Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (March 16, 2010): A proposed residential project that’s been in the works for more than two years got approval on Tuesday night from a majority of planning commissioners, by a 6-2 vote.
Alex de Parry, the developer of Heritage Row – a project on the east side of Fifth Avenue, south of William – will now seek approval from city council, though he still faces opposition from neighbors and others in the community.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the commission continued a broad effort to rezone parcels of city-owned parkland as “public land” – including one known as the “squarest “park in Ann Arbor. Commissioners also addressed concerns raised by residents living near two of the properties being rezoned: Arbor Hills Nature Area and Kilburn Park. Action on those two parcels was postponed.
Also postponed was a proposed site plan for expansion at Glacier Hills retirement community, which plans to construct a new skilled nursing care building within its complex on the city’s east side. Planning staff had some unresolved issue with the proposal, including the need to increase the amount of required bicycle parking. It was noted that residents there might not have a high demand for bike spaces.
Alex de Parry has been seeking planned unit development (PUD) zoning for his residential project on South Fifth Avenue, now called Heritage Row, for more than two years. It’s the third time this project has been brought forward, in various iterations – including as the former City Place development.
The current project calls for renovating seven historic homes, repositioning them on the site, and building three new 3.5-story apartment buildings behind those houses, with an underground parking garage. In total, there will be a maximum 82 apartments with no more than 163 bedrooms. [For a more detailed description of the project, see Chronicle coverage: "Heritage Row Gets Postponed" and "Fifth Ave. Project to Meet Historic Standards"]
At their Feb. 18, 2010 meeting, planning commissioners voted to postpone action, asking the developer to work with city staff to clarify several issues raised during that meeting. On Tuesday, the group got an updated staff report, heard from several people during a public hearing on Heritage Row – the majority opposed to the project – and ultimately approved the site plan and PUD rezoning.
Staff Report on Heritage Row
Matt Kowalski of the city’s planning staff reviewed the developer’s responses to issues that commissioners had raised last month. He said all questions had been answered to the satisfaction of the planning staff, which was recommending approval of the project.
Specifically, a light tan brick had been chosen for the new buildings, with the goal of helping the buildings blend into the background. Windows will now be a more traditional double-hung style on all four sides of the new buildings.
To address privacy concerns that commissioners had raised on behalf of the residents on Hamilton Place, located to the east of Heritage Row, the back lot line will be planted with 30 evergreen Arborvitae shrubs. Those will grow to be about 20 feet high, Kowalski said.
Another change: the development agreement and PUD supplemental regulations for the project include a commitment to restore all materials on the historical houses according to standards of rehabilitation set by the Secretary of the Interior. This had been a request made by Kirk Westphal. [The full staff report is available to download from the city's website.]
Finally, Kowalski reported that he’d had a last-minute conversation with de Parry that wasn’t reflected in the staff report. De Parry has offered to use wood siding on the new buildings, instead of brick. Kowalski asked commissioners for feedback on that possibility.
Public Hearing on Heritage Row
Eleven people spoke during the public hearing on Heritage Row, most of them opposed to the project. Many had spoken at previous planning commission meetings as well. Here’s a sampling from Tuesday’s hearing:
Tom Luczak said that regardless of the color of the brick, the three new buildings behind the historic homes really stand out, in a way that’s incompatible with the neighborhood. He said he appreciated the offer to adhere to Secretary of the Interior standards for historic preservation for the existing homes, but that it was important for the new buildings to adhere to those standards as well.
Further, Luczak asked who would determine whether those standards had been met. The city’s historic district commission could do that, he noted – but only if that area was designated as an historic district. That’s not a sure thing, he said. [A study committee has been looking at whether to create a new historic district along Fourth and Fifth avenues, and has issued a preliminary report recommending that such a district be created. City council will ultimately decide the issue.]
Jack Eaton urged the commission to hold off on a vote until a decision had been made about the proposed historic district – a vote now would be premature, he said. The city is in the process of discussing urban density. There are other areas that have been designated for dense developments, but that section of the Fifth Avenue corridor isn’t one of them. A PUD would be an extraordinary departure from the area’s current zoning, he said, and should only be approved if the project is compelling. Heritage Row isn’t a compelling project, and doesn’t meet PUD standards, he contended.
Eaton said that commissioners shouldn’t compare the current project with de Parry’s previous proposal – it’s the PUD standards that should be considered, not whether Heritage Row is better than City Place. He asked commissioners to reject the proposal.
Eppie Potts listed several aspects of the project that she said deviated from current zoning in an unacceptable way. Issues included much greater density, greatly reduced setbacks, and deviations from the city’s central area plan. Nor would the proposal meet Secretary of the Interior standards, she said. The plan calls for moving four houses on the site, so that all seven historic homes would be aligned. “It would be like a pseudo-historic theme park, looking very plastic,” Potts said. She questioned why the project was being rushed through, before a decision had been made on designating that area as an historic district.
Ellen Ramsburgh, who is a member of the city’s historic district commission, said she agreed with the comments made by previous speakers opposing the project. As a resident of a near-downtown neighborhood, she said zoning needed to be kept in scale. She reported that she’d recently been to the top floor of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research building, with a view looking down onto the Fifth Avenue neighborhood – it’s amazingly intact, she said, with no out-of-scale buildings.
Tom Whitaker reported that he had attended a recent meeting that the R4C study committee had held with local landlords. He said that the landlords had spoken out against oversized development. This type of development hurts them. Whitaker distributed a handout he’d made of residential projects in or around the downtown that had been approved, but not built – almost 1,200 units. There’s a pent-up supply, he said, but not a pent-up demand. The only people who want to build in neighborhoods are developers looking for cheap land. He also cited a range of detriments to the community caused by Heritage Row, including the project’s height and setbacks.
Aside from the project’s developer, Alex de Parry, the only speaker during the public hearing who supported Heritage Row was Kyle V. Mazurek, vice president of government affairs for the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce. The project incorporates several goals supported by the chamber, he said, including greater density in the downtown area and the addition of workforce affordable housing, especially for young professionals. The project’s community benefits include more efficient land and energy use, preservation of the historic streetscape and the generation of property tax revenues. He urged the commission to approve the project.
Commission Deliberations on Heritage Row
Bonnie Bona first asked staff to clarify some issues that had been raised during the public hearing. One question was whether the developer could later add large mechanicals – for heating and air conditioning, for example – to the top of the new buildings, going higher than the currently proposed maximum height of 39.8 feet. Kowalski clarified that nothing can go above that maximum height of 39.8 feet.
Several people during the public hearing had asked the planning commission hold off on a vote until a decision about creating an historic district in that area is made. Bona explained that the Heritage Row project had been submitted to the planning commission, and they were required to act on it. She asked the staff what would happen to the project if the historic district were formed.
Diane Giannola, a planning commissioner who also serves on the city’s historic district commission, clarified for Bona that if an historic district is established, the developer would need to get a certificate of appropriateness from the HDC before he could proceed. Without that, the city wouldn’t issue building permits.
There was some discussion about whether the development would include a geothermal system. From the supplemental regulations:
A renewable energy source shall be utilized as the primary energy source for the building. The renewable energy source may be located on-site, such as geothermal energy for heating and cooling systems, or off-site such as purchasing renewably produced energy for electricity, or a combination thereof.
De Parry told commissioners that because of the size of the site, there wasn’t sufficient room to install a geothermal system. The buildings will be constructed to comply with the federal Energy Star program, he said. Jean Carlberg asked about the level of insulation in the historic homes. De Parry said the goal was to achieve R-30 levels in the sides and R-48 in the ceilings. Carlberg asked that those specifics be written into the supplemental regulations.
Erica Briggs asked who would determine whether the project complied with Secretary of the Interior standards. Kowalski said that if the historic district gets created, then the historic district commission would handle that. If not, then the city’s staff would review it.
After some additional issues were clarified, commissioners began stating their positions on the project.
Eric Mahler said he saw several benefits of the project, including affordable housing – the project has committed to construct 18% of its units as affordable housing, somewhat higher than the city-required 15%. Other benefits were energy efficiency, underground parking and preservation of the historical houses. Mahler said he was concerned about the historic district issue, but that it would be an arbitrary act on their part to hold up the project because of that.
Wendy Woods had a different view. Things that are cited as community benefits are things that the developer should be doing anyway, she said. She wasn’t convinced that the project met PUD standards, and she was concerned about the size and massing of the new buildings. “To me it’s just out of scale with the neighborhood.” She planned to vote against it, she said.
Erica Briggs said it shouldn’t be a surprise that she too would not be supporting Heritage Row, noting that the project doesn’t conform with the city’s central area plan. She read from the relevant section:
In various locations, houses are overshadowed by larger commercial, residential or institutional buildings that are out of scale with existing surrounding development. In addition to being aesthetically displeasing, out-of-scale construction alters the quality of living conditions in adjacent structures. Often it is not so much the use that impacts negatively on the neighborhoods, but the massing of the new buildings.
She also cited a letter written by Jill Thacher, the city’s historic district coordinator. Among other things, Briggs agreed with Thacher’s comments regarding the importance of relationships among historic houses. Heritage Row isn’t context-sensitive, Briggs said. [.pdf copy of Thacher's letter]
Finally, she said it was important to note that there was a study committee reviewing the city’s R4C zoning – the project is not consistent with that zoning.
Kirk Westphal weighed in next, first by stating his preference for a darker brick on the exterior of the new buildings. He noted that it wasn’t in the commission’s purview to examine whether there was a market for these apartments, as some neighbors had suggested – that wasn’t among the criteria for determining a PUD, he said.
Westphal said that some PUD standards stood out more than others for him. By preserving the historic houses, the project is extending the life of those structures – that held a lot of weight with him, and was a major benefit to the street. Putting the parking underground was another benefit in terms of land use, he said.
Westphal said he was disappointed that the geothermal system didn’t work out, but Energy Star buildings would be a major upgrade. He concluded by saying he gave high deference to the city’s planning staff, who had been looking at these issues longer than most of the commissioners – and the staff didn’t always recommend approval.
Tony Derezinski, who also represents Ward 2 on city council, said the project had improved and that it was about as fine-tuned as it could get. He also cited deference for the staff’s opinion, saying that they’d gone over “every jot and tittle” of the development agreement. As for the R4C study committee – mentioned by Tom Whitaker during the public hearing – he noted that both he and Jean Carlberg serve on it, and that it’s not clear when that work will be finished. Heritage Row deserves the planning commission’s support, he said.
Jean Carlberg said she’s thought long and hard about how the new buildings might dominate the streetscape, and concluded that they won’t be noticed. She gave the example of driving down Division past the McKinley building – you barely notice the taller apartment building behind it, she said. She acknowledged that Tom Whitaker will be able to see the buildings out of his bedroom window, but “the rest of us won’t.”
Carlberg added that Heritage Row makes better use of the land that’s now used for parking behind the historic homes. She also cited the benefits of affordable housing, underground parking, energy efficiency and fire suppression systems – if there were a fire, the existing historical buildings would be gone instantly, she said.
The existing homes are part of Ann Arbor’s history, Carlberg said, and preserving the streetscape was important for her, though she noted that there’s nothing magic about the current setbacks. Another factor in favor of Heritage Row is that they’ve not heard any complaints from residents of Hamilton Place, she said. Calling the project a “great win” for the community, Carlberg said they’d been talking about it for a long time, and now they should move it forward.
Diane Giannola agreed with the benefits mentioned by other commissioners, and found it to be a good project for the area.
Bonnie Bona asked de Parry about the number of units in the complex – she was concerned that with a maximum number of 163 bedrooms, it would be possible to build 27 units with six bedrooms each. She acknowledged that his proposal called for no six-bedroom or four-bedroom apartments, and only one five-bedroom apartment. Would he be willing to make that a part of the supplemental regulations? De Parry agreed, noting that the five-bedroom apartment is in one of the historical homes, as it’s currently configured.
Bona also asked why he was now considering wood siding, as opposed to brick. She asked which he preferred. De Parry said it was an attempt to address Erica Briggs’ concerns about the aesthetics of the new buildings, as well as some of Jill Thacher’s comments. They were trying to make it more like Braun Court, he said, but he’d be willing to do whatever pleased the commissioners. Bona asked the project’s architect, Brad Moore, to weigh in. Moore said his primary aim was to please his client, but that the original design had been brick.
In giving her opinion of the project, Bona said she agreed with what other commissioners had said about the benefits of the project. There’s nothing in the central area plan that argues against density, she said, and preserving the streetscape is a huge benefit. The project will create smaller apartments, which the commission has been asking for. It’s come a long way from when it was first proposed, she said.
Outcome: The project was approved on a 6-2 vote, with Erica Briggs and Wendy Woods dissenting. Commissioner Evan Pratt left the meeting before the vote was taken.
Rezoning to Public Land
Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, in what planning staff describes as an effort to “clean up” zoning of city-owned property that’s used as parkland, the planning commission approved the rezoning of six parcels of parks and nature areas. The new zoning will be “public land” or PL. Previously, these parcels had different types of zoning, ranging from office to residential to agricultural.
The action at Tuesday’s meeting was to be the final part of a broader effort to rezone or annex about 50 parks or portions of parks. Other parcels have been rezoned or annexed at previous meetings. However, because of concerns raised by residents of the Arbor Hills neighborhood, where two of the parcels are located, the commission postponed actions on those two items.
In response to some of the concerns, Bonnie Bona, the commission’s chair, asked planning staff to clarify how the land would remain protected as parkland.
Alexis DiLeo of the city’s planning staff explained that there are three ways that parkland is protected. The primary way is its inclusion in the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan, known as the PROS plan. All parkland is listed in this state-mandated plan, which is updated every five years – an update is currently in progress, led by parks planner Amy Kuras.
In addition, city-owned property is designated as parkland by city council resolution, DiLeo said. And in some cases, deed restrictions placed on the property will limit its use to parkland. DiLeo also noted that parkland is under the stewardship of the park advisory commission, an appointed body that makes recommendations to the city council.
DiLeo said the current mix of zoning doesn’t reflect the land’s actual use as parkland. Rezoning parkland to “public land” better reflects that use, she said.
Land that’s designated as parkland – either by council resolution or by being listed in the PROS plan – also means that it is protected by city charter, which requires voter approval for the sale of parkland, DiLeo said. When asked by Bona whether parkland might be removed from the PROS plan, both DiLeo and planning manager Wendy Rampson said they couldn’t recall that ever happening.
Six Parcels Rezoned
Planning commissioners voted to rezone the following six parcels. The changes require final approval by city council.
Arbor Oaks Park: A three-acre park in the Arbor Oaks neighborhood, east of Stone School Road and north of Ellsworth Road on the city’s south side. Currently zoned R1C (single-family dwelling).
Berkshire Creek Nature Area: A five-acre nature area next to the Berkshire Creek development, on the east side of South Huron Parkway, north of Washtenaw Avenue. Currently zoned R4A (multi-family dwelling).
Bluffs Nature Area: The 41-acre parcel – located on the east side of North Main Street, between Huron View Boulevard and West Summit Street – is currently zoned for several different uses, including agriculture, office, C1 (local business) and R4A (multi-family dwelling). Though most of the land for this nature area was acquired in the 1990s, a one-acre section on the north edge was recently donated by the nursing home on Huron View Boulevard.
Glacier Highlands Park: A 1.6-acre park – known as the “squarest in Ann Arbor,” DiLeo said – is located in the Glacier Highlands neighborhood, east of Green Road and north of Glazier Way. Currently zoned R1B (single-family dwelling).
Mallets Creek Nature Area: A three-acre nature area next to the Brentwood Square development, on the west side of South Huron Parkway and north of Washtenaw Avenue. Currently zoned R4B (multi-family dwelling).
Scheffler Park: A small 0.3-acre piece of land was recently acquired as an addition to the 5.5-acre park north of the Darlington subdivision, at the northeast corner of Edgewood Drive and South Huron Parkway. The 0.3-acre parcel is currently zoned as office district.
City Parkland within Arbor Hills
Two parcels – Arbor Hills Nature Area and Kilburn Park – were considered separately, in response to concerns from residents. Located in the Arbor Hills neighborhood in northeast Ann Arbor, north of Green Road, both parcels are currently zoned as planned unit development (PUD). Arbor Hills Nature Area is a six-acre area; Kilburn Park is two acres.
Seven people spoke during a public hearing on the rezoning. Though the hearing was for commentary on rezoning of any of the parcels, five of the speakers were from the Arbor Hills neighborhood. Several other people from that neighborhood attended Tuesday’s meeting, but did not formally address the commission.
Edward J. Zelmanski, an attorney from Plymouth representing the Arbor Hills Condominium Association, said it was inappropriate to rezone the parcels to public land – he asked that the action be tabled, or denied. Rezoning the property to public land would open it up to other possible uses, he said.
The Arbor Hills development was established as a PUD, Zelmanski noted, and the two parks shouldn’t be separated from that. Zelmanski also raised the issue of whether there had been proper notice given. Some residents didn’t receive notice of the proposed zoning change, even though they were entitled to be notified – as members of the condo association, they were part owners of property adjacent to the parkland, he said.
Jane Klingsten, co-president of the Arbor Hills Condominium Association, asked for postponement. She said they’d received some documents related to this issue that they hadn’t yet had time to review. Residents needed to be assured that their access and easement rights were protected, she said. In addition, Klingsten wondered about the distinction between “park” and “nature area.” Though the parcel was now being referred to by city staff as a nature area, Klingsten said there’s a sign at the end of Ashburnam Road that calls it “Arbor Hills Park.” She wanted to make sure the designation remained as a park.
Two other residents spoke about concerns that the parks, if zoned as “public land,” could be sold or developed. Another Arbor Hills resident, Marty Smith, said he hadn’t planned to speak, but that he thought Zelmanski was incorrect – publicly owned land shouldn’t be zoned as a PUD. Smith said he’d looked at the zoning ordinances, and that the proposed change seemed in line with the land’s actual use. He supported the rezoning.
Commission and Staff Discussion on Public Land Rezoning
City planner Alexis DiLeo again outlined the ways in which parkland is protected. She said that the “public land” zoning is also used for land owned by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor District Library, Ann Arbor Public Schools and Washtenaw County.
Several commissioners voiced support for postponing action on the two Arbor Hills parcels, and had follow-up questions for staff.
Kirk Westphal, picking up on a concern raised by a resident during the public hearing, asked whether the neighborhood’s stormwater detention pond is located within the city-owned area, and whether there are utility easements running through the park. DiLeo said she’d check on those issues.
Jean Carlberg asked about whether proper notice had been given. Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, said that city staff would look into that issue. They typically send notice to property owners within 300 feet of the parcel. The condo association was also sent notice, she said, but it’s possible that there are homes in the perimeter of the neighborhood that weren’t contacted.
Saying it was great to see people come out to make sure that parkland is protected, Erica Briggs asked for clarification about whether there was greater or less protection under the designation of “public land,” as compared to previous zoning. DiLeo said there was better protection as public land. Previously, when the land was zoned as residential or office, for example, there might have been the impression that it could be developed, she said. The best protection, though, is being listed in the PROS plan, and being under the stewardship of the park advisory commission.
Outcome: Commissioners voted to recommend rezoning of six parcels to “public land.” They voted to postpone action on the Kilburn Park and Arbor Hills Nature Area.
Present: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.