Ann Arbor City Council Sunday night caucus (June 6, 2010): The council’s Sunday night caucus continued to draw little interest from the council itself, with only Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) attending.
The meeting, which is scheduled for the Sunday evening before Monday council meetings, is described on the city’s website as an opportunity “to discuss and gather information on issues that are or will be coming before them for consideration.”
Yesterday evening, what was on the minds of residents Ethel Potts, Tom Whitaker, Scott Munzel and Alex de Parry was an issue coming to the council for consideration today, Monday, June 7 – the Heritage Row project proposed for South Fifth Avenue, south of William Street. De Parry is the developer for that project and Munzel is legal counsel.
Kathy Griswold gave a report out from a recent meeting on the city’s urban forestry plan, which she had attended from the perspective of sight lines for traffic at intersections – vegetation can interfere with visibility.
During the discussion about vegetation on lawn extensions, John Floyd, who’s running for the Ward 5 seat currently occupied by Carsten Hohnke, arrived at the meeting. And Floyd was able to settle a point of good-natured disagreement on the status of corn as a grass.
The Heritage Row project includes 79 units – 12 efficiencies, 9 1-bedroom, 43 2-bedroom, 14 3-bedroom, and 1 5-bedroom apartment. Those units will be distributed over seven renovated existing houses and three buildings to be constructed behind the existing houses. [Additional Chronicle coverage: "Heritage Row Moves to City Council"]
Heritage Row: Public Hearings
Because the public hearing for the site plan was not properly noticed a week in advance of the June 7 hearing, that public hearing is expected to be continued to the June 21 meeting of the council, when a decision on the site plan will be made. [Chronicle coverage: "Heritage Row Vote Likely Delayed"] Procedurally separate from the site plan approval is a council decision on the rezoning request for the Heritage Row project.
The public hearing on the rezoning associated with Heritage Row was properly noticed, but there is speculation that the council will postpone a decision on the rezoning until June 21 as well – arguments for or against the site plan potentially bear on the rezoning decision.
The intimate connection between site plans and PUD (planned unit development) rezoning requests was the focus of much of the conversation at the caucus. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) pointed out that there was one exception she could think of to the connectedness between rezoning and site plan – the council had approved a PUD request for Casa Dominick’s [Oct. 19, 2009] without approving a site plan at the same time.
Typically the site plan is approved after a rezoning – but still at the same meeting. Briere asked Potts to explain why she felt that a two-week time difference, as opposed to the time difference internal to a single meeting, would be significant. Potts indicated that if the council passed the rezoning, they’d essentially have “no choice” but to pass the site plan, and delaying the vote by two weeks would amount to “pretending” that there is no site plan.
Potts also noted that pushing a decision to June 21 would mean that the council would be faced with deliberations on a proposed historic district for the area on the same evening – the first reading on the South Fifth/Fourth Avenue historic district is scheduled for June 21. [See Chronicle coverage: "S. Fifth Avenue: Historic District, Development"] Potts characterized the overlap as “awkward” – Heritage Row is located within the area that would become a historic district if the council approves the study committee’s recommendation. Briere observed that “Some people would say it’s poetic!”
Heritage Row: Merits of Project
Potts called on the council to have a deeper discussion on Heritage Row than the staff report and the planning commission’s deliberations had reflected – “give your reasons for voting one way or the other.”
On the question of how to evaluate the merits of a particular PUD proposal, Anglin pointed to his interest in certainty – he wanted to know that the project as described would actually be built.
Speaking to the substance of the Heritage Row project, Whitaker noted that one requirement of Ann Arbor’s PUD ordinance was that a project is not supposed to be detrimental to surrounding properties. Based on the shading study, he said, adjoining properties on William Street would be subject to shading. Whitaker used that to illustrate the connectedness of this particular rezoning request to the site plan: “You can’t tell [the shading] from the development agreement, but you can tell it from the site plan.”
Whitaker said he didn’t think the project met the high bar for public benefit described in the PUD ordinance – it offered less benefit than The Moravian, he said. [The Moravian was another residential development, proposed for a site on East Madison between South Fifth and Fourth avenues – the city council lacked sufficient votes to approve the project. See Chronicle coverage: "Six-Vote Majority Leaves The Moravian Short"]
Whitaker also reflected on the A2D2 rezoning process the city had recently completed and noted that the D2 zoning designation had been designed for interface areas between the core and the neighborhoods. De Parry’s Heritage Row project was more akin to a D2-like project than one in a residential neighborhood, he said. But no one had suggested that D2 should extend southward down Fifth Avenue, during the process of developing the A2D2 zoning for downtown.
If the idea was to stop suburban sprawl, said Whitaker, then there needed to be residential neighborhood options near to the core.
Munzel countered Whitaker’s remarks by saying that there was never any community consensus for density restricted just to the downtown. The Calthorpe process, which fed into the A2D2 rezoning effort, he said, had excluded the area outside the downtown for political reasons. However, the Downtown Residential Task Force, which was formed before the Calthorpe process began in 2005, had suggested that the focus of greater density include the area within a quarter mile of the downtown area. The reason the task force had reached that conclusion, he said, was because density is difficult to increase in the core.
Speaking to the issue of how the PUD ordinance is to be evaluated with respect to a project, Munzel characterized it essentially as “making legislation” which could be achieved by citing specific details or also by appeal to broad-based themes. A PUD, he said, was essentially a bargain struck between a municipality and a developer based on a good-faith argument that a project is better for the community.
Alex de Parry, the developer of Heritage Row, which has at least a two-year history, told Briere and Anglin that to him, the probable delay in the vote due to lack of proper noticing felt like a repeat of what had happened a year ago. On that occasion, the project – then called City Place – had come before the council for a vote, but it had been remanded back to the planning commission because of procedural mistakes on the part of city staff. [.txt of June 7 email sent by Alex de Parry to the city council concerning publication of notices]
Heritage Row: Window into Approval Process Procedure
Related to procedural issues, Munzel told Briere and Anglin that he was against the removal of specific time parameters from the approval process for site plans. The city planning commission has recently discussed timing as well as other issues in the approval process and made recommendations on them. [Chronicle coverage: "Planning Commission: A Matter of Timing"]
One of the procedural mistakes alluded to by de Parry was a requirement that the most recent up-to-date site plan drawings be publicly accessible 24/7 for a week before public hearings. Whitaker allowed that the 24/7 requirement was probably too stringent, but that the planning commission’s recommended language went “too far in the other direction.” Whitaker suggested that there needed to be some accommodation for accessibility after regular business hours. What the planning commission had recommended, he said, amounted to shrinking access to public information instead of expanding it.
Grass, Trees, Foliage
Kathy Griswold reported that she’d attended the recent meeting on the urban forest management plan. She described the meeting as facilitated by a consultant and that it had involved receiving input only in a very controlled fashion – participants had to answer the presenter’s questions using the presenter’s process. There were around 30 people at the meeting, she said. There’d been some discussion of revision to Chapter 40 of the city code.
Griswold said she’d attended the meeting from the perspective of foliage and interference with sight lines at intersections. Before the caucus, Griswold showed The Chronicle a video montage she’d put together of vegetation obscuring sight lines for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Related to the sight-line issue were 30 citations Griswold said the city had issued for day lilies growing in people’s lawn extensions [the area between the sidewalk and the street] – while the lilies were in bloom. It would make more sense, she said, to approach the issue with education, informing people before the spring what the rules are and then ask people to play by the rules.
Griswold contrasted enforcement of the ordinance that prohibits plants as tall as day lilies on lawn extensions, with the city’s approach to dealing with foliage that obstructs sight lines at intersections. The city would not deal with foliage at intersections, she said, even when complaints were made about it. [Griswold has set up a website on this issue: SeeKids.org]
The conversation at caucus then veered “into the weeds,” as people then talked about ways that people liked to keep their lawns and how that fit with the city’s ordinances. The question arose as to whether corn was a grass – because some people like to grow corn in their front yards or in their lawn extensions. John Floyd used a handheld mobile computing device to consult the Internet on the question – and yes, corn is in the grass family, according to Wikipedia, he reported.