Growing MKE: Milwaukee’s Clever Zoning Reform

1 min read
November 8, 2023
Photo by Coasted Media on Unsplash

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is making waves in YIMBY circles with its proposal known as “Growing MKE.” This bold plan, spearheaded by the Department of City Development (DCD), is set to redefine the housing development landscape in the city, making housing more accessible and breathing new life into Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. At the heart of this effort is a commitment to Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s vision of expanding the city’s population by 400,000 residents to reach one million, and the best way to do so is by making it easier to build.

Streamlining Housing Development

The “Growing MKE” plan, unfolding over the next two years, introduces transformative changes. Notably, it seeks to update the zoning code to allow more housing development without the burdensome requirements of public meetings and complex approval processes. The ultimate aim is to eliminate common zoning code obstacles, particularly for “missing middle” housing types like townhomes.

Embracing “By-Right” Development

A pivotal aspect of this proposal is expanding “by-right” development, which permits a broader range of building types without requiring legislative approval. This shift includes the expansion of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), commonly referred to as “granny flats” or “coach houses,” duplexes, and triplexes on residentially zoned lots. Additionally, it opens the door for higher-density buildings along commercial corridors and transit routes, addressing the need for diverse housing options in Milwaukee’s residential areas.

Dismantling Density Limits

The proposed changes would eliminate formula-based density limits, a major stumbling block historically leading to protracted processes for zoning changes and variances. Milwaukee believes these changes will lead to gradual shifts in neighborhood styles rather than abrupt and disruptive transformations.

Code Without Map Changes

It’s crucial to note that “Growing MKE” does not necessitate alterations to the zoning map but focuses on modifying components of the zoning code, particularly related to density calculations and discretionary approvals. Standards for building height, setbacks, and facade components, like window size, would remain intact. Still, the plan introduces the possibility of additional design standards to enhance the city’s aesthetics and walkability.

Two-Phase Execution

The plan’s execution occurs in two phases. The first phase revolves around updating the citywide policy plan, last revised in 2010, which guides land use decisions and underlying area plans at the neighborhood level. The second phase, expected in late 2024, entails actual updates to the zoning code.

Community and Consulting Support

Milwaukee has enlisted consulting support from PlaceMakers, DPZ CoDesign, and local organizations like Walnut Way Conservation Corp., ensuring community engagement and collecting valuable input. The city’s commitment to zoning reform is firmly grounded in economics, focusing on providing diverse housing options and addressing the evolving needs of its growing population.

Challenges and Opportunities

The proposal enjoys significant support but faces challenges, such as addressing parking requirements, process changes, and design standards. Nonetheless, Milwaukee remains committed to enhancing its neighborhoods’ diversity and appeal while fostering responsible growth.

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