Ann Arbor City Council meeting (June 21, 2010): Heritage Row is a proposed residential project that would have renovated seven older houses along South Fifth Avenue south of William Street, and constructed three new buildings behind the houses.
The number of houses to be renovated – called the “Seven Sisters” by some in the community who support their preservation – matched the number of votes the project received Monday night from the 11-member city council.
While that is a majority, the seven votes in favor of Heritage Row did not meet the eight-vote minimum that was required. The super-majority requirement came as a result of a protest petition that was successfully filed on the same day as the council’s last meeting, June 7. On that occasion, the council first considered this newest iteration of the project, but postponed it until their June 21 meeting.
The project rejected by the council on Monday in its 7-4 vote was a planned unit development (PUD), which would have required the city to amend its zoning. That leaves in play an already-approved earlier project at the same location, called City Place. City Place was authorized by the council last year as a “matter of right” (MOR) project – because it was judged to meet all applicable codes and zoning regulations.
The City Place (MOR) would demolish the seven houses and replace them with two apartment buildings separated by a parking lot. It’s a project that would be almost certainly denied by the city’s historic district commission – if a historic district were established in the area, as a study committee has recently recommended. The council is expected to make its final vote on the historic district at its July 6 meeting.
But the council gave its initial consideration to establishment of that historic district on Monday night. It’s more customary for councilmembers to vote for proposals on their first reading – to advance a proposal to a public hearing – even if they ultimately plan to vote against it. But Monday’s meeting saw three councilmembers already voting against establishing the district.
The council’s meeting also started off with the theme of historic preservation, as the city’s historic district commission presented its annual preservation awards.
In other business, the council gave a short extension to developer Village Green, which has an option-to-purchase agreement with the city for the city-owned parcel at First and Washington streets. The time for the extension is to be used to work with the city planning staff to put together milestones that need to be met.
Heritage Row is a residential project proposed for South Fifth Avenue that would renovate seven houses and construct three new 3.5-story apartment buildings behind those houses, with an underground parking garage. In total, there would be a maximum 82 apartments with no more than 163 bedrooms. The public hearings on both the site plan and the rezoning were continued from the council’s previous meeting on June 7. [Chronicle coverage of that meeting: "Heritage Row Likely to Need Super-Majority"]
Heritage Row: Public Hearings
Speaking during public commentary general time, Shirley Zempel began with a simple, “Hello, Mayor, hello council!” She told them she was back before them because once again the council was being asked to approve a construction project that was too big for the neighborhood. Alluding to the long timeline the project has traced in various iterations, Zempel said she wished the issue could be finally settled. She said she’d visited with developer Alex de Parry and he’d showed them some things he was going to change. But the problem, to her, is the increased density – traffic is going to be “messed up,” she said. She is skeptical, she said, that the tenants of the project would really ride the bus or use Zipcars – the tenants of the new project would have cars, she said.
Thomas Partridge noted that he’d stated his position on similar resolutions many times in the past – all rezoning requests need to require a significant amount of the housing to be affordable. The proposal before the council that night, Partridge said, failed to meet that standard and should be taken back to the drawing board.
Tom Luczak referred to Partridge’s speaking turn during general public commentary reserved time, when Partridge had measured time based on the start of the Obama administration. Luczak said it was possible to measure time based on the start of the Heritage Row project. “Let’s throw the dirt on this thing,” Luczak said. He told the council he wanted to make a few points in defense of zoning. He took a walk from the south of downtown through the downtown to the area north of downtown, he said, and it was striking that there was a clear difference as he walked through these areas.
Zoning, Luczak said, reflected the collective value judgment of how we want to live. The city council is the final adjudicator of a PUD proposal like Heritage Row, which entails a rezoning. It’s only justified, he said, if the value outweighs the detriment to the surrounding neighbors. Density could be achieved on any number of other parcels around town, he said – 40 paces away in the actual downtown, not just near the downtown. For example, he said, Zaragon Place 2 is a project he supports, be cause it’s located in the downtown, where it belongs. [Zaragon Place 2 is a 14-story apartment building proposed for the southeast corner of Thompson and William streets, and was recently approved by the city planning commission.]
Patricia Lesko introduced herself as a candidate for mayor. She said she wanted to talk to the council about zoning. She said she had been riding her bike home and that a neighbor had flagged her down who lived in the area of the location where the Near North development is being proposed. The neighbors had not so much agreed to support that development, she contended, as given up on believing local government would enforce its own zoning. They had given up on the people they looked to to enforce what should be clear-cut zoning rules. Projects like Near North, The Moravian, and Heritage Row, she said, were similar in that they reflected zoning by exception – we were intruding into those neighborhoods and it was upsetting, she said.
The neighbor Lesko said she’d spoken with asked, Why buy a house in a neighborhood that abuts downtown, if we can’t rely on local government to enforce zoning? If we want to have greater density, Lesko continued, we need to have an open and frank discussion about dense development in “fringe neighborhoods.” She said that the discussion should not be about NIMBYs, which would make it personal, but rather about zoning. Planned unit developments are zoning by exception and by favor, she concluded, and we need to think very carefully about that.
Kyle Mazurek, vice president of government affairs for the Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Area Regional Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of Heritage Row. Among the reasons he cited were that it supported goals of the chamber: higher density development, support for development of multiple modes of transit, increasing the supply of workforce housing, increasing the supply of parking with 60 underground spaces. He cited the plaza that would be available for public art. He also cited the provision of critical tax revenue to the city. The project, he concluded, was consistent with the goals of the general community.
Gwen Nystuen announced that she was there for the neighborhoods. She said that everyone who lived close to the center of the city had pressure on them for development of that land. The Heritage Row area was already zoned R4C, which was already dense – why was a PUD necessary? she asked. It was a way to get around zoning, she said. In the interest of maintaining the neighborhoods, she urged the council to reject the project.
Bob Dascola told the council that his family had been in business for 70 years in Ann Arbor. He watched urban sprawl take over. He used to live on Fifth Avenue, he said, and had friends who lived there. They always spoke of living downtown, he said. He described Heritage Row as a creative project that would support more people living downtown.
Rita Mitchell said that she was pleased to see the historic district commission awards. She noted that the recent A2D2 rezoning of downtown did not include designation for higher zoning for the site of Heritage Row. She felt that it was important to have the information about the proposed historic district in the area before having the discussion about the Heritage Row PUD. She asked the council to defer action on it, or else deny it. Once a historic building is gone, she cautioned, it is lost forever.
Ellen Ramsburgh, who had presented the historic district commission awards at the start of the council’s meeting, said that the standards for approving a PUD were high and that the project had not met them. She also contended that the intended preservation of the seven houses as part of the project would not comply with the Secretary of the Interior standards for historic preservation – due to the moving of foundations and the removal of additions. The planned buildings in back of the seven houses, she said, would be a detriment.
Joe Ferrario urged the council to support the project. He noted that over the next 30 years, the population of Ann Arbor was projected to grow by only around 500 people, but was projected to add 18,000 jobs. Mindful of all the traffic that US-23 fed into Ann Arbor, he cautioned that sometime in the future we’d be talking about a proposed Heritage Row parking structure. Students already live in the neighborhood, he pointed out. Nothing deteriorates the character of a neighborhood more, he cautioned, than crumbling infrastructure – potholes that aren’t filled, trash that’s not collected, and snow that’s not plowed. He said he hoped the council would support the project and others like it, because it is the only way that Ann Arbor can become a real city.
Alex de Parry began by thanking the full range of people involved in the project – planning staff, city councilmembers and neighbors – for their input on it. He noted that he’d lived in Ann Arbor since the early 1970s and he’d seen the area improve since that time when he’d begun buying property there. During many meetings with neighbors, other citizens, planning staff and the city planning commission, he said, six main goals had emerged:
- Keep existing houses – the Heritage Row project does that, he said.
- Keep density close to the same density allowed under code, the density allowed for the matter-of-right project, which had 144 bedrooms in 24 6-bedroom units. Heritage Row, de Parry said, is a mix of efficiencies, 1-bedroom units, 2-bedroom units, 3-bedroom units, plus one 5-bedroom unit that’s already present in an existing house. The unit count is 79, he said, but the bedroom count is 154, or 10 more than what the matter-of-right project had. Fourteen of those units, he said, were designated for affordable housing.
- Have adequate parking and keep it underground – the project has 60 underground parking spaces, which represents a 40% increase over the requirement of R4C requirement of 36 spaces. By putting the parking underground, he said, 53% open space would be achieved, including a public plaza.
- The new buildings should be background buildings behind the houses.
When it was her turn to take the podium, Betsy de Parry, wife of Alex de Parry, picked up on the list of goals where her husband had left off:
- Keep the height of the new buildings in scale with existing buildings – across the street, the church stands 60 feet tall, and Tom Whitaker’s house stands 44 feet 3 inches tall, she noted. At 39.625 feet, Heritage Row was shorter than both of those buildings and therefore consistent with the existing scale.
- Keep total massing consistent with what would be allowable under existing zoning – R4C would allow a total of 96,000 square feet, she said, whereas the PUD proposal would occupy only 75,882 square feet in both the new buildings and the existing houses.
She summarized the city’s central area plan by saying that Heritage Row is consistent with its stated goals – it’s consistent with the scale, height, and character of the neighborhood; it protects and enhances the existing houses and streetscape; and expands the supply of housing near downtown. The future land use map, she said, specifically designates the area for higher density. The reason Heritage Row exceeds the density allowable by code is because it includes affordable housing units, she said. The planning staff had verified that the project is consistent with the city’s planning documents, she said.
What Heritage Row does, essentially, is change what’s behind the houses, which are parking lots – and “there’s nothing sacred about parking lots,” she concluded.
Scott Betzoldt of Midwestern Consulting, civil engineer for the project, described it as a challenging project from a civil engineering point of view – challenges associated with providing modern utilities to seven existing houses. But he characterized the project as now conceived as something that was typical of the Ann Arbor feel that people have come to know and enjoy. Among the benefits were the preservation of the seven houses and provision of underground parking. Currently, he said, there were seven driveways and curbcuts along with seven different parking arrangements on gravel lots and the like. The existing spaces would be moved underground along with 30 additional spaces, he said, for a total of 62 spaces. Associated with the underground parking, he said, was an increase in the amount of usable open space – 53% of the area. Environmental benefits to the project include taking in stormwater from offsite as well as management of stormwater onsite – there currently is no stormwater management.
David Birchler, a city planning consultant with Birchler Arroyo Associates, addressed the project in the context of various city plans and policies – the central area plan, the downtown residential task force report and various provisions of the PUD ordinance. Many of the goals of the central area plan designed to affect density and affordability, he said, are furthered by Heritage Row: the development of new architecture that complements the scale and character of the existing neighborhood, to protect and maintain the diversity of housing options, to expand the supply of housing to meet a variety of lifestyles and incomes, to increase the availability of low-income rentals, to facilitate private initiatives to increase rental opportunities, and to improve the appearance of buildings and grounds to enhance the appearance of the neighborhood.
The downtown residential task force, Birchler said, had studied an area that includes the Heritage Row site – the area located within a 1/4 mile of the Downtown Development Authority boundary. The goal spelled out in the report, he said, was 1,000 new units of housing near the downtown. Heritage Row contributes to the goal in a way that is consistent with the task force recommendations, he concluded. With respect to the PUD regulations, the Heritage Row project encourages innovation in land use and design, achieves economy and efficiency in the use of land, encourages usable open space, provides adequate housing options suitable to the demands of Ann Arbor and expands the supply of affordable housing. Heritage Row provides opportunities suitable for those people who would choose a less automobile-oriented lifestyle, he said. The project would help cultivate a new model for in-town residential projects that’s sensitive to the quality that Ann Arbor deserves, the affordability it needs and the commitment to historic preservation that it demands.
Bradley Moore is the architect for the project. He described Heritage Row as an infill project that preserves the existing streetscape, while permitting construction of three new apartment buildings behind the existing houses. The new buildings are designed to be background buildings, and to be consistent with the scale of the other buildings in the area. The new buildings were not taller, from the ground to the top of the roof, of existing houses on the site, not taller than other houses on Fifth Avenue, not as tall as the Washtenaw Building less than a block away, not as tall as the public library also less than a block away, and not as tall as some of the houses found on Hamilton Place.
The footprint of the proposed new north building is only 5,200 square feet, compared with 22,000 of the existing house at 415 S. Fifth, Bradley stated. The other two new buildings have footprints of 3,200 and 3,000 respectively, a total of 11,400 for new construction, plus a combined footprint of 13,100 for existing buildings. The new buildings don’t loom over the neighborhood, he said. The materials had been chosen in a way to respect the aesthetic of the existing neighborhood. The architecture of the new buildings has been designed so as not to compete with the existing surrounding architecture, he said, and to blend into the background. They would be constructed to comply with EPA Energy Star standards, which means that they’ll be 20-30% more efficient than a standard building.
The shading studies that had been done, Moore explained, showed that no significant shadows would be cast on buildings to the south, west, or east of the site, and that the existing building to the north of the site would be only modestly shadowed and only for part of the year. Moore said that the project would not shade its neighbors more than Tom Whitaker’s home shaded Tom Luzcak’s house next door.
John Dziurman introduced himself as a historic preservation architect by trade, certified as a historic architect by the state and the federal government. He said he’d served on the historic district commission of Rochester Hills, Mich. since 1987. His role in the Heritage Row project, he explained, was in connection with the preservation of the seven houses and the streetscape, and he’d evaluated the entire proposal with respect to the Secretary of the Interior standards. He stated that the project was consistent with the historic preservation theme in the city’s central area plan.
The seven houses would be restored in accordance with the historic standards for the period of historical significance as determined by the historic district study committee, which was 1838-1941. That would include the removal of some rear additions, Dziurman said. Five of the seven houses would be moved forward, he explained, in order to facilitate construction of the underground parking garage and to comply with the 19-foot setback. He allowed that moving a historic resource is discouraged, but noted that the standards allow it if the structure is primarily of historical significance due to its architectural value, or its association with a historic person or event. Buildings are allowed to be moved, he said, if doing so will preserve the building. After restoration, he said, the seven homes would be repainted with historically correct colors. The elimination of onsite surface parking, through construction of the underground parking garage, he said, was also consistent with historic restoration standards.
Dziurman also spoke at the site plan public hearing on Heritage Row. He noted that he’d served for 20 years on the historic district commission of Rochester Hills and told the council that he’d seen many cases where they’d actually lost their resources. In Rochester Hills, the council would turn down historic preservation in favor of development. One strategy he used, he said, was to allow development but to require preservation of historic buildings. He then said he was not sure if he should say it, but added that building underground parking is very, very expensive, as is preserving seven historic houses.
It’s not a big money-maker for anyone, Dziurman said. So there has to be a little give-and-take by the community. Any one of the houses would cost at least $100,000 to restore, or probably more. If you multiply that by seven houses, and look at the cost per space of building underground parking spaces, he said, you could see how the restoration of the seven houses was a good deal for everybody. Otherwise, he feared that the historic resources would be lost. In Rochester Hills, he’d seen that happen, he said.
Bob Snyder, introduced himself as representing the South University Neighborhood Association. He characterized the situation as a “stalemate” that was not a win-win for anyone. He described the seven houses as having lost all vestige of their architectural integrity. With or without Heritage Row, he said, the seven houses have, for the last two-thirds of their lives, been “savaged and pillaged” all in the name of student housing. Both de Parry and the Germantown neighbors, he said, were being ill-served by the lack of coherence in the administration of the city’s zoning laws. Whichever side wins, he said, it will be a hollow victory.
What needs to happen, Snyder said, is for people to lay down arms and make something good happen that might not be perfect. Snyder appealed to the notion of the Pareto optimality, which is an economic state when no one can be made better off by making someone else worse off. It would take eight votes to approve it, or five [sic] to shoot it down, he said. He suggested that the councilmembers should make sure they’d taken a walking tour of the “crime scene” before making their decision. He concluded that he was neither for or against Heritage Row, but encouraged the council to act as a well-prepared jury before “sticking it to either side.”
Scott Munzel introduced himself as legal counsel for the Fifth Avenue Limited Partnership, the owner of the Heritage Row project. He noted that a PUD is a rezoning, and therefore a “legislative act.” There is, therefore, no higher standard for PUD approval. Also under state law, a PUD is separate from all the others and any decision on a PUD would not set a precedent for any future proposals. Munzel pointed out how the planning staff report details how the project meets the eight criteria outlined in the PUD ordinance. The first criteria is the beneficial effect. Among the effects listed are innovation in land use and variety in design, efficient land use, and expansion of affordable housing inventory. Heritage Row met the standard by innovatively unlocking the hidden area of these unusually large lots, he said, in a way that conformed with the central area plan and the downtown residential task force recommendations. Increased urban density, he said, was an environmental imperative.
Heritage Row is “doubly green” because it increases the energy efficiency of the existing houses, and provides new construction that was in virtue of its location environmentally sound – cutting vehicle miles traveled and allowing residents to walk to work, Munzel said. It also provides affordable and moderately-priced units which would ultimately help downtown succeed. A second PUD standard is whether the project could be achieved under a different zoning class. Other zoning classes, he said, are too rigid to allow this project’s design. A third PUD standard is conformance with the city’s master plan, which has been confirmed by the city’s planning staff, Munzel said. A fourth PUD standard is to eliminate disturbance of historical features. Munzel stated that the project advances the historical preservation goals of the city – it’s “historic preservation plus,” he said. Heritage Row, Munzel concluded, does meet the standard. The concerns of the neighbors, he said, boil down to the neighbors not liking change. It takes courage to face our future challenges, he said, but he thought that city residents had the courage to face them.
David Peters introduced himself as an architect and planner who has worked and lived in the community for 50 years. He said he supported Heritage Row. The renovation of the seven houses would enhance and improve the value of the current neighborhood, he said. He said he’d walked the site and driven by the site. The existing rooflines and structures of the seven houses would minimize the view of the proposed new buildings behind the existing houses. He urged the council to agree with the planning commission and to approve the project.
Peter Webster, an attorney with Dickinson Wright, described the Heritage Row proposal as an alternative to the matter-of-right site plan that has already been approved by the city council, and would remain if the PUD is not approved. The main characteristic of the PUD proposal is the preservation of the seven existing houses, he said. He commented on the compliance of the proposal with the city’s planning documents and the downtown residential task force report. The goal, he said, is to increase the amount and the density of housing – that is achieved by Heritage Row, he said, but in a balanced way.
It increases the amount of allowed density only slightly above that which is allowed by the matter-of-right project, Webster noted. The project also overcomes the challenges inherent in the location of the site, he said, noting the underground parking, plus the lack of any increased burden to the infrastructure. The tie-ins for water and sewer plus the stormwater management were significant upgrades to the infrastructure, he said. Two items in the downtown residential task force report highlighted by Webster as challenges were (i) zoning as a barrier to innovative site plans; and (ii) the lack of open space. Heritage Row, he said, attempted to meet the first challenge by asking for a rezoning, and met the second by providing for additional open space.
Anne Eisen spoke about zoning and in support of long-term planning. The question is whether to rezone half a block on Fifth Street, she said. The area is separated from downtown by an existing historic district along William Street, she said, and the current zoning of R4C had been in place for 50 years.
The city’s long-term planning documents have recommended maintaining preservation of the scale and character of the neighborhood, Eisen said. The R4C zoning had not been modified to accommodate that recommendation, she said. When the historic designation of houses in the area was lost [in the Draprop court case, which disallowed the creation of a catchall historic district of various individual, unrelated properties], Eisen said, residents tried but failed to restore the houses’ historic designation. The new A2D2 rezoning, she said, recognized the appeal of the historic neighborhoods in making Ann Arbor special and attractive. The neighborhood had spent three years under siege from those want to “mow down the neighborhood” to build inappropriate structures.
Eisen also spoke during the public hearing on the site plan for Heritage Row. She said she’d been involved in the negotiations with Alex de Parry, and said that it had come a really long way since the original City Place proposal. She appreciated very much that he’d respected the request that the houses be preserved and agreed herself that there were additions that had been put on the houses that should be removed. She said she was not sure that some of the additions were structurally sound. She felt that the possibility should be respected that the historic district could be established. As for the proposed new buildings, she said that an honest height comparison needed to be made between the height of those buildings with long flat roofs versus houses with peaked roofs.
Al McWilliams told the council he’d lived within a few blocks of the neighborhood for 10 years and supported the project. He said it was not an age issue – he employs 10 professionals downtown from 19-45 years old, all of whom need places to live, he said. He had lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and was tired of paying $1,000 a month for a “wall-to-wall barf pit” – he told the council he’d let them figure out what that meant.
Alluding to previous speakers who’d noted the exact height of his house, Tom Whitaker began by quipping that there must have been a lot of people over at his house with ladders. One thing about his house, he said, however tall it is, it’s not 100 feet long, and that’s the difference. In January 2009, as the City Place iteration of the PUD had moved its way through the city’s planning process, a member of the city planning commission had sent a letter to the city council, Whitaker said. He wanted to highlight some of its points.
Noting that the site in question is zoned R4C and therefore creates specific limits on density, the letter goes on to say that the central area plan could not be clearer on the point of the need to protect, preserve, and enhance the character of the neighborhoods. It was not a question of preserving historic homes, but rather one of making sure that infill development is consistent with maintaining scale and existing density.
The goal of PUD zoning, the letter said, was not to allow for a dramatic percentage increase in density in exchange for other benefits. The letter refers to a “bargain” made with residents over the course of the years-long planning process connected to rezoning – there would be increased density in the core that would help protect the integrity of near-downtown residential neighborhoods. If that end of the bargain was not maintained, the letter warned, the fallout could jeopardize future consideration of increased density anywhere near established neighborhoods.
Whitaker reminded the council that the council had rejected the City Place PUD on a 10-0 vote and contended that Heritage Row is no improvement. City Place had 90 units, 164 bedrooms and 97 parking spaces. It had 14 affordable units plus 38 more affordable units at a higher rental rate, plus geothermal HVAC. Heritage Row, on the other hand, has 82 units with 163 bedrooms, 60 parking spaces, and 14 affordable units, but no geothermal system. There’s been no compromise, he concluded, and that’s why he is still opposed to the project.
Ray Detter asked the council to reject the project. Although he is the president of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, he said he was speaking only for himself, because the project was a situation outside the downtown area. Detter said that his position is that if a PUD is opposed by a clear majority of residents in the neighborhood, then it should not be forced upon people. He also noted that he is not opposed to projects inside the downtown that increase density, like Zaragon Place 2. Referring to the citations of the downtown residential task force report, which many who had already spoken in support of Heritage Row had cited, Detter noted that the report had not advocated “ripping out” sections of the area near downtown. He’d attended every one of the meetings of the task force, he said. Detter also asked that the council establish a historic district for the area.
Detter also spoke during the public hearing on the site plan for Heritage Row. He noted that he lives in a house zoned R4C abutting a D1-zoned area. Even D1, he said, does not allow development without a 30-foot setback next to R4C. And then at the 30-foot height, D1 buildings need to step back further, he said.
The Heritage Row project, he noted, allows for only 13-15 feet of a setback and then goes straight up to 39 feet. Detter noted that he’d attended all the meetings of the R4C task force that is currently studying the R4C zoning code – he contended that those who’ve attended the meetings are in favor of keeping things the way they are, to the point of opposing the combination of parcels, as the Heritage Row project does. He allowed that Heritage Row is better than the previous proposals.
Following Detter at the mic during the site plan hearing was Alex de Parry, who told Detter, who was seated behind the podium, that he’d also attended the R4C task force meetings. He told Detter he saw the density question somewhat differently. As de Parry was not facing the podium, Detter admonished him that he needed to speak into the microphone. Continuing, this time speaking into the mic, de Parry observed that allowable density in R4C zoning is greater than what people think. On Hamilton Place there were small lots with large houses – it is extremely dense. The density on the Heritage Row site, he said, was allowed to be 144 bedrooms under R4C zoning. The Heritage Row PUD asked for 154 bedrooms. Of the 79 units, 14 were affordable units. If the affordable unit were subtracted out, the proposed density is would be less than what’s allowed by the existing R4C zoning.
Bradley Moore also addressed the council during the site plan hearing in order to respond to some of Detter’s comments. Moore noted that he had served on the citizens advisory committee on the A2D2 rezoning project for the zoning overlay committee. He said that Detter was correct about the need for setback in D1 areas, but that it was motivated by the fact that in D1 it is possible to do a whole host of other things – it’s for the core of downtown. In D1 zoning, you’re looking at buildings in excess of 150 feet, so it is an entirely different situation that motivates the need for setbacks. The reduced distance in setback to 15 feet, he said, was appropriate to a residential-residential interface and to a three-story building as opposed to a 150-foot-tall building. He also adduced the real-world example of the Washtenaw Building on William Street, which was much longer than the three proposed new buildings, yet did not destroy the character of Hamilton Place.
Beverly Strassmann, who is president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, said that the bottom line is that Heritage Row will “wreck” the 400 block of South Fifth Avenue in the same way that the omission of the 500 block of South Fifth Avenue from the proposed historic district will wreck that block. Instead of wrecking both those blocks, she asked the council to reject Heritage Row and to add the intact historic 500 block of South Fifth Avenue to the recommended historic district. Strassmann indicated that she felt like the project would be acceptable if the new buildings had one story knocked off of them – as they were currently designed, they could not hide behind the houses.
Lou Glorie, who is contesting Carsten Hohnke’s Ward 5 city council seat in the Democratic primary, told the council she hoped that they would reject the project. She said the benefits don’t outweigh the detriments, and it would set a precedent that is damaging. She also said that the decision should not be made in advance of the decision on the establishment of a historic district.
Heritage Row: Council Deliberations
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) led off deliberations on Heritage Row with a suggestion of an amendment to the development agreement to make clear that if the PUD request were granted, the matter-of-right project that had been previously approved could not be built. The amendment, as read aloud by assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald, stated that the supplemental regulations would apply to the property, “including any previously approved development for the property.”
Outcome: The amendment ruling out the matter-of-right project on approval of the PUD was unanimously passed.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) then led off a discussion of the public plaza area. She wanted to know how visible the area would be and how accessible to the public it would be. Bradley Moore, the architect for the project, used the poster of the site plan to indicate how it was situated – there would be no gate, he said, but it would likely be differentiated through use of different colored pavers. Moore indicated that he thought it would be accessible to the public and no one would be asked to leave unless they presented themselves as a nuisance.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) followed up on the public plaza issue by comparing the project with Ashley Mews – that project actually has a public easement, he said. Would Heritage Row have a public easement for the plaza? Developer Alex de Parry indicated that it would be accessible to the public and that if it were not already in the supplemental regulations, it could be added.
Kevin McDonald, assistant city attorney, indicated that he was not aware of anything in the supplemental regulations that addressed a public easement. Wendy Rampson, head of planning for the city, indicated that the planning commission was presented with an accessible amenity, but not a public amenity.
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) confirmed with Rampson that the public plaza was a non-trivial, important part of the open space, that was included in the claimed benefits of the project. He noted that it was a benefit to the residents, but not the public. De Parry responded by saying that it was his intent to have a public plaza with public art. If the supplemental regulations needed to be fine-tuned, he said, that’s fine: “Whatever I gotta do, we’ll do it.”
Hohnke said it felt like déjà vu all over again. He said he appreciated the effort on the part of the developer. A place of agreement Hohnke identified was that the city should tread lightly when rezoning a central part of a neighborhood. One-off exceptions, he said, should provide significant benefits, noting that the historic district study committee had indicated that the houses were historic resources. He noted that for the previous PUD, City Place, the staff report had warned that it would set a precedent that is attractive to targeting R4C zoned neighborhoods for development. The same things that were true of the previous report are also true of the current proposal, Hohnke said. The number of bedrooms had dropped from 164 to 163, he said, and the setbacks for the current project were smaller. For the previous project, Hohnke said, the staff recommendation against it and the council’s 10-0 vote against it showed that the benefits offered were not sufficient.
Hohnke contended that they were still left with a “benefit gap.” The number of parking spaces had dropped from 97 to 60; the affordable housing units offered in the previous project had been 52, as compared to 14 in the current project; the geothermal heating and cooling system had dropped to Energy Star buildings. The project offered reduced benefits with the same density, said Hohnke. The big difference, he allowed, was that the project no longer sought to demolish seven houses – that covered some but not all of the benefit gap.
Hohnke said he was surprised at how often density is quoted as a benefit. Most people are supportive of downtown density, he allowed, but by community consensus and by the city’s planning documents, Heritage Row is not a part of the downtown, Hohnke said. As you walk through the downtown into the residential neighborhoods, he said, it was clear that there’s a boundary, Hohnke said, and it’s fair to have a discussion about whether it’s a living boundary. But Hohnke contended that we haven’t had that discussion.
Hohnke expressed concern that the vote would be seen as a litmus test for supporting downtown residential density. [Hohnke Whoever wins the Ward 5 Democratic primary will likely face an independent challenge from real estate broker and DDA board member Newcombe Clark in November, based in part on a campaign that is more supportive of development than Hohnke has been during his first two years on the city council.] Hohnke’s defense of the council’s record on development included essentially the same list, with some additions, that he’d read aloud at a recent meeting between members of the DDA board and city councilmembers [Chronicle coverage: "Parking Deal Talks Open Between City, DDA"]
- 14 stories at S. Forest & S. University [601 S. Forest]
- 9 stories at Washington & Division [Metro 202]
- 5 stories at Liberty & First
- 10 stories S. University & E. University [Zaragon Place]
- 9 stories at First & Washington [Village Green's City Apartments]
- 4 stories at Liberty near Division
- 5 stories on N. Main near Summit [Near North]
- 9 stories at Kingsley & Ashley [Kingsley Lane]
- 8 stories at Maynard & William [The Collegian]
- 8 stories at State & Washington [411 Lofts]
- 8 stories at Washington & Ashley [Tierra on Ashley]
- 11 stories at Ashley & Huron [Ashley Terrace]
- 11 stories on North Main near Catherine [The Gallery]
- 12 stories at Main & William [William Street Station]
- and probably 14 stories at William & Thompson [Zaragon Place 2]
Because of all those approved projects, Hohnke said, the community’s commitment to downtown residential density and change was not hanging in the balance.
He came to the conclusion that the Heritage Row PUD did not meet the threshold for benefits, especially at that location.
Derezinski said he’d come to the opposite conclusion from Hohnke’s. He noted that he’d gotten a double-dose of the project – it had been around since he’d been on council and he was appointed as the council’s representative to the planning commission. He said he felt that the project had been modified to accommodate criticisms. He then ticked through some of the history of how the matter-of-right project had been introduced and the historic district study committee had been appointed with an associated moratorium to prevent the demolition of the seven houses.
Derezinski echoed the sentiments of Bob Dascola during public commentary, and called it one of the most creative projects he’d seen. It had been fine-tuned in response to input from the neighborhood, like the Near North project, he said. He compared the situation to the Peanuts comic strip where Lucy is holding the football for Charlie Brown – at some point you have to let him kick the ball, he said. The distinction of downtown versus non-downtown was not one that Derezinski felt was valid with respect to density.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) said he wanted to join Hohnke in congratulating the people who had contributed to the dialogue during the long process. He noted that de Parry has maintained a strong sense of humor, and he applauded de Parry for that. Anglin put his comments in the context of “social capital” – a person’s home in the context of their social neighborhood are a part of that. It applies in particular to neighborhoods, Anglin said.
Anglin said he did not feel that the council would be protecting the public welfare with this project. He did not find a compelling justification, he said, for the project. He did not feel “dragged to” that decision. A hypothetical example of a compelling justification, he said, might be if there were an abandoned factory at the location and the owners did not want to take it down. If the owner came back and said that he wanted to demolish the factory and create a park, that would be a compelling reason for a change. Heritage Row, however, did not provide for a change that he was “absolutely thrilled with.”
Anglin speculated that the places where zoning would be challenged were the older parts of the city first – in 50 years he figured there might be debate over what should happen to Briarwood Mall. Maybe the affordable housing for the city would be built outside of downtown. He stated that people were obsessed with the idea that the downtown had to become a “major place.” Maybe that’s a place where affordable housing can be built, he said.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) alluding to the lengthy speaking turns of those who’d already spoken, asked mayor John Hieftje to enforce the time limits on councilmember speaking turns – five minutes for their first turn on an item and three minutes for their second turn.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) began by describing PUDs as a tool – it allows something to happen that doesn’t quite fit into existing zoning. With R4C, she said, it was somewhat problematic, because what actually fit is not always pleasing. They tend to be big blocky buildings with six-bedroom units. She stated that she did not want it to be the case that the city’s development strategy tended towards having only a wealthy downtown. She said she was for a diversity of housing stock and different levels of affordability.
Smith said she did not want it to be the case that only the wealthy could live downtown. She echoed Derezinski’s points. She also pointed out that Heritage Row offered an opportunity to preserve the houses, and she did not see any other way for that to happen. Restoration of the houses could proceed only by someone purchasing each of them and deciding to renovate them – that would set up an elite neighborhood, she said. She concluded that she was willing to support the project – neither side was particularly happy, she said.
Margie Teall (Ward 4) characterized her thinking on the project as a “back-and-forth struggle.” Addressing Hohnke’s benefit gap, she said she felt that the gap had been crossed. She indicated that there was a high emotional attachment to the houses across the city – she found the restoration of the houses to be a benefit. She called the underground parking “terrific.” Alluding to the parking lots currently behind the houses where the new buildings would be constructed, she observed that living in an area where backyards are graveled is not a benefit. She allowed that Zaragon Place 2 was in the right place, but that it would not be cheap to live there, which is something that Heritage Row might offer. She concluded that she would support Heritage Row.
Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said he would be supporting the project and that he adopted the planning staff’s review of benefits. He cited specifically the use of the backyard space as innovative, the use of the existing buildings, and the introduction of additional open space. He said he took very seriously the objections of those who had addressed the council.
In his view, Taylor indicated that some of the things he’d heard that night suggested that the project was not so far from the character of the existing neighborhood. Specifically, he alluded to a comment from someone [from Beverly Strassmann] who had suggested that the project would be acceptable if it had one story lopped off the rear buildings. That indicated to Taylor, he said, that “we’re pretty close with this thing.”
The current matter-of-right R4C project allows 144 beds, and the 163 beds offered by Heritage Row was very close to “where R4C lands us,” he said. He also noted the presence of the Washtenaw Building on William Street. All of these factors, Taylor said, suggested to him that the project was “not out of the heartland of the neighborhood” and that the neighborhood could “bear it.” The neighborhood was a “contradictory” neighborhood on the edge and takes elements of downtown and residential and marries them together in a useful and innovative way, concluded Taylor. He said he’d be supporting the project.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) began by saying he would not be supporting the project. He referenced Hohnke’s argument about the failure to meet the standard of benefit. Kunselman observed that the project offered housing – but housing is built all across the city. Just because the buildings are in the backyards of some historic houses doesn’t make it a public benefit. He expressed dismay that the project had made its way all the way through the planning commission and to the council table without the public easement being included in the supplemental regulations.
Kunselman expressed concern at hearing de Parry talk about buying the parcels since the 1970s, as if it was part of a plan to tear the houses down and build an apartment building. He suggested that the houses could be rehabilitated by having their old additions torn off and have new additions added – as opposed to constructing new buildings in the backyard.
One of the awards handed out by the historic district commission that evening, said Kunselman, was for a duplex that had been converted back to a single-family home. That was still possible, he said. The houses would not be torn down because of the temporary moratorium and if a historic district is established they will also not be torn down.
Kunselman said that a city that destroys its character by putting houses behind houses doesn’t always realize its density goals.
Note: During his election campaign, Kunselman had stated that he was against “backyard development.” From The Chronicle’s report of the July 11, 2009 city Democratic Party candidate forum:
The big thing for me about density of our community is that our downtown can obtain some greater density, but our neighborhoods need to be protected. And I think my record is pretty clear on that. I have fought hard for the changes to prevent backyard development – or make it much more difficult, I should say – to do backyard development in our neighborhoods. Particularly, in the neighborhood where I grew up, where we had three-quarter acre lots and developers could then come in and buy it and start building houses behind houses. Those are subdivisions, those areas need to be protected, and I understand the great concern that neighborhoods have, especially in our urban ring, are feeling about this idea of what density means.
Kunselman noted that many of the projects that Hohnke had listed off he was proud to say he’d voted for – so he was not concerned about achieving downtown density. He also questioned how affordable the units would be in Heritage Row, noting that they’d just heard someone from the developer’s team [John Dziurman] say that it was very expensive to renovate houses and to build underground parking. Maybe 14 of the units might be cheap, Kunselman said, but what about the rest?
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) began by saying she would not support the project. She said that the PUD was something that allowed the city and developers some flexibility to accomplish projects that were not otherwise possible. She noted that the report from the downtown residential task force – which several supporters of the project had cited – was one of several planning documents used by the city. The study area included a 1/4 mile band around the DDA area. She read aloud a passage from page 10:
The Task Force spent a great deal of time discussing the importance of adjacent neighborhoods to the downtown. The task force felt that adjacent neighborhoods should be preserved and supported. Although these neighborhoods are outside of the DDA district, many residents of these neighborhoods consider themselves to be “living downtown.”
As one strategy for increasing density, the task force report goes on to suggest that the city council consider a revision to the city’s accessory dwelling unit ordinance. That was the way the task force’s report suggested increasing density in the near downtown neighborhoods, Briere said, not through PUD rezoning like Heritage Row.
On page 16 of the report, she said, the task force identifies zoning as a possible barrier to density:
[...] zoning changes and development must be undertaken carefully to reaffirm the Downtown Plan goals of protecting the near-downtown neighborhoods and recognizing the transition in intensity, building scale and height on neighborhood edges, the Task Force recommends some change to almost every existing zoning district within the near downtown area.
But Briere pointed out that the task force pointedly recommended leaving R4C alone. And the areas near downtown where the task force had identified as possibly supporting greater density – the North Main corridor and commercial nodes like Packard & State – did not include the Heritage Row site, she said.
Examining the PUD ordinance language, Briere observed that the land itself was not difficult to build on. She noted that the public plaza was not actually available to the public.
Hewing to Higgins’ earlier request that time limits be enforced, Hieftje informed Briere that her five minutes were up – but suggested she might continue, using her second speaking turn of three minutes. To that, Briere declared cheerily, “Oh, no, that would be so wrong, and I would hate to disappoint councilmember Higgins.”
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) said he found himself in agreement with the planning staff report. It strikes a balance between the look and charm that people want to maintain in the area, while providing a diversity of housing stock. He supported the addition of workforce-type housing, which is needed near downtown. The underground parking is also a plus, he said. He was struck by the fact that R4C would allow for more square footage to be built on those parcels, which he said nobody wants to see.
For his part, Hieftje first confirmed with the Kevin McDonald, assistant city attorney, that if the Heritage Row project were approved, it would no longer be possible to build the matter-of-right City Place project.
Hieftje characterized Heritage Row as “more palatable” than the matter-of-right project. If a historic district were not enacted, he said, de Parry could build that project. Hieftje said he was largely in agreement with Hohnke’s list of approved developments. He said he was torn, but would support the project based on the idea that the matter-of-right project would be built if no historic district is established.
Taking his second speaking turn, Hohnke said he feared it would set a precedent for other developers – building something would be okay as long as the houses are not demolished. He also noted that the amount of affordable housing that’s offered is only 14 units and that it’s located in an area that has not been identified as in need of additional affordable housing.
Kunselman then raised some doubt as to how he’d vote – a switch to yes from no by Kunselman would have given Heritage Row the eight votes it needed for approval.
He noted that he was the only councilmember who was not serving when the matter-of-right project was approved, so he wanted some description of it. Hieftje told him that it was “blockish” in nature and that it would replace the seven houses instead of restoring them.
While Kunselman mulled the matter-of-right, Briere noted that the developer for The Moravian had studied previous PUDs in the city – and that meant that future developers would look at the council’s words and actions on this decision. Is the accumulation of lots and building buildings behind buildings appropriate for infill development to increase density? Is that our intent? she asked. There were seven individual lots that were likely not appropriately zoned R4C, but were accumulated – not through a legal prescription, but merely for the purposes of this development. The lots have to be combined for the development to work, but they’re not legally one lot today. It was a question of whether we want to do that, she said.
In response to Briere’s hinting that a decision about a PUD represented a precedent of some kind, Hieftje elicited from McDonald the explanation that a decision on a PUD was a legislative decision, and did not have “precedential value.”
Responding to earlier points that only 14 units would be affordable, Smith pointed out that there was a difference between workforce housing and elite housing. She said she wanted to see a diversity in housing options. She noted that she was able to count and realized that it would have to be sent back to the drawing board. She encouraged the developer to come back with fewer units and it would fit the R4C zoning and would not require rezoning approval.
Taylor said he differed from Briere and Hohnke in that the city currently has a site plan on the books that’s ready to go that has aggregated parcels. Whether that’s something that should be changed going forward is an “open and good question,” he allowed, but at this point, the parcels are capable of aggregation.
Kunselman asked McDonald what would prevent the council from postponing the vote. McDonald indicated that it would be appropriate to postpone if the council felt there needed to be additional work done on the project, or if there are additional questions that need to be answered, or for some other reasonable reason. Kunselman said he appreciated the mayor’s concern about the matter-of-right project and asked his colleagues to postpone the vote until the next council meeting. He said that because he didn’t have intimate knowledge of the matter-of-right project, he’d like two weeks to look at it and perhaps change his vote.
Briere noted that a two-week postponement would put Heritage Row on the same agenda as the final historic district vote. Hieftje suggested that Kunselman request that the postponement be placed on the agenda after the historic district decision.
Hohnke, though he seconded the motion to postpone, said he would not support the postponement, saying that it would not be fair to everyone to delay. As far as the concern about the matter-of-right project, Hohnke noted that there was still a moratorium in place and that if a historic district were established, the matter-of-right would have to be reviewed by the historic district commission.
Smith suggested that the meeting be recessed so that Kunselman could be informed enough to be comfortable.
Outcome: After the recess, the roll call vote on the postponement had in favor: Kunselman, Taylor, Hieftje, Smith and Briere. The postponement thus failed with just five out of 11 votes.
Outcome: Heritage Row was rejected on a 7-4 vote in favor. It needed eight votes for approval. On the PUD itself, the four councilmembers voting against it were Kunselman, Anglin, Briere and Hohnke.
Fourth/Fifth Avenue Historic District (First Reading)
Before the council was a recommendation to establish a historic district along Fourth and Fifth avenues that can be described roughly as between William Street on the north and Packard Street on the south. The council had rejected the idea of establishing a study committee in late 2008, but changed its mind in mid-2009, when the matter-of-right City Place development project was moving through the city’s approval process. The council gave the study committee appointed in 2009 a smaller area to study than had been suggested in 2008. Chronicle coverage includes:
- “The Constitution of Historic Districts“
- “S. Fifth Avenue: Historic District Development“
- “No Formal Study Committee for Germantown“
- “Demolition Moratorium for Two-Block Area“
Historic District: Public Commentary
Beverly Strassmann introduced herself as a resident on South Fifth Avenue. She lives south of Packard Street and spoke on behalf of other residents who live south of Packard on South Fifth, which is an area not included in the area recommended as a historic district by the study committee. She said they opposed the historic district as currently configured, with a southern border at Packard Street. She characterized it as created “on the fly” – set up to prevent developer Alex de Parry from demolishing houses for a new development. She said the way the committee and the proposed district had been set up was not lawful. She said they supported a historic district, and that it was important to include the one intact block of South Fifth – south of Packard – in the whole neighborhood. The 500 block of South Fifth, she said, is the center of the district, the area with the greatest density of historic resources.
There were also historically important people who lived south of Packard, among them the Manns and the Allmendingers, she said.
Claudius Vincenz told the council he’d try to pick up where his wife, Beverly Strassmann, had left off. He pointed to the relationship between the Mann family – who still own a house in the neighborhood south of Packard, who had married with the Schmids, who lived north of Packard. Packard Street, he concluded, was not any real boundary in the neighborhood.
Vincenz said he was against the historic district as proposed. There is a lot of value in protecting historical houses, he said, but this historic district had been “conceived in a hurry,” because of the fear that the seven houses on Fifth Avenue would be destroyed. The study committee, he continued, faced an impossible task of completing the study. It was a case, he said, of the city council wanting to use the study committee’s expertise as “cover,” but defining the boundary of the historic district itself as the council. He characterized the way the council had proceeded as “circular” – the kind of reasoning that would crash a computer, but is common to the council, he said.
Historic District: Council Deliberations
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) led off the deliberations on the establishment of a historic district by noting that the council had just witnessed a lot of history and he wanted to go back to the time when the study committee had first been proposed. The boundaries had been substantially larger, he said, and the council had voted it down. He’d voted against it then, he said, because he felt that such study committees were self-fulfilling prophecies. From The Chronicle’s Dec. 15, 2008 meeting report:
[Higgins] also noted that the supporters of the study committee came from a two-block square, much smaller than the area of proposed study. She said she would like to see a bigger dialogue.
Councilmember Tony Derezinski reiterated Higgins’ points. He also said that in his work as the council’s representative to the planning commission that there was a lot of comprehensive planning work going on citywide, and that this neighborhood needed to be considered in that context. He expressed concern about the short time frame from Friday to Monday that council had for consideration of the resolution. He also expressed concern about the possibility that the appointment of a study committee would result in a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He’d also objected when the historic district, with an accompanying moratorium on demolition, was introduced in August 2009, he said. From The Chronicle’s report of the Aug. 6, 2009 city council meeting deliberations for a smaller study area:
Derezinski said that while he was glad that some councilmembers had had a chance to consider the proposal, he had not, because it had been sprung the same night. He contrasted the process for the moratorium on development in R4C areas, which had stretched over four meetings. Here, the council was being asked to make a decision in 10 minutes. He said he wanted to hear staff input. “I’m asking for 12 days [until the next meeting],” he said. Derezinski noted that while it was a similar proposal to the one council had considered in December 2008, it was not the same one.
That had passed, Derezinski reminded the council. And now, one of the recommendations of the study committee on the size of the district was, “Guess what? To expand it again!” One of the speakers during the public commentary [Beverly Strassmann], Derezinski said, was right when she characterized it as proposed at the last minute to block a project. That was a very candid assessment, Derezinski said, while allowing that the speaker was making the point to argue that the district should include another block of buildings. He then read a chunk of a letter sent to the council from one of the members of the study committee, Rebecca Lopez Kriss:
The committee was not tasked with analyzing economic effects that may result from this designation, nor the feasibility of its historic rejuvenation. We were not asked to analyze how a historic area would fit into long-term planning and land use for the City of Ann Arbor, nor how historic designation would fit into the current review of the R4C/R2A areas. We did not study how the area would affect long-term revenues for the city based on alternative uses. The reality is that our committee members are not experts in economics, urban planning, or urban finance. Our committee was made up of dedicated historians answering a single question.
Derezinski said that the letter provided a cogent argument against establishing the district and urged his colleagues to vote against it.
Mayor Johnn Hieftje reminded councilmembers that the proposal was receiving only its first reading. [It's somewhat unusual for councilmembers to vote against a proposal on first reading.]
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) indicated that he would support the proposal at the first reading “as is the custom.” He noted that the fact that the committee didn’t take into account the economic impact was not an argument against a district. Those factors needed to be taken into account – as well as the challenges that homeowners would face. He also noted that there could be significant benefits to the community. He thanked Derezinski for the reminder that there are other things to think about.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) said he’d read the letter. He noted that there were enough local historic districts that it would be worth it for staff to prepare an analysis of property values and taxes collected in the city’s historic districts to determine if the districts played a vital role in economic development.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) indicated that he guessed he hadn’t received the letter, but noted that the writer had spoken at the public hearing on The Moravian project. His recollection was that her comments were quite disturbing with respect to the characteristics of the neighborhood. He felt the letter should be viewed in the context of those remarks. The commentary that Kriss gave on The Moravian is summarized this way in The Chronicle’s report of the April 5, 2010 council meeting:
Introducing herself as a member of the board of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Fourth/Fifth Avenue historic district study committee, Rebecca Lopez Kriss urged the council to vote yes [on The Moravian]. As a young professional and graduate student, she said, she did not want to live in a dilapidated old house or in a “white box” out by Briarwood Mall. She questioned the criticism that The Moravian would be out of character with the neighborhood, pointing to the Perry School, the university building and the light industrial uses across the street. She described The Moravian as functioning as a buffer between those uses and the neighborhood to the north. She encouraged people to read Jonathan Levine’s book, “Zoned Out,” which discusses zoning as a tool of exclusion.
Outcome: The council voted at first reading to approve the historic district with dissent from Derezinski, Higgins, and Rapundalo.
Development Approval Process: Display of Plans
Before the council for its first reading was an ordinance revision affecting the availability of site plans for public inspection.
Currently, the city’s code on the approval process requires that up-to-date drawings for site plans be available in the lobby of the city hall 24/7 for a week before public hearings. The proposal recommended by the planning commission would relax the code by deleting the 24/7 requirement and by making clear that there’s not an obligation to continually update the material with any changes that might be made. Material recommended to be deleted is struck through, with proposed added language in italics.
5:135. Public information and hearings.
(2) Area plans, site plans, site plans for Planning Commission approval, PUD site plans, and preliminary plats and land divisions under review shall be displayed in a publicly accessible location in City Hall open to the public 24 hours per day, 7 days each week, for at least 1 week prior to the City Council and Planning Commission public hearings. Plans shall be current at the time of placement and subsequent revisions, if any, shall be available in the planning offices.
Back in the summer of 2009, City Place came before the city council, but was remanded back to the planning commission, due in part to errors the city had acknowledged involving the public information requirements of the city code.
The city’s planning commission has recommended approval of the ordinance change along with other technical revisions. [Chronicle coverage: "Planning Commission: A Matter of Timing"]
During the deliberations on the ordinance revision, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted that the issue was of interest to many people in the community – she wished for a more creative solution than simply not requiring plans to be available 24 hours a day. The solution was more restrictive, not more open, and she lamented the fact that the city planning commission had not discussed it at their meeting.
Briere asked Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who is the city council’s representative to the planning commission, to clarify the thought behind the ordinance change. He deferred to planning staff. Head of planning, Wendy Rampson, took the podium and said she could answer specific questions. Briere noted there are so many technological opportunities available besides making paper copies of blueprints available – for example, making them available on touch screens. The ordinance change means that you have to go to the sixth floor of city hall during business hours. It makes the information less accessible.
Briere wondered why more time had not been invested in coming up with something more cutting edge, instead of just adding a restriction. Rampson said she believed that the lobby display of plans had become somewhat outdated – up until a few years ago, it was the only way to see the plans. But now, she said, all the plans are included as .pdf files as a part of the Legistar system available on the web. So for those who have computers, they can access the information that way. For those who don’t have computers, the public library has public computers available, she said.
Part of the challenge, Rampson said, is that they cannot necessarily guarantee access to the lobby due to security concerns. As far as touch screens, she said, due to budget constraints, the staff had not explored that as an option.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) indicated he shared Briere’s concerns. He asked city administrator Roger Fraser about access to the lobby of the new municipal center, but Fraser said that the details had not yet been worked out.
Outcome: At first reading, the ordinance revision for display of plans passed. To be enacted, the council will need to approve it at a second reading.
Development: Village Green Option Extension
Before the council on June 21 was a resolution to give a brief extension on Village Green’s option to purchase on the First & Washington property. The company has site plan approval to develop the City Apartments project on that city-owned site. City Apartments is a planned unit development (PUD) featuring 156 dwelling units and 244 public parking spaces. The extension goes through Aug. 5, 2010, which is the date of the council’s first meeting in August.
Village Green: DDA Connection
The extension of the purchase option has been part of the discussions between the Downtown Development Authority and the city about the parking agreement under which the DDA manages the city’s parking system. DDA board member Newcombe Clark has pushed for a sunset on the DDA’s commitment to support the City Apartments project as part of the consideration that the city would offer to the DDA in exchange for a $2 million payment that the DDA has already made. The DDA has made a $9 million commitment for the City Apartments project in connection with a public parking deck that is a part of the building.
The council’s meeting featured an update from Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) on the meetings between the city council and the DDA board. Taylor gave a report on the activity of the council’s mutually beneficial committee, which met with the corresponding committee of the DDA to discuss a renegotiation of the parking agreement. He reported that the DDA had revealed a distaste for the idea of taking responsibility for code enforcement beyond the rules that apply to the parking system.
There would be further conversations, reported Taylor, about the DDA taking responsibility for enforcement of parking regulations. The DDA had expressed enthusiasm for serving as the development engine for downtown city-owned lots, and would be developing a more complete proposal for how that would be implemented. Later in the meeting during an additional communications slot on the agenda, Taylor indicated to his council colleagues that there would be a working session on the topic of the city-DDA discussions just before the council’s next regular meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, July 6.
Village Green: More Background
The cover memo to the resolution on Village Green that was considered by the council on Monday cited the overall economic climate and the difficulty in obtaining financing as the reason for Village Green’s inability to move forward. The fact that Village Green has named financial partners on the deal is cited as part of the reason for granting the extension.
From Village Green’s letter, included in the council information packet:
We have selected a joint venture equity partner, LaSalle Investment Management, a national institutional investor based in downtown Chicago with an extensive portfolio of real estate and a strong financial standing in the industry. Like many institutional investors, they were reluctant to invest in real estate over the past 18 months due to the turmoil in the economy. Now that they are ready to get back into investing in apartments, they are excited about the opportunity to complete a transaction in the City of Ann Arbor with Village Green. LaSalle has full discretion of a fund that has over $400MM of equity to invest, so they have the ability to execute in an expeditious and streamlined manner. [...]
As it relates to construction financing, we now have a term sheet from U.S. Bank with whom Village Green has completed 4 other new construction projects in the past eight years. We work with their downtown Chicago office where they understand the Midwest and Ann Arbor markets. Also, we now have a source to provide gap financing in the event that the primary construction lender cannot provide sufficient proceeds. That source is the general contractor, Skanska.
Village Green: Council Deliberations
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asked for more of an update than what’s in the packet. What exactly was the short extension for? Tom Crawford, chief financial officer for the city, indicated that the short extension was to be used to establish a timeline of events – a reasonable timeframe for the next steps to occur. There would be a more comprehensive document, Crawford said, by the time the item reappeared on the council’s agenda. Smith wanted to know if there was an anticipated start date for the project. Crawford said that a start date was a little too soon to talk about at this point. In response to Smith’s desire to know some ballpark idea, Crawford asked Jonathan Holtzman of Village Green to come to the podium to answer questions.
Holtzman indicated that Village Green’s delay on the project was a function of the financial markets and not any lack of commitment to doing the project. Their financial partners seemed now open to receive letters of inquiry to talk about transactions. At the end of last year, he said, Village Green had done a project in Minneapolis – the only new apartment construction in the entire Midwest.
A project Village Green expects to start in Chicago, he said, could be the only new apartment construction for this year. Ann Arbor, he said, would be in excellent company. He noted that Village Green had been an owner-operator of apartments in Ann Arbor since the early 1970s. The request for an extension, he said, was to be able to work directly with the city staff to re-engage the fire department, the building department, the architects and engineers, to create a very specific timeline so that they can respond with a detailed list of milestones.
The problems from this point, Holtzman said, were not expected to be financial, but rather the normal problems between a developer and a city. Holtzman said the list of milestones would be the way of measuring whether Village Green deserved an extension.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) said that for him it was déjà vu – it reminded him of the project on the old YMCA site [William Street Station]. That developer had had milestones, too, said Kunselman. And at that time the economy was supposedly in good shape. [The city council eventually pulled the plug on William Street Station when the developer missed milestones. It is now the subject of a lawsuit that the developer brought against the city, although major elements of that suit have already been dismissed.]
Kunselman said he wouldn’t be supporting the short extension – it would require staff time. That planning staff time would wind up being charged as overhead under the municipal service charge. And that was important, he said, because the council was not amending the budget to accommodate the staff work. It was different from the residential parking permit program the council was considering that evening, which required amendment of the budget so that city staff could work on that project.
Kunselman stated that under an option agreement, typically a developer would put some money down as a down payment. “Would you be willing to pay … so that the taxpayers aren’t paying for this effort of ours to continue this charade of a partnership?” Kunselman asked Holtzman. Mayor John Hieftje interceded and suggested that Tom Crawford might be able to address the question. Kunselman stated that the council had been down this road before and it had not come to fruition – they need to go in a different direction. He suggested that new direction was to take the design specifications for the project and put them into a deed restriction on the city-owned property, then put it up for sale with those restrictions. Now is the time to try that, Kunselman said.
It was city administrator Roger Fraser who eventually addressed Kunselman’s question. Fraser said that the city would not be providing anything beyond what they’d provide any developer at this point, which would be a review of the pending approvals that would be necessary once the construction plans were submitted, and what timelines would be in connection with those plans. There would be no extraordinary efforts, said Fraser – it would simply be a normal plan review and estimation of what it would take to get this job done. The city would not expect an developer to pay extra for that, said Fraser, to take what is an already-approved project from a planning phase to a construction project.
Kunselman wanted to know what has happened during the last three years. Fraser said that Village Green had been waiting for the financial markets to open up so that they could go forward with the project. He reminded Kunselman that this was one of those rare projects that had received support from the neighborhood. The project meets the objectives of the community, said Fraser, and is a project the DDA is partnering on. Rather than asking for a longer extension, Fraser said, it was only a short-term extension in order to develop a more comprehensive plan with milestones. The idea is that the city would not have to do this again – this would be the last shot, said Fraser.
Kunselman asked if that meant that in August the council would be approving another extension. Kunselman also questioned whether the development of milestones was actually typical of staff efforts with regard to developers in general. Reviewing construction plans is one thing, Kunselman said, but review of construction plans for construction permits does not entail establishing a series of milestones. Fraser indicated that what Village Green was asking for was estimates for time required to perform the various stages of review.
Outcome: The council approved the extension of the option to purchase for Village Green, with dissent from Kunselman.
Public Commentary, Council Responses, Communications
A number of speakers addressed the council at the start of the meeting during public commentary reserved time, and councilmembers had several communications they conveyed.
Communications on Parking Permit Programs
During her communications time, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) indicated that the agenda item that evening would be for a residential parking permit program for the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. At the council’s next meeting, she hoped, on the council’s agenda would be a residential parking program for the South University neighborhood. [Note: The residential parking permit program was approved, but is not covered in detail in this meeting report.]
Communication on Civil Rights
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) told her colleagues that there was a bill that some legislators were contemplating for Michigan that would be similar to the law Arizona had passed, making it legal for police to ask for IDs. She informed her council colleagues that she would likely be bringing forward a resolution stating the council’s opposition such a law.
Communications from the City Administrator
Roger Fraser, during his communications time, told the council that as the elections were drawing nigh, the absentee ballots were being sent out. [See Chronicle coverage: "Column: A Pitch for Absentee Voting"]
Fraser also indicated that the summer tax bills were being sent out the following week, which are, he quipped, “another joy of summer.” He reminded councilmembers that tax bills could be paid online.
Fraser reported that on June 10 the Center for Independent Living had hosted a picnic in Gallup Park and that over 200 people had attended – they’d taken out canoes and kayaks, he said.
Fraser’s update on the ongoing construction of the municipal center was that work continues on electrical, plumbing, drywall, and bathroom tiling. A lot of work was being done in the basement of the Larcom Building as well, he reported. The streetscape contractor for the Fifth and Division project was working its way past the municipal center work site on Fifth, he said.
The structural steel work is complete for the elevator tower. A barrier had been removed from the third floor, where the administrator and mayor’s offices are located, he said – adding that it is possible now to jump, if the mayor ever felt the need to do so after a council meeting.
The mayor confirmed with Fraser that the construction was still on schedule to be completed and for the city to be out of the leased facility with the county by Jan. 1, 2011.
Comment on Local Ordinances: Vegetation
Tom Petiet introduced himself as the landlord at a property on Arch Street. He suggested to the council that they consider a revision to the city’s ordinance that prohibits vegetation on lawn extensions – the area between the sidewalk and the road – higher than 3 feet. Last year, he said, they’d received notice that a bush at their rental property was four feet tall. They had not been able to act in time, and the city had then cut the bush down to 3 feet tall. They’d gone to court about it, he said, but the court had no latitude in the matter due to the vagueness of the ordinance language, he said, that prohibited any vegetation from being taller than 3 feet. He distributed some photographs of different properties in the general area of the property.
Petiet noted that several cultivated plantings in the area were all in violation of the city’s ordinance, but that they contributed to the beauty of the city and were ecologically sound. He said they do no harm, so he wondered why the ordinance condemns the plantings. As it stands, the police have no alternative but to cite these plantings. Exceptions to the 3 foot height shall be granted in cases where decorative bushes and flowers are maintained which do not hinder automobile sightlines at corners and do not impinge on walkways and roadways. He also suggested that the warning and notification methods be changed – he said they’ve only been given 24 hours from the time they were notified to the time they needed to remediate the situation. In the case of rental properties, he said, the notification should go to the owner of the property, not the address of the property itself.
Later during the council meeting, during her communications time, Margie Teall (Ward 4) indicated that she felt the ordinance needed to be re-examined.
Comment on Local Ordinances: Pedestrian Safety
Kathy Griswold reminded the council that she’d spoken to them in the past about the need to move a crosswalk in front of the King Elementary School from a mid-block location to an intersection. A related issue, she said, was a press release issued by the city of Ann Arbor on June 10 about a program to promote pedestrian safety. However, she said, what sounded like good news actually revealed a superficial understanding of pedestrian safety issues and laws. Three conditions contributed the problem, she said. First is city officials who micromanaged things. Second is an autocratic city administrator, and third is traffic engineers who are required to make decisions based on what is politically popular, she said. Alluding to Petiet’s comments about his experience with the vegetation ordinance, she said the requirements make the professional police force and traffic engineers look stupid – the laws were not being applied consistently and nothing but political games were being played, she said.
At the point where a child is injured or killed due to the political game-playing, she predicted, city officials would then form a task force to make sure this issue is addressed. She therefore wanted to make sure it was a part of the public record that political gamesmanship had been going on for years and that it was wrong. There is a state law that prohibits parking within 20 feet of a crosswalk, she said, but the city itself had configured a crosswalk located next to parking spaces near city hall, then placed a flashing warning sign there to warn motorists.
MICHIGAN VEHICLE CODE (EXCERPT)
Act 300 of 1949
257.674 Prohibited parking; exceptions; bus loading zone; violation as civil infraction. Sec. 674.
(1) A vehicle shall not be parked, except if necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic or in compliance with the law or the directions of a police officer or traffic-control device, in any of the following places:
(a) On a sidewalk.
(b) In front of a public or private driveway.
(c) Within an intersection.
(d) Within 15 feet of a fire hydrant.
(e) On a crosswalk.
(f) Within 20 feet of a crosswalk, or if there is not a crosswalk, then within 15 feet of the intersection of property lines at an intersection of highways.
Returning to the issue of the King Elementary crosswalk, Griswold indicated that Hieftje had recently suggested to her a holistic approach. She said that the city had had a holistic and comprehensive approach in place since the late 1960s in the form of a transportation safety committee and that the committee had recommended the crosswalk be moved, but on Oct. 30, 2010 the city administrator had vetoed a decision to move the crosswalk, instead opting for a “good old boys” approach of studying the problem for maybe another year or two, she said.
During his communications time, Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) told his council colleagues there was a targeted enforcement campaign for crosswalks going on, with flashing signs at Seventh & Washington and at Fifth & Ann. The signs indicate that it’s local law to require motorists to yield to pedestrians. There would be additional steps taken soon, Hohnke said. [An agenda item proposing an ordinance revision had been stricken from the agenda.]
Comment on Allen Creek Study
Vince Caruso spoke on behalf of the Allen Creek Watershed Group, which he said had produced a watershed management plan for Allen Creek in 2001 that had been accepted by the Washtenaw County drain commissioner’s office, the city of Ann Arbor and the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. He called for a scientific study of the Allen Creek watershed and a remapping of the floodplain. All major watersheds in the Ann Arbor area had been scientifically studied, he said, except for Allen Creek. There was a great desire by some to develop in the floodway, he said, citing the arts community interest in developing the 415 W. Washington property, which has an entrance in the floodway. But he noted that a letter of map revisions from FEMA showed a 33% increase in the floodway, and said the MDEQ did not support building on stilts in the floodway. Southern Michigan had seen several 100-year rains in the last three years, he said, as well as a 500-year rain. After a recent rainfall, Caruso said, there had been 4.5 feet of standing water behind Virginia Park. Scientific groups, he said, had attributed this change in rain patterns to global warming. There are 1,500 homes at risk in the Old West Side, he said.
During his communications time, Mike Anglin (Ward 5) picked up on comments made by Caruso about the Allen Creek watershed. Anglin said it was the largest, yet least studied watershed in the area. He said it was important to understand how much water flows through it – at what points and in what intensities. He acknowledged that there had been a lot of money spent on two projects to address issues in the Allen Creek watershed – at Pioneer High School and in West Park – and the city had been moving forward. But he also stressed the importance of having a scientific study of Allen Creek like the city had for the other watersheds.
Communications on Fuller Road Station
Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) gave an update from the park advisory commission (PAC), on which he serves as an ex officio member as a representative of the city council.
He described how PAC had passed a resolution on the Fuller Road Station after a long discussion, which would be forwarded to the council. He indicated that PAC had expressed a measure of concern that PAC’s role as an advisory body had not been recognized to its satisfaction and would like there to be appropriate consultation with it. The PAC resolution Taylor summarized urged that the complete plans for the station be made public, that there be hearings on the project and that PAC be held harmless with respect to revenue plans. [Chronicle coverage of that PAC discussion: "Park Commission Asks for Transparency"]
Following up on Taylor’s remarks, Mike Anglin (Ward 5), who also serves as an ex officio member of PAC representing the city council, reported that PAC had spent six hours discussing the resolution related to Fuller Road Station. He said that the way the city had proceeded had “upset the stewards of the park system.” Anglin indicated that the mayor had presented his view of the situation directly to PAC. [Chronicle coverage: "Hieftje Urges Unity on Fuller Road Station"]
If Fuller Road Station were not proposed on land designated as a park, Anglin said, they wouldn’t be hearing about it. PAC had indicated that it was not pleased with the terms of the memorandum of understanding signed between the city and the University of Michigan, but that the mayor had indicated it could be renegotiated. The concept had merit, Anglin said, but the vision for the station should have been conveyed to PAC earlier. If there are plans like these, he said, it is important to make them public way in advance.
Later during an additional communications slot, Anglin noted that the city had launched a survey on the PROS plan and had received around 600 responses so far – he said they were hoping for 1,000 responses.
Hieftje clarified that the proposed location for the Fuller Road Station was not on the same side of the street as the swimming pool at Fuller Park. He also said it had not been stressed enough that the university’s contribution to the project would be enough to satisfy the local match requirement for various federal grants. He allowed that the timetable was a “little fluid” depending on when the transportation bill moves through the Congress.
Comment from State Senate Candidate
Thomas Partridge noted that the country had entered the second year of President Obama’s administration, as he introduced himself as a Washtenaw County resident living in Scio Township. He told the council that he was running for the 18th state Senate seat to represent senior citizens, the disabled and veterans – all those without a voice. He called the various awards handed out for local preservation efforts at the start of the meeting “worthy” and said that there were other sites worthy of recognition as well. Those other sites were places where civil rights demonstrations and peace protests had been held. He noted the importance of providing affordable housing, affordable transportation, health care and education to everyone.
Comment on Homelessness
Lilly Au asked the council to consider issues from a balanced point of view. She contended that the historical designation for the houses in the Heritage Row project was not appropriate because there was nothing historically remarkable about them. She asked the city council to consider the supply and demand for affordable housing units – mentioning in particular the loss of 100 units of affordable housing in connection with the demolition of the old YMCA building several years ago. She then described basic conditions of life at Camp Take Notice, a tent city now located west of town near Wagner Road on a public right-of-way. She described in mildly graphic detail how residents made accommodations for going to the bathroom.
Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.
Next council meeting: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]