Germantown: Study It or Not?

Bitte die Wand nicht besprühen

Ann Arbor City Council Caucus (Dec. 14, 2008) At its Sunday caucus, city council discussed two items on its agenda for Monday night:

  • Historic District Study Committee – a resolution to appoint a study committee to determine the suitability of establishing a historic district called Germantown, which would include roughly the area bounded on the north by William Street, on the west by Fourth Avenue, on the south by Madison Street and on the east by Division Street.
  • Graffiti Ordinance – a resolution to amend the city’s code to set forth punishments for graffiti, both for applying it and for allowing it to remain in place.

Discussion of the historic district study committee was driven by attendance at caucus of interested parties to the decision. Those parties included several residents of the neighborhood as well as a developer who has a project located inside the district of the proposed study. That project (City Place) is currently being considered by council.

William Street and Fourth Avenue looking southeast.

William Street and Fourth Avenue looking southeast. The view takes in a large part of the area for which a historic district study committee is proposed. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

Historic District Study Committee for Germantown

By way of background, in order to establish or modify a historic district, a study committee must first be appointed, with the scope and nature of that committee’s work strictly defined by code. Council recently considered and rejected the request from a property owner on Huron Street, who sought to have a study committee appointed. The property owner wanted to see the Old Fourth Ward Historic District modified to exclude his property. The issue before council for Monday’s Dec. 15 meeting is whether to appoint such a committee to study an area south of William Street between Fourth Avenue and Division Street for the purpose of establishing a new historic district there with the provisional name Germantown. The city’s Historic District Commission requested the appointment of the committee in a letter to council dated Sept. 11, 2008, a week after the city’s planning commission had voted against recommending approval of a PUD (City Place) located in the area of proposed study.

Around a half dozen residents who live within the area of proposed study for a historic district attended caucus, some expressing mild surprise that council was having such a meeting. [Editor's note: Sunday night caucus preceding Monday council meetings is a regular event. In the 8 months The Chronicle has attended caucus, which are entirely optional for councilmembers, Sabra Briere has been present for all of them, and has each time offered around homemade chocolates to her colleagues and to the public. Out of the selection this past Sunday, The Chronicle enjoyed a piece of English toffee.]

Residents who spoke at the caucus cited their choice to live in the neighborhood and talked about what made it enjoyable to live there. Some of that included the range of different people who lived there, from very young people to very old people, and the sense of neighborhood and place. One gentleman noted that his accent revealed him to not have grown up in the proposed Germantown, but rather in Switzerland. And he said that having grown up in a 500-year old house, where his parents still lived, he knew that if a house is properly maintained, it can last a really long time. Most of the residents who spoke cited their own investments in their homes to keep them properly maintained.

In making the case for the authorization from council to appoint a study committee, residents cited the stability that a historic district would bring to this area immediately adjacent to downtown and pointed to the economic benefit both to themselves as homeowners, but also to the city as a whole. Part of that benefit, they said, was related to the potential appeal of Ann Arbor as a location for shooting movies. [Editor's note: The point has some merit based on two movies shot partly in the area in the summer of 2008, with news of another film starring Hilary Swank to be shot here in the near future.]

As for the potential burden on city staff time that such a study committee might impose, they made the point that as taxpayers, they deserved at least equal parity with developers, who were afforded staff time and resources in connection with any proposed project.

Developers were also represented at caucus in the form of Alex de Parry, whose City Place PUD application will at some time in the near future be heard in a second reading by council. The City Place project along South Fifth Avenue sits squarely in the middle of the area of proposed study. Scott Munzel, legal counsel on the project, addressed caucus not on the historic district study committee per se, but rather on the merits of the City Place PUD as it relates to various planning documents and reports.

Munzel began by citing his credentials as a friend of historic preservation in the form of his own home in Ward 5, which he had chosen to renovate as opposed to knock down and rebuild from scratch, which would have been cheaper.

He noted that the city’s Central Area Plan [.pdf] has six major themes and noted that no project could meet the goals specified in all of the thematic areas. Those major themes are the following:

  • Housing and Neighborhoods
  • Circulation and Parking
  • Development/Redevelopment
  • Downtown
  • Parks, Open Spaces and Public Area
  • Historic Preservation

On the first of these themes, having to do with housing and neighborhoods, Munzel said that the point was to protect residential uses against commercial encroachment, which City Place did. Munzel cited the diversity of incomes for which the units had been designed. On the circulation element, Munzel said that the inclusion of underground parking onsite, plus proximity to downtown for the downtown workers for which the units of City Place were targeted, meant that it met the goals of reducing commuter traffic into downtown and reducing the burden on downtown parking structures. On the development/redevelopment element, Munzel said the project met the goal of increasing density both in and near the core of downtown, and that there was no requirement that all new development be of the same form as the existing neighborhood. On the downtown component, Munzel said that although the proposed project was 50 feet outside the DDA boundary, it supported the central area plan goal of supporting and promoting pedestrian activity downtown. With respect to land use, Muzel said that the multi-family dwelling unit was appropriate for the edge of downtown.

Munzel said that his concern was that the planning staff’s report, on which planning commission had partly based its recommendation against approval of the City Place PUD, focused on the form of the building to the exclusion of how the project met the goals of the central area plan. But the form, Munzel said, was also an appropriate urban form (brownstone style), even if it was different from the house-driveway-house-driveway pattern along South Fifth Avenue. Asked to wrap things up by John Hieftje, the city’s mayor, Munzel ticked through the ways that City Place supported the goals of the greenbelt program and met the city’s environmental goals through the building itself as well as its proximity to the likely work locations of its residents.

Councilmembers’ discussion included continued back-and-forth between them and residents, and at one point prompted developer Alex de Parry to shed his jacket and ask, “Can I talk?” De Parry had not signed in on the list and council had moved to its own discussion, but Briere replied cheerily, “You certainly can!” What had moved him to participate resulted from councilmember Carsten Hohnke’s query about possible opposition to the appointment of a study committee. From residents came a description of some of the petitions signed by those who objected as containing duplicated signatures. De Parry confirmed the duplication of names, but clarified that they corresponded to different properties. That is, if a single person owned three properties, their name appeared three times on the list. Briere noted that this was a point that she was just about to make.

Residents wanted to know if they needed to submit their own list of supporters, to which Briere replied that a list would be appropriate at a later time.

The question of the individual designation of many of the homes arose during discussion. Some of those homes still bear plaques attesting to their historic significance. Briere wanted to know how many of the homes in the proposed district formerly enjoyed status as individually protected structures and lost that status along with many others in the early 2000s. Although no one had an answer to that question, it gave an opportunity to Hieftje to note that it was an Ann Arbor court case that determined that individual buildings designated as a historic district in the way, many of them in Ann Arbor, did not meet the standard of a district. The Chronicle believes the relevant case to which Hieftje alluded was Draprop v. City of Ann Arbor [.pdf], in which the State of Michigan Court of Appeals ruled:

Because we conclude that defendant was without authority under the LHDA to establish the Individual Historic Properties Historic District, we need not reach the merits of plaintiff’s constitutional claims. The ordinance creating the district is invalid. Defendant’s historic preservation ordinance, specifically § 8:406, provides that the designation of an historic district is by local ordinance pursuant to the LHDA. Plaintiff’s properties are not part of a legally recognizable historic district. Defendant did not act within the ambit of the LHDA and its own historic preservation ordinance in designating plaintiff’s buildings as historic properties, and thus the trial court’s grant of summary disposition in favor of defendant was improper.

Councilmember Marcia Higgins asked the residents to explain the urgency they felt now, given that some of them had indicated they had lived in their homes for several years. Part of the urgency was accounted for when it emerged that they understood this to be their only shot. That is, they believed that if council rejected the authorization to appoint the committee, then the opportunity would be lost forever. Hohnke wondered if that was really the case, something that Briere clarified: it could be brought back again, even if it failed this time around. Hohnke then asked the residents if they would be comfortable with postponement to give them a bit more time to organize. Residents said that they couldn’t say definitively yes, because they were not sure of the ramifications.

One resident in particular said that really what concerned him was that he just wanted to know when a definitive decision was being made about the neighborhood in which he lived. He noted that he’d heard about the possibility of a historic district being established around a year ago, not from the city … but from Alex de Parry. De Parry acknowledged that he and the resident had known each other for over thirty years.

Higgins had a question on the timing between the authorization by council to appoint a study committee and the actual appointment of the committee that would specify its members. Briere weighed in based on her experience serving on two such study committees, saying that these were separate events. There was a time gap between authorization and actual appointment, she said.

Councilmember Margie Teall raised a question of great practical interest: Is there a moratorium on demolition in the area to be studied, if a committee is authorized to be formed? Hohnke said that that was a separate action. Briere said that a study committee, after it was formed, could request a moratorium, and that Kevin McDonald, with the city attorney’s office, had written an opinion on that.

Graffiti Ordinance

Germantown, graffiti-style.

Germantown, graffiti-style.

Councilmember Sandi Smith expressed concerns about the position that the proposed ordinance put property owners: it made the victim of a crime subject to a fine. Smith noted that at her own place of business, the remedy for graffiti removal was sandblasting, which was required around six times a year at a cost of $500 per blast. She said that especially in the current economic climate she did not want to put business owners in the situation of having to choose between removing graffiti or making payroll.

In a relevant part to council’s caucus discussion, the proposed ordinance reads:

(2) No person shall apply graffiti to any surface or structure.

A violation of this subsection shall be a misdemeanor punishable by one or more of the following:

(a) Community service that is as relevant and appropriate to the violation as possible;

(b) Restitution;

(c) A fine of not more than $500.00 plus costs.

No person who owns or otherwise controls or manages any property shall permit or allow any graffiti to be or remain on any surface or structure on the property beyond the time indicated in a notice, which shall be no less than two (2) days after the notice is posted on the property or delivered to the property owner and no less than four (4) days if the notice is mailed. If removal of the graffiti by the date set in the notice is not possible due to weather or other reasonable cause, then on or before the date set in the notice the person to whom the notice is issued or his or her agent shall contact the City as indicated in the notice to request an extension.

A violation of this subsection shall be a civil infraction punishable by a fine of not more than $500.00 plus costs, and/or equitable relief, and/or any other penalty available under the law, including but not limited to a court order requiring the defendant to remove the graffiti. Each day upon which graffiti is present upon a property constitutes a separate violation of this section. For a first offense, the fine shall be $100.00, plus costs and all other remedies available by statute. For each additional or subsequent offense within a 2-year time period the fine shall be not less than $250.00 and up to $500.00, plus costs and all other remedies available by statute.

Councilmember Teall, who is co-sponsoring the ordinance along with councilmembers Leigh Greden, Carsten Hohnke and Christopher Taylor, clarified that the spirit of the ordinance was more along the lines of a notification to property owners, and that it was consistent with the current clean communities program that recognized the importance of timely cleanup to prevent further proliferation. She referenced the work that had been done on development of the ordinance with Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. Hohnke noted that he brought the perspective of a business owner to the issue and represented the point of view that it was important that there be adequate enforcement against graffiti in the first place, if a business owner faces a potential fine for leaving it in place. But he said that he felt this had been addressed by the police department. He echoed the view that grafitti – if left in place – has a negative impact.

Acknowledging the potential negative impact, Smith said she wanted to make sure there was information on removal techniques made available, because the ordinance made it a real possibility that the victim of a crime could be fined as harshly as the perpetrator. Hieftje stated that if graffiti stays, the effect is to invite someone else to graffiti nearby properties.

Teall expressed some surprise that sandblasting was required as a technique. In light of her conversations with staff at the city and at the university, she said, it seemed to be a seldom-used technique. Smith noted that this was “what I need to know,” alluding to her earlier comment on the need to have information available on removal techniques.

Councilmember Higgins saw this ordinance in the context of the new zoning currently under development by the city, and said that at the following evening at council’s meeting she’d ask that Kevin McDonald in the city attorney’s office be looped into the discussion.

Councilmember Briere brought the perspective of the nonprofit she works for, which had repainted its building only to find that two months later someone came along and spray-painted the whole side of the building. The remedy – which was to repaint as opposed to clean it – represented a considerable expense, because the paint was special historic paint consistent with the location of the building in a historic district. “This is not cheap!” Briere wondered if there was any kind of emergency fund that could be tapped for business owners who don’t have ready cash to deal with graffiti, and stressed the need to address the funding issue.

Present: Sandi Smith, Sabra Briere, Tony Derezinski, Margie Teall, Marcia Higgins, Carsten Hohnke, Mike Anglin, John Hieftje


  1. December 15, 2008 at 1:37 pm | permalink

    Thank you for the hilariously appropriate subtitle.

    I’m delighted (and a bit stunned) to see that somebody is acting on the suggestion I made last August.

  2. December 15, 2008 at 8:46 pm | permalink

    Got it.