Ann Arbor City, Place for Knitting

Purls of wisdom on both sides of project
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A dishrag knitted up in less than the time it took for planning commission to meet.

At the Sept. 4 planning commission meeting, the resolution to recommend City Place project – proposed along South Fifth Avenue as a PUD by Alex de Parry – failed with only two votes for it.

Under-reported generally, and specifically about that meeting, is the volume of knitted material that is produced during Ann Arbor public meetings by folks in the audience. And knitting is a great metaphor for framing some of the general issues laid out at the planning commission meeting with respect to the specific project.

First though, who was knitting and what were they working on? Sabra Briere was working on a complex cape-collar cardigan for her daughter-in-law. The back and the left front were finished, and she had cast on for the right front (i.e., set up the initial row on the needles). Note that this was a planning commission meeting, so Briere was not attending in an official capacity as councilmember representing Ward 1. At the most recent caucus, she reported that she had moved on to the sleeves.

In terms of difficulty, at the other end of the knitting scale from a cape-collar cardigan is a square dishrag. That’s what Eva started and finished in less than the time it took planning commission to conduct its business. Eva moved to Ann Arbor from Birmingham – because Birmingham just seemed to have no real soul – and now she doesn’t have to make the drive all the way from Birmingham to Ann Arbor for the Tuesday night German speakers stammtisch at Grizzly Peak.

What a square dish rag might lack in complexity, Eva is making up for in sheer volume. She’s knitting them for all her friends, which is a number somewhere between 50 and 100. As The Chronicle was leaving the meeting (early), Eva quickly bound off the last stitch, folded the rag, and gifted it to us. So ‘ne unerwartete Freundlichkeit! Das haben wir nicht erwartet. Wir möchten uns bei Eva für dieses Geschenk bedanken, und werden wohl jedes Mal, wenn’s zum Geschirrspülen kommt, daran denken, wie unsere Gemeinschaft auch zusammengestrickt ist.

Just as the fabric of physical community can be knit together by spontaneously gifting a piece of handwork to a new acquaintance, it can also be tied together through the words of people speaking on basically opposite sides of an issue. That’s what we’ve tried to do below. Each thread, labeled with the naming pattern of [X].Nonymous, corresponds to a speaking turn from the public hearing on City Place at the Sept. 4 meeting.

The speakers, of course, are not anonymous, as the labels suggest. They are people who had the gumption to stand at the podium and say their piece publicly. We’ve chosen not to attach their names to the words below for two reasons. First, some of them are “usual suspects” who frequently speak and write on these topics, and we’d like to give Chronicle readers the chance to focus on what they had to say, instead of thinking, “Oh, I already know what they’re going to say.” Second, we’ve redacted fairly dramatically these three-minute speaking turns (for length and clarity), and they are in some sense taken out of their full context. And to the extent that this redaction might change the meaning of a speaker’s remarks, we don’t wish to saddle the original speaker with that unintended meaning. We hope that the lack of quotation marks is conspicuous. Note also, that we made no attempt to be exhaustive by including something from every speaker.

So here they are – some purls of wisdom on both sides of City Place. As this project comes before council (which is an option the developer will be pursuing, despite its rejection by planning commission), perhaps these bits can be knit together into a satisfactory outcome for the community – which includes the developer.


When we demolish buildings we do everything we can to recycle as much of the building as possible. Under this scenario we plan to work with three groups to salvage building materials from the structure before demolition takes place. We will work with Habitat for Humanity, Ann Arbor Recycle, and Materials Unlimited of Ypsilanti to salvage all doors, windows, wood trim, wood flooring, cabinets, bathroom and plumbing fixtures.


Just hearing him talk about the demolition gives me a stomach ache. I know that some people just say that they are old buildings. But these are truly historic buildings. They are connected with several of our mayors. We have streets named after the people who live in these houses: two of the Beakes mayors and also Mayor Hamilton, after which Hamilton Street is named.


The small changes to the project don’t change, in my estimation, the aesthetic problem of a big blob taking the place of historic buildings and the whole ambiance of the panorama. Not just the historical nature of the panorama, but also its significance as a cornerstone of this area.


I think the buildings have an inherent environmental value in the materials that were used to build them many years ago.


The most pressing concern is the lack of modern, clean, affordable housing in the downtown area. This problem has caused me to consider living outside of downtown.


As far as the salvage plan, I think there is a financial advantage to salvage the very valuable wood and glass windows and other things that are in these houses. They don’t have to be doing this for anybody else to do anybody else a favor. All of these materials are far more valuable in the houses that are standing there.


I think in general, the cheapest kind of housing is older housing, not newer housing, I think that’s very clear. And as to the concerns about modernity within these buildings, since these buildings are owned by the developer, I would propose that concerns about lack of modernity in his kitchen or wherever be addressed to the owner.


It’s hard for me to understand how any developer would want to incur the derision of this community for such short-sighted greed. When so much can be done by either selling the houses, and investing in areas where more density is permitted, or by rehabbing them as single-family houses, so that we could have a healthier and more balanced mix in the downtown. We need families. We need students. We need young professionals. We need all of them, that’s what the city is … also there is no guarantee what the price on these will be. How many times have we seen developments predicted at such and such a price per unit, only to skyrocket at the very end. There is also no guarantee as to who will live there. Who will live there will be who can afford the rent.


I enjoy the downtown and I think that it’s one of our major assets as a community and as a business environment. And I’m very concerned about our downtown remaining a place that is a viable business environment. Historic structures actually have economic benefit. Having a block of structures this close to downtown, the structures themselves are an asset to the whole community.


I am here because I love this city. I think we are all here because we love the city. We love it for the friends that we’ve made, the times we’ve had, and the dreams that we have realized here. I think we all love this city for the memories it has afforded us. Unfortunately, as it stands Ann Arbor cannot provide a lifestyle that will cultivate the memories that some of its residents desire. The city is full of young professionals – scientists, medical professionals, small-business owners, teachers and graduate students who need affordable downtown avenues to pursue their dreams. For each of us here today there are hundreds with the same story. We’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.


I really love living in Ann Arbor and hopefully once I get a job, once I graduate, I won’t have to live in the awful place I live right now with the noise going through the walls and the loud music. I want a place where I can live. And City Place is the type of place you want to live in.


Overwhelmingly what I think you’re hearing from the community is that there is no clear public benefit, and I hope that that would give you the confidence to be able to deny the developer the opportunity to destroy this neighborhood and build something that is not compatible with the surrounding area.


Listening to all the stories, they are all heartfelt and I appreciate listening to you guys talk about the history of the city. But realistically right now the city needs more places to live. A year and half ago when I was graduating college I was actually considering moving from the city out of state. Actually I moved out of the city because I could no longer afford it. The only things that I could afford were rundown, destroyed, crappy housing. And to be honest with you, something like this would bring more young professionals in. Just because it’s historic, people aren’t going to come here because of that.


The price of steel doesn’t change, whatever you want the building to cost. The price of concrete doesn’t change. And both of those have continuously gone up in the last decade. You cannot build a relatively high-rise structure, with expensive elevators, in a very expensive part of town, and have anything but an expensive building. You cannot make this building any less per square foot than Ashley Terrace.


I did not plan to speak for or against City Place, but I like what I see. It’s four stories tall, it’s got 97 underground parking spaces, for 90 units. It reminds me a little bit of the architecture on South University between Observatory and Washtenaw. Basically I like what I see. And would like to see it on the corner of Forest and South University. [Ed. note: this is a punch-line; it drew lots of laughs; it would be a mistake to chalk it up as support for City Place.]


While its form may be different from several individual multiple family structures, City Place is compatible in character and appearance with its neighborhood. The 1992 central area plan contains over 40 pages of problems – their correct application is in the context of the whole city as a living, evolving mechanism.


With respect to the embodied energy in these buildings, I have reviewed the literature and it’s difficult to find something that is a rigorous analysis of what exactly that means. I did do a rough calculation – you have a payback within 5-7 years. The important thing about that is that you are thinking big. SEMCOG says that by the year 2015 Ann Arbor will have 5,000 more jobs and 100 more residents. If we want to save the planet we’re going to have to have more compact development and redevelop the urban cores. If we’re not willing to do it in Ann Arbor, who’s going to? Frankly I think it’s a great project. It’s got excellent architecture, it’s in a great location.


I want density downtown. And that’s what all of our plans are committed to. That’s where the density should be, and that’s where diversity should be. Protecting those neighborhoods around the downtown is what we should be doing. And let’s face it, in terms of what you’ve heard, I’ve said this before, this proposal gives the finger to every one of us.