ward workshops held in June 2015 and the comments received so far.

Reflections on the December 16 Choice Neighborhoods Steering Committee
Broader community meetings for the Choice Neighborhoods process (which focuses on the southeast section of Flint) were held in November. 60 youth who attend Freeman School participated in sessions to identify their vision for the neighborhood with more youth meetings set for young residents at Atherton East. The December meeting was a chance for steering committee members to circle back and identify the upcoming work. As part of the 2-year $500,000 HUD grant for the planning project, three residents of Atherton East were hired to assist with outreach.

We heard that some of the “early action” projects identified by residents as being high priorities in the fall had already been implemented or were in process. Re-establishing a bus stop at Atherton East was the #1 priority, and a representative of MTA attended the steering committee meeting to say that as a result of the Choice Neighborhoods effort, they would be bringing back a bus stop effective in January in front of the Genesee Health System clinic. Lighting was another high priority identified. The City of Flint completed an audit of streetlights at Atherton East and has had broken ones replaced or fixed. The Flint Housing Commission also did an audit of its lights and is acting on those results.

Next steps for Choice Neighborhoods includes conducting a resident needs assessment whereby every households at Atherton East is surveyed. Members of the steering committee were adamant that there be local input on the questions (specifically from members of the tenant council at Atherton East) to ensure the survey is designed appropriately. Another task is to identify potential sites in the project area in order to begin mapping housing possibilities. Once identified, the steering committee will be involved in weighting factors such as proximity to schools and transit, parcel size, etc. that can be used in the conversation around how best to provide public housing in southeast Flint (whether that is rehabilitating existing properties at Atherton East or building new housing elsewhere in the neighborhood).

One of the pieces of information I find important in thinking this through is the historical context for how, where and why Atherton East was built in the first place. My hope is that at the next steering committee meeting, we can spend some time together on the history. In my research, there are 2 big factors to be aware of, and both are intertwined with larger themes of race and class.

The first is the history of the St. John’s neighborhood, which was once home to a variety of immigrants and in the middle of the last century was one of the few parts of Flint where African Americans could live. Andrew Highsmith devoted significant parts of his book Demolition Means Progress to St. John’s and its obliteration as part of the “urban renewal” process that brought us I-475. St. John’s was very much a product of African Americans being excluded from the wider housing market, and had a great many home owners. When families were being bought out to clear the way for the expressway and an industrial park, through a variety of mechanisms (and with the involvement of a variety of public and private entities) they were inadequately compensated for their property. The dispossession of hundreds of families- many of whom previously owned their own home but could not afford to purchase a home elsewhere in Flint with the paltry sum paid for their St. John’s house- created a massive need for public housing. This is why large public housing communities in Flint (Howard Estates, River Park, and Atherton East) were all built around the same time as the urban renewal projects. This historical context answers something of the “how” and the “why” Atherton East was built.

To answer the “where” piece, I have a story (but I haven’t done the background research to document it with paper records, although I have had HUD folks tell me this is generally true.) Someone who has more free time than I do at the moment might be inspired to dig up the paper trail.

My understanding is that due to new federal fair housing guidelines that were coming into play in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were requirements that public housing communities not be built in parts of town where it would further cement racial and economic segregation. In other words, cities were not supposed to locate public housing projects in parts of town that were already mostly low-income or mostly people of color, or that were cut off from the rest of the community. Of course, anyone who looks at where Atherton East was ultimately built (or River Park) can see that the locations do not meet that standard. From what I have been told, Atherton East was originally supposed to be built near Atherton and Hammerberg, which is close to Neithercut school and well-connected to a stable, moderate-income neighborhood. At that point, the neighborhood was almost all white, and property owners filed a lawsuit seeking to block construction of Atherton East in their neighborhood. While they property owners eventually lost, the process dragged out long enough that in order to spend construction dollars before they expired, Atherton East was built in its current location—even though it did not meet federal requirements for equity.

In any case… food for thought. Have a great start to 2016.

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