Planning Commission: 170 Feet for South U.

Taller height limit comes with 30-foot setback, maximum tower diagonal
Ethel Potts raises her hand in opposition to the final vote to recommend to city council the on the A2D2 zoning

Ethel Potts raises her hand in opposition on the final vote to recommend the A2D2 zoning to city council .

Just before 11 p.m. on Tuesday evening, Ann Arbor’s planning commission, on an 8-1 vote, passed a recommendation on to city council to enact a series of zoning changes as a part of the A2D2 package. The set of proposed new zoning regulations had undergone some revision in response to additional community feedback on the first version that had been recommended by the commission. That feedback had been collected through the fall of 2008 in a series of public workshops.

Our goal in this article is not to lay out the complete set of revisions to the zoning recommendations. So the discussion of why there will be no adult entertainment district in downtown Ann Arbor will be put off until another day. Instead, we write for an audience of one – a South University area resident who we imagine will read the headline of this article with a disbelieving sense of déjà vu. She’s a resident who attended city council’s most recent Sunday night caucus, and who also attended planning commission’s meeting last night, leaving “early” when she likely believed a vote of particular interest to her was done.

But this narrative begins with a meeting that resident missed – planning commission’s Feb. 19 meeting, when that body began considering revisions to the A2D2 zoning package. The deliberations last night were continued from the previous meeting. At that first meeting, planning commission took a vote on a further revision to the proposed height limit for the proposed South University character district.

By way of super-brief background, the proposed rezoning consists of two different zones (D-1 and D-2) and eight different character districts that overlay those zones. The D-1 zone is proposed to have no height limit per se, with building heights governed by floor-area ratios. The D-2 zone is proposed to include a height limit of 60 feet. The South University area is proposed to be zoned as D-1, which is controversial for residents who feel the area should be zoned D-2, which is thought of as a “buffer” between core downtown (D-1) and residential neighborhoods. The South University character district is unique among the eight in that it was proposed to include a height limit of 120 feet – which is a nod to the concern that there is no D-2 buffer proposed. So the South University area is “D-1 Lite” – still core downtown, but with a height limit.

At its Feb. 19 meeting, planning commission considered a motion introduced by commissioner Kirk Westphal to increase the proposed South University height limit from 120 feet to 170 feet, saying that the 164-foot height of the 601 S. Forest project reflected a compromise community consensus about where the building heights could  be set. The vote on that motion was 4-3 and was recorded as passed.

But at last night’s meeting (March 3), commissioner Jean Carlberg clarified that planning commission needed five votes to pass anything and six votes to pass a recommendation to city council. The motion to increase the South University height limit had therefore failed on the 4-3 vote. After a brief discussion of whether the same motion could be brought back at the “same” meeting, and which side of the vote actually counted as prevailing, Westphal made those questions moot by bringing a new motion to raise the height limit – this time to 165 feet.

The motion provoked an audible “Hah!” from the interested resident for whom we are writing this article. The motion to set the limit at 165 feet failed. Our resident stuck it out for quite a while after that motion failed – it wasn’t like she bailed as soon as the South University height limit was over.

And it turned out not to be over. A couple of hours later, Westphal expressed his dissatisfaction at how the discussion on South University had turned out. He proposed a compromise – one that called for a height of 170 feet, but included a 30-foot setback for all new construction that abuts residential property. The compromise motion also included a maximum tower diagonal of 150 feet.

Putting together the content of the motion required a lengthy discussing among planning commissioners, as Westphal tried to put together a compromise. At one point Carlberg stated that without a diagonal specified at some number, she wouldn’t support the motion: “Pick a number, please, if you want my vote – you’re scrounging for 6 votes!” Commissioner Eric Mahler pushed the height from 150 feet (Westphal’s initial compromise number) to 170 feet with his statement that if there was going to be a 30-foot setback and a maximum tower diagonal, the motion wouldn’t get his vote.

The 170-30-150 version of the motion passed on an 8-1 vote, with Ethel Potts dissenting. Potts also dissented from the vote on the entire A2D2 package.

In presenting only the deliberations on the South University height, we do not wish to convey that during the six hours of discussions over its last two meetings, that the single-minded goal of planning commission was to raise building height limits on South University Avenue.  The body systematically and methodically worked through the entire set of resident feedback on a variety of issues.

What’s next? The A2D2 steering committee will meet on Friday, March 6 at 8:30 a.m. on the 6th floor of the Larcom Building to review the set of revisions that planning commission passed. That committee consists of Evan Pratt (planning commission), Marcia Higgins (city council), and Roger Hewitt (DDA board).

On Monday, March 9, city council will conduct a working session devoted to the topic of the A2D2 zoning package.


  1. By Marc Gerstein
    March 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm | permalink

    Hi Dave Askins,
    Thanks for your persistence in staying through the Planning Commission meeting last night and then writing and posting your article so that those like me who left early thinking that it was all over for the South U discussion could see what a dastardly deed had been committed — voting 3 times on what was essentially the same awful amendment! It was actually me and not your real and literary neighborhood woman who uttered an astonished and derisive “Hah” when Westfall had the chutzpah — ultimately successful — to reintroduce the defeated amendment. Many thanks. Marc

  2. By Bob Snyder
    March 4, 2009 at 4:36 pm | permalink

    The Planning Commission article is an excellent and impartial recounting of a seriously flawed and inept decision-making body! Whether one agrees or not (I’m a “not”) with the final outcome (170 foot height “limit”), the confused and disorderly way the Commissioners reached their “final decision” (if indeed it is “final”) was reminiscent of the Keystone Kops! All 8 of them, save the one lone dissenting vote by an staunch champion of the neighborhoods, Commissioner Eppie Potts, made a mockery of citizen participation in the planning process. Try as the City will, South University is not “downtown”, and certainly doesn’t qualify as a D-1 designation, let alone barely a D-2. Here’s hoping that City Council has the will and wisdom to reject the Planning Commission’s un-planning and bring the future of South University back closer to ground level where it belongs.
    Bob Snyder, President, South University Neighborhood Association