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What determines a building height?

Alex Doty • Feb 12, 2016 at 2:00 PM

The proposed Health Pointe medical center project in Grand Haven Township and topics surrounding it — from zoning ordinance changes, planned unit development amendments and building heights — have been fodder for conversation the past few months.

But beyond all the technical talk and community decision making, how do communities determine if, and when, taller structures are warranted in a community?

“There are a variety of factors that are taken into account when determining if building heights should be increased — and, if so, how much,” Grand Haven Township Planner Stacey Fedewa said. “First and foremost, the municipality must have a basis for the proposed height increase, which comes from the Master Plan. In the township’s case, this has been in the Master Plan since 2008.”

According to the Robbins Road Sub-Area Plan within the township’s Master Plan, “minimum building heights should be established and allowed to exceed 2.5 stories and 35 feet.”

The next step, officials say, is to determine an area that can support taller buildings while preserving open space and limiting the cost of infrastructure expansions. Fedewa noted that developers pay for initial installation, but the township is responsible for all the long-term maintenance costs.

“Therefore, the most logical location to allow higher buildings is the area with the greatest density,” she said. “Meaning, you don’t want a four-story building in the middle of a field — you want it juxtaposed against a built urban environment.”

Once a location is determined, the next step is to figure out the aesthetics.

“What buildings are currently in that area, how would taller buildings look nestled into that setting, what are the existing businesses, is growth anticipated in that area, is it ripe for redevelopment (meaning, is there anticipation that the landscape will have dramatic changes in the next 10 years), are there mature trees to give the area a ’sense of place,’ is the area walkable and safe for pedestrians, etc.?” Fedewa said.

The Michigan Building Code is also reviewed to determine what height/story combination allows for the greatest number of use groups.

”There has to be an incentive for the developer to construct a taller building to preserve the open space and limit infrastructure costs, and ensuring the building code supports the proposed height is an important aspect,“ Fedewa noted.

After that’s been established, the community’s Future Land Use Plan needs to be reviewed to determine what type of land uses are master-planned for that area, Fedewa said.

”In the case of the Robbins Road Sub-Area, the uses are centered around regional commercial, neighborhood commercial, office/service, mixed use, and high-density residential,“ she said.

Based on this information, Fedewa says it’s important to focus on commercial land uses, as they’re most likely to need, or want, a taller building.

A municipality must also determine if it has the appropriate equipment to handle emergency situations.

”For example, the township has a fire truck that can reach up to 75 feet in height,“ Fedewa said. ”Therefore, the maximum height that would be considered is 75 feet.“

It’s also important to review the building height limits of neighboring jurisdictions, officials say. This is to ensure that the height being proposed won’t be abnormal when compared to nearby locations.

”Also, as with the case of Robbins Road, the two municipalities (Grand Haven city and township) share a border, so it is important the area remain cohesive as it grows,“ Fedewa said.

Current social trends are also considered.

“For example, the City of Grand Haven had a recent Zoning Board of Appeals case where the property owner requested a height variance to accommodate new boats that are too tall to fit inside the maximum building height currently allowed in that zoning district,” Fedewa said. “The variance was denied, but the result is their Community Development Department may look at raising the building heights for that zoning district because the social trends are to purchase larger and taller boats.

”Those kind of boats are costly, so the owners need them to be stored appropriately,“ she continued. ”And if the building heights cannot accommodate them, then it is important to review regulations and determine if the ordinance needs to adapt to the new social trends.“

Building sizes

All things being considered, what are the heights of local buildings?

According to Fedewa, here are some of the heights of taller buildings in Grand Haven Township:

— Grand Haven High School, 74 feet

— Grand Rapids Water Filtration Plant, 47 feet

— Camp Blodgett, 42 feet

— Resurrection Life Church, 38 feet

According to Grand Haven Community Development Manager Jennifer Howland, the two tallest buildings in the downtown area are:

— Harbourfront Place, the tallest point is approximately 65 feet

— Grand Theatre Condos, the tallest point is approximately 65 feet

According to Howland, height estimates for other city properties include:

— Robbinswood Assisted Living, approximately 30 feet

— North Ottawa Community Hospital’s emergency room addition, 30 feet (measured to parapet)

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