Downtown Planning Process Forges Ahead

New zoning approved, design guides will take longer

Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Nov. 16, 2009) Part I: The Ann Arbor city council’s Monday night meeting, which started at its usual 7 p.m. time, stretched to almost 1 a.m. before it concluded. In this part of the meeting report, we focus on planning and development issues, which contributed to the unusually long meeting.

a ball of yarn on somebody's lap

A ball of yarn on the lap of an audience member at city council’s Monday meeting. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) compared his colleagues’ proposed amendments on the A2D2 zoning package to unwinding a tightly-wound ball of string. (Photo by the writer)

On the main planning question before the council – the A2D2 rezoning package for downtown Ann Arbor – the council approved the zoning package with its two basic categories of D1 (core) and D2 (interface) zones.

Neither the effort to postpone consideration of the zoning ordinance – led by Sabra Briere (Ward 1) – nor the attempt to reduce maximum height limits in the South University area – led by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) – met with any success.

The maximum building height for the majority of D1 areas is thus 180 feet, with the exception of a swatch along East Huron and in South University, which have maximums of 150 feet. D2 areas have a maximum  building height of 60 feet.

There were also no amendments passed to accommodate the request to change the proposed zoning of an individual parcel at 1320 S. University from D2 (interface) to D1 (core), or to change the proposed zoning of an area along East Huron Street from D1 to D2.

A public hearing was held on the design guidelines, which are also a part of the A2D2 effort, though no vote was scheduled or taken at Monday’s meeting. It did emerge during deliberations on the zoning that it’s estimated to take another 8-12 months of planning staff work, in order to establish a mandatory review process that goes along with the design guidelines.

In response to councilmember questions, Wendy Rampson, who’s interim director of planning and development services, said that with approval of the new downtown zoning – based on staff conversations with developers – there are two projects that would now likely be submitted.

Three public hearings were held that related to downtown planning. The first related to design guidelines for Ann Arbor’s  downtown buildings and open spaces. The second was for the proposed A2D2 zoning for downtown. And the final public hearing concerned the rezoning of 1320 S. University – a hearing granted to the property owner under Michigan state law.

Design Guidelines

For an overview of some history of the downtown design guidelines process, see Chronicle coverage: “Another Draft of Downtown Design Guides” and “Downtown Design Guides: Must vs. Should

woman looking at printed material

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) flips through the design guidelines document. Next to her is Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5). (Photo by the writer.)

A central focus of prior community criticism has been the lack of a defined mandatory review process that accompanies the design guidelines. Among those advocating for a mandatory review process, there is somewhat less consensus on whether the compliance with the guidelines themselves should be mandatory.

On its agenda, the city council had only a public hearing, but no vote on design guidelines. We include in this section any council deliberations on a zoning amendment vote that related specifically to the design guidelines.

We also include a summary of public commentary from the zoning public hearing, to the extent that it was pertinent to the design guidelines.

Public Comment on Design Guidelines

Much of the commentary at the city council’s public hearing reflected similar sentiments to those that had been expressed at the previous night’s caucus. [Chronicle coverage: "Zoning, Design Guides on Council's Agenda"]

During the public hearing, Peter Nagourney spoke on behalf of a committee of citizens that was preparing an annotated copy of the proposed guidelines to forward to the council and to planning staff. Nagourney said that their main request was to extend the time for consideration. [The council heard from city staff during their deliberations on the zoning package that an 8-12 month delay would be necessary, if the council wished to include a mandatory review process with the design guidelines.]

Some key points identified by the volunteer citizen committee included:

  • Coordination between new zoning codes, design guidelines and the Downtown Plan. [Link to the city's master plans website, which includes information about the Downtown Plan.]
  • Specification of a design review process; the city’s new public participation ordinance helps define a “schedule” for a project approval process – where does the design review process fit into this schedule?
  • Elimination of the checklist, because “checking all the boxes doesn’t mean good design.”
  • Context of new construction in terms of respecting surrounding buildings.
  • Use of example projects on which to test-run the guidelines before they’re formally adopted.
  • Use of premiums for additional floor area ratios (i.e., taller buildings) only when a project is approved by a design review panel; this would be a way to leverage compliance.
  • Improvement of photographs and graphics in the design guidelines document.
  • Sustainability should be included in the design guidelines document not just in the context of new buildings, but also in the context of rehabbing older buildings.
  • Character districts are not completely articulated and in some cases seem rather “open ended.”

An advocate for walkers and bicyclists appeared at the public hearing to echo the sentiment that while the design guidelines themselves did in part promote a green and sustainable future, they “lacked teeth,” and did not reflect a mandate, but rather just a “wish list.”

Bob Snyder, president  of the South University Neighborhood Association, focused on Nagourney’s third point: context. He suggested that the Calthorpe report, with its recommendation of buildings no taller than 3-8 stories, was more suggestive of D2 (interface) zoning than D1 (core) zoning. The previous night at council’s Sunday caucus, he’d read from the character district guidelines for South University, saying that they sounded more like D2 than D1. Snyder concluded that the design guidelines for South University should be changed to reflect D1, or else the zoning changed to D2 to match the design guidelines. [Snyder's clear preference is to change the zoning of South University to D2.]

Ray Detter spoke on behalf of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council – which, he reminded city councilmembers, had been involved in the A2D2 process since the very beginning. Detter stressed that a mandatory review process needed to be provided for the design guidelines.

Christine Crockett, who served on the A2D2 design review committee, also stressed that zoning dovetails with design review. She pointed out that increasing density is not the sole purpose of the zoning and design changes – it’s one of many principles at play.

Thomas Partridge called for the tabling of any resolution until the plan was clearly written with a provision for affordable housing.

Council Deliberations on Zoning that Related to Design Guidelines

While the city council did not have a resolution before it on the design guidelines, the guidelines did factor into the deliberations on the A2D2 zoning package. They played a significant role in the arguments concerning the merits of a motion, brought forward by Sabra Briere (Ward 1), to postpone the consideration of the zoning package until council’s first meeting in December.

Mayor John Hieftje said that he had come to the council meeting prepared to support a postponement in order to sync up the design guidelines with the zoning package so that they could be approved together. In wanting to see them passed together, he was supporting a similar sentiment to that which Ethel Potts had expressed during the public hearing on zoning – zoning can’t stand alone without design guidelines, she said.

During deliberations on the zoning package, Hieftje asked Wendy Rampson, interim director of planning services for the city, what the projected timeline would be for developing a mandatory process for the design guidelines. She explained that it would be 8-12 months before such a mandatory process could be developed. Why so long? Rampson said that planning staff had a pretty “full plate” with several other projects that the council had asked for: a review of R4C zoning, an historic district review, master planning consolidation, and a zoning ordinance legal review.

It would take even longer, Rampson said, if it was council’s direction to develop not just a mandatory process, but also a way to enforce mandatory compliance.

Hieftje wound up voting for the failed motion to postpone anyway, but said that obviously it was not feasible to try to sync up the zoning with the design guidelines.

Asked by Sandi Smith (Ward 1) what the risks were of waiting for design guidelines to be approved before approving the zoning ordinance, Rampson reported that two projects were expected to be brought before the city for site plan review, once the new A2D2 zoning ordinance was approved. So waiting the 8-12 months to pass the zoning package until a mandatory review process was written by planning staff, then approved by council, would mean delaying the submission of those two projects, Rampson said.

Without the design guidelines or any process in place, Rampson said, those projects would go through the normal review channels. However, she allowed that planning staff would fully apprise the developers of those projects about the intent and content of the guidelines as they currently stood, as a reflection of community sentiment.

Outcome: There was no vote on the design guidelines. The A2D2 oversight committee is scheduled to meet at a date to be determined, to make a recommendation as to how to proceed in light of Rampson’s estimated 8-12 months that would be needed to write up a mandatory design review process.

A2D2 Zoning

The majority of speakers at the public hearing addressed the specific geographic regions of East Huron Street or South University, but some spoke to the overall proposal.

Public Comment on Zoning: East Huron

The First Baptist Church is located on East Washington Street between Division and State in an area that’s proposed as D1 (core) zoning in the A2D2 proposal. Members of the First Baptist Church, along with the church’s co-pastor Stacey Simpson Duke, spoke against the idea of D1 zoning for their block. Their concerns were based on the shadow cast on the church that could result from any tall building constructed immediately to the west of the church.

Residents of Sloan Plaza on Huron Street weighed in against a D1 zoning designation for East Huron, saying that D2 was more appropriate. One Sloan Plaza resident pointed to the University of Michigan’s new North Quad dormitory, which has now begun to take definite shape on the southeast corner of Huron and State streets. Buildings constructed according to the D1 zoning standards could rise almost twice as tall as North Quad, she said.

Bruce Thomson, who owns property along Huron Street, acknowledged that it was a tough issue for the council to weigh the interests of residents of adjoining property against the rights of property owners. He noted, however, that East Huron is already zoned for high density, and appropriately so, as it was the main drive through the city. He said he felt that the planning commission did a great job of finding a compromise that afforded a D1 designation, with a slightly lower height (150 feet versus 180 feet) compared to other D1 districts, as well as greater setbacks.

Public Comment on Zoning: South University – Including 1320 S. University

Some of the public commentary and much of the subsequent council deliberations focused on the South University area.

Susan Friedlaender represented the owner of the property at 1320 S. University, who had requested a separate public hearing on the rezoning of the parcel to D2. She contended that a D2 designation for the parcel conflicted with the state zoning enabling legislation, because it went against the emerging trend of building and population development. A D2 designation, she said, defeated the goals of the city’s downtown plan, transportation plan, and affordable housing plan.

Barbara Copi praised the new Downtown Development Authority wayfinding signs that have been installed, but criticized those that have been placed on Washtenaw Avenue near South University, which indicate “Downtown.” If anything, she said, they should say “Campus.” It wasn’t possible to change reality by putting a sign on it, she said.

Eleanor Linn supported the D2 zoning of 1320 S. University, which abuts the property she owns. She pointed to the hard work that had gone into finding a way to allow development yet provide a buffer.

Public Comment on Zoning: General

Roger Hewitt – who serves on the DDA board and is a member of the A2D2 steering committee, along with Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Evan Pratt of the planning commission – introduced himself as a downtown business owner. He cautioned that the currently proposed zoning would be damaging to downtown, because the residential premiums for additional floor area ratios (FAR) were not high enough. He also expressed concern that the construction of on-site parking was penalized by the proposed zoning package in the way it factored into floor area ratios (FAR).

Council Deliberations: South University Height

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) led off deliberations, with a proposed amendment to clean up the language on the side and rear setbacks in the East Huron character district – the base of buildings needed to be included, as well as the tower.

people sitting at city council table

Left: Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2). Right: Christopher Taylor (Ward 3).  In the distant background is DDA board member Roger Hewitt. (Photo by the writer.)

Then Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) – attending his first council meeting since being elected on Nov. 3 – re-opened the question of the height limit in the South University area. He proposed an amendment that would have changed the maximum building height in the South University area from 150 feet to 60 feet. Even though in general, the maximum building height limit for D1 districts was proposed to be 180 feet, in the South University area it is proposed to be 150 feet.

At 60 feet, Kunselman’s amendment would have made South University’s D1 maximum building height the same as the standard maximum building height in D2 districts. This was a point that Sabra Briere (Ward 1) wondered about. Kunselman clarified that he was simply suggesting a height limit that was “in keeping with what we’ve been telling the community it should be.”

Kunselman went on to explain that he was in part trying to make amends for missing a planning commission meeting back in 2006 when the parcel at 1320 S. University, along with several others, were recommended by planning commission to be rezoned from R4C (multi-family dwelling) to C2A (Central Business District), which is an up-zoning. [Kunselman served on the planning commission at the time. The city council subsequently approved that rezoning. The current C2A designations have been pointed to as part of the justification for designating the South University area as D1.]

From the Aug. 15, 2006 planning commission meeting minutes:

Borum and Lipson both expressed concern about the rezoning of the Park Plaza apartment complex.

Moved by Potts, seconded by D’Amour, to amend the main motion by removing the Park Plaza apartment complex at 1320 South University.

A vote on the amendment showed:
YEAS: Borum, D’Amour, Lipson, Potts
NAYS: Bona, Carlberg, Emaus
ABSENT: Kunselman, Pratt

Sandi Smith (Ward 1), picking up on an allusion to “six stories” by Kunselman and its apparent equation with 60 feet, expressed her confusion: Sixty feet doesn’t make six stories, she said. Kunselman replied that as a student of urban planning, he was actually against setting height limits in terms of feet, and preferred stories. He noted that he did not wish to send the whole A2D2 zoning proposal back to the drawing board, but said that he would stand firm on South University.

Mayor John Hieftje weighed in, saying that he had difficulty supporting a 60-foot height limit, because at that height nothing would change on South University – an area he said he visited twice daily. At that height, he said, a developer could not eke out the necessary economic advantage to undertake a project.

Briere then noted that a 60-foot height limit is really a four-story height limit, and observed that whoever came up with a 60-foot height limit for D2 didn’t talk to people who actually built things. She concluded that 9-10 story buildings are what they’d like to see in the South University area. At 150 feet and a D1 zoning designation, however, Briere cautioned that there was an incentive to pile lots together and build big. The message to property owners, she said, was they could sell their land to people who will amass lots and build something.

people standing around looking at a map

Left to right: Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Roger Hewitt (DDA board member), Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3). (Photo by the writer.)

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) then expressed support for Kunselman’s overarching point, saying that he concurred that the South University area, as then proposed, “admits of too much height.” But he suggested that 60 feet was too restrictive. However, 120 feet, said Taylor, is a mass that would allow for “commercial exploitation – in the best sense.”

Taylor noted that he would like to bring 120 feet as an amendment as the conversation progressed.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) was unambiguous in saying that he would not support the amendment to change the maximum building height in the South University area to 60 feet, or even 120 feet, saying that there was an economic tipping point, and that there’d be no economic redevelopment at 60 feet.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) then adduced an analogy to which he’d return later in the deliberations: The zoning ordinance as proposed was tightly wound, and if they began picking it apart, it would unravel.

Kunselman tried to give some assurance to his colleagues that economic redevelopment could still happen at 60 feet, pointing out that the “ace in the hole” for a developer is the PUD (planned unit development).

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) addressed Kunselman’s PUD strategy, suggesting that there’s community concern about the frequency with which PUDs are deployed. It was important, said Hohnke, that they not be surprised by requests for the kind of rezoning allowed by PUDs. A PUD should be a rare circumstance, he continued, and should provide a significant and bold benefit to the community, not be a standard redevelopment strategy.

On his 60-foot height limit amendment for South University, Kunselman was the lone vote in favor.

The deliberations then took a detour from South University, when Hieftje did not call on Taylor, who had his hand raised to speak – presumably to offer the 120-foot alternative he’d mentioned he’d like to bring forward.

That detour involved the role of design guidelines in the timing of the zoning approval – which is already explicated in the Design Guidelines section above.

When Taylor was eventually recognized to speak, he turned the conversation back to South University. He first clarified with senior assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald what the procedural implications would be if a 120-foot height limit for South University were to be adopted. [In the spring of 2009, the council had previously approved amendments to the A2D2 zoning ordinance that had required revision of the Downtown Plan, which then had to be referred back to the city's planning commission. The planning commission and the city council must adopt the same Downtown Plan.]

Taylor wanted to know from McDonald if a change to 120 feet would require referral back to the planning commission, or another “first reading” before the city council, or neither of those. McDonald clarified that the height change would not cause a conflict between the zoning and the Downtown Plan. He suggested that an additional reading before the council would be in order, but that it would not necessarily need to be referred to the planning commission.

With that understanding, and understanding also that it would require an additional subsequent reading before the city council if passed, which would incur the costs of providing official notice, Taylor moved an amendment to change the South University height limit to 120 feet. [Subsequent deliberations by Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) would draw out the fact that the cost of providing notice to everyone inside the district to be rezoned and those who live within 1,000 feet is $8,000-$10,000.]

In arguing for the amendment, Taylor adduced the principle of “like should be treated as like, and unlike should be treated as unlike.” South University, Taylor contended, was unlike Huron Street, and therefore should be treated unlike Huron, with its D1 zoning and 150-foot height limits. As far as the contention that establishing a different height limit for South University would diminish the clarity of the zoning, Taylor’s response was straightforward: You consult the table, he said, referring to a table in the zoning code that lays out the height limits. “That is entirely clear,” he concluded.

Briere offered her support for Taylor’s 120-foot height limit in South University, saying that a 10-story building in that area was rational.

Hohnke acknowledged that the height change did not explicitly conflict with the D1-D2 boundaries drawn on the Downtown Plan. But he wanted to know if the floor area ratios (FAR) associated with D1 premiums could actually be achieved at a height of 120 feet. If they could not, then that would have implications as to the D1 zoning, which would implicitly conflict with the Downtown Plan. Noting that Kunselman’s previously proposed 60-foot maximum seemed to conflict with the idea that it was zoned D1, Hohnke wanted to know where the line was between 60 feet and 12o feet that constituted a “material change,” and that would entail referring the ordinance back to planning commission.

man sitting a table with microphones

Senior assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald. (Photo by the writer)

McDonald replied that the proposed ordinance before the city council definitely fit the Downtown Plan and that the city attorney staff – before they could determine whether there was still a good fit – were waiting and listening to hear what the council would recommend. At that point, Hohnke interjected: “120 feet!” McDonald replied that the city attorney’s office would need to do a review.

Derezinski then expressed some frustration in saying, “We’re back here unraveling the ball!”

Rapundalo concurred with Derezinski, saying that they were beginning to disrespect the work of those in the community who had worked so hard through the whole process. He cautioned that a height of 120 feet might now allow a developer to realize an affordable housing premium – when affordable housing was a community goal. Characterizing the proposed amendment, Rapundalo said, “It’s totally irrational, quite frankly.”

At that point, Briere suggested a postponement until Dec. 7. But with Taylor’s amendment on the floor for discussion, it needed to be withdrawn, if the council was to consider the postponement. After establishing that he could bring back the 120-foot amendment if the postponement failed, Taylor withdrew the amendment.

The postponement did fail – deliberations on Briere’s motion to postpone are detailed below.

After the postponement failed, Taylor re-introduced the amendment to reduce the maximum building height in the South University area from 150 feet to 120 feet. Deliberations were now brief. The amendment failed.

Voting for the 120-foot height limit for South University: Kunselman, Taylor, Anglin, Hieftje, Briere. Voting to leave the proposed height limit at 150 feet for South University: Derezinski, Rapundalo, Teall, Higgins, Hohnke, Smith.

Council Deliberations: Postponement?

In moving for a postponement, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) had suggested that everyone who had an amendment to make put them in writing well before the Dec. 7 meeting so that they could be looked over and evaluated by councilmembers as well as the city attorney’s office. That way, the implications of various amendments would be clear, she said.

Mayor John Hieftje suggested that the choice was between postponing and making changes before approving the zoning package versus approving it now and making any required adjustments in the future.

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) suggested to those who wished to bring amendments that they should simply vote the zoning package down and start over. “This is ludicrous!” she exclaimed. Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) agreed with Higgins: “We’ve got to get a move on this,” he said.

For her part, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) felt like any amendments should entail that the package be referred back to the planning commission, whether or not the city attorney’s office felt like they were on the right side of the fine line that defined a material change. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) declared: “It’s time to act.” He recalled how in the spring of 2009 there’d been a raft of amendments put into writing before the council’s vote – as Briere was suggesting they do now – and that he had a sense of deja vu.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) said she agreed with the intent of the postponement, but could ultimately not support it.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) made a final attempt to persuade his colleagues by arguing that the community voice will not feel offended by the postponement.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) asked Wendy Rampson, interim director of planning and development services, what recourse citizens might have to overturn the zoning. Rampson deferred to Kevin McDonald, a senior assistant city attorney. McDonald wanted no part of the question: “It’s not part of my job duties to advise on recourse against the city!”

Kunselman then indicated that he would heed Higgins’ advice to vote the proposed ordinance down when the vote came on the main motion. The motion to postpone failed.

Voting for the postponement: Kunselman, Taylor, Anglin, Hieftje, Briere. Voting against the postponement: Derezinski, Rapundalo, Teall, Higgins, Hohnke, Smith.

Council Deliberations: The Final Vote

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) moved to add a “Resolved” clause to the main motion that would direct planning staff to take up recommendations from an Aug. 18 memo they had prepared, and to bring back the ordinance for review in January of 2011.

With that resolved clause added, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) expressed her thanks to Higgins for all her work, and then called the question – a parliamentary way of saying, “Let’s vote now.” The vote on calling the question came out on the same 6-5 split as the vote on the 120-foot height limit and the postponement.

Outcome: The Ann Arbor city council approved the A2D2 zoning amendments, with dissent only from Kunselman.

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

Next council meeting: Monday, Dec. 7, 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. November 18, 2009 at 12:31 am | permalink

    Thank you for such an accurate and thorough report on this part of the Council meeting. Reading it made me feel like I was actually there! (which I was – wow, what a long night!) It’s not often that I read a report of a meeting I attended and feel like the writer captured everything exactly as it went down, but you certainly did. Thank you.

  2. By John Floyd
    November 18, 2009 at 10:23 am | permalink

    The “150 ft” height limitation of East Huron is ONLY for the NORTH side of the street (Campus Inn & Sloan Plaza side). The SOUTH side (First United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church, Old 4th Ward Historic District) remains at 180 feet. Mr. Bruce Thompson’s comments overlooked that point.