Despite Concerns, The Varsity Moves Ahead

University Bank project also gets planning commission OK

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Oct. 4, 2011): At a meeting that started later than usual to accommodate the dedication of city hall’s new Dreiseitl water sculpture, planning commissioners approved two projects that had previously been postponed.

Stephen Ranzini at sculpture dedication

Stephen Ranzini looks up at the water sculpture by Herbert Dreiseitl, during a public reception and dedication for the piece at city hall on Tuesday evening. Ranzini, president of University Bank, later attended a planning commission meeting inside city hall, where he told commissioners that No Parking signs are ugly. It's not clear what he thought about the sculpture.

Changes to a University Bank site plan for property at 2015 Washtenaw Ave., known as the Hoover Mansion, were approved unanimously, despite some concerns voiced by neighbors during a public hearing on the proposal. The changes – which primarily relate to creation of a new parking lot – required amending the supplemental regulations of the site’s planned unit development (PUD) zoning district originally approved in 1978.

Also back for review was The Varsity, a proposed “planned project” consisting of a 13-story apartment building with 181 units at 425 E. Washington, between 411 Lofts and the First Baptist Church. Intended for students, it’s the first project to go through the city’s new design review process. Only minor changes had been made since the proposal was first considered at the planning commission’s Sept. 20 meeting.

Fourteen people spoke during a public hearing on The Varsity, including several residents of the nearby Sloan Plaza who raised concerns about traffic at the Huron Street entrance, as well as aesthetic issues with the building’s facade facing Huron. The project was supported by a paster pastor at the First Baptist Church and the head of the State Street merchant association.

In addition to public hearings held on these two projects, one person spoke during public commentary at the start of the meeting. Rick Stepanovic told commissioners that he’s a University of Michigan student, and that Wendy Rampson – head of the city’s planning staff – had spoken to one of his classes last year. Among other things, she’d mentioned the city’s need for more student input, he said. Since then he’s been elected to the Michigan Student Assembly, and was offering to provide that input, either as a resident – he lives in the neighborhood near Packard and Hill – or by taking an issue back to MSA for broader student feedback.

Stepanovic indicated his intent to attend future planning commission meetings, but noted that MSA meetings are held at the same time – on Tuesday evenings.

University Bank PUD

The planning commission first reviewed University Bank’s proposal at its Oct. 19, 2010 meeting. Bank officials had requested approval to revise a planned unit development (PUD), allowing an increase in the total number of employees and parking spaces permitted at the bank’s headquarters at 2015 Washtenaw Ave. – the site known as the Hoover Mansion. The proposal included a request to build 14 new parking spaces on the east side – behind the main building – for a total of 53 spaces on the site. At the time, planning staff recommended denial, stating that the project impacts natural features and doesn’t offer an overall benefit to the city, as required by a PUD.

Rather than denying the proposal, planning commissioners voted to postpone it and asked staff to work with the bank in finding an alternative parking option.

Nearly a year later, a revised proposal was on the agenda for the commission’s Sept. 8 meeting, reflecting a consensus that had been reached among planning staff, neighbors and bank officials. However, commissioners ended up postponing a recommendation again, because the final site plan had not yet been submitted by the bank.

By the Oct. 4 meeting, all pieces were in place. The proposal would increase the number of allowable employees from 50 to 59 at the bank’s headquarters and add a new parking lot on the site, with a setback of 24 feet from the eastern property line. That’s an additional nine feet away from the property line than originally proposed.

A continuous six-foot-high wall is proposed along the eastern and southeastern property lines, to screen the parking lot from 2021 Washtenaw Ave. and 2107-2109 Tuomy. Two landmark trees and 19 woodland trees totaling 186 caliper inches will be removed as part of the project, but the bank has proposed planting trees throughout the site totaling 223 caliper inches – more than is required.

The changes require amending the supplemental regulations of the site’s planned unit development (PUD) zoning district, which was originally approved in 1978.

University Bank: Public Hearing

Five people spoke during a public hearing on the proposal, including two representatives from the bank.

Dan Dever introduced himself as an attorney representing the Serwers, a couple who own a home that’s the closest residential property to the bank. He thanked planning staff for their work, but noted that there are two issues that are of serious concern to the Serwers. Nowhere in the supplemental regulations does it state that bank employees “shall not park on the driveway.” [The driveway into the Serwers' property is accessed via the bank's driveway.] He noted that for the past year, bank employees have been parking along the driveway leading to the bank building. Dever then read an excerpt from a letter that Ranzini had sent to the planning commission on Oct. 21, 2010, following the Oct. 20 planning commission meeting. From Ranzini’s letter:

We HATE the alternative proposal of building up berms that encroach into the lawn and parking spots alongside the driveway. This was foisted on us by the planning staff and at the suggestion of Kem-Tech, since it is the second least worst alternative to the proposed 13 unit parking lot. To illustrate to you and the neighbors how impractical the planning staff’s suggestion of parking alongside the driveway is and how this will damage the view shed, we will conduct the following experiment until the parking lot is approved: While previously we had taken a variety of measures to actively discourage our employees, visitors and bank examiners from parking in the driveway, we will remove those restrictions and encourage them to park there. I hope you have the opportunity to drive by over the next few weeks and take a look and how unsightly the cars in the front lawn area are.” [.pdf of Ranzini's letter]

Dever asked commissioners to add stronger language in the supplemental regulations: (1) adding that vehicles can’t be parked on either side of that driveway, and (2) requiring more than just one No Parking sign along that stretch. It’s important, he said, because bank officials “do not historically observe the written word.”

Ken Sprinkles of University Bank said he’s been working on this project for three years. The reason that cars are parked along the driveway is that there’s insufficient parking, he said. If the city approves additional parking, the bank would enforce a no-parking requirement along the driveway. The bank also plans to start issuing parking permit stickers for employee vehicles – that’s something they don’t currently do, Sprinkles said.

Gerald Serwer, who owns the home with a driveway that’s accessed via the bank’s driveway, told commissioners that changes to the bank’s site plan would affect the financial value of his home, as well as his ability to enjoy living there. If the bank has no intention of parking along the main driveway, he said, then it didn’t seem like bank officials should object to adding more No Parking signs. He also wanted to ensure that there’d be no parking along that driveway during construction of the new parking lot. Serwer also noted that he’s asked the bank to use stone veneer on the side of the 6-foot-high wall that faces their house, to match the house’s exterior. But the main issue is parking, he concluded.

Stephen Ranzini, president of University Bank, began by noting that the bank began this process 36 months ago. Since September, the bank has hired 30 people, he said, but only one of those is working in Ann Arbor. University Bank is the 11th largest employer of any bank in Michigan, he said, but job growth is happening at the bank’s offices in Farmington Hills and Clinton Township, instead of Ann Arbor, in part because of delays with this project.

Regarding No Parking signs, Ranzini said his preference is for one sign, because signs are ugly and affect the viewshed. In reference to the removal of trees, he noted that 100 years ago, the site was a sheep farm – every tree on the property is less than 100 years old. Regarding parking on the driveway, the bank started its “experiment” in having employees park along the driveway after the city requested alternatives to a new parking lot, he said. He wanted everyone to see what that would look like. And because the process to get approval has been so slow, he said, the experiment has lasted a year.

Ranzini urged the commission to approve the project, so that it can be considered by the city council. He hoped commissioners would do their part to help preserve an historic building, which he said is expensive to maintain. One of the biggest problems since the building was converted to offices in 1978 has been inadequate parking, he concluded.

Sheryl Serwer noted that it’s also been three years that she and her husband have been dealing with this issue – she first heard about it on her birthday three years ago. “Now I’m three years older and still worrying about it.” She said she’s come to accept the loss of trees on the site. But she’s still concerned about the parking – she’d like to get out of her driveway safely. In the winter, if it’s icy and there are cars parked on both sides of the entrance to her driveway, she said she’s afraid her car might slide into the parked vehicles. No Parking signs should be posted, she said, and parking shouldn’t be allowed there. She concluded by congratulating Ranzini for the growth of his business, and the recent birth of his child.

University Bank: Commission Discussion

Tony Derezinski began by asking planning staff to respond to the questions raised during public commentary, related to parking. How would the supplemental regulations be enforced? He said he thought the parties had reached an agreement – was this a new item?

Alexis DiLeo noted that this isn’t a public street – it’s not even a private street. It’s a driveway. The number of signs is discretional, she said, and the bank’s preference is for one sign.

If it meant that the project wouldn’t otherwise be approved, would the bank be willing to add another sign? Derezinski wondered. Ranzini said he wanted to make clear that bank employees didn’t start parking along the driveway until the planning staff suggested there might be a more viable alternative to the new parking lot. Parking in the driveway is ugly, he said. The experiment is done, so there won’t be parking there any longer. The bank might reluctantly put up another sign, he added, but signs are ugly.

Derezinski asked whether it would be possible to add the requirement of an additional sign in the supplemental regulations. “A beautiful one,” he quipped.

DiLeo suggested a possible place within the supplemental regulations to insert a sign requirement, and Derezinski made a motion to do that. Kirk Westphal clarified with DiLeo that previously, there was no mention of a sign at all. When asked about enforcement, DiLeo said a violation would be handled just like any other zoning violation – for example, if the bank removed a tree that had been stipulated to be preserved by the PUD’s supplemental regulations.

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, said the city wouldn’t ticket or tow cars parked on private property. If someone complained about a violation, the city could fine the property owner. She indicated that adding something like the sign requirement was highly unusual.

Derezinski then expressed frustration, saying ”it’s too bad we’re getting formal.” This shouldn’t be a problem, he said, but there’s been a lot of history regarding this project. He thought the parties had moved past that, but now they’re quibbling over a small thing.

Derezinski said he’d made a motion to amend the supplemental regulations so that everyone could reach resolution. But now he felt there’s a clear understanding of expectations, so he was withdrawing the motion to amend.

Evan Pratt hoped that people felt all of the issues were being addressed. When changes to a PUD are requested, it requires give and take, he observed. He applauded the bank’s parking experiment. The original thinking was that it would be good to avoid adding more pavement, he said, and the experiment tested whether other parking options were viable. It’s taken a year, but it sounds like they now have a good outcome, he said.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend approval of changes to the bank’s site plan and supplemental regulations. The project will now be forwarded to the city council.

The Varsity at Ann Arbor

At their Sept. 20, 2011 meeting, the planning commission had made an initial review of The Varsity, a 13-story building at 425 E. Washington, stretching from East Washington to East Huron in the block between South State and South Division. The proposed development is located east of the 411 Lofts building and west of the First Baptist Church, and is currently the site of a two-story office building that formerly housed the Prescription Shop. Alexis DiLeo of the city’s planning staff told commissioners that the design hasn’t altered significantly since that meeting.

Minor modifications include narrowing the walkway on the building’s east side, mounting lights on the building instead of poles along the east side of the path, and removing decorative pillars at both ends of the walkway, previously proposed on the east side of the path and on the First Baptist Church property. Because the church is located in an historic district, any changes on its property would have required approval by the city’s historic district commission.

The main features of the project are unchanged. The 177,180-square-foot apartment building is to include 181 apartments with a total of 415 bedrooms, to be marketed to university students. The plan also calls for 70 parking spaces, both underground and on the street level, with entrances off of East Huron and East Washington. In addition, two spaces would be provided on adjacent property (owned by the same developer) to use for a car-sharing service like Zipcar. A total of 121 bike spaces are also proposed for the project.

The Varsity at Ann Arbor: Public Commentary

Fourteen people spoke during a public hearing on The Varsity.

Hugh Sonk spoke on behalf of the Sloan Plaza Condominium Association, and restated many of the concerns that he raised at the commission’s Sept. 20 meeting. Sloan Plaza is located at 505 E. Huron, just east and across the street from The Varsity site, and residents are concerned about the development’s impact on their quality of life. Specifically, they are concerned about increased traffic congestion as vehicles turn into the building’s Huron Street entrance.

People who currently have monthly parking permits at the existing site will be displaced, Sonk said, potentially causing parking problems in the area. Sonk’s final concern related to the Huron Street facade, which he described as bland. It doesn’t reflect the character of the adjacent historical buildings, he said, and it needs to be treated as an important front to one of the city’s major thoroughfares. The current design doesn’t do that, he said.

Ethel Potts, a former planning commissioner, described the public hearing as an important one, since it’s a new major building downtown and the first one that’s gone through the city’s new design review process. She noted that city officials have said the recent downtown zoning changes and design review process will be reviewed next spring, to see if it’s delivering what residents want.

This building and its review show some flaws in the process and in the city’s ordinances, she said. For one thing, the design review doesn’t deal with height and mass, Potts noted – and The Varsity isn’t compatible with the scale and character of surrounding buildings. How will the small, elegant, historic church live with a tall, broad wall along its lot line? Potts also pointed to a lack of green space in the design. “Weren’t we seeking downtown livability?” she asked.

Christine Crockett introduced herself as president of the Old Fourth Ward Association, and a member of the committee that helped write the city’s design guidelines. The design review board, neighbors and people who’ve spoken during public commentary have all been emphatic that design of The Varsity’s north facade is unacceptable, Crockett said. It’s been tweaked a little, but is essentially 13 stories of yellow brick that’s unrelieved by pattern, texture or sympathy with the surrounding character district, she said.

The building will be there for decades, Crockett noted, so it’s important to make it as attractive as possible, adding that the architect should be ashamed. The Varsity developer and design team have the chance to make that block of Huron Street better and more pedestrian friendly, she said. “There are ways they can do it, but they won’t.”

Another issue is the walkway on the building’s east side, Crockett said. The design review board had indicated this summer that the walkway is too narrow, but now the developer has narrowed it even more, she said. It’s going to be like a tunnel – unattractive and dangerous, she said.

Stephan Trendov, an urban planner, said he’s in favor of the project. This summer he had attended a 2.5-hour meeting about The Varsity at the Michigan Union, and the group there had spent time talking about the building facade and pedestrian walkway. The vision is to move pedestrians from Huron all the way to East Liberty, he said, but this walkway doesn’t do that. There are opportunities for improvements, like adding a pergola or landscaping. The community is watching, he said, and so far, the reaction to what’s been discussed hasn’t been impressive. There haven’t been enough changes.

Donnie Gross, the project’s developer, told commissioners that he’s proud of the project. He could have designed a box-like by-right project, he said, but they’ve done more than that. Despite what people during the public hearing have indicated, Gross said, he and the design team have listened to input and changed the design 20-30 times. Turning to some of the previous speakers, Gross told them that just because they didn’t get everything they want doesn’t mean he hasn’t listened and made changes.

One of the first things his team did was to meet with the neighboring church, Gross said. It’s important to get the church’s approval, because they’ll be neighbors for the next 100 years. They’ll also be asking the church for an easement, so that the walkway on the east side of The Varsity can be widened, he said.

Gross said he’s not opposed to retail in the building, but he’s seen the difficulty that the neighboring 411 Lofts has had in finding tenants. “I’m opposed to retail that’s empty.” Instead, The Varsity is designed so that residents of the building will be like a “3-D billboard,” using a fitness area and lounge in the lower levels. The building would look naked and drab if the first floor were dark, but as long as there is light and activity, it doesn’t matter if the activity is someone getting a pizza or using a computer. The Varsity will add life to East Washington, he said. He noted that the plaza area on East Washington will include a green roof.

Noting that he owns the historic house next to The Varsity site, Gross told commissioners that even the soil beneath the house is declared historic, so he’s unable to excavate it. If he could excavate, he could add more underground parking and have only one entrance – but that’s not possible. He concluded by noting that citizens can say anything to make developers look bad, but there are reasons behind these decisions.

Maurice Binkow, another Sloan Plaza resident, said he joined others in objecting to the unsightly design of The Varsity’s Huron facade, along a road with so many distinguished buildings. He also expressed concern about the Huron entrance into the parking garage, noting that cars would likely be backed up onto Huron as they wait to enter. It would also be a problem for cars coming out onto Huron, if they were making a lefthand turn. He asked that the developer put a lease restriction in place that would prevent left turns onto Huron.

Noting that she is Maurice Binkow’s wife, Linda Binkow said that some of the city’s greatest assets are the properties along Huron Street– they are an exceptionally attractive and valuable part of the city. The city collects tax revenues from those properties, she added. Putting a building like The Varsity on Huron will cause traffic problems and greatly decrease the value of property in that area, she said. It’s not in the city’s interest to do that. She suggested that the building could be designed with a setback, and additional stories.

Tom Heywood, executive director of the State Street Area Association, observed that The Varsity could be built by-right, and that although the design review is mandatory, compliance is voluntary. He said he respected the views of neighbors in the area and residents of Sloan Plaza, but noted that the association’s board has reviewed the building plans and had voted unanimously in support of it. The association has been told that parking spaces will be freed up in Tally Hall [Liberty Square] as soon as the underground parking structure on South Fifth Avenue is completed. That should help the parking situation.

The plaza on the East Washington side is an essential buffer for the church, Heywood said. And while the association would prefer retail on the first floor, that can’t be mandated – and the association doesn’t want to see empty space there, like it’s been for 411 Lofts. He noted that the space could be easily convertible into retail or commercial use, if a good proposal comes forward in the future. The association board respectfully requests approval of The Varsity, he concluded.

Ray Detter of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) told commissioners that he appreciated the building’s green roof – this was the first time he’d heard about it. This whole design review process is new, he said, and it’s an educational process too. Everyone’s had a chance to discuss the design, even though changes aren’t compulsory. He noted that CAC supports the plaza setback on East Washington, and the mews on the east side. The developer didn’t have to do those those things. The CAC would like to see the first-floor parking moved underground, and wants the mews walkway expanded even more, Detter said. That walkway, leading to a crosswalk across Washington and into the alley next to Tally Hall, would result in improving the alley, he said, so that it’s ”not the dump it is now.”

Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor of the First Baptist Church, handed out a letter she’d written in support of the project. [.pdf of Simpson Duke's letter] She said she never wanted a high-rise building next to the church – she liked seeing the sun set from the church – and she had spoken against the A2D2 zoning changes for downtown that were ultimately approved.

However, the people involved with The Varsity have been the best neighbors they could possibly be, Duke said. The design team has met with church representatives monthly, have listened to input and have explicitly incorporated design elements to address the church’s concerns. Simpson Duke said she’s especially excited about the walkway and the plaza next to the church. She’s also excited about the 400 students who’ll be living there, and the increased foot traffic in that area. She thanked the developer and his team for being good neighbors.

Joan French, a resident of Sloan Plaza, urged commissioners not to allow the Huron Street facade to be a back door. People along Huron can see the beautiful buildings like Campus Inn and the University of Michigan’s new North Quad. She supported the project, but wanted to see details on the Huron entrance that will make people say “wow.”

Brad Moore, an architect on The Varsity project, brought up a panel with samples of the materials that would be used on the building. The renderings of the building that were projected on-screen during the meeting showed a color of brick that was more yellow than it actually would be, he said. The brick evokes the exterior of UM’s original chemistry building, and is intended to be distinctive from the bright red brick of 411 Lofts.

There will be architectural detail, Moore said. Regarding the walkway, there’s no objection to widening it, Moore said, but The Varsity developer can’t do a site plan on the church’s property. Moore said he was certain that in the future the walk would be widened – that action might be handled administratively by city staff, or with the help of the church working through the historic district commission process.

Moore also reported that there will be a lease condition that specifies “right in, right out” only turns for the entrance off of Huron Street. There will be video surveillance cameras to monitor compliance, and if there are complaints, the building’s owner can impose sanctions against tenants who violate that condition, Moore said.

Bob Keane, a principal with WDG Architects in Washington D.C. who also spoke at the Sept. 20 meeting on behalf of the developer, addressed design concerns of the Huron facade. He described several ways in which the design has been changed. For example, the former metal garage door now will have frosted glass panels and look very elegant, he said, evocative of a storefront. There’s also a pedestrian entrance on the Huron side. People will drive by and think it’s the front entrance, Keane said, describing it as an “elegant urban facade.”

The final speaker was Rita Gelman, a resident of Sloan Plaza. (Her husband, Chuck Gelman, attended the meeting but did not speak during the public hearing.) She handed out a letter to commissioners, and said her main concerns are parking, green space and traffic. It’s important to keep the quality of the Huron Street corridor, but the proposed building looks humongous and commercial, she said. In contrast, Sloan Plaza is a building that looks residential, she said.

The Varsity at Ann Arbor: Commission Discussion

Kirk Westphal noted that the city had received a letter from Laura Houk, chairperson of the Ann Arbor Cooperative Preschool, a tenant at the First Baptist Church. [.pdf of Houk's letter] Houk had expressed concern about possible hazardous materials, noise and traffic during the demolition and construction phases of the project, and the impact on the preschool, which uses an outdoor playground year-round. She wanted the city to ensure that the developer mitigate the effects of the demolition and construction.

Westphal asked how those concerns would be addressed. Alexis DiLeo said she planned to meet with the preschool director, and go over the basic process for projects like this. The developer has had at least one meeting with the preschool too, she said. Regarding hazardous materials, if there are any on that site, there are state and federal regulations that govern the handling of those materials. She said she trusted that the developer would take steps to minimize the impact.

Erica Briggs noted that the developer’s ultimate intent is eventually to widen the walkway – that’s great, she said. In response to a query from Briggs about lighting, Brad Moore said there’s not currently room for pedestal lighting along the walkway – lights will be mounted on the building. But the intent is to include pedestal lighting in the future, and the developer would pay for it.

Briggs expressed concern that the sidewalk in front of the East Washington entrance isn’t clearly defined – that might be a safety issue, she said. She encouraged the design team to give more thought about how to make the pedestrian experience as safe as possible, especially in the driveway area leading to the parking garage.

Briggs also asked whether the developer planned to add any amenities for bicyclists – she had broached this subject at the Sept. 20 meeting, suggesting that things like a free air pump would be a public amenity. Donnie Gross, the developer, said he couldn’t make a commitment about that, but said they would explore that possibility.

Diane Giannola said her only concern is parking. She realized that the project includes the minimum number of parking spaces required by the city, and noted that the intent is to encourage people not to use cars. But she’s more of a realist, she said, and worries that there’ll be an even bigger parking problem in that area than there is now. [This issue was also addressed in an email sent to the planning staff by Jerry Weaver, manager for the Firestone shop at the corner of Division and Huron. He stated that because of parking needs at 411 Lofts, people are parking at other lots in the area and more cars have been impounded this fall than the prior 10 years combined. .pdf of Weaver's letter]

Giannola said that the way The Varsity selects its tenants will determine whether the development is a good neighbor. She asked that the owner find ways to discourage people from bringing cars. Eric Mahler, chair of the planning commission, quickly added that the city doesn’t advocate for discrimination based on anything.

For his part, Mahler pointed to the development agreement for The Varsity, citing the section stipulating that plazas on the site are intended to serve in lieu of a financial contribution to city parks:

(P-8) For the benefit of the residents of the PROPRIETOR’S development, in lieu of a contribution of $112,000 to the CITY Parks and Recreation Services Unit prior to the issuance of building permits, to construct and maintain as an integral part of the development the proposed amenities in the north and south plazas and the walkway along the east side of the site as generally illustrated and described in the exhibits to this Agreement. [.pdf of draft development agreement]

Mahler wondered whether the city can seek an injunction against the developer, if the plazas aren’t built as envisioned. DiLeo said the city won’t issue a certificate of occupancy unless the project passes a site inspection and meets all the requirements outlined in the development agreement.

Westphal weighed in again with several observations. He said he can see how the plazas benefit the church, but it gets tricky when zoning is bent to fit one neighbor.

By way of background, The Varsity is a “planned project,” which allows some limited flexibility in design. The setback to accommodate the plaza on East Washington, for example, is greater than would otherwise be allowed for a by-right project on that site. It differs from a planned unit development (PUD) in granting far less flexibility. From Chapter 55 of the city code [emphasis added]:

Planned Projects. 5:68. The intent of this section is to provide an added degree of flexibility in the placement and interrelationship of the buildings within the planned project and to provide for permanent open space preservation within planned projects. Modifications of the area, height, placement requirements, and lot sizes, where used for permanent open space preservation, of this Chapter may be permitted if the planned project would result in the preservation of natural features, additional open space, greater building or parking setback, energy conserving design, preservation of historic or architectural features, expansion of the supply of affordable housing for lower income households or a beneficial arrangement of buildings. A planned project shall maintain the permitted uses and requirements for maximum density, maximum floor area and minimum usable open space specified in this Chapter for the zoning district(s) in which the proposed planned project is located.

Westphal praised the plans to eventually widen the walkway, and said he appreciated the bike parking. Regarding vehicle parking, he said things won’t change until the message gets out that the city doesn’t want to see large portions of land used for car storage. He doesn’t have a problem with limited parking on that site.

He also commended the design review board, saying that they didn’t suggest changes that are too burdensome. He hoped that people would stay tuned for a review of the design process next year.

Noting that he hadn’t attended the Sept. 20 meeting, Evan Pratt asked whether the design of the Huron facade had changed since then. No, DiLeo replied, but the design had changed since the developer’s team met with the design review board in the summer.

Tony Derezinski said the planned project approach is a creative way to work with The Varsity’s neighbor and create an attractive plaza, even though it’s larger than what would otherwise be allowed by code. He indicated that some people wouldn’t be satisfied with any design, and at some point it’s the commission’s responsibility to say enough is enough. The developer has shown willingness to make some changes, he said, and if retail eventually becomes viable, the developer will include that. Derezinski concluded by saying The Varsity will add to the area and improve the city’s tax base.

Giannola asked whether it would be possible to require a No Left Turn sign – could that be added to the development agreement? Gross said he’d welcome that. Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, said the city can’t require that a sign be added to the public right-of-way – that’s the purview of the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, since Huron is a trunkline. Rampson said the developer could certainly put a sign on his property, but she didn’t recommend altering the development agreement to address traffic engineering issues like this. No amendment was made.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the site plan for The Varsity at Ann Arbor. It will be considered next by city council.

Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Erica Briggs, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal.

Absent: Bonnie Bona, Wendy Woods

Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, Oct. 18 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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  1. October 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm | permalink

    The comments about parking for the Varsity project are significant because they play into a number of conflicting messages about the downtown parking system.

    When the underground structure for 5th Avenue was proposed, we were told that it was because of a parking shortage for downtown customers, especially in the State Street area. (I reviewed this in a blog post [link].) Meanwhile, the DDA has increased parking fees and is moving to implement a demand-management scheme for downtown (hourly)parking. The message is that parking is at a premium.

    But this same taxpayer-subsidized parking system is also being called on to support development downtown. Although the proposed hotel/conference center on the Library Lot has been derailed, it is likely that some development there, or possibly on the Y lot, will be expected to use some of these spaces. Recently it has been suggested that the Heritage Row/City Place developer might be given access to some of those spaces, and now we are hearing that The Varsity would expect to fill some of its tenants’ needs using the city’s parking system (parking spaces being a fungible resource, if they are removed from Liberty Square, the need will flow elsewhere, and the new structure was suggested here to be the answer).

    The new spaces are costing, by some estimates, around $50,000, and the parking system has financial strains, in part because the Council has turned to using parking as a revenue stream for the General Fund. I have not done recent calculations, but I’m pretty sure that monthly permits do not pay their way in making up the cost of construction. So if the Planning Commission is not the body to calculate what is the appropriate cost to the downtown parking system for this new development, who should take that responsibility?

  2. By Stephen Lange Ranzini
    October 8, 2011 at 7:05 pm | permalink

    Regarding the caption on the picture at top, the Chronicle wrote: “Stephen Ranzini looks up at the water sculpture by Herbert Dreiseitl, … It’s not clear what he thought about the sculpture.”

    I think it would be fun for the Chronicle to join in the public contest to name the sculpture. Here are some names that various people in town have suggested:

    1. “The Hurinal”, a combination of the Huron River and Urinal, for the trench the water trickles down.

    2. “The Finger”, a metaphor based on the shape of the vertical plinth, for how the city’s leaders view the citizens by paying $750,000 for the sculpture, but best exemplified by both the “Rog Mahal” and the “Big Dig” where another $100 million was wasted, at a time when the city’s leaders have cut fire and police safety below acceptable levels, and propose to cut even more.

    3. “The Shaft”, an apt metaphor, similar to #2.

    4. “Temple of Wretched Excess with the World’s Largest Urinal”, David Cahill’s suggestion.

    Having seen “it” close up in person now, I vote for #3.

    Perhaps others have some additional ideas?

  3. October 8, 2011 at 7:42 pm | permalink

    As I noted in a Stopped Watched, my husband and I made a side trip last night specifically to see the sculpture. Not only was it not turned on for viewing, but tarps were left strewn about the base. Apparently when the formalities were concluded, this art was no longer available for “the public”.

    I’m grateful for the gift that University Bank has given us in Ann Arbor in preserving the historic Hoover Mansion and its wonderful setting. How sad it would have been to see that broken up for student housing developments.

  4. October 8, 2011 at 8:32 pm | permalink

    Re: [2]

    For my part, I see little utility in contemplation of past quarrels concerning various controversies related to this work of art, and would suggest that for the greater good of Ann Arbor we focus on having a fulsome discussion about a potential name that might well be ongoing and unsettled for the better part of the next decade, so that we might eventually arrive at a name that strikes a balance between the need on the one hand to have a handy label, and a desire on the community’s part on the other hand, to convey the elite aesthetic standard to which we aspire. In that context, I would submit that a name striking this delicate balance would be: “Dropsically Blue”

  5. October 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm | permalink

    I think the spaces at the new Fifth Ave structure are closer to $70,000 each, based on the $50 million construction cost and the 640 to 717 spaces being built (sources vary on the exact number). Monthly permits run $140 per month. So I think it’s pretty clear that these spaces are being subsidized, at least for monthly permit holders.

  6. By Bob Martel
    October 9, 2011 at 6:20 pm | permalink

    “The project was supported by a paster at the First Baptist Church and the head of the State Street merchant association.”

    Paster? Is that the past-tense of Pastor?

  7. By Barbara
    October 9, 2011 at 9:34 pm | permalink

    Re: 2 & 4

    Ed Vielmetti posted a picture of the fountain on his flickr, and he mentioned it looks like the remains of an ash tree that was attacked by the emerald ash borer. It does to me too, having lost a beautiful ash to the bug.

    Perhaps we could have a name that commemorates that?

  8. October 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm | permalink

    Re: commemoration of ash tree with fountain name [plus German pun]: AschenPuddle

  9. October 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm | permalink

    Ed’s picture is rather beautiful and I agree about its looking like ash borer galleries. I wonder that the artist doesn’t have a name for it. Does he see its most important features being the water(I understand that he does a lot of water features) or are the other aspects important to him? The lights are starlike and the galleries could be seen as active, not merely ornamentation.

  10. By suswhit
    October 10, 2011 at 9:25 am | permalink

    I think when you hire a landscape architect you get landscaping not “named” art. Even when it costs a million dollars.

  11. By john floyd
    November 4, 2011 at 6:32 pm | permalink

    Mr Derezinski is wrong, The Varsity is in the DDA zone, and any any increase in taxes goes to the DDA, not the city.

    As a member of 1st Baptist, I cannot share my pastor’s enthusiasm for this project. To me, it is a form of church desecration.