Commissioners Weigh In On Historic District

Ann Arbor planning commission chair: "It's a complex issue"

Ann Arbor Planning Commission (April 6, 2010): The bulk of Tuesday’s planning commission meeting centered on a process in which planning commissioners have no official role: the possible establishment of a Fourth and Fifth Avenue historic district.

Kristine Kidorf, Patrick McCauley

Kristine Kidorf and Patrick McCauley answer questions at the April 6, 2010 planning commission meeting. McCauley is chair of the Fourth and Fifth Avenues historic district study committee. Kidorf is a consultant assisting with the committee's work.

A study committee, appointed by city council last year, was charged with evaluating whether or not the residential area along Fourth and Fifth, south of William and north of Packard, meets criteria for historic district designation. The committee finished a preliminary report in February, and is getting feedback before making a final report to the city council in May.

Planning commissioners first discussed the historic district report – and their possible response to it – at a March 9, 2010 working session. At that meeting, commissioner Diane Giannola, who also serves on the city’s historic district commission, raised concerns over the completeness of the report.

At Tuesday’s meeting, several commissioners pressed for clarification about the report. On hand to answer questions were Patrick McCauley, the committee’s chair and a member of the historic district commission, and Kristine Kidorf, a consultant hired by the city to assist the process.

Historic District Study Committee: Some Background

A proposal for an historic district study committee was first made in 2008, in response to a residential development called City Place, on Fifth Avenue south of William. But at its Dec. 21, 2008 meeting, council rejected setting up such a study committee. [Chronicle coverage: "No Formal Study Committee for Germantown"]

The developer of City Place, Alex de Parry, had originally sought rezoning as a planned unit development, or PUD. When city council rejected the City Place PUD, de Parry bought it back as a “matter of right” project, with no rezoning required. And at its Sept. 21, 2009 meeting, council approved the project. [Chronicle coverage: "Near North, City Place Approved"]

A month earlier, however, in August 2009, the city council had passed a resolution establishing an historic district study committee for the residential area near the south side of Ann Arbor’s downtown district – an area that included the City Place site. Council appointed the following study committee in September 2009: Kristi Gilbert, Ina Hanel-Gerdenich, Rebecca Lopez Kriss, Patrick McCauley, Sarah Shotwell, Tom Whitaker and Susan Wineberg.

At the same meeting, council also approved a moratorium on demolition in the area where City Place was being proposed. [Chronicle coverage: "Demolition Moratorium for Two-Block Area"] That move effectively halted the ability for de Parry to proceed, beyond seeking approvals, and he subsequently retooled the development into a project called Heritage Row. The demolition moratorium is still in effect, but expires on Aug. 6, 2010.

The Chronicle attended the two meetings of the historic district committee in October and December of 2009. A summary of the committee’s work to that point is included in a Chronicle report on de Parry’s initial presentation of Heritage Row: “Fifth Ave. Project to Meet Historic Standards.” Heritage Row has been a contentious project, but was recommended for approval by the planning commission at its March 16, 2010 meeting. [Chronicle coverage: "Heritage Row Moves to City Council"]

Historic District: Public Commentary

Three people spoke during public commentary time at Tuesday’s meeting, and all addressed the potential historic district. They had all also attended Monday night’s city council meeting, all speaking out against The Moravian project, another residential development proposed for that same neighborhood. A planned unit development (PUD) zoning request for The Moravian, which had been recommended for approval by city staff and the planning commission, was achieved only the simple majority it needed on a 6-4 vote – it needed an 8-vote super-majority as a result of a formal protest petition that had been filed. That city council meeting stretched until 1:30 a.m.

Tom Luczak: Alluding to the late hour of the previous night’s city council meeting, Luczak began by thanking Tony Derezinski for being awake. [Derezinski, a planning commissioner, represents Ward 2 on city council.] Luczak said that the commissioners seem like nice people individually, but collectively, “it just really seems that you’re out to get that neighborhood.” He said he’s heard three commissioners talk about how they’d like to see that area as a transitional neighborhood, and he described their approach as “PUDing it to death.” Luczak urged commissioners to look into their hearts and support the historic district. He noted that it wouldn’t prevent them from approving future PUDs – it would only require new development to meet Secretary of the Interior standards for historic districts. This would actually make their jobs easier, he said, adding that he wouldn’t have objected to the Heritage Row project under those conditions.

Beverly Strassmann: Strassmann said she couldn’t believe that her street was already faced with another agenda item – until earlier that day, she hadn’t been aware that it was on the commission’s agenda. She supports the historic district, but would like to see it extend even farther south of Packard to include the 500 block of South Fifth. Her home, she noted, was built in 1915. She suggested that the district extend on South Fifth to Madison, and on South Fourth to the floodplain.

Claudius Vincenz: At Monday night’s council meeting, people negatively mis-characterized his neighborhood, Vincenz said, and it’s a mis-characterization that seems to have resonated well with the planning commission. Noting that he’s lived in the neighborhood nearly 20 years – and that he has walked his 16-year-old dog throughout the area every day – Vincenz said he recently took a survey of every household. He found out how much rent people paid, where they worked, and what the inside of their homes looked like. Some are very low income, others are well-to-do. It’s a very mixed neighborhood, and stable, he said. If anything, it’s moving toward more owner-occupied homes. He warned that anything the planning commission did to change the neighborhood will completely destroy the delicate balance that now exists.

Historic District: Commissioners’ Questions

Bonnie Bona, the commission’s chair, began discussion by clarifying the commission’s role. They were not asked to make a recommendation or give approval, she said. They have the opportunity to give input on the preliminary report, and could do that in several ways. They could try to reach a consensus and give their input as a commission, or they could each make individual comments, which would be entered into the record and forwarded to the study committee.

Contributing versus Non-Contributing Structures

Several commissioners had questions for Patrick McCauley, the study committee’s chair, and Kristine Kidorf, an historic district consultant who’s working with the committee. Jean Carlberg asked for an explanation of the difference between contributing and non-contributing structures. The committee’s report recommends that 100% of the structures – with one exception – be considered as resources that contribute to the district.

Kidorf explained that the distinction was sometimes known as “historic” versus “non-historic.” The proposed district spans a period of historical significance between 1838 to 1941. Contributing structures are those built within that period that have retained their architectural integrity. A rule of thumb, she said, is if someone from that era returned to the present day and was still able to recognize the structure, it should be considered as contributing.

McCauley added that the committee had walked the neighborhood and conducted research on the structures. Some were clearly historic, he said. For those that were questionable, the committee had discussed each one and come to a consensus. A continuum of changes have been made on the buildings – some have been altered very little, others more so. But there are many cases in which a structure built in the 1870s, for example, has an addition from the 1920s – if the alteration happened within the period of historical significance, he said, it counts as contributing.

Several commissioners questioned how it’s possible to have virtually 100% of all structures within the proposed district categorized as contributing. [One garage, at 445 S. Fourth Ave., is designated as non-contributing.] Kidorf noted that the proposed district is relatively small, with only 47 primary buildings and 14 secondary buildings.

Diane Giannola said that when she first walked through the neighborhood, there were many buildings that didn’t have visible signs of their historic fabric. She reported that she then talked with McCauley, who showed her a map of the proposed district. On it, about 40% of the structures were marked as questionable regarding their historical significance. But in the final report, she noted, zero percent are now questionable. It seemed to her quite a difference.

McCauley described the original map as a “stepping off point.” The structures that were questionable were those that Kidorf wanted the committee to examine more closely. “Believe me,” he said, “we’ve looked at these buildings an awful lot.”

Giannola said that details needed to be provided about how the committee reached its conclusions. No minutes were taken during committee meetings, she added, so it’s difficult to know what the group’s discussion was like. She later clarified that she actually liked the map – she just was concerned about the disparity between 40% and zero percent.

Carlberg expressed concern over the length of the period of historical significance – 100 years is a long span. A porch might have been added that in no way reflects the original structure, she said, yet both are considered historically significant, because they fall within the 100-year period.

McCauley responded that both eras are part of the neighborhood’s story. The committee chose a World War II cut-off date because that’s when the demographics of the area started to change, he said. Kidorf added that it’s common for historic districts to span 100 years. But Carlberg countered that it was hard to buy into that concept – all that’s indicated is the age of the buildings, and by that definition, the entire downtown would be historic.

When considering the district as a whole, Kidorf replied, the committee looked at broader criteria. There are four possible criteria for significance, as defined by the National Register of Historic Places: 1) association with events that are historically significant, 2) association with people of historical significance, 3) association with distinctive architectural styles or those that represent the work of a master, and 4) an area that might yield historical information – that is, having archeological value. The committee believes the proposed district meets the first three criteria.

Tony Derezinski raised concerns about the committee’s decision to designate 100% of the structures within the district as contributing, especially compared to the original map that showed 40% as questionable. McCauley said the committee members debated each one, and noted that it’s not always a clear-cut matter. For him personally, the deciding factor was whether a structure had more historic material left on it than had been taken away. He noted that there were some mistakes on that original map, so the 40% number was inaccurate – it was actually a lower percentage. Kidorf again stated that the map had been intended as a tool for further research.

Derezinski asked if there’d been a vote taken, or whether the discussions had been recorded. McCauley clarified that the meetings had been public, but that there were no minutes. Later in the meeting, Kidorf said she could provide notes taken during the meeting, though they were less detailed than minutes would be.

Setting Boundaries

Wendy Woods asked for elaboration on the choice of the district’s proposed boundaries. McCauley told her that extending the boundary to include both sides of Packard seemed to strengthen the story of the  neighborhood. He felt that going farther south on Packard was overstepping the bounds of the committee, as it had been directed by council. There was also diminished architectural significance south of Packard, he said. They had to set the boundaries somewhere, he noted.

Map of proposed Fourth and Fifth Avenue historic district

Map of proposed Fourth and Fifth Avenue historic district. (Links to larger image)

Kidorf added that the National Register criteria suggests looking at the city’s original plat maps, as well as natural boundaries. In this case, South Fifth has a steep drop south of Packard. The south side also was more associated with families tied to industry in that area, including a furniture factory and lumber yard, she said. In contrast, the proposed historic district was home to families of elected officials. Also, the area south of Packard wasn’t densely developed as early as the area north of Packard, she said.

Woods said that back in the 1800s, Packard was likely a dirt road – it probably wasn’t the busy street that creates the barrier that it does today, she observed. She also noted that just because someone lived on the other side of the street and that no one associated their name with a particular house, that didn’t mean the area was any less historically significant. The city should tell everyone’s story, she said.

McCauley noted that other historic districts in the city, such as the Old West Side, had been more working class. He described the committee’s discussion about setting the boundaries as a contentious one. “It’s very tough, but things do have to start and stop somewhere.” Kidorf added that the committee wasn’t making a judgment about the historical significance of the area south of Packard. It’s possible that the area could be designated as its own historic district in the future, she said. But the focus for this committee had been on the area specified by city council.

The Bigger Picture: Why Is It Historic?

Erica Briggs asked McCauley and Kidorf to speak about the larger story they’re trying to tell by creating the historic district. McCauley said the area’s story reflects the more general history of the entire city. It was part of the city’s early settlement, and particularly developed as a residential neighborhood for German immigrants – the recently formed neighborhood association adopted the name Germantown. The neighborhood is also associated with the University of Michigan, and reflects the influence of the university. Finally, there’s a concentration of architectural styles in the area, he said, ranging from Greek Revival to Queen Anne, among others.

Kidorf referred commissioners to the committee’s preliminary report, which includes several pages describing the history of the district. [The report can be downloaded from the city's website.]

Historic District as a Burden to Homeowners: Making Changes

Jean Carlberg observed that one challenge in supporting an historic district was the fact that it affects current property owners. It makes a difference if your property is designated as contributing or non-contributing – it affects how easily you can make changes on your property. For example, some of the larger homes have been split into apartments, and in some cases they need a form of egress, such as stairs on the outside of the building. Would that be allowed?

McCauley drew on his experience on the historic district commission, recalling a recent request by the owners of the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop on Ann Street. Normally the HDC doesn’t allow new windows or doors to be added, he said, but in this case they made an exception because the building needed egress. He clarified that property owners wouldn’t be required to make changes. But if they wanted to make changes, they’d need to get approval from the HDC. That was true regardless of whether the buildings were designated as contributing or non-contributing, though non-contributing structures would have to meet different, less stringent standards.

Carlberg asked for a list of proposals that the HDC had approved or not approved, but McCauley said such a list would be “giant.” What if someone had a growing family, or needed additional rental income, and wanted to make an addition to the house, Carlberg asked. Kidorf said there would be design guidelines to follow – the addition would need to be “subservient” to the original structure, for example, no larger than 50% of the original size. The addition would need to be reversible – that is, it would need to be built so that it could be removed in the future without harming the original structure. And to ensure that there’s no confusion of the site’s historical record, it should not mimic the original building.

Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, asked about the inclusion of landmark trees and lilac bushes mentioned in the report. She was referring to this paragraph:

There are a number of landscape features in the district. The majority of properties have mature trees in the front and/or rear yards, including those planted in a pattern at 120 Packard and an old one at rear between 314 and 308 Packard. Seven properties have mature (possibly lilac) bushes in the front and/or side or rear yards. The historic fencing in the district consists of a wrought iron fence shared by two properties and one example of a wood frame fence with a middle section of metal chicken wire. The latter is unique in that it includes one section topped with old wrought iron cresting. Both fences have associated gates.

Kidorf said those would be considered architectural features, and subject to review by the HDC. McCauley characterized the fences and trees as contributing to the character of the neighborhood.

Woods asked what would happen if there were a fire in a building. What would the property owner be able to build on that site? McCauley noted that an example of this would be coming before the HDC soon – Zingerman’s Deli owned a building that had been severely damaged by fire. He said that in general, the building would have to be compatible with the historic district in size and scale. The HDC would also weigh in regarding certain architectural features, he said. Kidorf said that a replica wouldn’t be allowed, because that would confuse the historical record.

Later in the meeting, Giannola recalled that Zingerman’s Deli had previously requested that the HDC allow it to tear down the burned building – this request came to the commission before McCauley was appointed, she said. It was a close vote, but the HDC denied the request, telling Zingerman’s to renovate the building instead. [Zingerman's is now making a new proposal – see Chronicle coverage: "Zingerman's: Making It Right for the HDC"]

Kirk Westphal clarified that the committee’s original charge had been to evaluate the potential for creating an historic district in that area. They had not been asked more generally to determine how the area’s historic homes might be preserved. That was correct, McCauley said – they were an historic district study committee.

Westphal then noted that some houses in the proposed district aren’t considered very attractive, and that owners might want to make improvements. He asked how difficult it would be to replace the vinyl siding on a house in the district. McCauley said the HDC would have to weigh those kinds of things on a case-by-case basis. HardiPlank, for example, can sometimes be an acceptable replacement material.

Westphal asked whether the Heritage Row project, which the planning commission recently recommended for approval, would meet Secretary of the Interior standards. McCauley and Kidorf said they weren’t sure.

Erica Briggs asked whether it would be possible to revise the committee’s report to include more details about why the buildings are designated as contributing, to give people greater understanding about those decisions. McCauley said he’d be open to that.

Historic District: Commissioners’ Comments

When commissioners had concluded with questions for McCauley and Kidorf, Bonnie Bona observed that the robust questioning was “indicative of the complexity of this issue.” Rather than try to reach a consensus, she suggested that commissioners make individual statements, which would be part of the minutes and could be taken as feedback by the study committee.

Diane Giannola, Jean Carlberg

Planning commissioners Diane Giannola, left, and Jean Carlberg at a March 9, 2010 working session when the commission discussed the Fourth and Fifth Avenues historic district study committee's preliminary report.

Evan Pratt asked Kirk Westphal to give a summary of issues raised at the commission’s March 9 working session – Westphal had been the official notetaker at that meeting.

Westphal outlined four issues:

  • Questions and concerns about contributing versus non-contributing structures. Many of these were outlined in a memo that Diane Giannola distributed prior to the working session, and they were raised again at Tuesday’s meeting. [.pdf file of Giannola's memo]
  • The impact on the city’s master planning goals. That’s the meat of what the planning commission does, Westphal noted. To what degree would an historic district deter or further the community’s stated master plan goals? It would be helpful to have information about what the impact has been in other historic districts, he said, so the commission could know what should or should not be repeated.
  • The timing of the R4C/R2A zoning district study. There might be some conflicts between the historic district and results of the zoning district study, which will likely propose ordinance changes to those two types of residential zoning. Tony Derezinski and Jean Carlberg are both members of that study committee.
  • There are other tools that could be used to protect the preservation of homes, but that would be less restrictive than an historic district. It would be useful to see what other communities have done in that regard.

Pratt said he liked the housing in the Fourth and Fifth Avenue area – he noted that the planning commission had rejected the City Place project when it had entailed tearing down some of the historic homes there. That was also the reason there were some objections to the current R4C zoning, because it encouraged the removal of housing stock. Pratt said he was interested in anything they could do to ensure the preservation of the housing stock, while furthering the goals of the central area plan.

Carlberg said she’d like more information on conservation easements as an alternative to an historic district. Bona explained that the city could make such an easement as strict or as lenient as they want. Wendy Rampson said the city’s planning staff would do some research on that.

Eric Mahler was concerned about the issue of non-conforming lots, which Carlberg had raised earlier in the meeting. He said he’d asked Jill Thacher of the city’s planning staff to identify how many properties in the proposed district are non-conforming – there are 37 residential lots that are less than the minimum 8,500 square feet now required in areas zoned R4C. Because they are non-conforming, property owners already face additional burdens when they want to make changes, he noted. (Bona later pointed out that owners of non-conforming lots must seek variances through the zoning board of appeals.) Mahler said he didn’t want to preserve these non-conforming lots in perpetuity.

Tony Derezinski reported that the R4C/R2A study committee was working aggressively, and that he saw a potential conflict with that work and the historic district. Which is the better method for addressing the problems that the city faces in that area? He also said he had a lot of questions about process, in part prompted by Giannola’s analysis of the committee’s preliminary report. The proposed district’s boundaries were double what had been suggested by council, he said. [Although the study committee researched a larger area, and weighed whether to include the larger area as the recommended district, their preliminary report recommends an area almost the same as the area specified in the city council's directive – the exception is the south side of Packard Street.]

Derezinski continued: What was the background on arriving at that decision? “It raises a lot of questions in my mind, in terms of how that decision was made, and by whom,” Derezinski said. For council, he added, the question is whether an historic district is the best way to achieve smart growth.

Saying that she’d heard other commissioners cite the burden that an historic district would be on current homeowners, Erica Briggs pointed out that homeowners in the area were advocating for it. The homeowners have an understanding about what an historic district entails, she said, yet they’re embracing it. That’s an important consideration. She was also interested in looking at alternative tools, and in addressing the issue of non-conforming lots.

Bona, in concluding the discussion, expressed her support for these older neighborhoods, saying that’s why she’s been an advocate for the R4C/R2A study. But creating an historic district is a serious step, she added. Addressing the challenges that planning commissioners have raised will help the study committee justify its decision, she said.

She responded to a comment that McCauley had made earlier, about how an historic district allows the area to tell its story. A conservation district, rather than an historic district, would let the neighborhood continue to have a story while preserving what’s there, she said – that’s compelling, and would allow the city to meet its master plan goal of adding more units to the housing stock, while preserving older homes. “It’s a complex issue,” she said.

What’s Next?

In addition to comments from the planning commission, the historic district study committee is seeking feedback from the historic district commission and the state historic preservation office. On May 5, the committee will hold a public hearing in city hall council chambers, 100 N. Fifth Ave., beginning at 7 p.m.

After that, they’ll meet on May 17 to make revisions to their report and vote on a final version to send to city council. The goal is to have the proposal considered for first reading at council’s June 21 meeting.

Present: Commissioners Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.

Next meeting: On Tuesday, April 13 at 7 p.m., the planning commission will hold a joint meeting with the city’s environmental commission and energy commission on the topic of sustainability. The meeting will be held in the lower level conference room of the county administration building, 200 N. Main St.


  1. April 8, 2010 at 10:32 am | permalink

    If a house is falling apart (or burned out, as with the garage near Zingerman’s), and the property owner does not want to or cannot invest enough to renovate the property up to historic district standards, what happens then?

  2. By Dave Askins
    April 8, 2010 at 10:39 am | permalink

    Re: [1]

    The criteria outlined for a notice to proceed with demolition in a historic district include a provision for financial hardship. See (c):

    8:416. Notice to proceed.
    (1) Work within a historic district shall be permitted through the issuance of a notice to proceed by the commission if any of the following conditions prevail and if the proposed work can be demonstrated by a finding of the commission to be necessary to substantially improve or correct any of the following conditions:
    (a) The resource constitutes a hazard to the safety of the public or to the structure’s occupants.
    (b) The resource is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be of substantial benefit to the community and the applicant proposing the work has obtained all necessary planning and zoning approvals, financing, and environmental clearances.
    (c) Retaining the resource will cause undue financial hardship to the owner when a governmental action, an act of God, or other events beyond the owner’s control created the hardship, and all feasible alternatives to eliminate the financial hardship, which may include offering the resource for sale at its fair market value or moving the resource to a vacant site within the historic district, have been attempted and exhausted by the owner.
    (d) Retaining the resource is not in the interest of the majority of the community.

    So it’s an option for a property owner to make the case for undue financial hardship before the historic district commission.

  3. By Rod Johnson
    April 8, 2010 at 7:51 pm | permalink

    The Zingerman’s issue should be a cautionary tale for the city when it considers adding more occasions for strangulation by process.

  4. By Cosmonican
    April 9, 2010 at 10:08 am | permalink

    Okay, but when will somebody finally tear down that ghost house at the corner of Kingsley and First?

  5. By abc
    April 9, 2010 at 11:41 am | permalink

    “Mahler said he didn’t want to preserve these non-conforming lots in perpetuity.”

    It really isn’t about what Mr. Mahler wants. The city’s Non-conformance Code (Ch. 55, Art. VII) says:

    It is the intent of this Chapter to recognize that the eventual elimination, as expeditiously as is reasonable, or [sic] (of?) existing uses or structures that are not in conformity with the provisions of this Chapter is as much a subject of health, safety, and welfare as is the prevention of the establishment of new uses that would violate the provisions of this Chapter. …”

    It also says that a nonconforming build may not be “Structurally altered so as to prolong the life of the building.” And it says, “A nonconforming structure shall not be replaced after damage or destruction of the nonconforming structure if the estimated expense of reconstruction exceeds 75% of the appraised value, as determined by the building official, of the entire building or structure, exclusive of foundations.”

    This section of the code seems to conflict with historic district efforts and I do not know where they get resolved. It seems important to know how many buildings in this district are nonconforming.

  6. By Tom Whitaker
    April 9, 2010 at 1:00 pm | permalink

    The non-conformance referred to by Mahler was non-conforming LOTS, not STRUCTURES. This has nothing to do with an historic district. A huge number of R4C lots are non-conforming because the zoning was created with an “urban renewal” mentality in the 1960s. This zoning is not consistent with the 1992 Central Area Plan or the more recent Downtown Plan, yet the City has dragged its feet to correct it.

  7. By abc
    April 9, 2010 at 2:19 pm | permalink

    Re. [6]

    The section is simply titled ‘Use non-conformance’. There is no reference to the non-conformance being limited to the lot or the structure. I believe the non-conformance can be as you say, that possibly the lot is smaller than zoning now requires but that it can also be because the structure was constructed closer to the property line than the current code now wants; that happens a lot on smaller lots, particularly due to the zoning changes you refer to. Or maybe the non-conformance is due to the structure being larger than current height limits or a use no longer allowed in that zone. In any case I believe the following sections of the code come into play regardless of the non-conformance; and that includes the ‘prolonging the life of the building’ clause.

    Also there are many places beyond the R4C zones that have had their minimum requirements changed so that whole neighborhoods are non-conforming.