Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 2, 2013): A new retail project – with plans for a Jimmy John’s restaurant – will now move to the city council for approval, following a recommendation from planning commissioners this week.
Called the State Street Center, the project will be located on a thin strip of land off of South State, just north of Ellsworth and adjacent to a relatively new Tim Hortons. Commissioners recommended approval of the site plan and for rezoning the parcel to C3 (fringe commercial). The Jimmy John’s will face South State. A separate one-story retail building will be located behind the restaurant.
Some commissioners expressed concern that the businesses in the retail building won’t be very visible from South State. Jim Cernuto, the owner’s project manager, noted that the State and Ellsworth corridor is “coming alive” after the opening of Costco, and that there’s strong interest from potential tenants. The proposed C3 zoning is the most inclusive type of non-residential zoning, allowing for a wide range of businesses, including convenience stores, dry cleaners, wholesalers and warehousing.
Also during the meeting, several commissioners brought up items for future discussion. Bonnie Bona noted that the city’s energy commission plans to develop recommendations for the city council regarding future development of the former YMCA site, on William between Fourth and Fifth avenues. She suggested that planning commissioners should discuss whether they also want to make recommendations, laying out what councilmembers should consider in deciding the site’s future. At its March 4, 2013 meeting, the council voted to direct the city administrator to prepare an RFP (request for proposals) for brokerage services to sell the lot.
Sabra Briere raised the issue of a whether the city should develop a “solar blocking” policy. If someone puts solar panels on the roof of their house, she noted, there is no ordinance to protect the home from other buildings that might be constructed nearby and block the sun – even though the city is encouraging this kind of solar energy use. Although she didn’t explicitly mention it, the issue of shading has been an argument against the proposed development at 413 E. Huron. In that case the issue has concerned the impact of building shade on trees, not solar panels. Briere also serves on the city council representing Ward 1. Councilmembers voted on April 1 to postpone action on that project.
Related to the 413 E. Huron project is a recent council directive to the planning commission to review the city’s downtown core (D1) zoning. Also on April 1, councilmembers provided specific guidance for that review, along with an Oct. 1 deadline for the completion of the work. Briere communicated the council’s direction to commissioners at their April 2 meeting, but there was no further discussion about it.
The commission’s regular meeting on April 2 was relatively brief, lasting about an hour. It was followed by a working session, where commissioners got an update from Nathan Voght, project manager for Reimagine Washtenaw. The effort is aimed at improving the Washtenaw Avenue corridor between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Voght works for Washtenaw County’s office of community & economic development, which is overseeing the project.
State Street Center
In their main action item, commissioners were asked to consider a proposed site plan for State Street Center, near the intersection of State and Ellsworth, as well as rezoning for the site.
The plan calls for demolishing a vacant 840-square-foot house on this site. In its place, the developer plans a one-story, 1,700-square-foot drive-thru Jimmy John’s restaurant facing South State Street. A one-story, 6,790-square-foot retail building will be built behind the restaurant. The driveway off South State Street would be relocated and widened. The site would include 39 parking spaces, as well as covered bicycle parking between the buildings.
The project is estimated to cost $900,000. The property, which is located in Ward 4, is owned by Jack Schwarcz of Oak Park, Mich.
The site plan approval would be contingent on dedicating a 50-foot South State Street right-of-way to the city prior to any permits being issued.
The development is located adjacent to a new Tim Hortons restaurant, which opened last year. However, there is no driveway connection between the two sites. Planning staff indicated that such a connection was encouraged, but is not happening at this time.
The project had originally been on the commission’s March 19, 2013 agenda. At that time, the city’s planning staff recommended postponement after discovering that the city’s official zoning map had been incorrectly labeled. It showed the site as zoned C3 (fringe commercial). The developer had made plans based on that erroneous labeling. But during background research for this proposal, planning staff discovered that the site actually had been zoned as O (office) in 2003. The postponement was intended to allow the developer to submit a rezoning request, which was then added to the April 2 agenda.
As part of her staff report on April 2, planning manager Wendy Rampson related the history of the site’s zoning. She told commissioners that based on city records, it seemed that when the site was zoned O in 2003, the planning commission back then felt it was inappropriate for the parcel to be zoned commercial because there wasn’t a site plan proposed at that time.
The city’s master plan supports commercial uses for this site, Rampson said, but there are a variety of options for commercial zoning. She said the staff concluded that the C3 zoning best fits that area. It’s the same zoning as the adjacent site. The draft South State Street corridor plan also recommends that area for commercial use, she noted.
Rampson highlighted some issues that had been raised during the commission’s previous meeting. She noted that stormwater management on the site will be handled using infiltration through about 19,000 square feet of porous pavement on the parking and driveway areas.
Commissioners had previously asked about connecting this site with the adjacent property where Tim Hortons is located. Rampson reported that the State Street Center owner had made a formal request to the other site owner about making such a connection, but did not receive a response.
In terms of public process, property owners and occupants within 1,000 feet of the site had been notified about the rezoning proposal, Rampson said. But because of the circumstances, the planning staff did not require the property owner to hold a public meeting, although that’s normally required for these kinds of rezoning requests.
The noticing elicited one response – a letter from developer Howard Frehsee, who advocated for the importance of good design and materials. He said he wasn’t trying to block this project. However, because he owns property near the same intersection on the Pittsfield Township side, he indicated that he’s interested in seeing that area develop in an attractive way. His letter also mentions that he developed the Corner House Lofts/Buffalo Wild Wings building at State and Washington, and that he has a site plan for developing an “upscale” retail center near the southeast corner of State and Ellsworth. [.pdf of Frehsee's letter]
Staff recommended approval of both the site plan and rezoning. No one spoke during the public hearing on this project.
State Street Center: Commission Discussion
Bonnie Bona noted that she hadn’t attended the previous meeting when this project was discussed, so she had some questions. Bona acknowledged that the city did not require connections between driveways, though it would be a good thing to do that, she said. She mentioned former commissioner Erica Briggs, who frequently advocated for sidewalks to connect adjoining properties. Bona noted that employees in the office where she works frequently order from Jimmy John’s. [Bona and Briggs work for Clean Energy Coalition, which is located in downtown Ann Arbor. Another Jimmy John's is located in that area.] Implying that workers in the research park along South State might want to walk to the new Jimmy John’s, Bona said it would be nice for people to be able to walk over to the State Street Center site.
There’s a sidewalk along South State Street, but she wondered if the owner had given any thought to providing a sidewalk for people who wanted to come directly from the research park. She imagined that otherwise they would cut across the lawn.
Jim Cernuto, project manager for the State Street Center, said the only access would be from South State. He characterized it as an odd site, which had been very difficult to develop.
Noting that the site is located in an “auto-oriented part of town,” Bona encouraged the developer to make the sidewalks more inviting to the adjacent properties in the back, so that employees could walk cut across without going onto South State. Planning manager Wendy Rampson highlighted the existing plan for sidewalks, which run from South State along the side of the proposed buildings to the back of the site.
Cernuto also addressed the issue of connecting the property with the adjacent site where Tim Hortons is located. He said he’d like to do it. The current State Street Center site plan has a “hammer head” turnaround at the far east end, so that fire trucks and other large vehicles can turn around. It would be better if they could cut through to the Tim Hortons lot and exit onto Ellsworth without turning around. But at this time, Cernuto said, that’s unlikely to happen. He indicated that the adjacent property owner is likely to propose another project on that site in the future. When that happens, the issue of making a connection could be revisited, Cernuto said, and the owner of State Street Center would be amenable to picking up part of the cost, if the cut-through is located at the east end. That’s the only reasonable place to put it, he said.
Bona suggested adding a note to the site plan, reflecting the intent and willingness to add a cut-through.
Ken Clein said the project seemed like one that the commission should approve, but he observed that some aspects of the project are “curious.” He hoped the owner could make a viable business from “this long, skinny building that’s set back from the street.” Usually commercial businesses want “street recognition,” Clein said, “but I suppose that’s really more their concern than ours, in terms of the economics.”
Clein asked about the “standing seam” roofing that was reflected in some of the architectural drawings, but was not shown in all of the drawings.
Cernuto noted that the architectural plans are preliminary. He pointed out that the back of the building, which faces north, will be constructed of brick – even though it would be less expensive to use plain block, he said. “It was the intention to make the back of the building not look like the back of the building,” Cernuto said. He hadn’t noticed the discrepancy in the architectural drawings of the roof, and indicated that it would be addressed.
Clein also clarified with Rampson that the soils on the site would accept infiltration. She replied that soils are checked as the first step whenever infiltration is proposed.
Kirk Westphal asked Rampson about what kind of follow-up is done for projects that use porous pavement. She noted that there haven’t been many projects so far that have used this option, and those that have it are relatively small. Porous pavements do require more maintenance than standard pavement, she said, so the developer has to incorporate that into their maintenance plan. The pavement needs to be swept regularly so that it won’t clog.
Rampson added that the city doesn’t have a regular inspection program for any of the detention facilities. A site would be examined only if there were a problem, like overflow onto an adjacent site.
Sabra Briere asked about signs. The site plan indicates a small sign at the entrance, “which may or may not be sufficient for this corridor,” she said. Briere asked Cernuto whether that marker would be sufficiently visible. Cernuto said they haven’t decided yet what to do about signs. Ann Arbor is very strict about signage, he said, quickly adding that all communities today are strict. “We have to comply – we will comply,” he said. [The city council is considering changes to its sign ordinance, but voted at its April 1, 2013 meeting to delay action until May 6.]
Briere imagined that the retail building behind Jimmy John’s would be difficult to find. Cernuto replied that the State and Ellsworth corridor is “coming alive” after the opening of Costco. There’s not much land to develop in Ann Arbor, he said, and “people are contacting our agent constantly” about the possibility of locating there. Jimmy John’s has a no-compete clause, he noted, so there can’t be another fast-food restaurant on the site.
Bona said she had similar thoughts about the visibility of the retail building. She asked Rampson to explain what kinds of businesses are allowed in C3 zoning districts. Rampson described the zoning as the most inclusive type of non-residential zoning. It allows for offices, food businesses, convenience stores, dry cleaners, wholesalers, warehouses. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be a traditional retail establishment,” Rampson said.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the site plan and rezoning for the State Street Center project. The items will be forwarded to the city council for consideration.
Communications & Commentary
At every planning commission meeting there are opportunities for commissioners and staff to give updates or share communications, as well as two slots for public commentary. On April 2, no one spoke during public commentary. Here are some highlights from issues raised by commissioners.
Communications & Commentary: Climate Action & Sustainability, Former Y Lot
Bonnie Bona reported on a recent meeting that she and Sabra Briere had attended. She said it followed an email exchange among Ann Arbor energy commissioners about issues related to the city’s climate action plan and sustainability framework. Bona had gotten involved because of side conversations she’d had with the energy commission’s chair, Wayne Appleyard.
The energy commission had been thinking about how to implement the climate action plan, she said. Bona had been on the task force that developed the plan, and one of their last meetings had been about implementation. The concern is how the plan should be implemented, and what entity should oversee that process – the energy commission, or perhaps a group from all relevant commissions.
The recent email also discussion touched on getting action items in place for the city’s sustainability framework, she said. One suggestion was to hold another meeting of the joint commissions – energy, environmental and planning. [These three commissions had spearheaded development of the sustainability framework. For a Chronicle report on their initial meeting in 2010, see: "Building a Sustainable Ann Arbor."]
But before that joint meeting happens, Bona said, each commission should have its own working session about ideas for implementing both the climate action plan and the sustainability action items.
Bona said the impetus for this broader discussion was the city council’s preparation to possibly sell the former YMCA site. The energy commission felt there was an opportunity, with a city-owned site, to potentially use it as a model for other buildings downtown or citywide, in terms of meeting the goals in the climate action plan and sustainability framework. The energy commission is preparing recommendations for city council about what should be done with the Y site, from the commission’s perspective. Bona said it seems like the planning commission should think about that, too, especially in light of the council’s direction to planning commissioners to review D1 zoning. The Y lot is in the D1 zoning district.
Bona proposed setting aside time at a future working session to talk about whether the planning commission should provide a memo to the council, laying out what the council should consider as it decides whether to sell the site. For example, she said, should there be a particular height limit or diversity of housing required there? In some previous cases, the city has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for city-owned property, indicating what kinds of things should be on those sites. Her preference would be for the planning commission to provide a memo to council that includes a list of priorities for the Y site.
Communications & Commentary: Solar Blocking Policy
Sabra Briere raised a concern that she said has developed in recent weeks. The city doesn’t have a policy about blocking solar gain, she said. If someone puts solar panels on the roof of their house, there is no ordinance to protect that homeowner from other properties that might build something to block the sun – even though the city is encouraging this kind of energy use. “I’m not saying that it’s a problem that exists today,” Briere said. “But I could easily imagine it would be a problem soon.” At some point, the planning commission will need to look at how to deal with those kinds of competing personal interests, she said.
Briere noted that the city had approved a project on the corner of Wildt and Summit that has what she described as a beautiful solar roof. It’s on a corner, but she could imagine if it were in another location, there’d be no guarantee that a neighbor wouldn’t build a taller building and block the sun. “It’s something I think we need to think about in connection, oddly enough, with the energy commission,” she concluded.
Briere did not mention the proposed 413 E. Huron development, but the issue of shading has been raised by neighbors of that controversial 14-story project, which would be located adjacent to a residential historic district. The conversation in connection with that project has centered around the potential impact of shade on trees, not on solar panel installations.
Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Bonnie Bona, Sabra Briere, Ken Clein, Tony Derezinski, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Absent: Diane Giannola.
Next regular meeting: Tuesday, April 16, 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]
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