As The Chronicle previously reported, Sunday night before city council’s last meeting on Monday Oct. 20, Chris Crockett, president of the Old Fourth Ward Association, and Ray Detter, chair of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, appeared at the caucus. They were there to oppose the resolution on the following evening’s agenda to appoint a study committee to explore the question of modifying the Old Fourth Ward historic district to exclude the property at 412 E. Huron St. At caucus the question was left open as to whether the item would be left on the agenda at all, independent of how council might vote on the resolution if it stayed.
But when Monday evening rolled around, the item still appeared on the agenda. Both Crockett and Detter re-appeared as well to reiterate their opposition to the appointment of a study committee. Crockett cited the view of consultants Bruce Race and Norrie Winter, who led some of the recent discussions of character districts in downtown, that the area in question should be thought of as the “front yard” of Ann Arbor. The area has a “park-like feel,” said Crockett, in an area where there is little greenspace. Crockett asked that council not tinker with the rezoning of downtown – with its accompanying character districts – before that rezoning is even passed.
Detter recounted the process in the early ’80s of establishing the Old Fourth Ward historic district, a process which concluded that the property at 412 E. Huron St. was not merely important, but a landmark house. He described Huron Street historically as a street of grand homes where Ann Arbor’s leading citizens lived, which had gradually been replaced by elements of automobile-centric culture like gas stations. The property in question, said Detter, happens to be at the edge of the district. But it’s the edges that are the most fragile, he said, warning that removal of this property from the district could set the stage for a domino effect of chipping away at the edges of historic districts. Detter objected to the fact that the resolution was on council’s agenda at all.
Also appearing at council were the owners of the property, Peter Osetek and Kurt Berggren, who have separate legal practices there. Osetek took Detter’s reference to the domino effect as his starting point, saying that he thought we had left the domino effect behind in Vietnam (an allusion to U.S. foreign policy based on fear of one country after the next falling under the communist influence). Osetek pointed out that there are numerous buildings eight stories and taller in the area, including the building currently under construction behind the 412 Huron St. property (Four 11 Lofts). The side of Huron Street where the property is located is not the Old Fourth Ward, said Osetek. He said his property was isolated by large buildings from whatever historic district there is. On that basis Osetek asked that council invoke the law, which provides for appointment of a study committee as a necessary condition for modifying a historic district.
Echoing Osetek’s sentiments was Berggren, who described the property as an isolated island not really a part of the Old Fourth Ward. He said that inclusion of the property in the historic district “makes absolutely no sense” and said that they can’t rent or sell the property because of its isolation.
The law to which Osetek referred is the 1970 Michigan Act 169, which reads in relevant part:
399.214 Local units; establishing, modifying, or eliminating historic districts; study committee; considerations; review of applications within proposed historic district; emergency moratorium.
(1) A local unit may at any time establish by ordinance additional historic districts, including proposed districts previously considered and rejected, may modify boundaries of an existing historic district, or may eliminate an existing historic district. Before establishing, modifying, or eliminating a historic district, a historic district study committee appointed by the legislative body of the local unit shall, except as provided in subsection (2), comply with the procedures set forth in section 3 and shall consider any previously written committee reports pertinent to the proposed action. To conduct these activities, local units may retain the initial committee, establish a standing committee, or establish a committee to consider only specific proposed districts and then be dissolved.
(2) If considering elimination of a historic district, a committee shall follow the procedures set forth in section 3 for issuing a preliminary report, holding a public hearing, and issuing a final report but with the intent of showing 1 or more of the following:
(i) The historic district has lost those physical characteristics that enabled establishment of the district.
(ii) The historic district was not significant in the way previously defined.
(iii) The historic district was established pursuant to defective procedures.
Council deliberations included both the merits the historic district, as well as the role in the process of appointing a study committee. Councilmember Sabra Briere said that part of what makes Ann Arbor charming is old buildings like the property at 412 E. Huron. Removing it from the district, she said, would take away the fabric that protects the two buildings next to the property, which are also a part of the historic district. Briere inveighed against whittling away the edges and making the district smaller.
Councilmember Chris Easthope wanted to know if the owners were aware that the property was in a historic district when it was purchased. Berggren said that for his part, he did not know – it was purchased on his behalf by others – but said that this should not factor into consideration of the merits of appointing a study committee. Given that it was section 2(i) above that the owners felt was likely to be the relevant criterion, councilmember Stephen Kunselman said that if you walked around the block (as Osetek had suggested), that’s outside the district and that within the district there was likely not the physical change required to undertake modification of the district.
In her initial comments, councilmember Marcia Higgins indicated that she would be willing to support the appointment of a study committee, reasoning that it was not a foregone conclusion that such a committee would return a recommendation supporting removal of the property from the district. Councilmember Leigh Greden suggested that if a recommendation came back from the committee to remove the property, he still did not imagine he could vote for its removal – acknowledging that he’d perhaps made that conclusion too soon. Greden rejected, however, Detter’s contention that the item should have never been placed on the agenda. And Greden’s remarks were enough to convince Higgins to also vote no on the resolution. Councilmember Joan Lowenstein, who was – along with mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje – the point of council contact about the issue for the property owners, was the only councilmember voting for the appointment of the study committee.
Note that the definition of “historic district” does not require that a district consist of contiguous properties.