Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Jan. 20, 2011): After a public hearing that included comments by some residents of 1500 Pauline, planning commissioners unanimously approved the site plan for an affordable housing project at that location, proposed by the nonprofit Avalon Housing.
The project will include demolishing the existing structure and constructing five one- and two-story buildings and a community center. Though commissioners supported the project, some raised concerns over the relocation of current residents and the fact that the new complex, when completed, will have fewer units – 32, compared to the current 47 apartments. Of those, there will also be far fewer one-bedroom units – six, compared to the current 21.
Representatives from Avalon told commissioners that the lower number was sustainable – 35% of the units will be set aside for residents who’ll receive supportive services. They also said the location was more suited for families, and that there’s more need for two- and three-bedroom affordable housing units in the city.
Another project on the agenda – a site plan and special exception use for 630 Oxford – was postponed, as recommended by city planning staff. The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity wants to turn an existing rental duplex into their chapter’s permanent home, housing up to 24 residents. The housing director and some board members for the neighboring Delta Gamma sorority came to Thursday’s meeting to object to the plan, saying they did not want fraternity culture to disrupt their quiet neighborhood.
Commissioners also unanimously recommended approval of the annexation of 1575 Alexandra Blvd., a vacant 0.82-acre lot now in Ann Arbor Township. The lot is surrounded by the city’s Riverwood Nature Area – its owner plans to build a single-family home on the site.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Wendy Rampson of the city’s planning staff reminded commissioners of a public meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 26 to get community feedback on draft recommendations for R4C and R2A residential zoning district ordinance revisions. The meeting runs from 6-8 p.m. at the lower level of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave.
1500 Pauline Redevelopment
The nonprofit Avalon Housing submitted its site plan for the 1500 Pauline project in December. Now called Parkhurst Apartments, the complex – located west of Fritz Park, between Seventh and West Stadium – includes 48 apartment units housing federally subsidized low-income residents. Of those units, one is used for community space, 21 are one-bedroom units, and the rest are two- and three-bedroom apartments.
The plan is to tear down the existing building and construct a new five-building complex with 32 units, a playground and community center, at an estimated cost of $8 million. That cost includes an upfront developer’s fee – typical for nonprofit projects like this – as well as costs associated with relocating current residents and paying for their housing at an alternative site for up to five years, as mandated by federal law under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act.
Avalon expects to fund the project through a combination of sources, including Low Income Housing Tax Credits, HOME program subsidy (HUD funds allocated through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Washtenaw Urban County), the Federal Home Loan Bank, and private loan funds.
The city’s planning staff recommended approval of the project’s site plan.
1500 Pauline: Public Hearing
Saying that he lived at 1500 Pauline, Gladwin McGee wondered why the apartments were in such disrepair, when they had been renovated relatively recently – in the late 1990s. He also questioned why the number of units were being reduced, given that there’s a lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor.
Jim Mogensen noted that he was speaking for himself, but that he’s past president of the nonprofit Religious Action for Affordable Housing. It’s important that this site remain a place for affordable housing, he said. It’s also important that there are as many two- and three-bedroom apartments as possible – those units are harder to find than one-bedroom apartments, he observed. He also spoke about the cost of the project, saying that in nonprofit projects like this, most of the money is paid upfront for the development costs – unlike for-profit projects, which recoup their costs over time.
Michael Appel, associate director of Avalon Housing, told commissioners about the history of the complex. It’s owned by Washtenaw Affordable Housing Corp., which renovated it in 1999. It had been managed by a series of private management companies, he said, until Avalon took over operations in 2009. The complex has suffered from operating losses and deferred maintenance – that’s why they need to tear it down and rebuild. The architect who inspected the complex found hundreds of immediate and short-term issues that needed to be addressed to keep the property up to code.
In previous years, it has only met code after “substantial” subsidies by the city, Appel said. Another factor: The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) determined that because of the significant infrastructure problems, they weren’t willing to invest in the project unless it were rebuit – “leaving us with a very tough choice,” Appel said. They’re working with tenants on relocation – it’s a process that’s tightly regulated by federal law, he said, and the joint city/county office of community development is involved. He wrapped up by saying if they gain approval that night from the planning commission, they could be on the city council’s Feb. 21 agenda and meet a March deadline to apply for state tax credits through MSHDA. The end result, he said, is that tenants will have a much nicer place to live.
Wendy Carty-Saxon, Avalon’s director of housing development, reported that they’d held two community meetings and two meetings for residents – both had elicited positive responses, she said. [.pdf file of summary from those meetings] The design of the new site will open it up to the neighborhood, she said, providing more “eyes on the street” which will help with security issues. The question of density – how many new units to build – was a difficult one, she said. But they tried to look at what would be sustainable to operate in the future. The 32 units they’re proposing fit with the site’s current zoning, she said. It’s also similar in size to Carrot Way, another Avalon supportive housing project. They wanted to preserve the number of two- and three-bedroom units, she said, and add a modest community center. The site will also have improved barrier-free access.
Lekendrick “Levi” Murphy told commissioners that this is his third year living at 1500 Pauline, and that he likes the neighborhood. As a single male, he said the reduction in one-bedroom units was pressing on his mind. It’s important to be aware of how people are treated as they’re relocated, he said, and to look at who will be allowed to move back in. By and large, the residents there now are “fine people,” he said, adding that he likes the proposed site plan.
John Milroy has lived for 10 years in a house on Northwood, neighboring the complex. He attended one of the community meetings held by Avalon, and said that they seem like they want to do the right thing. He said he had no reason to object to the project, and looked forward to not having to look at a crumbling parking lot anymore. He said he supported the project.
1500 Pauline: Commissioner Deliberations
Wendy Woods began by asking for clarification of the types of units that are currently available at the complex. There are 21 one-bedroom units, with the remaining units divided between two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments, Avalon’s Wendy Carty-Saxon said. One of the three-bedroom apartments is used for community space.
Woods noted that in another Avalon project being built on North Main – called Near North – the nonprofit had argued that there was a shortage of one-bedroom apartments, and that’s why Near North needed to have more one-bedroom units. Woods asked for Avalon staff to help the commission understand how they can rationalize a reduction in one-bedroom units for the 1500 Pauline project, which will include only six one-bedroom apartments.
Michael Appel said it was largely an issue of location. Near North is closer to downtown, opening onto Main Street. It didn’t seem ideal for larger family-sized units. In contrast, 1500 Pauline is in a neighborhood setting, on a less-busy street, next to a park. They also were working with the city/county office of community development, and OCD staff felt that more two- and three-bedroom units were needed. One reason why there are fewer overall units is that they felt the higher density in the past led to some of the problems at the complex, he said.
Woods asked what kind of problems they’ve experienced. Appel explained that in the two years they’ve been managing the complex, the issues of stability, safety and turnover related to higher density. If you compare on a bedroom-per-acre basis, 1500 Pauline has higher density than Carrot Way or many other public housing units.
They’re trying to preserve low-income housing on that site, he said, and were given the option of redeveloping it or losing it – without reinvestment, it would go bankrupt. That drove the decision to redevelop, and they then tried to determine the appropriate mix of units, he said.
Carole McCabe, Avalon’s executive director, stepped up to the podium to address Woods’ question. There’s no one more committed than Avalon to expanding affordable housing in this community, she said. But the issues of density are real, and they struggle with them. They have a full wait-list for both single residents and families, McCabe said, but they had limited options at this location.
Jean Carlberg said that one troubling aspect is the relocation of residents in one-bedroom apartments – only six of the 21 tenants will be able to move back in, she noted. She asked for more details on the relocation effort, and whether for some tenants, their relocation would be into permanent housing.
Because the project is federally funded, they are bound by the Uniform Relocation Act, Appel said. They have to work with tenants to find new housing, pay for their moving expenses, and provide a subsidy for the new housing for up to five years. [These costs are built in to the project's estimated $8 million budget.] The office of community development is helping with that process, he said. They anticipate that many of the current tenants will apply to return when the 1500 Pauline is rebuilt, about 18 months from now.
McCabe added that they have a team offering support services, and they’ll be very involved in the relocation process. Within the affordable housing stock that Avalon oversees, they have more one-bedroom units than two- or three-bedroom units, she said.
Evan Pratt clarified with planning staff that the current complex is non-conforming to zoning on that site – that is, it has more units now than the existing zoning allows. In contrast, the number of proposed units does conform to zoning there. [The site is zoned R4B, for multi-family dwellings.] He also pointed out that the Near North project was a planned unit development (PUD), which allows for greater density.
Kirk Westphal said he hoped everyone would agree that the site should be redeveloped, rather than lose available funding – that perspective caps his comments a bit, he said. In general, given the context of the site and the city’s master plan, the commission would be amenable to PUDs, especially for affordable housing projects.
Westphal took issue with the link between density and safety problems, noting that in many cities there are neighborhoods with higher density that are quite safe. His understanding was that for this site, the issue was more related to a staff-resident ratio.
He said he liked the new design – the old building layout was outmoded. He clarified that the proposed playground is technically a public one, then questioned how the public would know that, given that there’s no sidewalk planned from Pauline to the playground. Would there be signs?
Chris Cheng of the city’s planning staff said they expected the playground to be used mostly by residents, and that they hadn’t discussed signs or a sidewalk. Erica Briggs concurred with Westphal that it would be more inviting to the general public if a sidewalk were installed from Pauline. Carlberg observed that people would end up creating a path themselves, so Avalon might as well put one in where they wanted it.
Briggs also asked about the neighboring park, noting that in the summary of comments from the community/resident meetings that Avalon held, some people had noted that they didn’t find it safe, and that there are flooding problems there. Cheng said they’ve talked with parks staff about improving the paths in Fritz Park, but it’s not connected with the site plan.
Briggs then asked Avalon to clarify the difference between affordable housing and supportive housing. Wendy Carty-Saxon explained that 35% of the units in the new project would be set aside for supportive housing, with Avalon providing services to tenants, depending on their needs. Often they end up reaching out to other tenants as well, she said. When Briggs began to pursue that line of questioning, Eric Mahler – the planning commission chair – cut her off, noting that they needed to focus their deliberations on issues related to the site plan.
Diane Giannola said she supported the project, and that it would be a benefit to the neighborhood.
Mahler also expressed support, but said the proposal seemed short on details about the design. David Esau of Cornerstone Design, the project’s architect, said they wanted to keep it in scale with the neighborhood, with one- and two-story buildings. They haven’t signed off on all the materials, but it would be largely brick and siding – standard residential construction, he said – and would meet the city’s new energy code.
Outcome: The planning commission unanimously recommended approval of the 1500 Pauline site plan. It will now be forwarded to city council for approval.
Phi Kappa Psi on Oxford
The University of Michigan chapter of Phi Kappa Psi is requesting site plan approval and a special exception use for a property at 630 Oxford, between South University and Hill. The house is now a rental duplex, allowing for up to eight occupants. The special exception use would allow for a fraternity to occupy the building, with a maximum of 47 occupants, based on the size of the lot. The fraternity is requesting permission for up to 24 occupants, including a resident director.
The site plan calls for 10 parking spaces in the rear of the lot, though that number may be revised. Planning staff has asked for more information and changes to the plan, and recommended postponement.
Phi Kappa Psi: Public Hearing
Six people spoke during the project’s public hearing, including two people representing Delta Gamma, whose sorority house is adjacent to the site and who oppose the project.
Allan Lutes of Alpha Management Group spoke on behalf of the owners. [The owners are listed in the site plan application as BH630Ox LLC, at 2112 Vinewood in Ann Arbor, where Big House Rentals is located.] This isn’t a project that was prompted by seeing a For Sale sign, he said – they carefully selected this site, considering the neighborhood and the city’s master plan, he said. They feel the site plan is consistent with the area’s zoning, and they won’t need variances.
It’s in a neighborhood that already includes many sororities, fraternities and University of Michigan housing, Lutes said. The plan is to preserve the building’s outside architecture, and to add additional screening to buffer it from neighbors. They plan to use the basement as their “gathering space,” Lutes said, for minimum impact to the surrounding houses, adding that it “at times may get a little loud.” He noted that they have letters of support from five neighbors.
Saying he’d been on the fraternity’s alumni board for 15 years, David Frayne told commissioners that Phi Kappa Psi had the simple goal of obtaining permanent housing. Though the fraternity had been at the University of Michigan since 1876, they are currently leasing a house on South State from another fraternity, he said – it’s an older building, and not adequately maintained. They look forward to having a house that members can be proud to live in, Frayne said, adding that the project has support from the local alumni network. They’re making provisions to have a resident director on site, and intend to maintain the character of the house and the integrity of the neighborhood, he said.
Mary Higgins identified herself as the house director for the Delta Gamma sorority, a position she’s held for 12 years. The sorority’s house is located just north of 630 Oxford. They are opposed to the project, she said, though they don’t oppose the fraternity itself. It’s a quiet neighborhood, and what they object to is the fraternity culture, Higgins explained, adding that she was also speaking on behalf of the Knight-Wallace Fellows, a journalism program housed at 620 Oxford. The street is narrow and can’t accommodate more cars, she said. Higgins also cited concerns about garbage, noise and “loud and unruly parties,” adding “we do not look forward to this move.”
Phelps Connell said he was a board member of a fraternity in the neighborhood, and that they welcomed the arrival of Phi Kappa Psi. His board supports the site plan, Phelps said. He didn’t identify which fraternity he represented, but said the chapter had been in its location in the Oxford neighborhood for about 100 years – though “I haven’t been on the board that whole time,” he quipped.
Saying he was there representing the undergraduates at Phi Kappa Psi, John Gray – a senior majoring in business – defended the character of the fraternity. He cited a list of honors that the chapter had received. Members strive for excellence in themselves and their community, Gray said. He noted that they had been paired up with Delta Gamma for a social event last year, “and got along with them quite fine” – a comment that elicited laughs from others in the room.
Carol Makowski, chair of the alumni board for the Delta Gamma sorority, told commissioners that they should find out whether Phi Kapp Psi was planning to have an on-site resident director. That could change the character of the house, she said.
Phi Kappa Psi: Commissioner Deliberations
Eric Mahler, the commission’s chair, began by noting that if the project is postponed, anyone who spoke at the public hearing could speak again at the project’s next public hearing.
Jean Carlberg commented that one of the standards for granting a special exception use was that the project “will not be detrimental to the use, peaceful enjoyment, economic value or development of neighboring property, or the neighborhood area in general.” She hoped that a resident director would be a “bonifide adult” who would be on site at all times.
Allan Lutes of Alpha Management Group responded, saying that the alumni group has every intention of having a live-in advisor who’s not an undergraduate. They plan on building a private two-room suite at the back of the house for that person. As for concerns about fraternity culture, he conceded that there have been some stupid and foolish acts at fraternities, and it’s hard to counter a cultural conception based on “Animal House.”
He noted that this fraternity employs his professional management group to oversee the facility, and his staff would be at the house several times each week. In addition, unlike some fraternities, Phi Kappa Psi is a member of UM’s Interfraternity Council. The IFC has standards of behavior that, if not adhered to, result in sanctions, Lutes said, like social probation.
Carlberg raised another issue: Did they have sufficient parking spaces for 24 residents? Lutes said that zoning requires even fewer spaces than the eight they’re proposing. At their current location, he said, there are 31 residents and 10 spaces, so they’re estimating that eight should be sufficient.
Evan Pratt noted that having a resident director wasn’t written into the special exception use – Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, said it wouldn’t hurt to make that explicit. Pratt then asked whether there would be any bedrooms in the basement, in addition to the common area. They might put in two bedrooms there, Lutes said. When Pratt observed that the house was relatively small for 24 residents, Lutes said the “occupant load” reflected how students preferred to live – in singles and doubles – and was lower than what was permitted by city code.
Wendy Woods said she was glad they planned to postpone action, because there was additional information needed. It would be helpful to see the proposed floor plan, for example, and to find out what maximum occupancy was allowed for parties. Occupancy is dictated by the fire code – Rampson said they could get that information for commissioners.
Woods also asked whether residents had been notified about the proposal, and what kind of input they’d given. Lutes reported that they had distributed letters to residents within 500 feet of the parcel, providing the full site plan and contact information. They hadn’t been contacted by any neighbors, and only one person had attended the meeting, representing the Oxbridge Neighborhood Association. Lutes characterized her opinion of the plan as neutral.
The representatives from Delta Gamma told commissioners that they hadn’t received the mailing.
Outcome: The planning commission voted unanimously to postpone action on the 630 Oxford site plan and special exception use.
Present: Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods. Also: Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff.
Absent: Bonnie Bona, Tony Derezinski.
Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building’s boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]