No Formal Study Committee for Germantown

Anti-graffiti ordinance gets second reading; intent for $9 million in bonds approved

Ann Arbor City Council (Dec. 15, 2008) City council heard extensive public commentary and suspended its own rules to allow for more deliberation on the topic of appointing a study committee for a new historic district possibly to be called Germantown. But in the end, the proposal garnered only one vote in addition to those of its two sponsors. In other business, council moved an anti-graffiti ordinance to a second reading (the next step for any amendment to the city code), and approved an intent to issue $9 million in bonds to fund the parking structure portion of Village Green’s City Apartments project.

Proposed Germantown Historic District Study Committee

Public Commentary – Germantown: Seven of 10 speakers during the reserved time for public commentary spoke to the issue of the proposed study committee for a new historic district. The proposed area of study is bounded by William Street on the north, Fourth Avenue on the west, Madison Street on the south, and Division Street on the east.

Alex de Parry: [De Parry is the developer of a project proposed along South Fifth Avenue, called City Place, which currently has a PUD application that has been advanced to a second reading before council.] De Parry said that he owned several of the properties within the area of proposed study, which includes 161 total properties. He noted that the eight property owners who supported appointment of a study committee were very vocal, but said that 10 times that number opposed the appointment of a committee. He characterized the proposal’s late addition to the agenda on the previous Friday as a “last-minute end-around” to prevent densification.

Scott Munzel: [Munzel is legal counsel for de Parry's City Place project.] Munzel identified himself as a resident of Ward 5 [He does not live within the area of proposed study.] He said that he supported the notion of historic districts in general. However, he said that in order to establish a new district, a high degree of consensus in the community is required, and that the time frame of Friday to Monday was not adequate to establish that consensus. He concluded that more community input is warranted.

Julie Stadelman: Stadelman said that she’d recently accepted an award for historic preservation of her home, but said that she was opposed to the establishment of a historic district in that area. She focused her remarks on the parcel where a project on Madison Street had been proposed and rejected by planning commission in late October 2008, called The Madison, which is proposed as a 12-story development aimed to provide work-force housing. She said that the houses on the proposed footprint of The Madison are not historic. She concluded that the historic district is requested by those who opposed development. In brief conversation with The Chronicle after she spoke, Stadelman said that her view that the properties on the proposed site of The Madison did not merit historic designation extended to the whole area of proposed study for the district.

Caudius Claudius Vincenz: Vincenz said he lived on South Fifth Avenue just up the hill from Fingerle Lumber, and that his choice to live in an area where there are older houses stemmed from an appreciation for historic houses that he traced to having grown up in a 500-year-old house in Switzerland. He stressed that he is not an architectural historian, but noted that his own home was an arts and crafts home. He suggested that with further study, “a lot of gems” would be found. What’s great about the houses in the area of proposed study, he said, is that each one has its own quirkiness, and that there is a diversity of houses. He suggested that the study committee not focus too much on window sills and the like, but rather consider the human diversity of the neighborhood. He noted that redevelopment in general was driven by the economics of scale and that this accounted for the massiveness of projects proposed in place of the older houses.

Beverly Strassmann: Strassmann stated that she supported the formation of a study committee. She related her experience living in a small village in Africa, where there was a strong sense of community. The older houses where the elders lived were revered, she said, and everyone looked out for everyone else. That, she said, was the kind of neighborhood the area of proposed study is. She noted that she’d invested in her house, as had others, and that level of investment ranged from $100,000 to $200,000. She said that those investments were not just investments in individual homes, but in the whole city, noting that a recent decision by a film production company to shoot on location in Ann Arbor was driven by the fact that in Ann Arbor there are a lot of “old houses that look like they could be in New England.” A neighborhood of attractive, well-maintained houses benefits the aesthetics and stability of the city, she said, characterizing such houses as “public works of art.”

Walter Spiller: Spiller said he owned five rentals across from his own house in the area of proposed study. He related how he had lived there his entire working life. [At council's caucus the previous evening, he described how part of that working life was as a mail carrier ... for the very neighborhood in which he lived.] Spiller focused his remarks on the notion of diversity. He noted that while the city was diverse when evaluated as a whole, generally that diversity did not extend to the level of neighborhoods. We know where the students live, we know where the rich people live, we know where the professionals live, he said. But he said what was different about the area of proposed study was the diversity that existed on the neighborhood level. In that area, he said, there are old people, really old people, babies, and students. He said that he’d just rented a unit to his barber. He described the neighborhood as housing the unemployed, minimum wage workers, as well as professionals. But he also characterized this diverse mix as a “fragile tapestry,” like tissue paper. He said that he was speaking from two different perspectives: that of an owner and taxpayer, and that of an investor in rental properties. He said that while his name had initially appeared five times on a petition circulated by Alex de Parry opposing the study committee, he said that it had been presented to him as something that the city was deciding to do without input. “I didn’t want something rammed down my throat,” he said. He said that he supported a study to explore whether a historic district was an appropriate mechanism for preserving the diversity of the neighborhood.

Deanna Relyea: Relyea said that she’d lived in her house for 20 years and that because they also owned the house next to it, they were developing “our own little dynasty.” She characterized the area of proposed study as a full-service neighborhood, which included a funeral parlor, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office, and a church – the oldest German church in the state. She said that the neighborhood was diverse, and it was also fragile. She said she felt she had assurances from various planning documents that there was a commitment to preserve and protect historically significant areas that adjoin the DDA district and that this amounted to a pact between the city and its citizens. She therefore felt it was appropriate that citizens request staff time and resources to explore the question of a possible historic district. She said that the study would serve to determine if a historic district was the vehicle by which the stability of the neighborhood could be achieved.

Council Deliberations – Germantown

Councilmember Mike Anglin, co-sponsor of the resolution with Sabra Briere, led off council discussion by thanking the people who had stepped forward to speak. He noted that the proposal to appoint a study committee seemed quick, but that the idea went back years. He stressed that it was only a study committee. He said that his own familiarity with the neighborhood was his use of it as a cut-through on his way from home to the university. He said he wanted to see some parity for citizens as compared to developers who proposed projects. If developers have a claim on staff time, he said, then so do citizens.

Councilmember Sabra Briere listed out some reasons for authorizing the appointment of a study committee:

  • appointing a committee doesn’t guarantee we’ll establish a historic district;
  • research from the study committee will yield a greater understanding of our cultural heritage, even if no district is established;
  • appointment of a committee does not in itself restrict development during the study period;
  • the decision to establish a historic district or not rests with city council, not the study committee.

She said some questions that many of her colleagues on council might have were good ones: Why wait so long? Why now? She responded by reflecting on her own experience living in a neighborhood that was only recently established as a historic district (Lowertown). She enumerated some of the reasons people have waited until now:

  • people trust that things won’t change – we don’t need a historic district to keep things the same;
  • people see efforts to establish districts start and fail, and people don’t like failure;
  • now is a time when they see change coming, and they want to control it.

Briere said she was pleased that people in the neighborhood had appeared to share with council why they liked living where they lived and had expressed a willingness to work for their neighborhood. She said she’d love to see a study committee given time to study, but “if change comes to this neighborhood during the study period, then change comes.”

When it appeared that the topic would receive no further discussion from council beyond the comments of the two sponsors of the resolution, Anglin remarked, “I thought we would have some discussion.” He then offered some prepared comments directed to the public as much as to his colleagues: “Listen carefully to council’s response to a citizen request.” He described the area of proposed study as a “remaining jewel in our crown” and said that good government consisted in part of responding positively to reasonable requests of citizens. He urged his fellow councilmembers to vote yes so that the question could be analyzed.

Councilmember Margie Teall expressed her agreement with the notion of parity for citizens when compared to developers’ claims on staff time and said that she thought they should give it a chance.

For his part, councilmember Carsten Hohnke said that he loved the proposed name of a possible historic district (Germantown), because he grew up in a family of recent German emigrants. Whatever happened, he said, he hoped that the name would stick, and expressed some optimism that it would, based on conversations with the county clerk (Larry Kestenbaum, who served for a time on the city’s historic district commission, and who in August 2008, commenting on the blog ArborUpdate, had proposed a historic district with boundaries similar to the area of proposed study). Hohnke said he agreed with the desire to preserve the character of the neighborhood, and that the city’s central area plan reflects that concern. That is why, he continued, he had expressed strong reservations about the City Place project during the council meeting when that PUD application had been moved to a second reading and public hearing. Referring to the comments of Walter Spiller during public commentary, Hohnke said that we don’t know the best way to preserve the character of the neighborhood. He noted that appointment of a study committee is “not trivial,” but noted that while it represented demands on city staff, he didn’t have a problem with that. What concerned him was that it wasn’t clear to him what the rush was. He said it was important to do the “messy work” of getting more input, and suggested that the time be taken to have a larger discussion on the matter. He concluded that he felt the matter should be postponed, but stood ready to work together with neighbors to preserve the neighborhood.

Councilmember Marcia Higgins said that what struck her about the previous night’s caucus discussion was the sincerity of the neighbors who had spoken. However, she was not sure that they had a clear understanding of the ramifications of living in a historic district. She wondered if the investments that some neighbors had talked about making in their houses would have been approved by the historic district commission. She also noted that the supporters of the study committee came from a two-block square, much smaller than the area of proposed study. She said she would like to see a bigger dialogue.

Councilmember Tony Derezinski reiterated Higgins points. He also said that in his work as the council’s representative to the planning commission that there was a lot of comprehensive planning work going on citywide, and that this neighborhood needed to be considered in that context. He expressed concern about the short time frame from Friday to Monday that council had for consideration of the resolution. He also expressed concern about the possibility that the appointment of a study committee would result in a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Councilmember Sandi Smith echoed Derezinski’s thought on the need to consider the context of current rezoning work that is underway. She noted that the area of proposed study is a true interface zone (The narrow strip on the south side of William is proposed under the new downtown zoning to be D2). She said that she would like the A2D2 process to look closely at this fringe area.

Picking up on the A2D2 reference from Smith, Higgins – who serves on the A2D2 steering committee along with Evan Pratt of the planning commission and Roger Hewitt of the DDA – said that their recent evaluation of a recent round of public input solicited through multiple presentations to the community had made clear that the interface of downtown with neighborhoods was an important concern. Hearing from an additional 300 people through this most recent round of public input, she said, had been eye-opening.

Councilmember Stephen Rapundalo noted that a number of previous comments pointed to the fact that the balance between growth/development and preservation is not simple. He said he had many questions concerning the proposed study committee, including (i) the breadth of area included, (ii) the timing of the resolution – why has it taken seven years after removal of historic designations of individual properties in a court case, (iii) the timing of the resolution in the context of two recently proposed projects in the area of proposed study (City Place and The Madison, and (iv) the actual historical purity of the structures involved – acknowledging his layman’s point of view. Rapundalo said that he was concerned if this was a thinly-veiled attempt to put roadblocks where we need some re-development. But he concluded by noting that council as a body was not anti-historic-district, citing a recent decision by council to deny a property owner’s request to establish a study committee to exclude his property from an existing historic district.

Following up on Rapundalo’s point about council’s recent decision to affirm the existing boundaries of the Old Fourth Ward, councilmember Leigh Greden said that the reasoning he applied for that case applied here as well: if he was nearly certain that he was going to vote against the establishment of the district, then he was going to vote against the study committee. (In the case of the Old Fourth Ward, he’d said that he couldn’t imagine he would vote to reduce its size, whatever the result of the study committee was, so therefore voted against the study committee in the interest of preserving everyone’s time). Greden said that staff research had indicated that it was only 11 properties in the area of proposed study that had lost their historic designations as a result of a court case, and that the expansion to 166 properties for the area of proposed study was dramatic. Greden said that he felt that downzoning, as opposed to a historic district, was a better option for preventing undesirable development.

Because Anglin wished to speak again, having already exhausted his two speaking turns, council accommodated him by voting to suspend its rules on speaking turns. Anglin wanted to make clear that the boundary area of the study committee did not necessarily correspond to the boundary area of an eventually proposed historic district. He also addressed Higgins’ concern that residents didn’t fully understand the ramifications of living in a historic district, by saying that “these people know what they’re getting into.”

Following up on Anglin’s point about the geographic scope of the study, Briere noted that the area of study for the Lowertown Historic District was an extremely wide swath going from Barton Drive to Longshore to Maiden Lane to Broadway. She said that the area of proposed study for German town was actually not all that big at roughly six square blocks, and that when she formulated the resolution, she did not feel it was up to her to pre-determine where the structures of historical significance stood. She also addressed the issue of Friday-to-Monday timing, by pointing out that everyone on council had received the resolution in draft form last Monday, and that the delay in getting the resolution to the city clerk was something she took responsibility for. Alluding to Higgins’ point, she allowed that it was possible that residents were getting in over their heads, but said that education about what it means to live in a historic district was part of the function of study committee.

Councilmember Christopher Taylor said he felt that the creation of a study committee needed a larger pile of data to support it. He said he was not ready to support the issue with the kind of formalism and momentum that appointing a study committee would give it.

Teall reminded her colleagues that it was just a study committee.

In concluding council discussion the mayor of the city of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, said that a study committee creates a momentum for the establishment of a historic district. He said he wished that it were possible to maintain the historic designations of individual properties that were lost as a result of an early 2000s court case. He said he was concerned that appointing a study committee took a large swath of area and “put the area in question.” He said that in his own observations, there were many properties in the area that he couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to preserve them. Referring to the fact that some of the houses’ historic significance had been attributed to the fact that former mayors of Ann Arbor had lived in them, he said that he himself had lived in six different houses in Ann Arbor. And mutliplying six times the 50 mayors in Ann Arbor’s history, Hieftje said that amounted to potentially 300 houses that could be considered historic, and therefore questioned its use as a criterion.

Outcome: The resolution failed, with votes for it from Anglin, Briere, and Teall.

Anti-Graffiti Ordinance

Councilmember Teall introduced discussion of the ordinance by giving some background. It evolved, she said, from discussions on the downtown marketing task force. Merchants had noticed a sharp uptick in graffiti, and the consensus was that a strategy for curbing it was to “nip it in the bud.” Acknowledging that there was a cost associated with cleanup (which is enforced by the proposed ordinance), Teall said she hoped it would not be as costly when incidence of graffiti starts to decline, which rapid removal is intended to achieve.

Councilmember Higgins asked city attorney Stephen Postema to look into the question of how this ordinance fit into the rest of the city code and to look at the wording of the ordinance in that light. Postema indicated that his office had looked at the ordinance already, and would look at it again between first and second readings with a special eye to the issue Higgins mentioned. Councilmember Taylor indicated that there would be technical revisions between first and second readings (due for the second council meeting in Janaury) but that the substance of the ordinance would remain.

Councilmember Smith said she understood the motivation behind the oridnance, but worried about imposing a fine on a small business owner ranging from $250 to $1,000. She thus encouraged council to find easy remedies for business owners for dealing with graffiti. She reminded her fellow councilmembers that business owners who were required to clean up graffiti were victims of a crime.

Councilmember Greden said that Smith brought the good perspective of a realtor and that the way she had phrased the issue was something he hadn’t previously considered. He noted there would be a public hearing on the ordinance, and encouraged the public to come speak or to send email on ideas of how to tweak the ordinance. But he said that he hoped that council would support the idea of getting rid of graffiti downtown.

Councilmember Derezinski asked if parental responsibility statutes could be brought to bear on the situation – if the graffiti offense were committed by a minor. He suggested that the parents could be found liable and that could be a resource for cleanup compensation.

Councilmember Hohnke thanked Smith for her comments and said that council should be sensitive to small businesses in considering what the ordinance should require. He also thanked Teall for shepherding the issue through the process. He said that there were tools available for graffiti removal that should be extended to businesses outside the DDA boundaries.

Teall added that the ordinance would be implemented 90 days after its second reading, which would give business owners a chance to address their properties before enforcement.

Councilmember Anglin said that he thought applying the standards of the proposed ordinance was good, but that he felt there were much more glaring situations involving entire buildings that were falling apart, which were much more disturbing to him than graffiti. Greden said that he shared Anglin’s concern, but noted that the city attorney’s office was enthusiastic about cleaning up any such situations and had a track record of doing so.

Outcome: The ordinance was passed on first reading. Smith demurred, but did not request a roll call vote.

[Editor's note: Of possible additional graffiti-related interest are the following two Stopped. Watched. items: Obama for Truth 1 and Obama for Truth 2. The case of an Ypsilanti businessman who considered some stenciled graffiti on his place of business to be art and left it in place also bears some relevance to the topic: graffiti or art]

Bonds for Parking Structure Component of City Apartments

Jon Frank, vice president of development for Village Green, the developer of the residential project to be built at the First and Washington site, was in attendance at the council meeting, as was Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA. The DDA and Village Green are working together on the parking structure component of the development.

Council considered two separate resolutions on the issuance of $9 million in bonds to fund the parking structure portion of the City Apartments project. There was no council discussion of them, but councilmember Greden clarified the purpose of each resolution. The first one gave a 45-day notice of intent to issue the bonds, while the second one authorized the issuance of the bonds. Greden explained that by having authorization to issue bonds immediately upon expiration of the 45-day period gave staff maximum flexibility to issue bonds (or not) based on market conditions.

Human Services Funding Priorities

Several members of the public spoke during the public hearing on spending priorities for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

Ellen Schulmeister (Shelter Association of Washtenaw County): Schulmeister asked council to approve the priorities. She also thanked council for pursuing the replacement of the 100-units of affordable housing lost at the site of the old YMCA. She said that the day’s weather was a mirror of the economy: temperatures had gone from 50 F to 26 F and were forecast to hit 16 F overnight. From July 1 through the end of November this year, Schulmeister said, demand for services at the Delonis Center was up 20%. She concluded that people who need our help need our help now more than ever.

Joan Doughty (Community Action Network): Doughty said that she was pleased to see that Youth at Risk was included in the priorities.

Jim Mogensen: Mogensen said that the “conventional thinking” was that people in Ann Arbor spend all kinds of money on human services, but that to his unconventional way of thinking, it didn’t amount to a great amount of money. He described a presentation he sometimes gave involving a physical red ribbon representing all of the other spending besides human services, which would stretch across the room to the corner where the city attorney sat. Mogensen said that in establishing priorities, it amounted to studying how the pie should be sliced, when the pie was too small in the first place.

Tom Partridge: Partridge called for uniting the city, the county, southeast Michigan, and the rest of the state in providing needed services. He said such services should be a part of an integrated program of transportation, housing, health, and education.

Councilmember Rapundalo led off council deliberations by explaining one difference in this year’s package of priorities as compared to previous years. Rather than try to allocate in advance the percentages of spending on particular areas, the idea was simply to fund the best programs, whatever area they might address. The thinking behind this strategy was that all of the various categories were so interconnected that it was difficult to tease them apart in any meaningful sense. Councilmember Teall invited community development director Mary Jo Callan to the podium to comment. She echoed what Rapundalo had said, saying that arbitrary designation of dollars before applications had been submitted didn’t result in the strongest programs getting funded. Councilmember Greden, responding to Mogensen’s suggestion that the city was not spending enough on human services, noted that Ann Arbor as a community was very generous with general fund dollars and elicited from Callan the view that yes, we can be proud of our spending on a per capita basis.

Outcome: The spending priorities were passed unanimously.

Additional Public Comment – Reserved and General Time

Alan Haber (Human Rights): [Haber had a chance to speak because one of the people who had signed up for public commentary reserved time to speak to the issue of the Germantown study committee did not appear. A maximum of 10 speakers can reserve a three-minute speaking slot, with first preference given to those who wish to address an item on that night's agenda.] Haber gave a nod to previous speakers who had talked about Germantown. He said that he didn’t know it was called Germantown, but loved the idea of preserving the area. He was there, however, to report back on the candlelight vigil he’d announced at a previous council meeting, which commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He said that for the vigil they had “33 bright lights.” Haber indicated that they would be continuing the endeavor to bring human rights to the forefront. As a part of that continuing effort, he said that there would be a follow-up meeting at Wed., Dec. 17, at 210 S. 4th Ave. from 6-9 p.m. to which everyone was invited.

Tom Partridge (Affordable Services): Partridge began by criticizing the three-minute time limit for public commentary, as it was uniformly applied across age and or disability. He also criticized the requirement that one’s name, address, phone number and topic be given in advance, as an infringement on freedom of expression. He called on the council to pass a resolution that addressed provision of affordable transportation, housing, and health care and to back that resolution with definite goals and plans. During general time afforded to citizens at the end of the meeting, Partridge noted that he’d run as a write-in candidate for county commission on a platform of protecting our most vulnerable residents. To date, he said, these goals had not been addressed by council. He singled out the reduction in scope of para-transit services provided by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to his own housing development as one example that should be addressed.

Scott Rosencrans (Liaison to Council from PAC): Rosencrans introduced himself as liaison to council from the park advisory commission and asked council to let him know if they thought it would be useful for him to be at any particular council meeting.

Jim Mogensen (Replacement of Affordable Housing Units): Mogensen said that while doing other research he’d come across information that put the current effort to replace the affordable housing units lost at the old YMCA site in at least a 25-year historical context. That context dates back to an effort to create “minimum wage housing,” and included the co-signing of a loan by the city for the YMCA. The urgency on the part of the YMCA to sell the old building was driven, he said, by the need for cash in order to construct their new building. He characterized much of the past history of affordable housing as “the folly continues,” but said that the currently analyzed three sites represented a step in the right direction, concluding by saying, “Please don’t give up!”

Present: Sandi Smith, Sabra Briere, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Rapundalo, Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Margie Teall, Marcia Higgins, Carsten Hohnke, Mike Anglin, John Hieftje.

Absent: None

Next meeting: Monday, Jan. 5 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave.

One Comment

  1. By Steve Bean
    December 18, 2008 at 11:20 pm | permalink

    On the graffiti ordinance, I tried to leave the following comment on the News web site in response to their editorial, but the attempt (once again) failed.

    Could the city split the fine revenues with the victimized property owners so that such money could be used for the cleanup (or to reimburse them after the fact, since the cleanup is best done immediately)?

    Of course, not all perpetrators will be caught and fined, but it might be the best we can do. If tagging is reduced as a result of the ordinance, that would affect both the potential size of such a fund, but also the negative impact of the graffiti that’s done, including inducement of followup tagging.

    If so, a longer grace period and/or lower fines for non-compliance might be reasonable.