Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Oct. 18, 2011): In its main business of the evening, the planning commission recommended approval of the site plan for Arbor Hills Crossing, a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw.
Action had been postponed at the commission’s June 7, 2011 meeting so that the developer – Campus Realty – could address some outstanding issues with the plan.
Commissioners were satisfied with the revisions the developer had undertaken to the plan in response to their comments made at the June 7 meeting. Commissioner Bonnie Bona characterized the site plan as essentially a disguised strip shopping center, but allowed that it was a good strip shopping center.
Arbor Hills Crossing will next go before the city council for its approval.
The commission also granted three separate requests for flexible application of the new landscape ordinance approved by the city council in June 2011. Those requests were from: (1) Gallup One Stop gas station and convenience store; (2) the University of Michigan Credit Union (formerly the Ann Arbor News building); and (3) Glacier Hills.
The commission meeting included its usual range of updates on city council and planning staff activity.
Arbor Hills Crossing Site Plan
The commission was asked to recommend approval of the site plan for Arbor Hills Crossing, a proposed retail and office complex at Platt and Washtenaw. Action had been postponed at the commission’s June 7, 2011 meeting so that the developer – Campus Realty – could address some outstanding issues with the plan.
Arbor Hills Crossing Site Plan: Background
The project involves tearing down three vacant commercial 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 would include 310 parking spaces.
According to the city planning staff memo included in the information packet, several changes have been made to the plan since the commission last considered it. At the Oct. 18 meeting, city planner Jeff Kahan ticked through them.
The developer is working with the Michigan Dept. of Transportation to install a traffic signal at the intersection of Washtenaw and Platt. MDOT has signed a letter stating that it is supportive of the signal, but details of design and financing haven’t yet been worked out. In addition, the developer has indicated willingness to locate a bus pullout on property on the west side of Platt Road – the location preferred by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. The AATA preference is based on the fact that such a placement encourages crossing at the intersection and allows more space for nonmotorized travel on Washtenaw Avenue, north of the project’s Building A.
The developer is also working to obtain a letter from the property owner south of the site, granting permission to extend the curb radius of the Platt Road driveway within 4.5 feet of the neighbor’s property. The site plan will not be forwarded to city council for approval until that permission is granted, according to city staff.
The city’s brownfield plan review committee has recommended that the project’s brownfield plan be approved by city council. Kahan reviewed how the brownfield plan involves cleaning up three areas of contaminated soil on the site. The developer intends to remove some soils and to cover others with clean fill, or with a vapor barrier within the building.
The site plan and brownfield plan also require city council approval.
Arbor Hills Crossing Site Plan: Public Hearing
Tom Covert of Atwell, an Ann Arbor civil engineering and landscape architecture firm, came to the podium to tell the planning commission he was there along with others in the project team, including Tom Stegeman and Norm Hyman from the ownership group.
Since the last time they appeared before the commission Covert said, the team had communicated with the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner and the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. The team had addressed many of the comments made at the previous meeting, he said, and had made modifications to the site plan. Adjustments had been made to the entrance to the site from Washtenaw Avenue. Adjustments had also been made to the pedestrian/bike path so that it’s a uniform 10-foot width all across the frontage. A patio has been added west of Building C.
He noted that the project had obtained approval from the city’s brownfield plan review committee. The development team is working towards an agreement granting permission to extend the curb radius of the Platt Road driveway within 4.5 feet of the neighbor’s property. The goal, Covert said, is to continue dialogue and answer any questions the planning commission has, and to move the project along to the city council.
Robb Burroughs of ReFORM Studios Inc., the project’s architect, described some to the changes that had been made to two buildings, Building A and Building D, which he described as the two primary corners of the site. To Building A, more fenestration and glazing had been added, he said, as well as a pedestrian door. Lattice treatment had been added at the pedestrian level. The entry to the building had been made more dominant, he said.
For Building D, he’d increased the amount of transparency and introduced more pedestrian-scale elements. A long metal strut had been added to work as a foil. In sum, he’d made revisions to enhance the two primary corner buildings on the site, he said.
Arbor Hills Crossing Site Plan: Commission Deliberations
Wendy Woods said she supported the shift of the bus pullout location – she was glad to see that. She had a question about the brownfield component: What is a “vapor barrier” all about?
City planner Jeff Kahan explained that it’s a membrane that would prevent poisonous gases from entering the building. There’s a number of ways to provide that barrier, he said. Arthur Siegal, the developer’s environmental attorney, said Kahan’s description was accurate. He described it as a “conservative measure” in this instance. It mitigates any vapor at any level, even if it’s below the established risk levels, he said.
Woods asked if levels of contaminants are continuously monitored throughout the life of the building. Siegal told Woods there is a passive ventilation system, and it works automatically. In response to another query from Woods, Siegal said it’s Building C and Building D where the vapor barrier might be needed – there’s some soil gas testing that still needs to be done. Building D might not need a membrane, Siegal said. He went on to confirm for Woods that there are two separate systems for each building.
Woods wanted to know how common the use of membranes is in brownfield remediation. Siegal explained that it had become more common in the last 3-5 years. Woods wanted to know how the contamination would be addressed that might still exist in soil from the parking lot. Siegal explained that the state has two standards, indoors and outdoors. Levels of contamination can be higher outdoors, he said, and for this site, levels are well under the maximum.
Bonnie Bona asked Siegal if he knew the sources of the contamination. He explained that a gas station was formerly located on the western edge of the property. There are low levels of residual contaminant consistent with that. There used to be an auto repair facility under Building C and D, he said. Oils, greases, cleaners and solvents were there. It underwent remediation in the past, but not all of it was cleaned up, Siegal said.
Tony Derezinski praised the location of the crosswalk, saying that it would benefit not only Arbor Hill’s customers, but also the Washtenaw County recreation center, at the southwest corner of Platt and Washtenaw. He wanted to know if there was any discussion of a shelter in connection with the bus pullout. The development team indicated that there would be a bus shelter installed consistent with other AATA bus shelters – on whatever side of Platt Road it’s placed.
Derezinski noted that the Washtenaw-Platt intersection was identified as a major node of crossing in the Reimagine Washtenaw study.
Erica Briggs asked if there was any consideration of a boardwalk for the wooded area on the site, to help people get across it who wanted to get from one building to the other. The development team indicated that it had been considered, but it’s really not that far to follow around the edge of the wooded area – the whole site plan is conceived to be pedestrian friendly. There’s a walkway all the way around the internal perimeter of the area that’s being preserved as wetland on the site.
Briggs wondered about the possibility that there could be some additional collaboration with public art. The development team said that could be considered. Briggs suggested that perhaps Derezinski could take that issue back the city’s public art commission, on which he serves.
Kirk Westphal said he appreciated the added effort made by the developer since the first presentation to the commission. He said he seconded Briggs’ interest in advocating for additional ornamentation on the west elevation.
Bona also thanked the developer for responding to requested changes. She characterized them as subtle but felt they could benefit the project far more than the cost. She said the project had interesting shapes. Ultimately, it’s disguising a strip shopping center, but it’s a good strip center, she said.
Eric Mahler, chair of the planning commission, asked about some language in the development agreement that appeared to contemplate conversion to condominium units. He wonder if that was standard. Jeff Kahan indicated that it is standard language – if the property were split into condos, then the new owners would need to adhere to this agreement. The development team indicated, however, it’s not intended as a condo project for residential use.
Mahler also got clarification that it’s standard not to put anything about brownfield mitigation into the development agreement. City planning manager Wendy Rampson explained that the brownfield agreement is a separate agreement.
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the Arbor Hills Crossing site plan. It will now be forwarded to the city council for approval.
Exemptions for Landscaping Plans
Non-conforming landscaping plans for three different projects were considered by the planning commission at their Oct. 18 meeting.
Exemptions for Landscaping Plans: Background
The exemptions were prompted when the three projects requested administrative amendments – changes that can be made at the staff level – to previously approved site plans. Those projects are: (1) a 184-square-foot addition to the Gallup One Stop gas station and convenience store at 2955 Packard Road; (2) a 3,231-square-foot third-floor addition to the University of Michigan Credit Union at 340 E. Huron St. (formerly the Ann Arbor News building); and (3) reconfiguration of parking lots for a Glacier Hills planned project Life Enrichment Center addition, at 1200 Earhart Road.
The planning commission was asked to allow existing landscaping plans that were previously authorized at those sites to remain in place, even though the plans now don’t conform to requirements in the landscaping ordinance.
Prior to recent revisions of the city’s landscape ordinance, these exemptions would not have required planning commission approval and would have been handled at the staff level. The landscaping ordinance changes got final approval at the city council’s June 20, 2011 meeting.
(2) Flexibility in the application of the landscaping or screening requirements of Sections 5:602, 5:603, 5:604 or 5:606 may be allowed if each of the following conditions are met:
(a) The modifications are consistent with the intent of this chapter (Section 5:600(1)); and
(b) The modifications are included on a site plan and in a motion approved by City Planning Commission or City Council; and
(c) The modifications are associated with 1 or more of the following site conditions:
Landscape elements which are a part of a previously approved site plan may be maintained and continued as nonconforming provided no alterations of the existing landscape elements are proposed.
Landscaping Plans: Gallup One Stop Gas Station
City planner Jeff Kahan described how the current landscaping plan was requested to continue in place, based on the flexibility clause built into the ordinance. However, there are trees specified in that original plan that are not currently there. So the owner will be required to add several new trees to the site that will replace trees on the original plan that have since died or were not installed according to that the plan.
No one spoke at the public hearing on the issue.
During commissioner deliberations, Kirk Westphal asked for some confirmation that the parcel had come before the commission previously for a different issue. City planning manager Wendy Rampson indicated that there had been a rezoning request, from C1 to C2B, and a special exception use associated with that previous consideration. Rampson said that previously the owner had developed a full site plan that would have been a full renovation to the site, including the main building and a revised stormwater detention plan. The owner had decided to scale way back, she said, which was reflected in the current proposal of a smaller addition.
Westphal confirmed with Rampson that the administrative review associated with the current proposal did not trigger a need to review the stormwater retention plan. Responding to Westphal, Rampson also said she was not aware of any empirical evidence associated with the site that would warrant a review of stormwater retention.
Wendy Woods asked for some clarification about the trees that were required to be replaced. Rampson noted that it’s hard for staff to tell if the the trees are missing because they died and were cut down or if they were never installed. Responding to Woods, Rampson indicated that it would be a significant task to review whether trees required on a site plan were still in place. Some communities do regular monitoring, Rampson allowed, but she indicated that Ann Arbor staff currently have only enough capacity to make sure the landscaping is in place at the end of the project, and otherwise it’s complaint-driven, or enforced when a project comes before the staff for some other reason.
Woods wanted to know if petitioners are given any suggestions about what kinds of trees they should be planting. Rampson said the city had staff who could provide feedback on street trees, but they don’t go as far as recommending certain trees.
Westphal wanted to know if the request being considered by the commission triggered postcard notification of neighbors. Rampson indicated that it did not.
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to approve the request for flexibility in application of the landscape ordinance.
Landscaping Plans: University of Michigan Credit Union
City planning manager Wendy Rampson informed commissioners that the petitioner had asked that the item be postponed, given that the credit union’s representative could not attend the meeting in order to answer questions.
No one spoke at the public hearing on the issue.
Bonnie Bona moved for postponement in deference to the petitioner’s request. Kirk Westphal was not inclined to postpone unless questions arose that commissioners wanted to ask the petitioner – if no such questions arose, then maybe the commission could simply approve the request, he said. Commission chair Eric Mahler told Westphal that was his thought, too. Rampson told the commissioners that was up to them – the petitioner simply wanted to avoid having the request denied.
Erica Briggs agreed with Westphal and Mahler, so Bona withdrew the motion to postpone.
Responding to a question from Westphal, Rampson confirmed that the addition proposed to the building is less than 10% of total floor area and there was no triggering of review by the design guideline review committee.
Tony Derezinski noted that it was a minor change and noted it was good to see the building occupied. [It formerly housed the now defunct Ann Arbor News.]
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to approve the request for flexibility in application of the landscape ordinance at the University of Michigan Credit Union building.
Landscaping Plans: Glacier Hills
Jeff Kahan explained that Glacier Hills was removing some parking spaces to preserve open space. The project was finished last summer about the same time as the new ordinance was approved. Depressing the islands in the parking lot would require complete reconstruction, he said. The request is to allow existing landscape islands to remain as previously approved.
No one spoke at the public hearing.
Tony Derezinski said that for him, one conclusion in the staff report is definitive – retrofitting the islands would require complete reconstruction. That doesn’t seem to be necessary given the intent of the ordinance, Derezinski said.
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to approve the request for flexibility in application of the landscape ordinance at Glacier Hills.
Planning commission meetings typically include a variety of updates on issues not necessarily on the agenda.
Updates: City Council Actions – Heritage Row, City Place
The planning commission has one slot assigned to a city council member, which is currently held by Tony Derezinski. He reported that a highlight of the meeting the previous evening was initial approval of the Heritage Row planned unit development (PUD). Two projects for the same South Fifth Avenue site, both owned by the same developer, are moving on parallel tracks, Derezinski said – Heritage Row (a planned unit development) and City Place (a matter-of-right project). Both had previously been approved by the planning commission.
The Heritage Row item included a lot of discussion from councilmembers on the changes to the project, Derezinski said, such as the elimination of the on-site parking requirement. Derezinski noted that under the city’s PUD ordinance, the project still has to have public benefit. Derezinski reported that the initial vote had been 8-3 and that the second and final approval would be held at an extra council meeting on Oct. 24. [The project requires an eight-vote majority.] Derezinski cautioned that the votes on the project will not necessarily stay the same. [Update: The developer subsequently withdrew the Heritage Row proposal from the Oct. 24 agenda.]
The other issue the council took up concerning the same site, Derezinski said, was the already-approved City Place project, for which the developer was requesting an exemption from a buffer requirement in the city’s new landscape ordinance. [That exemption was essentially the same issue that the planning commission acted on for three other projects that same evening.]
Derezinski also noted that the council was asked to approve some changes to the City Place elevations, which the council did. He characterized the situation as the council doing what was required to show the developer good faith, so that he would continue to keep the Heritage Row option open. [Heritage Row is seen by many as a more desirable project.]
Updates: City Council Actions – City Apartments
To Derezinski’s report, city planning manager Wendy Rampson added that the City Apartments project was also granted some changes to the elevations at the council’s meeting. She noted that there’s a public-private partnership for that project at First and Washington. The changes to the height (an increase of 10 feet) and to some banks of windows were substantive enough that they needed the blessing of the council, Rampson said.
Updates: Planning Staff
Rampson reported that the ICMA sustainability fellows have returned to Washington D.C. and will go from there back to Indonesia. Rampson said their visit was a good exercise to show visitors all that Ann Arbor has to offer with respect to sustainability. The three visitors came away quite impressed with Ann Arbor’s approach to sustainability, Rampson said, which is not just a small group of people working in isolation, but is integrated into everything the city does.
Rampson also alerted planning commissioners to the upcoming Michigan Association of Planning conference in Grand Rapids. That meant that city planner Jeff Kahan would be the only staff in town towards the end of the week. Rampson said that she and Evan Pratt would be making a presentation at the conference on Ann Arbor’s new downtown zoning, and Jill Thacher would give a presentation on the city’s zoning for medical marijuana.
Updates: Public Art
Tony Derezinski, who now serves on the city’s public art commission (AAPAC), gave an update from that group. They’re preparing for a city council work session on Nov. 14, he said. Issues have been raised concerning the city ordinance that stipulates a set-aside for public art, he allowed. He said he was a voting member of AAPAC and is working to come up with a good presentation.
The art commission is working in collaboration with other entities, he said, including the Rotary Club, which wants to beautify entrances to the city. The Detroit Institute of Arts is also interested in bringing in works of art to Ann Arbor for temporary display, he said, through its Inside|Out program.
Since he’s started serving on AAPAC, Derezinski said, he’s gotten a lot of phone calls about how art can be integrated into the city. He spoke of a rejuvenated art commission that could justify its existence.
Updates: Ordinance Revision Committee
Planning commissioner Kirk Westphal gave a brief update from the commission’s ordinance revision committee.
They’d started their review of the recently changed landscaping ordinance, as well as regulations on drive-though businesses.
Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Erica Briggs, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal, Bonnie Bona, Wendy Woods
Absent: Evan Pratt
Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, Nov. 1 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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