Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Jan. 15, 2013): More than 35 people spoke during various public hearings at the most recent planning commission meeting, but most were on hand to protest a student housing development proposed for the northeast corner of Huron and Division.
Following a public hearing that included some emotional pleas to halt the project, planning commissioners voted to postpone action on a site plan for 413 E. Huron, a 14-story residential development geared to university students. City planning staff had recommended postponement because input on the project hadn’t yet been received from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, which must weigh in because of the building’s location along a state trunkline – Huron Street.
The design came under harsh criticism during the Jan. 15 public hearing, with some residents – including several from the adjacent Sloan Plaza – calling it a “behemoth,” a “folly” and a “massive student warehouse.” Several people criticized the developer for not being sufficiently responsive to concerns raised by the city’s design review board or feedback from residents.
Planning staff indicated that the item could be on the commission’s next regular meeting agenda, on Feb. 5. When commissioner Eric Mahler noted that the public hearing would continue, someone from the audience called out, “We’ll be back!”
Another 14-story student apartment building – at 614 Church St., on the Pizza House property – was also on the Jan. 15 agenda, and ultimately received a recommendation of approval from commissioners. That decision came despite objections from representatives of the adjacent Zaragon Place apartments at 619 E. University.
Concerns were raised about how Zaragon residents will be impacted by construction at 624 Church. Zaragon opened a few years ago and is marketed to University of Michigan students. The developers of 624 Church intend to market their apartments to the same demographic. Larry Deitch, an attorney who also serves as a UM regent, was on hand to represent the Zaragon owners. He said they didn’t object to the project itself, but were concerned about safety related to the use of a crane during construction, among other issues.
Planning staff indicated that the issues raised by Deitch and other Zaragon representatives would be handled at the building permit stage. The planning commission was being asked to address planning and zoning requirements, and the project was in conformance with those regulations.
In discussing the project, Mahler pointed out that the city had gone through a “robust” discussion about zoning as part of the A2D2 process, and had decided that this area should be zoned D1. Now that D1 projects are coming forward, “we need to get used to that,” he said.
Commissioners dealt with two other items on the Jan. 15 agenda. They recommended approval of the site plan and rezoning for a retail development at 3600 Plymouth Road, just west of US-23 – called The Shoppes at 3600. The project had previously been postponed by the commission on Nov. 7, 2012.
Another item moving forward is a request for annexation of 2925 Devonshire Road, one of several Ann Arbor Township “islands” within the city. Commissioners also recommended approval to zone the 0.66-acre site as R1A (single-family dwelling district). The item prompted a brief discussion about the need for better communication with Ann Arbor Township officials.
413 E. Huron
The most controversial agenda item at the Jan. 15 meeting was a site plan for 413 E. Huron, a 14-story residential development proposed for the northeast corner of Huron and Division streets. Staff had recommended postponing the proposal because input on the project hadn’t been received from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. Because the building would be located along Huron Street – a state trunkline – MDOT must review the project.
Estimated to cost $45 million, the proposal calls for combining three lots on that corner and building a 14-story, 271,855-square-foot apartment building with 216 units (533 bedrooms) and underground parking for 132 vehicles. [.pdf of aerial map for the project]
The northern edge of the site is adjacent to the Old Fourth Ward Historic District. Existing structures – including a house on North Division that was built in 1901, and a small shop at the corner that most recently housed Papa John’s Pizza – would be demolished.
Zoning approved by city council as part of the A2D2 rezoning project would allow for the type of building being proposed. The site is zoned D1, the highest density allowed. However, nearby residents who oppose the development – including many living along North Division and in the nearby Sloan Plaza – object to its size and massing.
The city’s historic district commission also has weighed in, passing a resolution at its Dec. 13, 2012 meeting to “remind the Planning Commission and City Council of our joint obligation to preserve and protect historic districts and recommend that they take all reasonable measures to ensure that this new development will enhance and improve the Old Fourth Ward Historic District rather than diminish or weaken the vitality of this important district.” Members of the city’s HDC as well as neighborhood historic districts and preservation groups were among those who opposed the project during the Jan. 15 public hearing.
The first floor would include about 4,000-square-feet for retail space. On the third floor, the building would include a range of facilities for residents, including a gym, yoga studio, business center and outdoor pool. According to a planning staff memo, more than 40% of the apartments would have two bedrooms, with other apartment sizes including one-bedroom units (19%), three-bedroom units (10%) and four-bedroom units (28%). Bike parking and bike lockers would also be provided on site.
The design is described by the developer as “modern industrial,” with a mix of brick, concrete and metal screening. The project has been reviewed by the city’s design review board, resulting in some design changes – changes that the developer described as significant, but which residents characterized as insufficient. [.pdf of design review board recommendations]
The city also has calculated a park contribution of $133,920 for the project, a request that could be lowered based on the amount of open space or recreational facilities that are provided on site. The developer is under no obligation to make any parks contribution, however.
The developer is listed as Greenfield Partners, a Connecticut-based firm doing business here as Ann Arbor Green Property Owner LLC. The real estate development firm Carter – based in Atlanta, Georgia – is also a partner in the project.
413 E. Huron: Public Hearing
A public hearing on the project lasted over an hour and drew commentary from 21 people. Here are some highlights.
Conor McNally, chief development officer for Atlanta-based Carter – the lead firm in this development – told commissioners that he was excited to be there and would answer any questions. He noted that the project is consistent with the city’s downtown plan, and will add density but isn’t being built to maximize the density that’s allowed on the site.
He described the meeting with the design review board as thoughtful and productive. And as a result of that board meeting – in addition to meetings with local residents – “substantial” changes were made to the project’s design. Among the changes he highlighted were adding a signature architectural element, pulling back the facade along Huron Street, and moving the service area to the rear of the building. Unfortunately, he said, the comments from MDOT hadn’t been received yet. But he hoped the commission would recommend approval, contingent on the feedback from MDOT.
Susan Friedlaender, an attorney representing the developer, characterized the issue as whether the project met requirements in the city’s zoning ordinances and planning documents. The planning staff has indicated that it does, she said. Infrastructure is adequate to serve the development, she said. The city’s traffic engineer agreed with the results of the traffic study. The fire inspector doesn’t have a problem with the plans. Friedlaender pointed out that the city worked long and hard on the A2D2 zoning, and there was much debate about the issues that are being raised by the project’s opponents. The city had made the wise decision to zone this property D1, she said, and the project conforms to that zoning – so it’s hard to understand why there’s a recommendation for postponement, she said.
It’s not the developer’s fault that MDOT comments haven’t been received, Friedlaender said. It would be possible for commissioners to recommend approval, conditional on MDOT’s response. She noted that there might not be any need for changes to the project, and it was unfair to delay action when the project could easily be moved forward.
Scott Reed was the only resident who spoke in support of the project, saying it is “desperately needed.” He said he walked by there frequently and the area along Huron was hostile to pedestrians. A large, mixed-use project with retail and other features would result in more people coming to that area and would greatly improve the land use there, he said. Referring to a comment made earlier in the public hearing, Reed said that to call it a student warehouse is a “gross mischaracterization” of this project. There’s been a lot of fear and doubt regarding this proposal, as well as a lot of NIMBYism, he said. It’s important not to just consider the nearby property owners, Reed concluded, but to see this as a benefit to the entire city, bringing vibrancy to that part of town.
Opposition far outnumbered support for the project, from speakers representing neighborhood groups as well as individual residents.
Norm Hyman – an attorney representing Sloan Plaza, an office and residential building located adjacent to the proposed project – reviewed several objections to the proposal and noted that a letter he had sent to the commission covered some of these issues. [.pdf of Hyman's letter to the commission] The developer is trying to shoehorn too much into a constricted site – the building’s massing, scale and impact on the neighborhood are major concerns, he said. Residents of Sloan Plaza asked for a solar study to show the proposed building’s impact, but were told by the developer that the city ordinance doesn’t require such a study. Traffic and fire safety are other concerns, Hyman said – he described the building as a serious fire hazard, both to future residents of 413 E. Huron as well residents of Sloan Plaza. Hyman also expressed concern about the streetscape, and hoped that the building could step back in height from the front.
In addition to Hyman, several residents of Sloan Plaza spoke against the project, and many others were on hand but didn’t address the commission. Hugh Sonk pointed out that the building is 50% larger than The Varsity, another residential project being built on the other side of Huron Street, between Huron and Washington. Even though that building isn’t yet completed, it’s already an overwhelming presence on the site, he said. Sonk observed that the developers of 413 E. Huron didn’t want to entertain any suggestions that would add to the project’s timeline. But the city might have to live with this development for 100 years, so he didn’t think adding a few months to the process was unreasonable.
Phyllis Boniface, a psychiatrist with an office in Sloan Plaza, said her unit is the closest one to the foundation of the new building. The noise level will impact her practice, and she’s already talked to a realtor about moving out. Three other psychiatrists work there, and they all require a reasonably quiet environment. Boniface noted that several residents of Sloan Plaza are very elderly and fragile, and she didn’t know how this kind of disruption would impact them. She told commissioners that their conscience should be affected by this.
Don Duquette said he’s lived in Ann Arbor for 40 years and moved into Sloan Plaza about a year ago. [Duquette is a UM law professor and founder of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic.] The project won’t affect his view and in general he loves density and the experience of urban living. But this project will be massive, ugly and dangerous., he said. It will be located at a point when Huron Street narrows from five to four lanes, and will dominate “our beautiful city.” He asked commissioners to think about traffic – because already on Sundays, parking for a church on Huron Street blocks off one lane. There will also be “massive jaywalking” as students cross the street to get to campus. The project will make the area congested and dangerous. The city also should look for a more inter-generational use, not a project that’s just geared toward students. It will be a nuisance, and would be a folly for the city to approve it, he said. Duquette urged commissioners to vote it down.
In addition to people living at Sloan Plaza, several other local residents opposed the project. Architects Norm and Ilene Tyler, who live in an historic home on North Division near the proposed development, both addressed the commission. Norm Tyler said he was representing the downtown design guidelines citizens review committee. He showed commissioners a drawing of the proposed project in relation to nearby houses, and called it a “massive student warehouse.” It has three times the number of beds as the proposal for 624 Church St., he said, and is 100,000-square-feet larger than The Varsity, which he called the size of a Walmart. Tyler then shared how the city’s design guidelines apply to this proposal, and how those guidelines aren’t being followed. [.pdf of downtown design guidelines] As one example, he pointed to the guideline stating that site design should minimize shading of adjacent properties. But for this project, the shadow it casts will cause his home to be completely in shade at midday. Tyler concluded by urging commissioners to consider valid issues beyond the outstanding MDOT comments.
Ilene Tyler spoke later in the hearing, saying she represented the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance. Homeowners and designers had met with the developers three times, she said, but the developers never made any changes that showed a respect for the concerns that had been raised. The developers have been unresponsive and uncooperative to input from citizens and city staff. Referring to the developers’ report on the citizen participation meeting, Tyler said it doesn’t reflect what actually happened. [.pdf of citizen participation report] Over 50 people were there, and all of them spoke against the project. Among her other concerns, Tyler said the project “ghettoizes” the neighborhood. She and her husband had recently invested in a renovation of their home, but this project will cause property values to decrease, she said. The neighborhood’s property values need protection, she concluded.
Doug Kelbaugh, a UM professor of architecture and urban planning who lives at the nearby Armory condos, described how the project’s streetscape would appear at eye level for people walking down Huron in either direction. He noted that other buildings along Huron – including larger structures like Campus Inn and Sloan Plaza – are set back from the street. Yet the building at 413 E. Huron would be “hard on the sidewalk,” shooting straight up from the second floor level. If you’re walking east on Huron toward the building, where the street narrows at Division, you’d be walking straight into it. Kelbaugh acknowledged that the project as designed is permissible, but he believes the city would come to regret it, calling it a very tall, wide sore thumb that will be with us forever.
Eleanor Pollack reminded commissioners that she had served on the Ann Street historic district study committee. She’d been watching the planning commission proceedings from home [the meetings are broadcast on the city's Community Television Network], and had been prompted to come by and speak during the public hearing about noise issues. For years, she and her husband had gone back-and-forth with Zingerman’s Deli – at the corner of Detroit and Kingsley – about the sound of the mechanical systemss, which they could hear from their home. Zingerman’s is a good neighbor, Pollack said, and worked to mitigate the sound. During the recent deli expansion, managers had talked to her about the issue. She pointed out that the mechanicals at 413 E. Huron would result in a “horrible drone” in the neighborhood, and she hoped the city would require the developer to mitigate that sound. She also asked commissioners to keep in mind that every time development encroaches on a residential area, it must be in character and should respect that neighborhood.
Eleanor Linn noted that she lives on Forest Court, near another large residential project [at 601 S. Forest – The Landmark]. She was adamantly opposed to the “monolith” proposed at 413 E. Huron. Several times a week she walks to Kerrytown, and takes different routes. She likes to go past the houses on Ann, Catherine and Division streets – the neighborhood adds to her quality of life and is the reason she’s lived in central Ann Arbor for the past 30 years. She urged commissioners to vote against the proposal and give the developer time to rethink the building’s north facade.
Peter Nagourney read a quote from Ada Louise Huxtable, an internationally known architecture critic who died earlier this month. He noted that architecture is Ann Arbor’s most important public art, and that this is the wrong building for this important corner of the city.
Steve Kaplan told commissioners he’s lived in Ann Arbor for 46 years and grew up in the family business of student housing. Opposition to 413 E. Huron isn’t about opposing density, he said. The arguments are very specific against this particular project, and how the building tries to achieve density. He said the opposition shouldn’t be seen as NIMBYism.
Ellen Ramsburgh and Ben Bushkuhl – who both serve on the city’s historic district commission – spoke against the project. Ramsburgh read a resolution that the HDC had passed at its Dec. 13, 2012 meeting. [.pdf of HDC resolution on 413 E. Huron] The resolution stated that the project would “severely and adversely impact the Old Fourth Ward Historic District,” and the HDC resolved to “remind the Planning Commission and City Council of our joint obligation to preserve and protect historic districts and recommend that they take all reasonable measures to ensure that this new development will enhance and improve the Old Fourth Ward Historic District rather than diminish or weaken the vitality of this important district.”
Bushkuhl urged commissioners to postpone action so that developers could make improvements to the design.
Christine Crockett, president of the Old Fourth Ward Association, provided handouts with excerpts from the city’s downtown plan. [.pdf of downtown plan] She argued that the proposal isn’t consistent with D1 zoning, because it doesn’t take into account character areas. The developers have decided to create their own character areas, she said, which include new buildings like the city’s Justice Center. She called the proposed building a behemoth that looks like it’s constructed out of Legos. Crockett noted that this is the first time that the historic district commission has taken a position on a new development that’s not located in an historic district. She also wondered how the proposed trees to be planted in a buffer zone could survive in shallow soil without sunlight.
Allison Stupka of the Old West Side Association board said she had been involved with four other projects when developers had sought input from residents: The YMCA, Liberty Lofts, City Apartments, and 618 S. Main. As a neighborhood advocate, she said she’s worried about whether the developers are sensitive to neighbors – and she doesn’t see that sensitivity in the 413 E. Huron design. The developer for 618 S. Main had scrapped his original design in response to feedback, she said, and had done a very detailed solar shade study. She found it incredible that no such study had been undertaken for 413 E. Huron.
Ellen Thackery, a southeast Michigan field rep for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told commissioners that historic preservationists weren’t always against density. Good design can happen on the edges of historic districts, she said. But the sheer overwhelming mass and scale of this project doesn’t fit this area, and she urged commissioners to reject it.
Ray Detter, chair of the downtown citizens advisory council, reported that the council is very opposed to this development, because of all the reasons that had been previously articulated during the public hearing. The project fails to take into consideration the city’s design guidelines and character areas. The developers care only about the bottom line, he said. Referring to the design guidelines, Detter hoped the city would put more teeth into them. The advisory council recognizes that something will eventually be built on this site, but he urged commissioners to postpone the current proposal permanently.
413 E. Huron: Commission Discussion
Eric Mahler began deliberations by noting the late hour – as it was nearly 11:30 p.m. Planning manager Wendy Rampson clarified that according to the commission’s bylaws, no new agenda item can be taken up after 11 p.m. But she added that this item had been taken up well before 11 p.m. – beginning with a staff report, then a public hearing.
Tony Derezinski indicated that there could be some ambiguity in this rule, and he felt it would be good to postpone action. That would also allow time for the city to receive feedback from MDOT, and to address other issues.
Bonnie Bona pointed out that typically, the commissioners put their issues about a project on the table before postponing, so that those issues can be addressed. However, she also observed that commissioners don’t function particularly well at this late hour.
Ken Clein’s concern was that if commissioners started to talk about the issues they had with this project, they might be there another hour at least. He suggested taking up the item at the next opportunity.
Mahler noted that the public hearing would continue when the project returned to the commission. His comment prompted someone in the audience to call out, “We’ll be back!”
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to postpone action on the 413 E. Huron proposal.
624 Church St.
The site plan and development agreement for a 14-story apartment building at 624 Church St. was the other major project on the planning commission’s Jan. 15 agenda.
The 83,807-square-foot, $17 million project is located next to Pizza House, on the west side of Church between South University and Willard. The building would include 75 apartments with a total of about 175 bedrooms, ranging in size from 490 to 1,100 square feet.
The mix of apartments will include: 11 one-bedroom (14%); 21 two-bedroom (28%); 33 three-bedroom (44%); and 11 four-bedroom (14%). Other features include an enclosed room to store up to 60 bikes and a rooftop plaza with benches and a grilling area. It is located in the D1 zoning district, which allows for the highest level of density of any zoning district in the city.
Dennis Tice attended the Jan. 15 meeting to represent his family, which owns the property. The Tice family is partnering with Opus Group of Minnetonka, Minnesota, and 624 Partners LLC. When Pizza House expanded in 2006, the project included foundations that would allow for a taller building to eventually be constructed. The new project would demolish an existing two-story house located south of the restaurant, replacing it with the 14-story building over the southern portion of the restaurant and above the former house and loading zone area. [.pdf of aerial map showing 624 Church location]
There will be no vehicle parking spaces on site. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, at its Oct. 3, 2012 meeting, authorized the project to purchase up to 42 monthly parking permits as part of the city’s contribution in lieu (CIL) program. The CIL provides an option to purchase monthly permits to fulfill the city’s parking requirement for a project, but the cost is at a rate 20% higher than standard pricing.
The developer hoped that those permits would be for spaces located at the nearby Forest Avenue parking structure. The DDA board has struggled with that decision, and had not publicly indicated a decision to designate the permits for that specific structure. A discussion on this issue at the Dec. 19, 2012 meeting of the DDA’s operations committee had been inconclusive. The apparent consensus among committee members at that meeting was for establishing a general policy on the location for CIL permits, before deciding the 624 Church St. issue. However, prior to the Jan. 15 planning commission meeting, DDA executive director Susan Pollay informed city staff that the board’s operations committee was recommending that the parking permit designations be made for the Forest Avenue structure.
The project was reviewed by the city’s design review board, and developers altered the design somewhat in response to the board’s feedback. [.pdf of design review board minutes and developer response] The developers also are offering to contribute $35,000 to the city’s parks unit for improvements to the plaza next to the Forest Street parking structure. The city had asked for a contribution of about $47,000 for parks.
The proposal calls for a zero setback from the west side property line, adjacent to Zaragon Place apartments. During a public hearing on the project, representatives of Zaragon Place told commissioners that they questioned the ability of the project to be constructed without endangering Zaragon residents. They had earlier emailed the city to raise concerns about how Zaragon – located at 619 E. University – will be impacted by construction. Zaragon opened a few years ago and is marketed to University of Michigan students. The developers of 624 Church intend to market their apartments to the same demographic. [.pdf of letter from Zaragon attorney] [.pdf of response from 624 Church developers] [.pdf of Zaragon's response to 624 Church letter]
The commission’s approval would be contingent on the developer addressing some outstanding issues raised by the city’s systems planning unit. The project will also require a variance from the building board of appeals to allow windows to be located on certain portions of the west side. If that variance isn’t granted, a slight reconfiguration of bedrooms in some of the apartments will be needed.
624 Church St.: Public Hearing
Fourteen people spoke at the public hearing on this project. Here are some highlights.
Dennis Tice told commissioners that he was on hand representing his family, as owners of Pizza House and this property. The project has been in the works for several years, he said. They were excited about it, and about their partnership with Opus Development. He was there to answer any questions that commissioners might have.
Two members of Opus Development – real estate manager Mark Bell and vice president Jim Caesar – addressed the commission. Bell gave a brief background about Opus, describing it as a family-run business that was founded in 1953 and that has developed more than 2,600 projects. The company prides itself on its safety, honesty, and professionalism, he said, and has a large staff of engineers, architects and construction experts to handle its work. He thanked the Tice family for this partnership, and said Opus was proud of the project.
Caesar addressed the safety and constructability concerns that had been raised by Zaragon Place representatives. Like Bell, he cited the number of projects that Opus has completed and the size of its staff of architects, engineers and construction experts. “Safety is our No. 1 priority,” he said. Caesar said he didn’t think the Zaragon owners understood how the construction could be handled. He gave some details about the types of crane that could be used – a luffing jib tower crane. It will be complicated, he said, but the site had been examined by the insurance carrier’s safety inspector and multiple crane companies, and it’s very feasible. Opus is building similar projects with this approach in other cities, he said, and it’s not a controversial issue.
Brad Moore, the project’s architect, noted that the Tice family had hired his firm in 2005 to nearly double the size of the Pizza House restaurant. When that project had been considered by the planning commission, commissioner Bonnie Bona had suggested putting in foundations to support a future vertical structure, he said. That’s what the owners did. The site could actually handle a building up to 17 stories high, but the city subsequently changed the zoning laws that lowered the height limits, Moore noted. Regarding the design, Moore pointed out that the building board of appeals would need to authorize the use of windows in certain sections facing Zaragon. If that request is denied, the project will use opaque windows in that part of the building – from the outside, the windows would look normal, but you wouldn’t be able to see out from the inside, he said.
Peter Allen told commissioners that he’d been in Ann Arbor about 40 years, and was involved in real estate development. He’d been engaged by Dennis Tice to help find partners for this development, and had introduced Tice to Opus Development. As part of that process, he’d done due diligence on Opus and had traveled to look at several of their projects. “I came away very impressed,” he said. Allen said the people at Opus have “great Midwest ethics” and would build a project that Ann Arbor will be proud of.
Local attorney Scott Munzel spoke on behalf of Opus Development. He reminded commissioners that this project was consistent with the city’s downtown plan, which called for the highest density land uses in this location. This project is consistent with that, he said, and is consistent with the city’s character guidelines and sustainability goals. He noted that obviously the western property line is of some interest – next to Zaragon – and that as the city grows there will be more of these kinds of conflicts. Other examples include One North Main, which abuts the Liberty Title building, and City Apartments development at First and Washington.
Munzel pointed out that there is no setback between Zaragon West, at the corner of William and Thompson, and the adjacent Cottage Inn building. “So it can be done,” he said. Regarding parking, Munzel noted that the city council had authorized a contribution-in-lieu program that allows projects to buy monthly permits at a premium, instead of providing on-site parking. The permits will be year-round, and will help during the summer months when the Forest Avenue structure has greater capacity. The project meets the city’s criteria for approval, Munzel said, and he hoped commissioners would recommend it for approval.
Scott Reed described himself as a student who has lived in Ann Arbor about five years. He thought the project is a great idea, and felt that some of the concerns expressed are misplaced. If more people live downtown, they won’t need to drive here from other places. Building dense housing is the solution, and he applauded this project. He hoped the city would see even more dense, mixed-use development in the future.
Two Bodman attorneys – Larry Deitch and Sandra Sorini Elser – spoke on behalf of Zaragon Place owners, Galileo Associates. Deitch, who also serves as a University of Michigan regent, described several issues with the site plan and he urged planning commissioners to postpone action until those issues are addressed. He highlighted issues that had been described in detail in a letter sent to the city in early January. [.pdf of letter from Zaragon attorney] In general, the main concerns related to the lack of a setback on the west side facing Zaragon Place, and the ability to construct the building without endangering Zaragon Place residents or trespassing on Zaragon Place property.
Deitch said that Neumann/Smith Architects and O’Neal Construction – firms that worked on the Zaragon development – have indicated that no crane system exists that can install heavy, precast concrete panels at a zero-setback property line without swinging the panels over neighboring property. Deitch also referred to Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) regulations for workers, and noted that Zaragon Place residents should be afforded at least that level of protection. Deitch concluded by saying that Zaragon Place owners aren’t against the project in concept, but believe it should include a setback of 10 feet on the west property line.
Sorini, who works out of Bodman’s Ann Arbor office, noted that Opus has given assurances that there will be no danger to residents during construction – but she said Zaragon would like to get some proof of that. She pointed out that Zaragon West was built with brick, not heavy precast panels, so there had not been the same construction concerns.
Scott Bonney of Neumann/Smith Architects told commissioners that he did the design for Zaragon and Zaragon West. He applauded the 624 Church proposal and called it a fantastic addition to Ann Arbor. But he pointed out that when the Zaragon projects were designed, the buildings were set back from the property lines so that they could be constructed without endangering the neighbors. He also noted that the Zaragon projects did not require a variance from the building board of appeals, nor did they need to obtain easements. That’s not the case with the 624 Church development, he observed.
Eleanor Linn began by reporting that she lives on Forest Court near the proposed project. She’s just lived through the construction of another major development, 601 S. Forest, and she’s not happy that another project is coming. [The city council recently enacted a change in its noise ordinance, as a result of Linn's activism in connection with the 601 S. Forest construction.] Even though the zoning permits a 14-story building at that location, the structure will block the afternoon sun on her home. But the city doesn’t consider that as an impact on residents’ health and welfare, she said. Linn also said that the developers haven’t listened to neighbors’ concerns about the look of the building. Linn’s final concern related to parking. She notes that already she has to call the police regarding parking violations in the neighborhood, and it will likely put additional strain on resources if more monthly permits are allocated to the Forest Avenue structure.
Ethel Potts, an Ann Arbor resident and former planning commissioner, raised two concerns. One is parking – she already has a difficult time finding a spot at the Forest Avenue structure, which she noted that the University of Michigan uses, too. She worried that giving parking permits at that location would make it even harder for others to park there. Potts also questioned the building setbacks, wondering if they were sufficient.
Peter Nagourney said he was very pleased that the building went through the design review process successfully. But he also was very concerned about parking. Even though the Forest Avenue structure is nearly empty in the summer, during the school year it’s almost always full, he said. Taking away 42 spots for monthly permits will force some people to park in the neighborhood, he said.
Ray Detter, chair of the downtown citizens advisory council, said the council supports the project, subject to outstanding issues being addressed – including the legal challenges that have recently been raised. He hoped that the assurances given by Opus were true. He observed that it was interesting to have both this project and the 413 E. Huron development being considered on the same night. The two projects had also been at the design review board and had held citizen participation meetings on the same night. “We’ve certainly had a chance to compare these two projects,” he said. Detter believed that 624 Church would serve a greater diversity of residents, including accommodations for “more mature adults.” Dennis Tice is putting his life into this project, Detter said, and it’s a project that the advisory council wants to support. He didn’t believe it would have a negative impact on the neighborhood.
624 Church St.: Commission Discussion
Several issues were highlighted during the commission’s deliberations. In addition to concerns raised by representatives for Zaragon Place, other topics touched on by commissioners included maintenance, exterior design, LEED certification, stormwater management, parks, parking and citizen participation.
624 Church St.: Commission Discussion – Exterior Issues, Zaragon Place
Bonnie Bona drew attention to the proposed loading zone on the building’s south side, and said her understanding is that the driveway is shared with the adjacent property owner. Was there an easement agreement for that use?
Architect Brad Moore replied that they haven’t been able to find a written record of that agreement, but that it’s been in place as long as the Tice family can remember.
Bona then said she was concerned about the zero setback, not just from a constructability viewpoint but also from a maintenance perspective. It’s in the city’s best interest to make sure there’s an easement agreement, she said, to make sure that the building owners can wash or replace windows, for example. If that side can’t be accessed, “then we as a community have a problem,” she said. Bona added that she wasn’t as concerned about the specific legal issues, but the maintenance issue was a concern.
Jim Caesar of Opus replied that the precast panels require no maintenance or sealers. The joints would require some maintenance, but if necessary, workers could access the joints through inside closets, and recaulk from the interior.
Wendy Woods followed up by asking how, exactly, did the developers intend to keep the windows clean. Mark Bell of Opus said it wasn’t their intent to get into these kind of details at the meeting – a response that elicited laughter from the audience. He said the building was carefully designed to be serviced and maintained from the inside out. But the developers also believe that they have an existing easement that will allow them to maintain the building from the exterior, too.
Woods noted that the legal issues brought up by the representatives of Zaragon Place were new to the planning commissioners, and she assumed they would be worked out. She then asked the planning staff if they had looked into some of the other issues that had been raised by Zaragon Place representatives. City planner Matt Kowalski replied that a lot of the issues are related to construction and would be handled at the building permit stage. If there are issues between the two owners, he said, then those two parties should work it out. The purview of the planning commission is zoning, he said.
Tony Derezinski clarified with Kowalski that Zaragon Place had been built after the foundations for a taller structure on the Pizza House property were in place. So Zaragon Place was built when its owners knew full well that a larger building would likely be constructed next to it, Derezinski said. He then asked whether either Zaragon Place or Zaragon West had been required to show proof about construction safety. No, Kowalski said – it’s not something that’s typically required at this stage.
Derezinski asked whether the planning staff stood by its recommendation for approval. Yes, Kowalski said, if the contingencies are met. Planning manager Wendy Rampson added that the letter from Bodman had been reviewed by the city attorney’s staff. Most of the issues are construction-related, she said. Site plan regulations don’t address constructability – those issues are handled in the building permit process.
Kirk Westphal also reiterated that exterior maintenance issues aren’t in the purview of the planning commission. He wondered whether similar questions were raised for Zaragon West, which abuts the Cottage Inn building. Rampson couldn’t recall that such concerns about Zaragon West had been raised – at least not at the site plan stage.
Eric Mahler said there are a lot of things to like about this project, and that improved student housing is always a benefit to the city. He pointed out that the city had gone through a “robust” discussion about zoning as part of the A2D2 process, and had decided that this area should be zoned D1. Now that D1 projects are coming forward, “we need to get used to that,” he said. Mahler, who is an attorney, said he hoped that the two parties could work out their differences amicably.
624 Church St.: Commission Discussion – Other Design Issues
Bona wondered how the developers had arrived at the mix of apartment sizes, in terms of the number of bedrooms. Mark Bell of Opus replied that the decision is tied to the building’s location, relative to its competitors. In the South University area, there are two buildings – Zaragon Place and The Landmark – that have a greater proportion of units with four, five or six bedrooms, he said. The 624 Church design also responded to input from the citizen participation meeting. The original design had called for 195 bedrooms, but they ratcheted that number down to 175, Bell said.
Bona observed that there were no studio apartments. Bell said Opus has done a lot of development geared toward students, graduate students and young professionals. Their units are bigger than their competitors, he said, and they’re seeing great results from that in other markets.
Ken Clein noted that the project would be seeking LEED Silver certification (under the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program). What happens if that’s not achieved? Kowalski replied that the developer would be fined. Those details would be laid out in the development agreement, he said. Rampson added that documents verifying the LEED certification must be shown within six months after the building receives its certificate of occupancy. If it’s not achieved, fines are determined through a formula specified in the zoning ordinance, she said.
Clein also asked some questions about the materials that would be used on the building. As an architect himself, he indicated it’s easy to make any material look like the image provided in the meeting packet – implying that it might actually appear much different in reality. He said he understood that there are very real financial pressures in projects like this, that might affect the choice of materials. Kowalski said it would be possible to include specific materials in the development agreement, before it’s presented to the city council for approval.
Clein also asked how the developers planned to manage student move-ins and move-outs. Bell reported that Campus Advantage will be the property manager. He said they will have a detailed plan to handle the process.
624 Church St.: Commission Discussion – Stormwater Management
Eric Mahler asked about the site’s stormwater management. Architect Brad Moore noted that the site is already 100% impervious, and the project calls for all runoff to be handled in underground tanks. Todd Pascoe, a senior project engineer with Atwell, elaborated. He explained that an existing underground chamber was built when Pizza House expanded a few years ago, and is designed to handle a “first flush.” That underground system will be modified so that it can handle a “bank full” flood. The chamber is bottomless, which allows stormwater to infiltrate. Overflow will go into the city’s storm sewer system.
Bonnie Bona noted that the design review board had suggested that the project include a “vegetated” roof as a way to help handle stormwater runoff. Moore said that was being considered.
624 Church St.: Commission Discussion – Citizen Participation
Sabra Briere said she had searched in vain to find certain aspects of the citizens participation report. She couldn’t find information about the number of citizens who were sent notices by mail, nor copies of the information that was sent to the public.
She was concerned that the report of the citizens participation meeting was just a summary presented in the form of a Q&A, and did not indicate concerns that had been raised. Briere said she failed to find information that would reassure her that the citizens participation requirements were being met.
Planning manager Wendy Rampson replied that the citizens participation ordinance does not specify a template for making a report, so that’s something that the council might want to change. Briere observed that the ordinance does indicate that a form will be provided to petitioners by the planning staff. [It was Briere's effort her after election to the city council in 2007 that resulted in the enactment of the citizen participation ordinance.]
624 Church St.: Commission Discussion – Parks & Open Space
Diane Giannola wondered whether the outdoor plaza in front of the building would be open to the public. The design calls for a 70-by-20 foot area at street level, or about 1,400 square feet. Brad Moore replied that there’s no fence around it.
Bonnie Bona was concerned about the plaza becoming “dead space.”
Regarding the parks contribution, Sabra Briere said she’d spent a lot of time reviewing the various premium options, and couldn’t find a reference to that. She didn’t find mention of it as a payment-in-lieu for a benefit or as a requirement. Matt Kowalski responded, saying the parks contribution is not a requirement – it’s requested. “So it’s a kindness,” Briere observed.
Bona noted that the downtown area is probably where parks and green space are most needed. People who live downtown need it more than people living in neighborhoods, but there aren’t sufficient resources, she said. Bona asked the developers to reconsider the amount of their contribution to parks.
624 Church St.: Commission Discussion – Parking
Bona noted that bicycle parking has been brought up in some recent planning commission discussions. It appears that bike storage rooms in student apartment buildings don’t get used very much, she said – and that’s something that the developers might want to look at. They might be meeting the city requirements, but she’s concerned that bike storage is being put in the wrong place. Bona suggested putting more hoops in the plaza area.
Bona said she was having a hard time with the parking contribution-in-lieu issue. She’d like to get input from the South University merchants association about how the parking structure is used. The thought of using the city’s parking structures for vehicle storage is concerning, she said, and she didn’t like the idea of parking permits being used that way. She knew that the decision had already been made, but she wanted to challenge the idea. Merchants should know that they’re losing spaces for their customers.
Westphal noted that this is a by-right project, and that the parking meets city code requirements. He encouraged neighbors to pursue the issue with city councilmembers, regarding the impact of parking on neighborhood streets.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to recommend approval of its 624 Church St. site plan and development agreement. It will next be considered for approval by the city council.
The Shoppes at 3600
A proposed retail development at 3600 Plymouth Road, just west of US-23, was again on the Jan. 15 agenda. The project – called The Shoppes at 3600 – was previously postponed by the commission on Nov. 7, 2012.
On Jan. 15, commissioners were asked to recommend approval of the project’s original site plan as well as rezoning for the land – from R5 (motel-hotel district) to C3 (fringe commercial district). The site is located in the same complex as the Holiday Inn North Campus. Responding to some commissioner concerns voiced at the November 2012 meeting, the developer had provided an alternative site plan that was reviewed on Jan. 15. But the developer sought approval for the original layout. The owner is listed as Ann Arbor Farms Hotel Corp., with property being developed by Diverse Development in Holland, Ohio.
The developer hopes to build 9,490-square foot, one-story retail building, which would be constructed in what’s now the parking lot and front yard for the hotel, at an estimated cost of $1 million. The building would have space for several businesses, including a restaurant with a one-lane drive-through window and outdoor seating. An existing shared driveway off of Plymouth Road would be used to access the site. The original site plan calls for 33 parking spots and four covered bike parking spots near the entrance.
The commission’s recommendation is contingent on four conditions: (1) approval of a land division, to divide off a 1.15 acre parcel from the parking lot and front yard of the 10.85-acre hotel site where the Holiday Inn North Campus is located; (2) approval of an administrative amendment to the parent site plan to change the parking for the hotel, because some spaces will be removed to allow for the new building; (3) recording an ingress/egress easement along the existing drive from Plymouth Road, so that a new curb cut would not be needed; and (4) recording stormwater and cross-parking easements between the hotel and the new building.
The Shoppes at 3600: Public Hearing
Three people addressed the commission during a public hearing on this project.
Ken Hicks spoke on behalf of Diverse Development, the Ohio firm that’s overseeing this project. He and architect Scott Bowers highlighted several aspects of the plan that had been revised, and addressed some of the concerns that commissioners had raised at the Nov. 7 meeting.
Warren Attarian of Ann Arbor – in the nearby Orchard Hills/Maplewood subdivision – told commissioners that the major objection by neighbors was to the queuing of cars for the drive-through, near the sidewalk by Plymouth Road. The original plan doesn’t leave much room between the sidewalk and the drive-through, he noted, while the alternative plan moves the drive-through so that it’s parallel to US-23. The alternative plan also gives better pedestrian access to the gas station and hotel, he said. Attarian hoped the alternative plan would move forward. He suggested that commissioners take a close look at the plans and request more details.
The Shoppes at 3600: Commission Discussion
Tony Derezinski asked the city’s planning staff what their preference was between the original and the revised plan. City planner Chris Cheng reported that the staff thinks the original proposal probably would be more feasible. Derezinski also asked about “cosmetic” changes that had been made to the plan, and Cheng also reviewed those – including design changes that made all four sides of the building look like the front.
Sabra Briere asked where deliveries would be made. Ken Hicks of Diverse Development indicated that deliveries would be made at the front of the building, which faced the parking lot. Briere then asked about the side of the building that would face Plymouth Road. If it’s blocked by landscaping, why would anyone cross Plymouth to get to the shops, if the building isn’t visible?
Hicks explained that commissioners had raised concerns that the side of the building that faces Plymouth would look like the back. So the developers had redesigned the facade with signs, windows and awnings to make it more like a front. Diane Giannola clarified with the architect that the windows on that side are actually functional.
Wendy Woods thanked the developer for coming up with an alternative site plan. She thought the facades looked better. Woods asked about a berm that’s currently located along Plymouth Road: What would happen to the berm? Cheng replied that it would be flattened, and that quite a few trees would be removed from that area.
Woods wondered how the building would be made to appear inviting for people driving by on Plymouth. Hicks pointed to landscaping, signs and the architectural look of the building. The trees in the right-of-way along Plymouth won’t be removed, he noted.
Eleanore Adenekan asked about traffic: Had traffic been addressed? Hicks replied that a traffic study had been required, and that it would be necessary to install signs by the exit onto Plymouth clearly indicating that vehicles can only turn right.
Bonnie Bona also thanked the developer for developing an alternative plan. She observed that the commission was struggling: Commissioners wanted buildings closer to the street, but then in a seeming contradiction they were asking that the facade be hidden with landscaping. That’s because the side facing Plymouth is actually the back of the building, she noted. Adding the windows on that side will help, but there are doors that will almost never be used. She pointed out that landlords tend to ignore the back of a commercial building, ignoring things like graffiti and trash. She wondered what assurance the city had that in this case, that the landlord will pay attention to that.
Hicks replied that Diverse Development held its properties for a long time. The only way to do that and to keep tenants is to maintain the property, he said. They hire parking lot sweepers, for example, and Hicks said he personally visits the company’s holdings regularly to check on conditions. The intent is to make tenants happy, he said.
Bona also asked about the landscaping along the Plymouth side. Scott Bowers, the project’s architect, reported that he lives in that neighborhood and promised the building would look good. There will be 6-7 foot conifers planted between the drive-through and Plymouth Road, intended to screen cars in that drive-through lane. But the building would still be visible from the road, he said.
Ken Clein echoed Bona’s comments about the conundrum of the building facade facing Plymouth. He noted that in reality, not a lot of pedestrians walk along that road. For that location, this approach and land use is probably warranted, he said.
Saying that she’d reviewed the notes on a citizen participation meeting that the developer had held, Briere pointed out there was an expectation that people from Cleary University – located on the other side of Plymouth Road – would be coming to the businesses in this development. Is there an expectation that a crosswalk will be installed?
That’s not likely, Cheng replied. Unless a stoplight is installed, it’s doubtful that crossing at that location would be encouraged. The safest way for pedestrians to cross is at the intersection of Green and Plymouth.
Kirk Westphal asked how a pedestrian walkway would be handled across the service drive on the site. Hicks indicated that the walkway will be flush with the curbs, and made of patterned concrete.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the project’s original site plan as well as rezoning for the land – from R5 (motel-hotel district) to C3 (fringe commercial district). The requests will next be considered by the city council.
The Ann Arbor planning commission was asked to recommend approval of the annexation for 2925 Devonshire Road, one of several Ann Arbor Township “islands” within the city. Also on the Jan. 15 agenda was a request to zone the 0.66-acre site as R1A (single-family dwelling district).
The property – owned by Keith Kocher and Sara Saberi – is vacant, but within a residential neighborhood south of Geddes. The owners plan to build a new house there, and would be required to pay an estimated $41,337 to connect to the city’s water and sewer mains. A storm sewer improvement charge of $3,477 is also required.
The parcel is adjacent to a property that was annexed into Ann Arbor earlier this year by the city council, following recommendation at the planning commission’s Dec. 4, 2012 meeting. That parcel – at 3100 Geddes Road site, owned by Mike and Deb McMullen – is located south of Geddes and north of Devonshire, between Heatherway Street and Hickory Lane. Both parcels were part of a larger lot that had been divided into four parcels earlier this year by Ann Arbor Township.
No one spoke at a public hearing on this item.
Devonshire Annexation: Commission Discussion
Bonnie Bona observed that this parcel was part of a larger lot that was divided by Ann Arbor Township, before being annexed into the city. That means the city has no input into the size of the lot.
Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, replied: “We found that surprising, too.” She said that city staff have contacted the township to request that in the future, the township circulate its intent when considering a land division.
Kirk Westphal clarified with Rampson that there’s an agreement between the township and the city regarding which land will eventually be annexed. Rampson indicated that the boundaries are well known.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the annexation for 2925 Devonshire Road, as well as R1A (single-family dwelling district) zoning for the parcel. The zoning and annexation require Ann Arbor city council approval.
Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Bonnie Bona, Sabra Briere, Ken Clein, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Next regular meeting: Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]
The Chronicle survives in part through regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of publicly-funded entities like the city’s planning commission. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.