Residents Organize to Defeat City Place

With postponement, some councilmembers might have voted yes
Kevin McDonald in the city attorney's office explains how the petition was handled

Kevin McDonald, from the city attorney's office, explains how the protest petition was vetted, which forced the requirement of an 8-vote majority on the City Place PUD.

City Council Meeting (Jan. 5, 2009, Part I) At a meeting where dozens of citizens have gathered to take a turn speaking their piece at a public hearing, it is somewhat odd to hear an elected public official declare: “The problem is the speaker.”

In context, though, that made perfect sense Monday night, because the speaker in question was the one spewing static in the council chamber’s sound system, used by CTN to record the proceedings.

As previously reported in The Chronicle, Monday’s council meeting resulted in a 0-10 vote for the City Place planned unit development (PUD) application. The public hearing on the matter, plus deliberations on a possible postponement, followed by discussion of the substantive issues, took up the majority of the meeting, which lasted until around 11:30 p.m

General background on the City Place PUD can be found in the Chronicle’s report from caucus of the previous evening. During the Monday council meeting’s public hearing, a representative speaking on behalf of the developer requested postponement of the vote. They wanted time to examine the signatures on a petition that had triggered an eight-vote requirement (instead of a simple majority of six) for approval of the PUD. This would become the focus of much subsequent discussion; therefore, we include here the relevant section of the city code governing such petitions. Chapter 55 Article XI, Section 5:107(5) makes clear that a calculation of land area is required:

(5) A protest against any proposed amendment to this chapter may be presented in writing to the City Clerk at or before the public hearing thereon. Such protest shall be duly signed by the owners of at least 20% of the area of land included in the proposed change, or the owners of at least 20% of the area of land included within an area extending outward 100 feet from any point on the boundary of the land included in the proposed change, excluding any other publicly owned land. Following the filing of a valid protest petition, adoption of an amendment to this chapter shall require at least 8 affirmative votes of the Council at the second reading on the ordinance.

[Editor's note: The complete set of codes for the city of Ann Arbor is available online via this gateway to city code. Search functionality is fairly good. But The Chronicle owes thanks to Dave Cahill for reducing the search effort by sending along the relevant code section in this case.]

Public Hearing on City Place PUD

The public hearing on the PUD included a range of speakers.

Tom Whitaker: Whitaker appeared representing the newly-formed Germantown Neighborhood Association. He related how his recent purchase of 444 S. 5th Ave. (across the street from the proposed City Place project) was driven by a desire to enjoy living with his family in proximity to downtown. He said he made the purchase with some degree of confidence that council would follow the recommendation of the planning commission, and the project would be denied. Whitaker said he had confidence in the master plans of city. He noted that city governments have no powers that are not specifically granted by the state and that the Michigan zoning enabling acts make clear that for a PUD to be approved, it’s required that the proposed development be integrated with the characteristics of the project area.

He went on to quote from the city code, “The district is intended to accommodate developments with one or more land uses, sites with unusual topography or unique settings within the community or sites which exhibit difficult or costly development problems or any combination of these factors.” He concluded that this PUD did not meet those criteria. Quoting further from the city code, he said, “This zoning district shall not be allowed where this zoning classification is sought primarily to avoid the imposition of standards and requirements of other zoning classifications or other city regulations rather than to achieve the stated purposes above.”

Whitaker noted that the PUD requirements stipulated that if the project destroys natural or historical resources then there must be a demonstrated substantial benefit. The only benefit cited by the developer, said Whitaker, was greater density and energy savings. Density, he said, belongs in downtown proper, that is, within the Downtown Development Authority boundary. Whitaker concluded that if council were to approve the PUD, it would declare “open season on all of your city neighborhoods.”

Anne Eisen: Eisen challenged one of the claimed benefits of the project: affordable housing. She said that based on average median incomes in the area, the units reserved for those earning not more than 80% AMI would mean rents in the new project for one-bedroom apartments of $1,282 per month. Parking would be extra. She said that the neighborhood was already quite dense, being composed of houses that are rentals with owners living nearby. The houses are rented to diverse groups, young professionals and students, she said, which is part of what makes it a neighborhood. Compared to existing rents, the $1,282 per month is 50% higher. The 22 units (in the seven houses) that would be destroyed are renting for 2/3 the cost of the lowest rents in the new building. Eisen concluded that the housing that’s on the site currently is more affordable than what is proposed.

Beverly Strassmann: She urged council to vote against the PUD for City Place. The primary reason, she said, is that it violates the central area plan, which was designed to keep Ann Arbor an attractive place. “What’s special about Ann Arbor?” she asked, “Why doesn’t Ann Arbor have that generic sameness?” She contended it was partly the restaurants and galleries amid the university setting, plus the quaint and stately homes. She said that unique quality is an economic benefit that should be promoted and nurtured. It will harm rather than promote business, she said, if City Place is approved. City Place would create “a downward spiral” that would destroy the much-loved character of Ann Arbor. To councilmembers she directed somewhat of a warning: “Many of you ran on a platform of protecting the neighborhoods. We’re holding you accountable. Please do the right thing.”

Piotr Michalowski: He said that he and his wife had moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago and that they’d lived there on the assumption it would stay the same. He said they were not against change and development. But that’s why, he said, there are plans and committees. The master plans and the processes involved gave them the feeling they understood where construction would be allowed and where it wouldn’t.

Michalwoski spoke of a “social compact,” decided all together, that establishes the plans and reaches a conclusion. It is a social contract, he said, about where construction can be allowed and where it can’t be. He concluded that it’s not worth destroying seven houses and putting “a wound in the center of our neighborhood.” He finished by asking council not to destroy the social contract we have all entered into.

Tom Luczak: He announced that he had changed his mind about the project. In the beginning, he said, he was lukewarm in favor of it. He characterized a PUD as a deal between the property owner and the city: we can change the zoning if he can provide something you can’t get elsewhere. Luczak said he realized there’s nothing in this PUD that isn’t available 30 steps away at Fifth and William at the site of the old YMCA building. William Street separates the neighborhood from core downtown.

He said that he looked forward to a large building at the former YMCA site and that, yes, he would remember he’d said those words when the time is appropriate (an allusion to the previous night’s caucus when the mayor, John Hieftje, had responded to Luczak’s same sentiment by assuring him that council would remember he’d said that). Luczak said that any new building can achieve energy savings without a PUD. Affordable housing would be reduced by the new project. In summary, he said, nothing in the PUD justified the radical change from a neighborhood of predominantly 2.5-story homes to a building of 5 stories.

Walter Spiller: Spiller said he owns five rental properties in the neighborhood, where he has lived for 40 years and worked for 30 years. He said he’d seen little kids running around on playgrounds beating each other up that reminded him of these planning processes. But there were some smart kids, he said, who had created rules, called it football, and then they beat each other up according to the rules.

It’s a complex issue, Spiller said. If it were simple, the developer would just go before the zoning board of appeals. He noted that the city had created the planning commission to provide guidance on this kind of difficult issue. We rely on their expertise to separate fact from emotion, he said. Holding a thick bound set of papers aloft, he said, “This is the book, it’s a really thick book! They spend hours vetting the project against this book.” He acknowledged that council had no obligation to vote the same decision as planning commission, but said that council must at least consider their opinion. And council is obligated, he said, to address the negative points raised. By way of example, he said that if planning commission said it failed to meet the PUD standards because it fails to be consistent with the scale of the neighborhood, then council could not respond by talking about the number of jobs that would be created.

Tom Petiet: Density comes in many forms, Petiet said. He asked what type of dwellers the projected wanted to attract. It won’t attract families, he stated, but rather it will drive them away in favor of transients. The primary occupants, he projected, would be students, because the price is too high for beginning professionals and no family would want to live next to such a thing. It’s a huge development, he said, out of scale, and it will ghettoize the neighborhood.

As for the claimed energy reduction, Petiet weighed that against loss of a neighborhood. He suggested that if something similar were proposed for Burns Park or Barton Hills, you’d hear a sound like “scalded cats.” It’s a crime, he concluded, to destroy a number of beautiful historic homes to satisfy an owner’s profits.

Randall Jacob: He observed that Ann Arbor doesn’t have many streets like South Fifth and South Fourth avenues and that they should be maintained. Grand Rapids, he said, has maintained beautiful streets of such housing, and built new structures, but didn’t violate neighborhoods to do so. He noted that in the neighborhood, the University of Michigan had respected Perry School on Packard Street and had respected an old brick factory building across from Fingerle Lumber. Also located in the neighborhood is the historic German church, Bethlehem United Church of Christ, which had recently become important to the music community (recitals are held there).

Jim Mogensen: In the past, Mogensen said, he’d quipped that the zoning classification R4C (the multi-family unit zoning classification of the area where City Place would be built) stands for Residential for Cash. “How did we get here?” he asked. He described how in 1963 everything was rezoned using an academic planning framework. But in 1970 people decided we wanted to have off-campus housing, but to do that we’d need a new classification, so R4C was created. That led to the realization that we can put in apartment buildings, and that started to happen, but then people in the neighborhoods decided they wanted them to stay the same, which resulted in the creation of historic districts like the Old West Side and the Old Fourth Ward.

Mogensen compared this history to shingles [the illness, not the roof covering]: a painful reassurance of a familiar problem. Switching metaphors, he then said, “I’m not saying you’re like the [Detroit] Lions [football team], but I’m saying you need a new defensive plan!” The plays the developer is running, said Mogensen, aren’t new, and they shouldn’t be a surprise. He concluded by saying we just need to use our brain: the academics can give us some framework, but it’s hard to think intelligently to implement these things.

Marc Gerstein: Gerstein called the proposed construction a wanton destruction of historic houses. He said he walked through the neighborhood regularly. He said it would negatively affect Hamilton Place [the street that runs parallel to Fifth Avenue to the east]. Buildings that contribute what makes Ann Arbor special should be preserved, he said. Noting that planning commission had recommended against approval, he urged council to vote likewise.

Christine Crockett: Crockett attacked the notion that the proposed development represented progress in increased energy efficiency. She said we would hear about LEED standards because that’s the banner that is waved the highest and the longest when the plan is to destroy a neighborhood. She noted that current LEED standards don’t reflect the notion of embodied energy, but would be addressed in new versions of the standards. The older LEED ratings are being revised, she said, because they overlook the embodied energy of historic buildings. We don’t need new bells and whistles, she concluded, we need to use the ones we have.

Tom Partridge: Partridge said he was in favor of this project, not because he thought it was an example of affordable housing, or putting the interests of all of us first, and not because he agreed with the formula for determining affordability. Instead, he said, he supported the project because it offered the requirement of a commitment that 15.5% be in the affordable category. We can’t rule out all demolition, he concluded, and not every neighborhood is a historic district.

Kyle Mazurek: As vice president of government affairs for the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, Mazurek read a prepared statement on behalf of the chamber in support of the project. The statement said that the project supports density in appropriate corridors, is consistent with the goal that new development should offer alternatives to automobile transportation, and is consistent with the central area plan and recommendations of the downtown residential task force.

Jay Sandweiss: All of us as Americans, Sandweiss said, are reeling in the current economic crisis. In response to the question of why the crisis happened, he said there used to be rules protecting us, but people found legal ways to bankrupt our whole economy. Drawing an analogy to the proposed project, Sandweiss said that people put energy into saying we have a plan and an agreement, and that we were going to increase density in a particular area. But Germantown, he said, was not in that area.

Sandweiss likened the controversy over City Place to Helm’s Deep (a reference, he said, for Middle Earth fans). Every developer, he warned, will look at this as a precedent. Later on, Sandweiss feared, we would wonder where we went wrong.

Suasan Wineberg: Noting that most people knew of her interest in preserving street-scapes, she recalled the debate at a recent council meeting about whether to appoint a study committee for a possible Germantown historic district. She felt there could be some confusion about historic districts versus historic landmarks. The concept of a historic district, she said, is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, citing the Old West Side historic district as an example. She noted that during the debate surrounding the study committee the question was asked: Why have the houses previously protected as individual historic locations not had their protection restored? She related how a study committee that she had chaired had recommended re-protection in 2005. However, she indicated that the 2005 report did not reach the council, despite having made an effort to convey it to council. She said that if the committee were reappointed, the individual houses could be single-resource historic districts.

Patrick McCauley: He said the project reminded him of 1960s urban renewal where you tear everything down and built something that changes the context. He pointed council to Second Street, where adjoining lots on which single-family homes used to stand had been replaced with apartment buildings that, while considered modern in their day, we would now consider ugly. This project reminded him of Corktown in Detroit where his brother lives, where massive portions of the neighborhood were torn down. This type of project means the end of the neighborhood as we know it, he concluded.

Lars Bjorn: He said that the project takes beautiful street-scape and replaces it with something pedestrian [in the sense of plain, not the sense of friendly to walkers]. You won’t attract yuppies, and developers are kidding themselves if they think they can attract them, he warned. He said that when he takes people on tours of Ann Arbor, Fifth Avenue is a showplace. The developer’s claim of “being green” was, he said, absurd, asking, “What is greener than grass?”

Laura Strowe: She said it’s not just the neighbors who appreciate the neighborhood, but everyone in the city. As an artist, she said, she loves these buildings, and it would be a shame to lose them.

Karen Sidney: She said that the project failed to provide a public benefit, and that in addition it was bad for the city’s long-term fiscal health, because it adds to oversupply of housing and will depress the value of existing housing. In the current economic climate, she said, we should focus on maintaining the value of existing property. She said that young singles will want to start families, alluding to the birth of councilmember Carsten Hohnke’s first child. And if we want people to stay and raise families, she continued, you have to provide places for them to live. She concluded by asking council to reconsider appointing a Germantown study committee.

Ann Schriber: She stressed that destroying buildings is forever. When she was first married, she said, she lived in the Anberay apartments and now they are being replaced with a building that is not even architecturally interesting [Zaragon Place].

Susan Whitaker: She challenged the analogy advanced at the previous night’s caucus that the old houses on Fifth Avenue are Hummers and we need Priuses. They are not Hummers, she said, but rather classic Cadillacs. They’re still the best, because “they don’t build them like that anymore.” If you don’t want one, sell it to someone else who does, she suggested, don’t destroy it and sell off the pieces to the junkyard.

Rita Mitchell: She reported that she’d just returned from Columbus, Ohio, where there’s an area called Germantown composed of thriving businesses and homes. It showed that another city had foresight in preserving its history. A new building, she said, doesn’t provide an adequate trade-off.

Alex de Parry (City Place developer): As everyone knows, he began, the project will replace seven structures [which he currently owns]. He said that they require increased investments, but rents that can be charged don’t justify continued investment. He traced the conceptual history of the City Place project, which began as a “matter of right” project that met R4C standards that would not have required a PUD. But “that matter of right” project, he said, would have been primarily a student housing development, and he didn’t think such a project made the best contribution to the community. Out of that evolved the concept of City Place.

De Parry noted that he had revised plans to incorporate suggestions from planning commission, reducing its size, increasing north and south setbacks, creating three urban parks, and adding notches to create a street-scape appearance of three building. He noted that he was offering an additional 38 units at 90% of AMI. He expressed disappointment that the ways that City Place met the goals of various city planning documents had not been acknowledged by planning staff. The “matter of right” project, which could be built, met the R4C standard, but did not offer any of the additional benefits of City Place, he concluded.

Tom Dowds: He read a prepared statement representing the architect on the project, J Bradley Moore & Associates Architects. The statement noted that the project had been reduced in size based on planning commission input, and that individual front entries had been added. The proposed building, he said, is 4.5-stories tall and is kitty corner from a site where the city had approved an 11-story building. He described the location as between the downtown core and an interface zone. The architecture of sloping and gable-formed roofs, use of brick and stone, the creation of 46% more open space through elimination of rear parking, and reduced curb cuts helped integrate the building into the existing pattern of architecture. The front of the building had been broken up visually with the addition of notches, and they had maintained the front yard concept, which supported the row-house aesthetic.

Katherine Wyrosdick: Speaking on behalf of Birchler Arroyo Associates, on the City Place project team, she noted that the neighborhood extends in all directions, and that it’s zoned multiple-family. She characterized it as all student rentals, with no range of income, or architecture, offering no affordable housing. She granted that the proposed building is a new form for the neighborhood, but still compatible with it. She said it was consistent with the central area plan, which had identified challenges as increasing density and the creation of new architectural forms. She appealed to the recommendation of the 2004 residential task force, which had contemplated the area within a quarter-mile of downtown and had recommended increasing the number of residential units by 1,000.

John Floyd: He noted that any decision that elected officials end up making on any issue will end up angering some people. He suggested that can’t be an enviable part to the job. He noted the irony of site-specific rezoning [for City Place] at a time when the city was in the middle of systemic comprehensive re-zoning. It “seems odd” he said, regardless of whether you like or dislike the project.

In this context, said Floyd, it suggested that our public process doesn’t work. The “charm zone” edges are the greatest source of divisiveness around zoning changes, he noted. He suggested that a political compromise would be to offer a stronger protection of the “charm zone” in exchange for a freer hand in the core downtown. He appealed to the book “Megatrends,” by John Nesbitt, and reasoned that the more people who work at the “jobs of tomorrow,” the more people are drawn to places that provide them with the experience of authenticity, like the neighborhood where the project is proposed. It was thus important, he said, to preserve the “charm zone” ring around downtown.

Scott Munzel: In Ann Arbor, he said, we aspire to many things, including a thriving downtown, which requires more residents and diverse housing options. Much has changed since 1963, he said, but that drives “matter of right” development. Citing a half a dozen different city plans, Munzel note that not every goal of those plans was achieved in the City Place project, but that no project could achieve every goal. The goals it did achieve, he said, were affordable housing and energy sustainability. It provided different rental options, not housing for undergrads, and would thus strengthen the downtown core. He characterized the city’s need to change its general development pattern as an environmental imperative. The project would reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled for its residents through its proximity to downtown.

Munzel finished by asking to see the petition that had been submitted, which forced the PUD to achieve 8 votes for approval, as opposed to a simple majority.

Ray Detter: He began by challenging the notion that the area in question was exclusively a student neighborhood, pointing out that the people who spoke are owner-residents. He suggested that all of the residents in the neighborhood were at the 80% AMI standard for affordable housing. He praised the planning commission’s recommendation for denial three times. He cited the language of the central area plan, which calls for protecting, preserving, and enhancing neighborhoods around downtown.

Detter suggested that we can change R4C zoning, but if we do that, we should do it by analyzing it and with due process, not in a stealth mode. He concluded by saying that the neighborhood where the project is to be built is an area outside the downtown, which the city’s master plan specifically calls for preserving.

Jamie Gorenflo: Speaking for Midwestern Consulting on the City Place project team, he reiterated the request from Scott Munzel to review the protest petition. He noted that under R4C zoning, the neighborhood as it stands couldn’t be built, because the locations of buildings and accessory buildings are not conforming.

Public Hearing on City Place Site Plan

A dozen speakers, representing both sides of the issue, stepped to the podium to speak during the public hearing on the site plan. In substance, the sentiments paralleled those expressed in the previous public hearing. The request to postpone was reiterated on the developer’s side, and the request to proceed with the vote was voiced by those opposing the project.

Council Deliberations

Councilmember Leigh Greden led off by saying he wanted to entertain the idea of a 2-week postponement. However, he did not make a motion to postpone, saying he didn’t want to cut off discussion on substance or questions, which such a motion would do. He gave two reasons for wanting to postpone. First, the developer had requested the opportunity to look at the protest petition. Second, one of the claimed public benefits is the creation of affordable housing, Greden said, and he wanted to see the additional 38 units at 90% AMI spelled out in the development agreement just as the 18 units at 80% AMI were. “It’s a false promise until it’s spelled out in writing,” he said. Whether the 38 units were included in the development agreement would affect his vote, he said.

Greden deferred to councilmember Mike Anglin, who indicated non-verbally that he wished to discuss the substance of the issue.

Anglin focused on the appropriateness of the protest petition, which had followed the city’s rules: those within 100 feet of the proposed development were notified, and the 20% area threshold was met. “It’s not up to us to interfere,” he said. Neighbors had scrambled to track down people in order to complete the petition. He said he’d like to split the issues, first voting on A (do we want this) and then voting on B (what will it look like). This was a reference which was clarified by councilmember Stephen Rapundalo, who indicated that the A and B corresponded to the separate agenda items of the PUD (rezoning) and the site plan.

Rapundalo then echoed Greden’s desire to see the details hammered out in the development agreement, and formally made the motion for a postponement.

Councilmember Marcia Higgins indicated she wouldn’t support postponement of either the PUD or the site plan, saying that there’s been enough information put out for council to make a decision.

Councilmember Sabra Briere asked for a 5-minute recess, which Mayor Hieftje stressed would be a “real true 5 minutes.” Twelve minutes later, the meeting resumed.

Councilmember Hohnke addressed Greden’s two arguments for postponement. Concerning the inclusion of language in the development agreement about the affordable housing requirements, Hohnke noted that this had been long a part of what’s been suggested by the developer. There’s been plenty of time, said Hohnke, to include that language, given that it’s been highlighted as a benefit. Hohnke said he was sensitive to the developer’s concern about wanting to inspect the protest petition. He would be more concerned if signatures had not been verified by staff and the attorney’s office.

So Hohnke asked that the city attorney, Stephen Postema, clarify if and how the 8-vote requirement standard was met. Postema affirmed that it had been met and asked Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office to provide some details that might be helpful to the public.

McDonald said the protest petition had been received late Friday, then turned over to planning and development services on Monday (the day of the meeing). The calculations of area were done by a planner working with a GIS specialist. It’s a calculation made complex because public area must be subtracted. Names of owners on the petition were compared with names in the assessor’s system. McDonald indicated that 24% of the area was covered, and thus met the requirement of at least 20%. Hieftje elicited from McDonald an assessment of the late-hour submission of the protest as not unusual.

Greden indicated that his reasons for postponing had gone from two to three in light of an email he’d just received. Reviewing the first two reasons, he began by asking his colleagues to consider a hypothetical: the staff review had determined the protest petition had fallen short. He was quite confident, Greden said, that neighbors would dispute that. They’d disagree with the staff conclusion and on that basis would ask for a postponement. “That’s the argument we’d hear and I would support it,” Greden said.

Reiterating his second reason for postponement, he said that the public benefit of affordable housing is not in the development agreement, and that if the developer is dragging his feet about putting it in writing, we’ll know that in two weeks and he would vote no at that time. Greden’s third reason also related to the development agreement: there was currently nothing in the agreement that says the developer can’t build 6-bedroom units [a unit size typically associated with student housing].

Councilmember Tony Derezinksi echoed Greden’s sentiments and added that voting right now put the council “between a rock and a hard place” because either side has a basis for challenging it. If the developer provided sufficient information in the development agreement, he’d be comfortable, Derezinski said. If it’s not in there, he wouldn’t be comfortable.

Anglin asked Jeff Kahn Kahan of the city’s planning staff to come forward to explain the notification process so that the impression was not left with the public that this just happened today. Kahn traced the history of notifications for the first iteration of the project to nearly a year ago. Most recently, he said, it would have been at least 15 days prior to the public hearing on Sept. 18, 2008. City clerk Jackie Beaudry indicated that Dec. 21 was the notification date for the city council public hearing.

Anglin noted that the filers of the protest petition managed to organize despite the time of year when vacations and family activities are planned, and jumped over hurdles to meet the timeline. “Be careful,” Anglin warned, referring to the postponement. “This is totally out of order.”

Councilmember Margie Teall expressed concern that people who wished to respond to issues that might arise during the two-week postponement would not be able to do so [in light of the closing of the public hearing].

Councilmember Christopher Taylor said that he entirely applauded the activism and engagement of the protest petitioners and said that their efforts were laudable. But he said it was also not at issue. “This is an adversarial process,” he said, “and we have to acknowledge that and it’s only equitable that the petitioner be able to review something that materially changes the rules of the game.” Taylor said that it was his expectation that the judgement of staff in vetting the protest petition would be borne out. The cost of postponing, said Taylor, is low and a sense of fairness is offended by refusing the opportunity of the developer to review the signatures.

Briere noted the “interesting sentiment” to postpone, which she, however, didn’t share. She said that if the petitioner needs to be able to open the issue of whether the petition was properly created, then she would love to open it all the way and allow the petitioners to add signatures, which was greeted with a murmur of approval and the beginnings of applause, which Briere admonished people to stop. Hieftje indicated that signature collection would be able to proceed under a postponement.

Hohnke asked how the petition spoke to the substance of the issue. It doesn’t speak to the substance of how you decide, he said, it only speaks to the number of votes required.

Teall reiterated her concern that if there are material changes during the two-week postponement, that people be able to weigh in on it. Hieftje indicated that the public hearing could be re-opened, but as a query from Higgins made clear, speakers who’d already spoken could not speak again.

Hieftje said that protest petitions forcing the eight-vote requirement had happened numerous times and said he didn’t find anything unusual about this one. He said there was nothing so unusual that would prompt a postponement.

The role call vote on postponement began with Rapundalo [council rules were changed a couple of years ago to make the beginning vote rotate], but Hieftje mistakenly called on the vote to begin with Derezinski. Derezinski voiced support for the postponement. Then the city clerk began the official roll call with Rapundalo, who sits immediately to Derezinski’s left – the direction in which the roll call vote proceeds, leaving Derezinski’s as the last name called. The motion to postpone got only three votes – from Rapundalo, Greden, and Taylor. That prompted Briere, who sits to Derezinski’s right, to say to him, “You changed your vote!”

Returning discussion to the PUD itself, Anglin heaped praise on the organizers of the protest petition saying, “I was absolutely amazed. They are a model for any citizen group.” He then challenged his council colleagues by pointing out that everyone who’d run for a council seat said they supported their neighborhoods, and that now was when it was important.

Greden said he’d be voting no, but that the idea of preserving the area of the neighborhood isn’t an option, because it’s crystal clear from the R4C zoning that it’s meant for “stacked units.” He warned people to be prepared for the “matter of right” project the developer could build as an alternative. The geothermal system the project offered could have been “a showcase for the community,” Greden said. It was a significant public benefit, but not enough alone without the additional written commitment to the 38 affordable housing units.

Derezinski indicated he’d vote no for the reason that the public benefit needed to be further developed in the development agreement. If the developer would come back with that, that might happen, he said. He noted also that the developer could come back with the “matter of right” project.

Taylor said that hewing close to the ordinance and the benefits demonstrated in the written documents code led him to vote no. But he offered a coda. How one views it, he said, depends on whether you’re looking north or looking south. He suggested that residents are looking exclusively to the south, which discounts factually what the neighborhood is. To the north there’s an 8-story parking structure, a surface lot, a library, which are part and parcel of the neighborhood. He described the area as some species of interface that needed to be considered as such. He concluded by saying that the dedicated apartment buildings in the neighborhood itself and those structures to the north are all a part of the “gestalt of the space.”

Hohnke reminded his colleagues that he’d communicated at the first reading of the PUD that he had significant reservations about whether the project met the requirements for PUDs. The benefits needed to be “substantial, bold, and clear.” In light of the demolition of seven houses, he said he didn’t see a net benefit of affordable units. The geotheormal heating, balanced against the destruction of houses, also didn’t sum to a benefit. As for density as a benefit, he said that the clear consensus of planning documents was that density belonged in the core of downtown, not in the fringe neighborhoods. As far as the threat of the “matter of right” development, he said as a default, he had to assume that what comes out of that is beneficial if it meets zoning.

Rapundalo appreciated the complexities inherent in the issue, saying that it was anything but black and white. He agreed with one of the speakers at the public hearing, John Floyd, who had observed that no matter what, somebody will be displeased. Rapundalo, referring to Hohnke’s citation of the central area plan, called into question the relevance of a 20-year-old document, when the city is undertaking a comprehensive rezoning. He advocated updating the document in a timely manner so that it is timely and relevant.

Rapundalo said that the energy efficiency of the building was commendable, but he didn’t see it rising to the level of a benefit of the PUD. These energy requirements should be normal, he said, in many of these developments. It was unfortunate, he said, that the 90% AMI affordable housing was not in the development agreement

Briere said she’d spent the weekend looking through the downtown plan (which was 20 years old) and the central area plan (16 years old). The thought that occurred to her was that these plans no longer reflect where we want to be, which means the ones we’re making now will be no longer reflect where we want to be 20 years from now. They don’t always stand the test of time, she concluded.

Briere contrasted what had happened in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood with other neighborhoods, where apartment buildings started to get built. In other neighborhoods, when that happened, they grouped together and created a historic district. In the Fifth Avenue neighborhood, nobody razed the houses, they just moved in students slowly and very little changed, and the population stabilized, she said. PUDs are intended to provide a chance for real innovation. She used criteria of the PUD, she said, and did not consider what would happen to the neighborhood. She said she found nothing sufficiently innovative. Speaking to the point of whether the affordable housing was truly affordable, she said that rental rates of even “semi-affordable units” are a plus, but putting together all the plusses, that couldn’t override the recommendation of planning commission.

Hieftje, responding to Rapundalo’s comment that energy systems like the one proposed for City Place should be normal, said that he’d long been a proponent of making every development energy efficient, but that city codes in Michigan could not be stronger than state building codes.

He said that it should only be in a very rare case that we overrule the planning commission and that this was not one of them.

Outcome: The PUD failed on a 0-10 roll call vote. The resolution on the site plan received no further discussion and failed on a unanimous voice vote.

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

Absent: Sandi Smith

Next Council Meeting: Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]


  1. By Anna Ercoli Schnitzer
    January 7, 2009 at 3:53 pm | permalink

    Huge kudos for the outstanding, extremely detailed coverage of this Public Hearing on City Place PUD.

  2. By 72blue
    January 7, 2009 at 5:48 pm | permalink

    Thank you for such amazing reporting on important and interesting local issues. Please keep it up.