Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (June 7, 2011): The main action item on the planning commission’s agenda was a resolution to approve the site plan for Arbor Hills Crossing, a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw.
The project involves tearing down several vacant structures and putting up four one- and two-story buildings throughout the 7.45-acre site – a total of 90,700-square-feet of space for retail stores and offices. Three of the buildings would face Washtenaw Avenue, across the street from the retail complex where Whole Foods grocery is located. The site is also directly north of the new location for Summers-Knoll School. Planning commissioners had approved the Summers-Knoll project at their May 17 meeting.
Comments from commissioners about Arbor Hills Crossing ranged from disappointment in the lack of density to concerns about pedestrian safety. Commissioners generally expressed the sense that they were glad to see the site developed.
Citing some outstanding issues, planning staff recommended postponing action on the plan. Several commissioners raised other issues they’d like to see addressed before the site plans come back to the commission for approval. Among those issues: future plans for bike lanes along Washtenaw Avenue, as identified in the city’s non-motorized transportation plan; and possible pedestrian access to a wetland area. The vote to pospone was unanimous.
Later in the meeting, planning manager Wendy Rampson got feedback on a draft memo to Pittsfield Township, providing input from the commission on the township’s draft master plan. In part, the memo states an objection to the township’s description of itself as “providing an Ann Arbor mailing address while placing a much lower tax burden on businesses.” The memo points out that the plan could be improved by emphasizing regional cooperation.
Arbor Hills Crossing Site Plan
The planning commission was asked to consider the site plan for Arbor Hills Crossing at 3100 Washtenaw Avenue, a property at the southeast corner of Washtenaw and Platt, owned by Campus Realty. [In 2006, the city had approved a site plan for a different retail development at that location, but it was never built.] Alexis DiLeo of the city’s planning department gave the staff report.
The plan calls for demolishing several commercial buildings and constructing a 90,700-square-foot retail and office center with four buildings, 310 parking spaces and 30 covered bike parking spaces on a 7.45-acre site. Retail space would primarily include smaller stores that would be visible from Washtenaw Avenue – three of the buildings face that road.
The developer is proposing to consolidate five existing curb cuts along Washtenaw into one entrance. Vehicles could also access the site from Platt Road. An exit-only road onto Platt on the south side of the site will also be available through an easement from the adjacent property owner.
A wetlands area is located in the southwest corner of the site – the developer plans to build a “pocket park” near it, as a gathering place for customers. The plan also calls for removing two landmark trees – a 64-inch silver maple and a 12-inch ginkgo – as well as 36 non-landmark trees. The developer proposes planting a total of 106 trees throughout the site.
DiLeo described results of a traffic impact study, which found that the proposed project is likely to generate 306 trips during the weekday morning peak hour and 692 trips during the weekday evening peak hour. Traffic is simply bad along that stretch, DiLeo said, but would be improved if a traffic signal at Platt and Washtenaw is installed.
As part of the site plan, the developer is proposing a 23-foot-wide easement along Washtenaw Avenue for a 10-foot shared use path, a bus pullout, and landscaping. The concept is amenable to planning staff, DiLeo said, but they’re trying to determine whether an easement is the right mechanism for it. A dedicated right-of-way might be more appropriate.
DiLeo noted that a citizens participation meeting was held on Feb. 16, 2011; it was attended by 28 people.
The city’s planning staff recommended postponement, citing several unresolved issues: (1) a formal decision from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) on installation of a traffic signal at the Washtenaw/Platt intersection; (2) approval of the plan by the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner; and (3) resolution of issues related to the 23-foot easement along Washtenaw Avenue, including which parties will be involved and what mechanism would be used to handle that easement.
Separately, the developer has filed a brownfield plan for the site that’s being considered by the city’s brownfield plan review committee. The brownfield plan would allow for a TIF (tax increment finance) to reimburse the developer for removal of contaminated soil, caused by a repair shop at an auto dealership previously located at the site.
Arbor Hills Crossing: Public Hearing
Two people representing the developer spoke during the project’s public hearing. Tom Covert of Atwell, an Ann Arbor civil engineering and landscape architecture firm, said he was there along with others in the project team, including Tom Stegeman and Norm Hyman from the ownership group. Covert highlighted several aspects of the development, noting that the wetlands area is a central focal feature and wouldn’t be impacted by the project – it would become part of a pocket park, and would be a place for patrons to congregate, he said.
Because there’s a 30-40 foot difference in grade between the property’s northwest and southeast corners, they looked at the design as a series of plateaus, he said. The layout is designed to give the development a sense of scale, creating pedestrian space along Washtenaw that invites people into the site, he said. Covert pointed out that they’re consolidating five curb cuts on the property along Washtenaw Avenue into a single cut. There, the exit onto Washtenaw will be limited to a right turn only, Covert said, though vehicles can enter from either direction. The other access is from Platt.
The distance between buildings is designed to be similar to a city block, Covert said – if you drive to the site, you could park and easily walk to two or three of the four buildings without moving your car. Landscaping features on the site include a planned rain garden between two of the buildings, and use of native plants so that no irrigation is required. Part of the stormwater management system includes capturing water in the rain garden, then releasing it to an underground detention basin and into the preserved wetland.
Robb Burroughs of ReFORM Studios Inc., the project’s architect, described some of the project’s design aspects. He highlighted the building at the northwest corner, at Washtenaw and Platt. To balance out the site and deal with the grade changes, the first floor will be below grade, with entrances facing the parking area on the east side. The second floor of that building will be at street level facing Washtenaw, visible from the intersection of Platt and Washtenaw. The strategy is to create a walkable, pedestrian-friendly experience internal to the site, Burroughs said.
They’ve designed a “contemporary building palette,” Burroughs said, integrating pedestrian elements like awnings, windows, and unique corner treatments. A tall vertical element on the northwest building will anchor the Platt and Washtenaw corner – it will likely be made of regionally sourced wood, he said, or latticed steel.
Arbor Hills Crossing: Commissioner Discussion
Jean Carlberg opened the discussion by expressing her concern over how close the sidewalk is to Washtenaw Avenue at the front of the property. Cars typically travel at 40-45 miles per hour, she noted, indicating it can be dangerous to pedestrians. On the opposite side of Washtenaw, there’s a grass buffer between the sidewalk and street.
Internal to the site, the development includes sidewalks, Carlberg said, but it’s more likely that people will walk across the parking lot to get from building to building. That’s also a safety issue. And though she said she was glad to see the site being redeveloped, she criticized the design of the building facing Platt, saying it was plain and unwelcoming. There was nothing to attract people who used the county recreation center across the street, she said. ”I think you’re missing an opportunity there.”
Kirk Westphal asked planning staff what the city’s recourse is if construction isn’t completed. Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, described two different scenarios. If the incomplete work relates to the infrastructure portion of the project – such as installing a water main – then the city can step in and complete the work, and bill the developer. If the bill is unpaid, the city can place a lien on the property. However, if the work that’s incomplete is a building or other parts of the development that don’t relate to city infrastructure, it’s considered a nuisance case – it’s trickier, she said, but the city would have the option of taking the developer to court.
Related to the site’s proximity to Whole Foods, Westphal said he could imagine pedestrians crossing Washtenaw Avenue either coming from or going to the Huron Village Plaza, where the grocery store is located. Rampson said that as part of the Washtenaw Avenue corridor improvement project, there have been discussions about having a mid-block crossing along that stretch.
However, she said, a traffic engineer who’s looked at that section of Washtenaw is concerned about traffic “stacking” – vehicles backing up as they wait for pedestrians to cross mid-block. If there’s a stoplight installed at Washtenaw and Platt, that would ensure a safe pedestrian crossing, she noted. Pedestrians might still try to cross mid-block anyway, Rampson said, but since there’s a bus stop located close to the intersection, there’s a better chance that people would cross at the light.
Erica Briggs began her comments by saying it would obviously be a great improvement to have this development on the site. She shared Carlberg’s concerns about pedestrian safety along Washtenaw. Briggs also wondered whether the 23-foot easement on the north side of the parcel next to Washtenaw – to accommodate the sidewalk and a “tree lawn” – would also be sufficient for a bike lane at some point in the future.
Covert said a bike lane would need to use land intended for the tree lawn, which would be 10-12 feet wide. Briggs confirmed with Covert that the bike lane design would result in sacrificing the pedestrian experience in favor of cyclists.
Briggs also wondered whether there could be trails through the wetland area. Covert described the design as including a sidewalk that would wrap around the wetland, and a landscaped area for people to congregate on the east side of the wetland. But when he’s been physically on the site, the wetlands have been wet – there are no plans to put trails through it.
Finally, Briggs asked whether they had considered aligning the Washtenaw entrance/exit with the Whole Foods entrance/exit across Washtenaw Avenue – in the current design, you’d have a slight jog to get from one to the other, she noted. Covert said they looked at that possibility, but felt there’d be too much potential traffic conflict with people turning into and out of both spots, or trying to drive straight across.
Bonnie Bona spoke next, saying she would start with the “big question” – floor area ratio (FAR). She noted that the city had recently revised its area, height and placement (AHP) zoning. [City council approved the AHP amendments at its Jan. 3, 2011 meeting. FAR, a measure of density, is the ratio of the square footage of a building divided by the size of the lot. A one-story structure built lot-line-to-lot-line with no setbacks corresponds to an FAR of 100%. A similar structure built two-stories tall would result in an FAR of 200%. For more background, see Chronicle coverage: "Zoning 101: Area, Height, Placement"]
The AHP changes include allowing for up to 200% FAR at that location, Bona said, but Arbor Hills Crossing has a FAR of 28%. ”What didn’t we do right?” she asked. ”What did we not do to encourage density on your site?”
It’s disappointing to see the site being underused, Bona said, especially considering the increased number of commuters coming into Ann Arbor. She noted that according to the 2010 census, there are 60,000 people commuting to Ann Arbor, compared to 45,000 commuters in 2000.
Tom Stegeman of Campus Realty came to the podium to respond to Bona. Financial feasibility and the project’s viability were paramount, he said, noting that the site plan for the previous development at that location proposed greater density – but the developer wasn’t able to build it. It would be nice to have more mixed-use options, including residential, but they have to respect market conditions, he said.
They’re confident they can build the proposed project, Stegeman said, and they won’t start construction until they have pre-leased the buildings and have their financing in place.
Bona said she would have preferred a more phased-in site plan, that would eventually have created a denser development, because whatever is built will likely be there for 50 years, she said. The site is also on the city’s most efficient bus route – Route 4, traveling between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – with the most frequent number of buses. It’s unfortunate that the project doesn’t take advantage of that, she said.
Turning to parking, Bona asked what it would have taken for them to have built a parking structure, rather than a surface lot. Stegeman said the expense of a structure, coupled with market demand, were the main factors.
Bona then asked if they’d considered providing vehicle access from their development to the site east of their land. Whenever possible, it’s important that interior connections are provided between developments, she said – that keeps at least some traffic off of Washtenaw. She urged them to explore that possibility.
Diane Giannola asked whether the project would be relying on brownfield tax credits – those are being eliminated by the state, she said. Her question was answered by Anne Jamieson-Urena, director of brownfield and redevelopment incentives for AKT Peerless Environmental and Energy Services. [Jamieson-Urena is also involved in the Packard Square project at the former Georgetown Mall site – Washtenaw County commissioners approved the brownfield plan and grant application for that project last month.]
Jamieson-Urena said it’s no longer feasible to seek brownfield tax credits, because of state legislative changes. However, brownfield status would still allow them to seek tax increment financing, which would offset costs of cleaning contaminated soil on the site.
Wendy Woods directed her initial comments at the project’s south side, noting that it adjoins property that will soon be used for a school. [At their May 17, 2011 meeting, planning commissioners approved a special exception use for the property at 2203 Platt. The approval allows Summers-Knoll – a private school for grades K-8 – to convert the office building there into a school.]
Woods said she could imagine there’d be conflicts with vehicles coming out of the school, near the Arbor Hills Crossing exit onto Platt. She suggested that perhaps left turns could be restricted at certain times of the day, when traffic might be higher coming out of the school.
Covert shared some traffic count data, and said they anticipated that peak hours for their development wouldn’t coincide with peak hours for the school. Stegeman said he’d talked multiple times with Ron Weiser – a Summers-Knoll supporter and founder of McKinley, a real estate development firm – and that they’ll continue to communicate regularly with representatives from the school as the project progresses.
Eric Mahler, chair of the planning commission, asked about the status of the traffic signal at Platt and Washtenaw. Covert reported that they had submitted a traffic report and their project plans to MDOT, and paid application fees. They’ve had discussions with several MDOT representatives, he said, but don’t have anything in writing about the traffic signal installation. He said they’ve also had many discussions with AATA about the bus pullout, and have resubmitted their plans for stormwater management to the county water resources commissioner – they expect approval on that part of the project soon.
In wrapping up the discussion, several commissioners weighed in with issues they’d like the developer to address – in addition to the issues that staff had identified. They included: (1) looking at future plans for bike lanes along Washtenaw Avenue, as identified in the city’s non-motorized transportation plan; (2) identifying possible access to the wetland area; (3) aligning the Washtenaw entrance/exit with the Whole Foods/Huron Village Plaza entrance/exit across the street; (4) exploring the possibility of getting an easement and opening up vehicle traffic to the property on the east side of the development; and (5) addressing the width of the sidewalks along Washtenaw to ensure a sufficient buffer for pedestrians.
Carlberg also suggested looking at alternatives for tree placement along Washtenaw, keeping in mind that bike lanes might be added in the future. Trees should be located so that they wouldn’t have to be taken down in the future to make room for a bike lane, she said, “because taking down trees in this city is like taking your life in your hands.”
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone action on the Arbor Hills Crossing site plan. No date has been set for reconsideration.
Feedback for Pittsfield Township Master Plan
Based on input from planning commissioners, city planning staff had drafted some comments to give to Pittsfield Township regarding the township’s draft master plan. Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, asked commissioners for feedback on the document – which includes some questions and recommendations – before sending the memo to township officials. [.pdf of draft memo]
In particular, she wondered about the tone of the last recommendation – did it sound too defensive? Ann Arbor’s draft memo states:
The “Successful Economy” section indicates that, “Pittsfield Township has the critical advantage of being located to the immediate south of the City of Ann Arbor and providing an Ann Arbor mailing address while placing a much lower tax burden on businesses”. It should be noted that by far the largest tax burden on both City and Township businesses is for school systems, which the plan rightfully notes is competitive advantage for attracting residents. Given this fact, the statement can be interpreted as indicating that Pittsfield Township is a better place to do business than the City of Ann Arbor. This can also be interpreted as being inconsistent with language in the same chapter that emphasizes regional cooperation.
City of Ann Arbor taxpayers support the economic vitality of the region by subsidizing transit service to outlying communities, providing an outstanding park and recreation system available free of charge to Township residents, providing recycling and composting facilities that are available to township residents, maintaining roads and non-motorized facilities that township residents depend on to get to work and services, and contributing substantially to human service organizations that provide a safety net for County residents. The plan would be more successful in emphasizing inter-jurisdictional cooperation if it highlighted those things that the Township is doing to benefit the region rather than indicating that it is a better place to do business than the City of Ann Arbor.
Several commissioners weighed in, generally supportive of the statement. Evan Pratt indicated that while it was pointed, it wasn’t the first recommendation on the list. Wendy Woods noted that the statement is all true, and Diane Giannola added that it needs to be said – even if the township doesn’t respond to it.
Bonnie Bona suggested one additional word for the last sentence [indicated in italics]:
The plan would be more successful in emphasizing inter-jurisdictional cooperation if it also highlighted those things that the Township is doing to benefit the region rather than indicating that it is a better place to do business than the City of Ann Arbor.
Other minor changes in the draft were recommended – Rampson said she’d run the final version past Eric Mahler, the commission’s chair, before sending it to Pittsfield.
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the revised response to Pittsfield Township’s master plan.
Present: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Absent: Tony Derezinski
Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, June 21 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]
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