No Study Committee for Old Fourth Ward

412 E. Huron won't be studied for removal from district

412 E. Huron St.

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Huron Street historically as a street of grand homes where Ann Arbor’s leading citizens lived, which had gradually been replaced by elements of automobile-centric culture like gas stations.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.
Sec. 14.

(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.

historic district ann arbor

View looking south across Huron Street at 412 E. Huron. The building under construction in the rear is Four 11 Lofts.

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.

distoric district ann arbor

Old Fourth Ward map (parcels included in the district are brown). The pink arrow designates the 412 E. Huron property.

Note that the definition of “historic district” does not require that a district consist of contiguous properties.

Section: Govt.

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  1. By Stew Nelson
    October 27, 2008 at 9:22 am | permalink

    This is exactly the type of objective, non-biased reporting that we need in Ann Arbor. Great job Dave!

  2. By Steve Bean
    October 27, 2008 at 11:37 am | permalink

    It seems that the property owners misinterpreted the statute (and no one else caught it.) Since “considering elimination of a historic district” wasn’t on the table, the rest of that section doesn’t apply.

  3. By Dave Askins
    October 27, 2008 at 12:08 pm | permalink


    I think you’re right that (2) deals only with what must be shown if elimination of a district is on the table. And it’s modification that was meant to be on the table, not elimination.

    The study committee considering modification of the district would simply “comply with the procedures set forth in section 3,” which are the procedures for establishing a historic district.

    Seems to me that even though the impetus for establishing a study committee would be a desire on the part of the property owners to exclude their property from the district, the outcome of the study committee’s activity could be to recommend not just retention of that parcel, but inclusion of additional parcels as well.

    I would think, though, that there’s some “probable cause” criterion that most councilmembers apply to this sort of thing: do we have some reason to think that the property — if analyzed again in the same way we would, if we were just now establishing the OFW historic district — would not be included in the district?

    As an aside, the street trees along Huron aren’t helping the cause for this house, because they basically screen it from view along the street. As a layperson navigating Huron Street, it’s hard for me to perceive those three OFW properties on the south side of Huron Street as part of a “district.” So it might be worth it for the DDA to explore a way to make the streetside landscaping help those three properties look more like part of a “district”. Seems to me there was a DDA project for that stretch of Huron put forward within the last three years or so, but I haven’t had time to follow up to confirm.

  4. By Steve Bean
    October 27, 2008 at 12:45 pm | permalink

    Did you have something specific in mind in terms of a possible addition to the district or were you just pointing out the full range of possibilities?

    I agree about the “district”. A big part of the problem is just the name. The property owners made the (specious) argument that their property isn’t even in the Old Fourth Ward. If “District” is left off the end of that name, it’s confusing. Why a historic district was named after a defunct political boundary is something I wonder about.

  5. By Dave Askins
    October 27, 2008 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    “Did you have something specific in mind in terms of a possible addition to the district or were you just pointing out the full range of possibilities?”

    The second of those.

  6. By susan wineberg
    October 29, 2008 at 1:32 pm | permalink

    This is a great discussion. However, it is incorrect to say that the building is three blocks away from the historic district because of the way the Old Fourth Ward district was set up. The committee, of which I was a member, first designated the Ann Street Block as a historic district. A few years later the rest of the area became the Old Fourth Ward. So you really should color in the two blocks of Ann Street on the map and then you can see that these buildings on E. Huron really do relate to the district as a whole. If the district were being created today, the north side of Huron would have been included, and would have been labeled as ‘non contributing.’ It was left out of the district for just this reason. The rules have changed since 1983 when the OFW was created by ordinance.

    If the study committee had been appointed, it could also have proposed the addition of the First Methodist Church to the district. At the time the ordinance was written, the church was not 50 years old since it was constructed in 1940. Mr. Berggren neglects to point out that all of this side of Huron is historic–even the Firestone Building! This too might be considered for an addition to the district–as well as the Ann Arbor News building which is an fabulous Albert Kahn building from 1936 (which has no historic protection). There are also immense oak trees at the eastern end of the block which give it a sense of history like nothing else can.

    The Old Fourth Ward got its name through a contest. It was suggested by Milo Ryan, who wrote a wonderful book about growing up on Kingsley St. This neighborhood had been known as the Fourth Ward for many years. Thus the name seemed to fit.

  7. By Dave Askins
    October 29, 2008 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    Susan Winberg wrote: “So you really should color in the two blocks of Ann Street on the map and then you can see that these buildings on E. Huron really do relate to the district as a whole.”

    The image I included came from a map generated with the city’s GIS system, printed in April of this year: Old Fourth Ward Historic District

    The set of historic district maps generated around the same time includes a separate one for Ann Street.

    If “Ann Street” and “Old Fourth Ward” are in fact one historic district, it would be helpful if the city’s historic preservation documentation didn’t treat them as separate — even if they might have been separate districts at one time.

  8. By susan wineberg
    October 29, 2008 at 2:18 pm | permalink

    I know it’s very annoying that they are treated as two districts when they are contiguous. But these are facts of law. They were created with separate ordinances at two different times. The four houses at the corners of Ann and Division are also in a separate district, the Division Street Historic District, which was the very first district created ca. 1975. But I think these were included in the Old Fourth Ward map. The Gandy Dancer is also in the Division Street District but it too is really part of the Old Fourth Ward. It would be helpful if the GIS system could somehow process that they are one district but that’s beyond my understanding of any of this stuff. I just like old buildings!