Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (Feb. 18, 2010): After a public hearing on the latest iteration of a controversial South Fifth Avenue housing project, planning commissioners voted to postpone action on a project now called Heritage Row.
Developer Alex de Parry is asking to rezone the seven-parcel site, with plans to restore the historic houses there and build three 3.5-story buildings behind them. Commissioners generally were favorable toward the project, citing benefits of restoring the older homes, among other things. A fair amount of their discussion involved what color of brick to use on those new buildings.
The public hearing drew several neighbors who raised concerns they’d voiced over de Parry’s previous project in the same location, called City Place. Several mentioned the new buildings as being too large for the neighborhood. Another concern: An historic district study committee hasn’t finished its report, which could affect the project.
But before they considered Heritage Row, commissioners discussed proposed changes to Plymouth Green Crossings, a mixed use complex off of Plymouth, west of Green Road. The developers, represented by David Kwan, are asking to alter their original agreement with the city.
Economic conditions, including the departure of Pfizer, have slowed plans to complete the project, which was to include a total of three buildings and a standalone restaurant. Two buildings have been constructed – tenants include Sweetwaters and Olga’s – but a perceived lack of parking has stymied attempts to fill the retail space, Kwan said. He and his partners hope to put in a temporary parking lot on the land that originally was slated for the restaurant.
One commissioner wasn’t too excited by Kwan’s idea. Concerns were also raised about payments to the city’s affordable housing fund, which are being spread out over several years.
Plymouth Green Crossings
Developers of Plymouth Green Crossings are asking to amend the original planned unit development (PUD) agreement, which was approved in early 2006. Rather than build a restaurant, they’re asking for permission to turn that part of the site into a temporary parking lot, adding 26 additional parking spaces and 11 spots for motorcycles.
The proposal had been postponed from the planning commission’s October meeting, to give the developers time to make required affordable housing payments.
Plymouth Green Crossings: Public Comment
David Kwan, one of the partners in the development, said he was available to answer any questions.
Ethel Potts spoke about the developer’s request to make staggered payments to the city’s affordable housing fund, in lieu of providing affordable housing units in the complex. She wondered if the staggered payments – rather than an upfront sum – would set a precedent, or if it would be limited to this specific instance. She said she assumed the latter.
Brad Mikus also had concerns related to the affordable housing payments. As proposed, the staggered payments mean that the city is essentially providing the developer with an interest-free loan, he said, which seems unfair. He noted that since the affordable housing fund can be matched by state dollars, it’s not just the local funding that’s affected. Related to the proposed parking lot, Mikus said that since it was part of the planned unit development (PUD), it should meet PUD standards, which require a public benefit. There’s no public benefit to parking, he said. In fact, there’s a negative impact to the environment.
Plymouth Green Crossings: Staff Report
Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff said that staff recommended approval of the project. The developers had received approval from the Ann Arbor city council earlier this month to amend the payment schedule to the affordable housing fund, spreading payments over the next three years. They’ve paid $60,000 so far, out of a required $315,000 total payment.
Commissioner Kirk Westphal chaired the meeting, and asked Kahan to respond to some issues raised during public commentary. Regarding housing payments, Kahan said it was not a change in policy to allow staggered payments. It’s a decision that rests with the city council.
The developers had originally intended the housing units to be sold as condominiums, which would have provided money up front from which to make the affordable housing payments. But market conditions dictated that they lease the units instead, which takes longer to recapture the developers’ investment, Kahan said. He was confident that the payments would be made during the negotiated period.
Regarding environmental impact, Kahan said the site, which is in the Millers Creek watershed, already included a stormwater management system that took into account the construction of a restaurant. The system would still be able to accommodate runoff, even if the impervious surface is in the form of a parking lot.
Plymouth Green Crossings: Commission Deliberations
Commissioner Jean Carlberg said that Sweetwaters, one of the tenants in the complex, seems to be doing quite well at that location. She asked David Kwan whether there would be sufficient parking if a restaurant is eventually built.
Kwan characterized the parking issue as one of perception. The food service tenants – Sweetwaters and Olga’s – seem to be doing well. Inkstop, a regional business with a store at Plymouth Green Crossings, closed last fall when the company declared bankruptcy. Right now, much of the activity is concentrated on the south side of the complex, where the site is narrowest, he said. When the restaurant is built, activity will move more to the north, where there’s more parking.
Carlberg said it seemed reasonable to proceed in phases, and that she felt comfortable with the affordable housing arrangement, given the difficult economy.
Commissioner Erica Briggs said she wasn’t as comfortable, and had several concerns. If the restaurant is built, that will take away parking from current tenants, she said – it didn’t seem like other businesses in that complex would support that. But a larger concern for her was that it’s not clear whether the second phase of this project will be built. Would the project have been approved, if it had originally called for parking at that location, not a restaurant?
By approving this project, the commission would be sending mixed messages to the community, Briggs said. On the one hand, they try to limit parking on certain projects. Yet the developer is saying that because there’s the perception of a lack of parking, he wants to create a wealth of parking spots. “I don’t know that’s the message we want to be sending to the community,” she said.
Commissioner Diane Giannola recalled that they’d discussed the parking issue previously. Kahan confirmed this, noting that the developers had an arrangement with the Ann Arbor campus of the Cooley Law School, to use the school’s large parking lot to the north. Kahan also noted that the businesses on the site would have different peak times of need for parking. Fifth Third Bank, for example, would need parking for customers on weekdays, while a restaurant would have more of an evening demand. In addition, he said, residents of the apartments have their own parking spaces.
Giannola said it seemed like a more efficient use of space to put in a parking lot, until the economy turns around and a restaurant can be built.
Commissioner Evan Pratt shared the concerns raised by Briggs. He wondered whether they should revisit the entire site plan, given that things didn’t turn out as envisioned. Was the approved site plan the right one?
Wendy Rampson, planning manager, reminded commissioners that this site was formerly part of NSF International’s property – NSF occupied the building where Cooley Law School is now located, and the land was vacant until Plymouth Green Crossings was built. The majority of the northwest corner of Plymouth and Green is taken up by the Millers Creek headwaters, and the planning commission had imposed some “strenuous” requirements on the developer because of that, Rampson said. It had been a risky project, she added, especially given the economy.
The developers were just asking to tweak the project to make it successful, Rampson said, noting that the PUD accomplishes everything that was laid out in that area’s master plan. There was a demand for the rental units, she added, but the city had held up certificates of occupancy until they settled the question of affordable housing payments.
Pratt said he didn’t want to feel that they were locked into the original layout. Perhaps it’s time to talk about whether parking is in the right place, he said. An underground garage might be more appropriate, or future buildings should perhaps be relocated within the site.
Carlberg said it’s not the commission’s place to tell the developers to redesign a site that’s already been approved – that’s inappropriate. The developer is in a far better position than commissioners are to understand the difficulties his development is facing, she said.
Since the stormwater system is already set, Carlberg said she saw little jeopardy in putting in the parking lot.
Pratt then brought up the issue of a vegetative screen along the front retaining wall. It’s a pretty long stretch of rusted steel, he said, and he was hoping for more screening.
Kwan noted that some plantings had been made, and that they planned also to have plants that would grow from the top of the wall and hang down. They’d make that a priority in the spring, he said.
Briggs asked if Kwan was planning to use porous materials on the parking lot, similar to what the Downtown Development Authority did at the former YMCA site at Fifth and William. Kwan replied that they viewed the lot as temporary, and weren’t planning to invest in more than standard asphalt.
Briggs queried Kahan about whether materials for the parking lot are discussed with staff, or whether that is the choice of developers. Kahan said it’s an increasingly common topic, but porous materials aren’t always practical in lots with lots of activity – it’s an issue of durability. For lots that don’t have a lot of turnover – in office complexes, for example, as opposed to retail – the staff asks developers to consider porous materials.
Carlberg noted that it would be a tremendous expense for a temporary lot, given the site prep that’s required. If the soil is clay, it has to be taken out and replaced with a soil that drains well. The Y lot was different, she said, because they had to fill in a basement there and could use soil that was appropriate for a porous surface.
Briggs also asked if employees at the complex were being encouraged to park on the north side of the site, to free up availability for customers closer to the businesses. Some employees are using the Cooley lot, Kwan said. But the problem is really with the commercial brokers who are looking at the site for clients, Kwan added. Their mindset is that there needs to be more parking – they’re not as “enlightened” as the people of Ann Arbor, he said. The owners had lost three or four potential tenants because of the parking issue. “We’re really trying to get them in the door – it’s virtually impossible right now,” he said.
Briggs said she’d support the project, but asked that the commission schedule a discussion at a future meeting to talk about the issue of parking in the city’s core versus its outskirts. Over time, she said, they can change people’s perceptions about what’s necessary, in terms of parking.
Outcome: All five commissioners who were present – Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt and Kirk Westphal – voted to approve the amended PUD agreement. However, since the motion required six votes to pass, it failed for lack of votes.
Heritage Row is the third iteration of a project by developer Alex de Parry that began as City Place, on the east side of Fifth Avenue between William and Packard. [For a full timeline of the City Place/Heritage Row proposals, see Chronicle coverage: "Fifth Ave. Project to Meet Historic Standards"]
Heritage Row: Staff Report
Matt Kowalski of the city’s planning staff gave an overview of the project. De Parry is seeking rezoning from R4C – multi-family residential – to a more flexible planned unit development (PUD). Seven historic houses will be preserved. Three of those – at 407, 411, and 415 S. Fifth – will remain in place, and four will be moved to align with a uniform 19-foot setback for all seven houses.
Additions that have been built onto the original structures will be removed. The seven houses will have a maximum of 38 rental units and 55 bedrooms, including a minimum of 11 efficiencies.
Behind those houses, three new buildings will be constructed – 3.5 stories high, at a maximum height of 39.8 feet. The buildings will have a maximum of 44 units, totaling as many as 99 bedrooms in a mix of two- and three-bedroom apartments. Of the total apartments in Heritage Row, 18% will be designated as affordable housing – the city requires a minimum of 15%.
Sixty parking spaces and 112 bicycle parking spots will be provided in an underground structure, with access off of South Fifth Avenue. An underground stormwater management system will be built on the site as well.
The full staff report – a 26 MB file – is downloadable from the city’s website.
Kowalski said staff was recommending that the planning commission postpone the proposal, so that the developer can incorporate feedback from staff and commissioners.
Heritage Row: Public Comment
Speakers at the public hearing generally fell into two categories: Those who objected to the project, or elements of it, and those affiliated with the developer. Here’s a sampling.
Tom Luczak: Saying he was 6 feet 2 inches tall, Luczak asked commissioners to imagine that he was wearing a pointed hat, but that behind him stood a row of 7-foot-tall NBA players. It was an analogy to how the large buildings behind the historical houses on Fifth Avenue would totally overwhelm those homes, he said. Though the developer has come a long way on this project, it’s still incompatible with the neighborhood.
The Germantown Neighborhood Association was recommending a height of no more than 30 feet, he said. The size would also affect how much sunlight reached the houses on Hamilton Place to the east, he said, as well as to the house north of the development. Luczak also noted that the project is located in an area that’s being considered as a possible historic district. “History may be repeating itself,” he said, referring to a lawsuit brought by the developers of Glen Ann Place. Confusion over how that development fit into the historic district process really “buggered up” the project, he said. The city needed to be mindful of that.
Andrew Broderick: This project was an attractive one, Broderick said. It marries historic preservation with increased density, and improves the housing quality in that neighborhood.
Alex de Parry: The Heritage Row developer said he was proud that this project might be a model for infill development, mixing the historic with the new. Although they had not planned this originally, restoring the historic homes takes the project to a level they hadn’t thought possible, he said. De Parry pointed to the affordable housing component, on-site parking and stormwater management as other benefits of the project.
Beverly Strassmann: It’s true that the current proposal is improved, Strassmann said, especially compared to City Place, which was de Parry’s previous proposal for that site. But for it to be a win-win, “it still has a ways to go.” If the new buildings were 30 feet tall and echoed the style of the historic homes, that might work. But with three “massive” new buildings behind those homes, it’s not fair to say that the streetscape is protected. Further, the project seems badly timed, she said, given the ongoing study of a possible historic district in that area.
Strassmann hoped that the project would be postponed until the city council made a decision on that. Her next point was on density: She and her neighbors supported density – but in the downtown, she said, only within the boundaries of the Downtown Development Authority. If you allow developers to build on cheaper land outside of the downtown, then there’s no incentive to build downtown – and you’re cannibalizing the neighborhoods. It’s not as bad as the Moravian, Strassmann said, referring to another proposed development farther south on Fifth Avenue. But it’s still too dense for the neighborhood. Finally, she said she was worried about the increased traffic along Fifth, especially at the intersection with Packard, which she called a “deadly corridor.”
Ethel Potts: Potts, a former planning commissioner, said she wished the project weren’t rushed, given that the area might become an historic district. There were several elements of the project that the historic district committee might not approve, she said, like the removal of the stone foundations – though she acknowledged that the developer planned to put the stones back in place after the houses were moved.
De Parry was planning to remove the additions that had been made to the original homes, she noted, but some of those additions are old enough to be historic in their own right. Further, moving the houses from their current locations into a rigid row – was that something the historic district commission would approve? The project would be too crowded and not have enough green space, Potts said, and as a PUD, it should have benefits to the neighborhood, not have detrimental effects.
Brad Moore: The project’s architect said he wanted to clarify the staff report. The development team originally proposed a dark brick for the exterior of the new buildings, but after talking with staff they chose a lighter tone for the brick and accents. The cantilevered bay windows in the rear of the building had been added as an amenity to the bedrooms, but could be removed if the commission found them objectionable.
Regarding parking, Moore said the residents will be urban dwellers and won’t rely on cars – the project encourages the use of non-motorized transportation. In response to concerns about building height, Moore gave a handout to commissioners that he said showed how the project would appear to someone standing on Fifth Avenue, looking toward the buildings. It’s clear that the buildings in the rear of the historical houses don’t dominate the streetscape, he said.
Scott Munzel: Munzel, an attorney for the developer, urged the commission to approve this project. It meets the recommendations of the city’s Downtown Residential Task Force, which specifically encourage density one-quarter mile beyond the DDA boundaries, he said. Other beneficial effects include the preservation – and improvement – of historic houses, he said, and the efficient use of land that’s now “dead space.” The new buildings are clearly consistent with the area – they won’t loom, he said. Finally, he noted that the project will replace what are now parking lots and messy backyards.
Martha Luczak: A resident who lives directly across the street from the proposed project, Luczak asked for clarity regarding how Heritage Row would fit into the potential historic district. It was important to avoid a “debacle” like the one involving Glen Ann Place, she said. She also described her heart as pounding when Moore passed out images related to the project that the neighbors hadn’t yet seen.
Heritage Row: Commission Deliberations
Jean Carlberg asked about the back lot line, abutting the lots on Hamilton Place. What would be placed between the those properties? There are trees that straddle the property line, said Brad Moore, the project’s architect. They’ve also proposed a two-foot-tall retaining wall, to handle the change in grading. He said they also planned to plant trees there.
Carlberg pointed out that a retaining wall does nothing to protect the privacy of the Hamilton Place residents, and urged him to do something more to screen the properties. She said that only one couple from that street has attended the public meetings on this project. Moore informed her that the couple she mentioned had moved – most of the residents there are renters.
Alex de Parry noted that almost 50 feet separates the Hamilton Place houses from the back of the proposed Heritage Row buildings. He said he’s talked privately with residents there, and reported that they’re not worried about the proximity.
Saying she thought the project was moving in the right direction, Carlberg said she wasn’t bothered by the taller new buildings. However, she did raise concerns about the number of small units. There’s community pressure to have fewer multi-bedroom units – the type of apartment that’s associated with student housing. But when you have a greater number of efficiencies and one-bedroom apartments, the number of units mushrooms, Carlberg said.
Heritage Row is exactly what the downtown residential task force was looking for, she said. “I see a great deal to like in this third proposal in front of us.” The issue of the historic district was awkward, she conceded, and she didn’t see a benefit in the commission making a decision at this point on the project.
Evan Pratt asked whether they should get an opinion from the city attorney’s office about the historic district process. Wendy Rampson of the city’s planning staff said the attorney had already weighed in. While there’s a moratorium on demolition and construction in that area – until the historic district study committee turns in its report – there’s no moratorium on planning, Rampson said. The developer is aware, she said, that if the area is designated an historic district, he’ll have to get the necessary approvals from the city’s historic district commission – even if planning commission has already approved his site plan. Without the HDC approval, the city wouldn’t issue permits, she said.
Pratt and Erica Briggs both said they shared Carlberg’s concerns about screening in the back. Briggs suggested adding a privacy wall, so that people could enjoy their back yards.
Briggs said she was torn about this project. The rehabilitation of the historic houses is a great benefit to the neighborhood, and the addition of the back buildings is a good use of space. But architecturally, the new buildings lack detail and don’t fit into the character of the neighborhood, she said. She’s also concerned about the height, and thinks that perhaps they’re trying to cram too much density into that area. “It still does have a little ways to go to make it work in the neighborhood.”
Diane Giannola asked how the existing houses would be shifted on the site. Moore said they’d be moving forward, and in some cases a foot or two to the right or left, to create access to the garage and utilities. Giannola asked whether it would be helpful to tear down one of the houses – would that make things easier? Moore didn’t think so.
Kirk Westphal wanted staff to clarify if any landmark trees would be removed. Matt Kowalski reported that no landmark trees would be removed, nor would any street trees be taken down. A couple of trees on the site would be removed, in one case to clear way for access to the underground garage.
Westphal also raised the issue of the brick color of the new buildings, saying they’d gone back and forth about the colors via email exchanges. When Kowalski said the developer was hoping for feedback from the commissioners, Westphal asked for clarification about the goal of the background buildings.
The background buildings are intended to be less prominent than the historic houses in front, Kowalski said. An historical consultant who had weighed in on the matter said that darker colors would make the building more prominent, as would architectural details, he said. That’s why the developer was leaning toward lighter brick, and fewer distinctive features on the new buildings.
De Parry passed around samples of the brick, saying they’d started out with a dark color called Old Detroit. The consensus among commissioners was a preference for a medium shade of brick – known as Washtenaw – with Giannola and Briggs adding that they’d like to see more character in the structures. When Giannola asked whether the color of the background buildings should be coordinated with the colors of the historic houses in front, Westphal noted that they might be “maxing out” on their authority at this point.
Westphal asked whether de Parry was willing to agree that the project would conform with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. De Parry said it was already in the development agreement. Kowalski clarified that meeting those specific standards wasn’t in the agreement, though the agreement did state that the historic homes would be restored. When Westphal again asked de Parry if he’d conform to those standards, de Parry said yes.
“I’m very encouraged by what’s being proposed,” Westphal said. De Parry’s extensive work with the neighbors was a positive, he added, and there’s a great benefit to putting parking underground. Westphal also cited the stormwater detention system as a benefit.
Briggs said she was disappointed at the level of discussion they were having, and noted that they talked more about the Plymouth Green Crossings project than they had about Heritage Row. They hadn’t discussed whether this project met the public benefits required by a PUD, she said. The neighbors had significant concerns over the height of the new buildings, she noted. This was the commission’s major opportunity to discuss the project before its final hearing, she said, adding that she’d hate for them to wait until then to give feedback to the developer.
Giannola said she wasn’t bothered by the height. Westphal also said it wasn’t a great concern for him. What tipped the balance for him in favor of the project was the restoration of historic houses. He also cited the project’s goal of Energy Star certification and energy-conserving features as obvious benefits.
Carlberg asked about the windows, wondering if they were going to look like those on the building at South State and Washington, which she didn’t like. Moore assured her that they’d be standard residential windows, not tinted.
De Parry responded to height concerns, saying that there were taller buildings in the neighborhood, including the church a block away. And because of the land elevation, there are houses on Hamilton Place that are actually higher than the west elevation of the new buildings for Heritage Row, he said.
Briggs said her concern was less about height and more about the lack of architectural detail for the new buildings – she was surprised they lacked character. De Parry expressed some frustration, noting that he’d been told to have less architectural detail than originally proposed so that the buildings would blend into the background: “You get five preservation architects in the room, and they’ll give you five different opinions.” He said they were trying to do what people wanted. “We try to walk that fine line and make half of the people happy, versus having nobody happy.”
At this point, Carlberg made a motion to postpone.
Outcome: All six commissioners present – Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal and Tony Derezinski, who had arrived late – voted to postpone the project.
Final Public Commentary
During the meeting’s final slot for public commentary, Beverly Strassmann spoke again, saying that if they were picking out a wedding ring, it sure looked like they were getting married. She reiterated that it was premature to move ahead on this project, before hearing results of the historic district study committee. She also restated her point about density belonging downtown, not in the nearby neighborhoods.
Kirk Westphal noted that there will be a public hearing at the commission’s March 2 meeting for a project proposed by the Michigan Islamic Academy. The academy, located at 2301 Plymouth Road, is seeking site plan approval to remove an existing classroom trailer and build a new three-story, 10,500-square-foot classroom building.
Present: Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal and Tony Derezinski
Absent: Bonnie Bona, Eric Mahler, Wendy Woods