Column: City Council as a Historic Body

Citizen Kestenbaum weighs in on Heritage Row, council as body

By now, most Chronicle readers are likely weary of reading about the controversy involving Heritage Row versus City Place – two proposed developments for Fifth Avenue south of William Street. For my part, I am certainly weary of writing about it. [timeline]

By way of brief recap, Heritage Row was a planned unit development for the site, which would have preserved a row of seven houses to historic district standards (in the version presented to the city council in summer 2010) and constructed three apartment buildings behind them. City Place is a “matter-of-right” project that will likely start construction in the next few weeks. [Most recent Chronicle coverage: "Chapter Added to Fifth Ave. Historic Saga"]

Why will we likely see the demolition of those seven houses instead of their preservation in some form? At the city council’s Oct. 24 meeting, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) called it a failure by the city council to reach a compromise – on something that was less than ideal, but still reasonable.

The functioning of the city council as a body is an issue that has emerged as part of the Ward 2 city council race this year, which is being contested between independent Jane Lumm and Democratic incumbent Stephen Rapundalo. Lumm served on the council in the mid-1990s and has faced criticism from Rapundalo for being part of a group that he contends was characterized by brinksmanship and an inability to work constructively despite disagreements.

The functioning of the city council as a body is one of the themes of a email message written earlier today to members of the city council by Larry Kestenbaum. As far as I’m aware, Kestenbaum is not involved in the campaign of either Ward 2 candidate – that’s not his home ward, and he is not listed as a supporter on either of the candidates’ websites. In any case, the specific point of his email message was about the demolition of the seven houses on Fifth Avenue.

Kestenbaum is known to many in the community as the Washtenaw County clerk, an elected position. But he was not writing to the council as the clerk. He’s also an attorney who has a degree in land use and historic preservation from Cornell University. He served on Ann Arbor’s historic district commission in the 1990s. Also in that decade, he taught a course in historic preservation law at Eastern Michigan University. He lives in Ann Arbor.

Though his message to the council comes now, after the decisions on the South Fifth Avenue development seem to have finally been made, Kestenbaum did not exactly come late to the party as far as expressing his views on that area of the city. Writing on the now defunct ArborUpdate in August 2008, Kestenbaum stated: “I’d redesignate all of the former individual historic properties that were left unprotected after that bad court decision on 9/11/2001. And I think the area immediately south of William Street, along Fifth and Hamilton for example, should be a [historic] district.”

I think Kestenbaum’s recent email is unlikely to persuade any member of the council to take the action he suggests. But in my view, it’s a particularly well-written exposition of the idea that a city council is fairly judged by what it accomplishes as a body, not by the individual actions of its members. I think it’s important to preserve that exposition in The Chronicle’s archives.

It’s also important to preserve in the archives if it turns out that Kestenbaum’s message does manage to convince the council to set a process in motion to establish a historic district for the area.

And that’s why we’re sharing it with readers. Kestenbaum’s message begins after the jump.

Kestenbaum’s Email

The following email was sent to all councilmembers on Oct. 27, 2011 and forwarded to The Chronicle.

I write, not as County Clerk, but as a citizen of Ann Arbor.

My daughter is a student at Herbert M. Slauson Middle School.

Herbert M. Slauson (1853-1936), the namesake of that school, was Ann Arbor’s superintendent of schools for many years. It was under his leadership that our schools moved into the 20th century, taking on an enormously larger and more discerning population along the way.

Mr. Slauson lived for many years and died at 433 S. Fifth Avenue, one of the houses in the City Place/Heritage Row controversy. Samuel Beakes, the congressman for whom Beakes Street is named, also lived in one of those houses.

I spoke with some of the staff, students, and teachers at Slauson Middle School. They were shocked to hear that the City Council had passed up the opportunity to preserve the Slauson house for future generations.

What has happened, as I wrote in a previous email, is that the council has, by default, chosen the worst possible alternative for this site. By your action and inaction, you are leaving a scar in the middle of Ann Arbor.

I know that each of you want to take me aside to say, “Larry, I voted …” or “I did my best to …” But that is not enough.

A city council is not judged by the good intentions of its members. It is judged by what it accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, as a body.

Each one of you is well qualified to sit where you do, and most of you are my friends.

But your group process has completely failed. All I hear is mutual blame, and no investment in the group’s endeavor. Your total is much less than the sum of the parts.

I have been a defender and apologist for this council since long before any of you were members of it. I spoke up for you when your deliberations looked messy, or your priorities seemed odd. I spoke up for you when you were embarrassed about emails you exchanged. I have supported most of you in your individual campaigns.

But even I can see that difficulty with group process has gotten this body into trouble again and again. If you are worried about the council’s image, you should think back on all those events and hang your heads in shame.

Now, I understand that at a recent meeting, a proposal was made to revive the Germantown historic district, in a last-ditch effort to undo the damage you have done. I read with incredulity that some of you were angry that this was brought forward, and attempted to stop it from even being discussed.

Given that the current developer chose to enter into this project which already had a long and contentious history, I don’t see that he is owed “finality” on previous bad decisions. This is not someone who has owned the property for years and finds unexpected hurdles to development. It is entirely predictable that the city council would be interested in other development options.

Let me remind you that the city has vast powers to control development, and all kinds of tools that you’re not using here.

Here’s a very modest suggestion.

First, set out a territory that includes only the front portion of the seven properties, where the houses themselves stand. Reappoint your Germantown study committee and charge them with studying only that limited area. Since studies of the neighborhood have already been completed, it should not take long to create a recommendation. Give them a very short deadline, like 30 or 45 days, and limit the demolition moratorium to that time.

Second, while that is pending, rezone those properties to the higher density that is justified by close proximity to the transit center and the new underground parking facility.

You have ample legal justification to support both of those actions.

Under these different constraints, any reasonably creative developer ought to be able to come up with a profitable project, closely similar to the Heritage Row project, perhaps even without a PUD. And this combination of action would limit historic district protection and restriction to a specific ensemble of well-documented historic and architectural resources.

It’s time for the Ann Arbor City Council to redeem itself, to work together instead of separately, to show some creativity and compromise. Please don’t be so dug in to your past mistakes that you disdain positive outcomes in favor of scorched earth.

Larry Kestenbaum

Note: Dave Askins is editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. By Joan Lowenstein
    October 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm | permalink

    I greatly respect Larry’s expertise and judgment, but I think the solutions he suggests are too late. The time to have designated Germantown (more historically accurate: Boarding House Row) a historic district was before the houses had been lopped off, added on-to, and otherwise deteriorated. The Historic Distric Commission cannot force someone to maintain a house. If there were to be an historic district now, chances are that the houses would simply further deteriorate as is. Is that not a scar?

    The Council had another choice even before City Place and Heritage Row, which was a townhouse development that would have taken down the houses but put up a much more attractive development. The neighborhood activists played the all-or-nothing game and got nothing. Well, they can say that their council representatives “listened” to them.

  2. By suswhit
    October 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm | permalink

    While I can understand your weariness…image living it. Today they are slaughtering the trees. Congratulations to our “winning” council and city staff members.

  3. By suswhit
    October 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm | permalink

    There is no lopping and remind me again whose fault it is that the houses are “deteriorated?”

  4. By Alan Goldsmith
    October 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm | permalink

    Ms. Lowenstein–it was ‘too late’ because of your friends on Council doing what they do. And then seeming to gloat over the overcome. Congrats on your ‘victory’.

  5. By Tom Whitaker
    October 29, 2011 at 11:40 pm | permalink

    Ms. Lowenstein would do well to re-read the DDA’s 2003 renewal plan:

    “Maintaining and strengthening the traditional residential character of the near-downtown neighborhoods is essential for the economic and social sustainability of downtown Ann Arbor….Due to their close proximity to downtown, near-downtown neighborhoods face unique challenges to preserving their traditional residential character.

    -Resist development pressures and uses within these near-downtown neighborhoods that are not consistent with their residential nature.”


  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    October 30, 2011 at 7:37 am | permalink

    @Sulker. Fortunately Ms. Lowenstein failed in her post-Council attempts for higher political office. We can be thankful for that. The only thing Ms. Lowenstein reads these days are the marching points/bullet points emailed to her regularly by the Mayor prior to DDA meetings. There are only two ways to change the direction of Council and DDA membership. Lawsuits and the ballot box.

  7. By ALan Goldsmith
    October 30, 2011 at 4:04 pm | permalink

    @5. The only way the City of Ann Arbor is going to get the government reflective of what voters want it to target members of Council one at a time, recruit honest and strong candidates with a wide level of support, raise the campaign funds required and then challenge every targeted member of Council and the Mayor point by point on their dishonesty and bad decisions. The fact Ms. Lumm raised FOUR times what the current member of Council has for her campaign is a major story–not surprisingly it was buried on the last page of Sunday’s Ann Arbor Dot Com. If you heard the reporter being interviewed on the radio Saturday (some tiny AM station that fades out at sunset, I forget the call letters…) you’d totally understand.

  8. By Leah Gunn
    October 31, 2011 at 7:14 am | permalink

    The operative sentence here is “The Historic District Commission cannot force someone to maintain a house”. The houses have deteriorated into dumps. They were dumps 50 years ago when I lived in that neighborhood as a grad student. And, the district that was proposed and studied did not qualify inder the Dept. of Interior rules. When Heritage Row was an option, with Mr. DePerry’s plan, it needed eight votes to pass. Those who voted against it were Carsten Hohnke and Mike Anglin (Ward 5), Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Steve Kunselman (Ward 3). These are the Council members to blame, if, as it seems, you are looking to blame someone. Now, Mr. Helminski tells us that the Heritage Row plan was never a viable option, so it appears that the developers were playing the smoke and mirrors game with the Planning Commission and the Council. Ms. Lowenstein is right.

  9. By Andy
    November 1, 2011 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    RE #6 – I am really hoping this thread does not degenerate to the level of discourse we see on I’m a little surprised that that comment made it through moderation.