Moravian Moves Forward, Despite Protests

Planning commission OKs controversial housing project

Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (Jan. 5, 2010): During a four-hour meeting that ended with some residents shouting in anger, the Ann Arbor planning commission approved the site plan and special zoning for The Moravian, a proposed housing complex at East Madison, between Fourth and Fifth avenues.

Developer Jeff Helminski speaks to Ann Arbor planning commissioners about his project, The Moravian. In the background are commissioners Wendy Woods and Diane Giannola. (Photos by the writer.)

Developer Jeff Helminski speaks to Ann Arbor planning commissioners about his project, The Moravian. In the background are commissioners Wendy Woods and Diane Giannola. (Photos by the writer.)

About two dozen residents attended the meeting. All but one of the 16 people who spoke during time for public commentary opposed the project, some vehemently.

Opponents’ main concern is that the five-story, 62-unit building is out of scale and out of character with the neighborhood, which has older homes, but is not protected by an historic district. [The neighborhood also is on the edge of an industrial area – The Moravian is planned on a lot across the street from the Fingerle Lumber complex.]

But in approving the requested planned unit development (PUD) zoning, commissioners cited a range of public benefits, including the 12 units of affordable housing within the building – a benefit that neighbors dispute. The project will now be considered by city council at an upcoming meeting.

Residents vow to continue fighting it. “We’re going to redouble our efforts,” Beverly Strassmann, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, told commissioners after their vote.

Separately, planning commissioners approved a rezoning request for a gas station on Packard Road, with some stipulations.

The Moravian

The Moravian is the latest incarnation of a project that began its life as The Madison. Originally designed as a 14-story building with 161 units, The Madison also went through different versions, scaling back in response to city staff and neighborhood concerns. [See Chronicle coverage of a December 2008 meeting between neighbors and developer Jeff Helminski and Newcombe Clark of Bluestone Realty: "The Madison Redux"]

The Moravian was brought forward in 2009, coming before the planning commission in October. At that time, commissioners postponed action on the project, asking the developer to get additional feedback from the staff and neighbors, and to incorporate that feedback into the design.

Staff Report on The Moravian

Alexis DiLeo of the city’s planning staff gave a report on The Moravian – the staff recommended approval of the PUD zoning district and site plan. [The complete staff report (a 32.9 MB .pdf file) is available to download from the city's website.]

The PUD approval hinged on public benefits, and the staff report cited three: 1) innovation in land use, 2) efficiency in land use and energy, and 3) expansion of the city’s affordable housing supply.

In the case of The Moravian, the 12 units designated as affordable would be offered at rents accessible to people earning no more than 80% of the area median income (AMI).

Later in the meeting, in response to questions from commissioners, DiLeo elaborated on those benefits. The innovation in land use relates to the use of underground parking, rather than surface parking, she said. Efficiency in land use and energy includes the proposed LEED certification and the use of geothermal energy – a renewable source. The project includes 12 units of affordable housing, she noted, or 19% of the total units in the building. That was a benefit, especially given the location near downtown.

In her presentation, DiLeo described several ways in which the current version of the project differs from the one presented in October. Among them:

  • Affordable housing units were increased from nine to 12. The units designated as affordable entail all of the project’s nine one-bedroom apartments and three efficiency apartments.
  • The total number of units decreased from 63 to 62, with 150 total bedrooms and “flex” rooms.
  • There were changes to the three- and four-bedroom units. Previously, all bedrooms in those units were paired with bathrooms. In the current design, one bedroom in each of those units is designated a “flex” room, with no bathroom attached. So a previous four-bedroom unit is now described as a three-bedroom with flex room, and a previous three-bedroom unit is called a two-bedroom with flex room.
  • Several architectural changes were made, including the addition of cornices, sills and other features, with changes in the exterior’s color, material and plane to make it a better fit for the character of the neighborhood, according to the staff report. Windows were increased in size and grouped, rather than placed at regular intervals.
  • Outdoor terraces were added to the fourth floor, for use as “active” open space.
  • To reduce the impact on the neighboring house at 543 S. Fourth Ave., a mansard roof was eliminated on that side, and outdoor terraces on the fourth floor were added to create a “step-down” effect.
  • A maximum size was added to the description of live/work units – spaces designed for residents who are also small business owners, artists or sole practitioners (though non-residents could lease this first-floor space as well). There will be a minimum of two and a maximum of six live/work units, with each unit having a maximum of 1,200 square feet and a total maximum of 3,000 square feet for all live/work units.

Final approval of the PUD site plan will be subject to adoption of new flood maps being developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). DiLeo said those might not be completed for six months or so. Drafts of those maps show altered boundaries of the floodway, with the result that the floodway no longer includes the Moravian site. The project would still be located in the 100-year floodplain of Allen’s Creek. According to the staff report, the proposed development would provide about 29,900 cubic feet of flood storage in a stormwater management system, an increase of about 74% compared with capacity of the existing site.

Walt Spiller, center, talks with Shirley Zempel, right, and

Walt Spiller, center, talks with Shirley Zempel, right, and Beverly Strassmann, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association. Spiller's two-story home would be an immediate neighbor of the five-story Moravian.

Public Commentary: Pre-Vote

Sixteen people spoke during a public hearing on the project, which lasted about an hour. Many comments touched on similar concerns. Here’s a sampling.

Beverly Strassmann, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, said she represented residents and that there was “massive opposition” to the project – opposition that’s documented in petitions from residents, she said. It was incredible that the turnout for this meeting was as high as it was, she said, given that they’d just learned of the public hearing two days prior. She described the building as “an offense,” totally out of scale with other buildings in the neighborhood – 25 times bigger than the largest house, for example.

The public benefits cited are illusory, Strassmann added, noting that 19 units of affordable housing currently on the site will be eliminated, replaced by fewer units that are smaller. LEED certification – cited by staff as a benefit – can be avoided by paying penalties, she said.

Strassmann also expressed concern that what was being characterized as workforce housing would become housing for students, saying that vacancy rates show there’s not a need for that. She argued that the project is being pushed through without regard for the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood or the city. “Please do not show us contempt,” she said. “Please protect our fundamental rights as citizens.”

Kim Kachadoorian described the Germantown area as the last intact near-downtown neighborhood, and said it was disheartening to see it dismembered for more student housing. There’s already a glut of housing for students and young professionals in the city, she said. And when the University of Michigan opens North Quad, a large student dormitory at the corner of State and Huron, she predicted there will be a significant increase in rental vacancies in the near-downtown area.

Kachadoorian also had concerns about parking. Though the project includes 90 parking spaces, most of them in an underground garage, there are enough bedrooms for between 150-300 people, she noted. Already there are cars parked illegally in that area every day, she said. Kachadoorian concluded by saying the project would be perfect for Ann Arbor – just not at that location.

Ellen Ramsburgh, a member of the city’s historic district commission, said she supported previous comments by the neighbors. She reminded commissioners that there were two relevant study committees whose work had not yet been completed: 1) the R4C & R2A zoning district study advisory committee, which is looking at possible ordinance changes in these residential districts, and 2) a study committee appointed by city council in August to explore whether an historic district would be appropriate for an area along Fourth and Fifth avenues – which could include the site of the proposed Moravian. [See Chronicle coverage of the historic district study committee: "Fifth Ave. Project to Meet Historic Standards"]

Ramsburgh said she hoped the commission wouldn’t approve anything that’s not within the framework of those studies. Even though historic homes in that neighborhood aren’t currently protected under an historic district, she concluded, tearing down those homes would be just as much of a loss.

This elevation rendering of The Moravian shows the home of Walt Spiller to the north of the building.

This elevation rendering of The Moravian shows the home of Walt Spiller to the north of the building. (Image links to larger file.)

Walt Spiller owns a home on Fifth Avenue that sits directly next to the site, to the north, where The Moravian would be built.  He also owns several rental properties in the area. He asked commissioners that residents near The Moravian be given the same consideration that was given to residents near the Packard Road gas station, a rezoning request discussed earlier in the meeting. [See below – commissioners added restrictions related to noise on the site.]

Spiller pointed out that the large tree depicted in the developer’s schematic of the site for The Moravian actually stood on his property. But his main point was an objection to how his remarks had been characterized by the developer in a report to the planning staff. He said the comments attributed to him in the report – which stated that his response to the project’s conceptual plan were “encouraging” – were a complete misinterpretation, and he wanted them to be stricken from the report. He said that in this case, PUD stands for “planning upside down,” given the scale of the project.

Ethel Potts, a former Ann Arbor planning commissioner, acknowledged that the project had been tweaked, but said that she saw no major changes from its previous version. The building’s height and mass don’t fit the area, she said. The affordable housing benefit cited by staff should be discounted, given the greater amount of affordable housing that will be displaced because of the project. Further, she said, PUDs are not supposed to grossly violate the underlying zoning – but this one does.

Potts also objected to the entrance for vehicles on Fifth Avenue, citing traffic concerns. And she noted that the building would be in the floodplain, and that a structure across the street – now occupied by the University of Michigan – regularly floods. In general, she said the project departs from the city’s central area plan and R4C residential zoning, and she urged commissioners not to approve it.

Jeff Helminski, developer for The Moravian, was the only speaker in favor of the project. He said the project had been altered in response to feedback from the city staff and neighbors, and that he hoped the commissioners would evaluate it based on the balance they’d achieved between the level of zoning variance requested and the level of public benefits.

Helminski noted that the project followed the guidance provided by the city’s office of community development regarding the affordable housing component. The Moravian will improve the character of this area, he said, as well as add $200,000 annually to the city’s tax base. During a time when the city and schools face a budget crisis, with possible layoffs of firefighters and teachers, the increase to the tax base should be an important factor, he said.

Commissioner Deliberations

Jean Carlberg began the discussion by asking a question about the flood maps – she wondered if the fact that the site plan approval is contingent on adoption of the flood maps meant that the project would be on hold until then. DiLeo explained that staff had discussed the issue with the developer, who understood that constraint. Building permits wouldn’t be issued until the new maps are adopted, but if the site plan were approved, the developer could move ahead to line up financing.

Planning commissioner Jean Carlberg, a former city councilmember, reviews documents during the Jan. 5 planning commission meeting.

Planning commissioner Jean Carlberg, a former city councilmember, reviews documents during the Jan. 5 planning commission meeting.

Tony Derezinski, who is the city council’s representative to the planning commission, asked DiLeo to respond to several residents who had raised safety concerns about traffic at the Fifth Avenue entrance.

DiLeo said that city traffic engineers had evaluated a traffic impact study that was done for the previous, higher-density proposal. They found that the location of the driveway met all the necessary requirements, she said. [From the staff report: "Vehicular and pedestrian circulation is well defined and access is safe. The traffic impact study provided for a previous, more intense development on this site concluded there would be no congestion in or near the district as a result of the rezoning. The previous traffic impact study conclusions continue to be valid for the currently proposed, less intense uses."]

Bonnie Bona, chair of the commission, asked for a response to some of the residents, who during public commentary had said that a computer-generated image of the building, from the perspective of an aerial view, was misleading. They contended that it appeared to show the five-story Moravian at a height level to a three-story building across the street.

Developer Jeff Helminski explained that the three-story building at the northwest corner of Fourth and Madison – used as offices by the University of Michigan – had a higher floor-to-floor span than The Moravian. That meant that the three stories reached the same height as the fourth floor of The Moravian, he said.

Erica Briggs clarified with Helminski that the fourth-floor terraces of the proposed Moravian were open to all residences – they are, he said. She also asked for a breakdown of the number of different sized units within the building. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Three-bedroom plus flex room (formerly four-bedroom) = 6
  • Two-bedroom plus flex room (formerly three-bedroom) = 36
  • Two-bedroom = 8
  • One-bedroom = 9
  • Efficiency = 3

Briggs also cautioned the city’s planning staff to avoid making its report sound like a marketing brochure for the developer. She specifically cited the tone of the report’s section on supplemental regulations.

In characterizing her response to the project, Briggs said she was impressed by the tweaks that the developer had made. The project isn’t horrendous or monstrous, she said, and it fits with the city’s efforts to increase density downtown. However, it’s significant that the entire neighborhood opposes the project, and she was especially disturbed to hear that Walt Spiller’s remarks had been misrepresented by the developer. In addition, she felt the building was out of scale with the neighborhood, and that it would attract students, not young professionals.

Kirk Westphal echoed Briggs’ concerns about the marketing language in the staff report, and asked that all references to the types of people who might be living there be eliminated from the report before it goes to council.

Westhpal also clarified that the stormwater management system would be upgraded from the existing site – DiLeo confirmed that was correct.

Aerial view of The Moravian – a computer-generated image of the proposed project is located in the center of this picture.

Aerial view of The Moravian, looking northeast. A computer-generated image of the proposed project is located in the center of this picture – the U-shaped building. The South Main Market complex is in the foreground; Perry School, now used as offices by the University of Michigan, is to the upper right. (Links to larger image.)

Bona said she had struggled with this project, wanting to be open to creative ideas while at the same time protecting neighborhoods. Complicating the decision is the fact that this site is at the boundary between two zoning districts – to the south, the Fingerle Lumber property is zoned D2, a “transition” category that still allows for greater density than the residential zoning of R4C.

It carries some weight, Bona said, that The Moravian is down the hill from the residential neighborhood. Another factor: the Fingerle property, because it’s in the floodway, won’t likely be densely developed in the future – there will probably be a lot of open space on that site, she said. It’s important to look at the entire area, not just the neighborhood to the north.

Bonnie Bona also cited several of the public benefits as weighing in the development’s favor, including the use of renewable energy, the underground parking and the LEED certification. She noted that penalties written into the PUD for not complying with LEED were significant, so the developer would be more likely to comply.

“It’s not perfect, but I think I can imagine it being a good addition to the neighborhood over time,” she concluded.

Tony Derezinski agreed. He said it was significant to him that the project had earned staff approval – he takes their recommendations seriously, he said. Though opponents had shown up to the meeting, Derezinski said there are many people cited in the report who do approve of the project. He also noted that many of the people speaking against the project don’t actually live in that neighborhood. The project provides more low-cost housing and goes a long way toward improving that area, he said, and warrants approval.

Evan Pratt thanked everyone who had participated in the discussion about the project over the months, saying that their input had made the process rigorous, resulting in more benefits for the city. He offered an apology, on behalf of the city, about any notification problems that might have occurred, and said he hoped city staff would improve on that in the future.

Jean Carlberg said the project had definitely improved, saying the design was now reminiscent of row houses. The building did not seem out of scale to her, compared to the three-story structure nearby and the taller Perry School building just up the street. She said she had checked city records and found that there were only six owner-occupied homes nearby, out of 37 properties, so it was fair to characterize the neighborhood as primarily rental already.

The additional residents in the neighborhood would benefit the city’s downtown commercial district, which would be within walking distance. She said she’d been in favor of the development before, and was even more so now.

Diane Giannola took issue with what appeared to be a pejorative view of having housing for students in that area. She said whether students or young professionals, most people in their 20s had roommates. The project was perfectly within scale for the area, she said, and she supported it.

Both Erica Briggs and Wendy Woods responded to Carlberg’s comments about rental housing, saying that it shouldn’t matter if the houses in that area were owner-occupied or rented. Some renters take better care of their houses than homeowners, Briggs said. She added that the building seemed to fit from the perspective of the south side of that area, but she didn’t think they should dismiss the neighbors who were looking at the project from the perspective of their homes to the north.

Woods thanked residents who had voiced their concerns. She said it might sound corny, but it was important to remember that both sides of the debate are just trying to make the city a better place to raise their families.

Westphal said he still had reservations about how the project comports with the central area plan. Regarding the PUD, he said he was on the fence about this project more than any others he’d encountered. He was also disappointed about the number of affordable housing units, and the fact that they were all one-bedroom and efficiency apartments. However, he said, the city staff are the experts, and their recommendation sets the bar higher for dissent.

Outcome: The commission voted to approve the PUD zoning and site plan for The Moravian, with Erica Briggs dissenting.

Erica Briggs was the only planning commissioner to vote against The Moravian. She cited concerns from the neighbors in explaining her decision.

Erica Briggs was the only planning commissioner to vote against The Moravian. She cited concerns from the neighbors in explaining her decision.

Public Commentary: Post-Vote

Eight residents spoke during the meeting’s final public commentary time, berating commissioners for their decision and vowing to continue fighting the project. They commended Erica Briggs for her lone vote against it, one man tipping his hat to her in a dramatic flourish. Beverly Strassmann thanked Briggs for her integrity and for being the “lone, honest voice” on the commission.

With his voice raised in anger, Richard Jacobson verbally slammed commissioners, saying “you guys voted on a lie,” referring to the computer-generated rendering that showed the height of the five-story Moravian on par with the height of a neighboring three-story building. He said if the commission knowingly accepted a lie, that made them corrupt. Bonnie Bona, chair of the commission, repeatedly asked that he lower his voice – she had no gavel, but tried to restore order by tapping her nameplate on the table.

Another speaker attacked the commission’s professionalism, saying that their discussion of the building’s height centered on the computer-generated rendering, not on the actual elevation numbers. “You discussed this like children looking at a coloring book,” he said. He also criticized their discussion of hydrology, noting that the project’s storm collection system, which is designed to retain stormwater runoff for up to 24 hours, would be immaterial during a 100-year flood event. These points, among others, made it clear that commissioners had made up their minds before coming to the meeting, he said, and he hoped that they hadn’t reached their decision in a dark room with the developer.

Strassmann said that city officials couldn’t get away with this, and she urged residents to not lose hope. Because of the late notification about the public hearing, residents weren’t able to turn out in full force, she said, but anyone interested in continuing the fight should check out the Stop the Moravian website for updates. “We’ve seen bad things in Ann Arbor,” she said, “but this pretty much takes the cake.”

At the end of the commentary, Briggs said she could appreciate the fact that there was a lot of anger in the room, but that the tone of the public commentary had been disrespectful. She knew her colleagues to have integrity, she said. Her remarks prompted immediate outcry from those residents still gathered around the speakers podium, at which point Bona called for an adjournment of the meeting.

Gallup One Stop Gas Station

A far less contentious public hearing was held for a rezoning and site plan request for the Gallup One Stop gas station at 2955 Packard Road, just west of the intersection with Platt. The hearing and subsequent discussion was held prior to the public hearing and discussion on The Moravian.

Todd Quatro explains the renovation plans for the Gallup One Stop gas station on Packard. The owner, Charles Gallup, attended the meeting but did not address the commission.

Todd Quatro explains the renovation plans for the Gallup One Stop gas station on Packard. The owner, Charles Gallup, attended the meeting but did not address the commission.

Todd Quatro, who’s handling the project for the station’s owner, Charles Gallup, spoke during the public hearing in support of the request, and was on hand to answer questions from commissioners. Only one other person spoke during the hearing, wondering why the site needed to be rezoned and asking for clarification regarding setbacks and runoff into the Mallets Creek watershed.

Quatro told commissioners that the owner was trying to spruce up the station – which sells Citgo gas – in hopes of returning it to a profitable status. In response to a query from Jean Carlberg, he said that two nearby gas stations were struggling as well.

The request for rezoning from a C1 (local business district) to a C2B (business service district) is related in part to the site’s history. Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff said that as far as they could tell, there’d been a gas station at that location for 43 years, before the property was annexed into the city. It is currently non-conforming with the area’s C1 zoning, so the station can’t be expanded or altered without special permission. Quatro said they were following the city staff’s recommendations in seeking C2B rezoning.

The plan includes making a 464-square-foot addition to the existing 1,835-square-foot convenience center, creating 14 parking spaces and two bicycle parking spots, relocating the gas pumps, and installing a new canopy with recessed lighting. In addition, the project will entail landscaping – including 25 new red oak, red maple and white spruce trees – some minor regrading and a new stormwater detention system. Regarding landscaping, Erica Briggs urged Quatro to make the pedestrian experience along Packard – where bushes will be planted – as pleasant as possible.

Briggs also asked whether it would be possible to add a sidewalk from the sidewalk on Packard to the front of the convenience center. Because of the configuration of the site, the setbacks required and the location of the stormwater detention system, that would be difficult to do, Quatro said.

Charles Gallup, owner of the Gallup One Stop gas station on Packard Road, has been in the business more than 60 years.

Charles Gallup, owner of the Gallup One Stop gas station on Packard Road, has been in the business more than 60 years.

Part of the reason for the reconfiguration is to improve the maneuverability of the large fuel trucks that pull into the station, Quatro said. They had consulted with one of the drivers about where to relocate the pumps, he said. The change also means that the pumps will be farther way from the apartment building on the east side of the site.

Many of the questions from commissioners related to the station’s impact on nearby residences. Bonnie Bona said she liked the proposed recessed lighting in the new canopy – she had stopped by the Citgo near Briarwood Mall, which has similar lighting. She described it as casting bright light in a directional way down on the pavement, but that it’s otherwise dim.

Several commissioners asked staff to add restrictions on the station’s hours of operation, which will be set at 6 a.m. until midnight. Also added to the proposal was a restriction limiting the use of exterior speakers to communication between customers at the pump and the station employees in the convenience store. This restriction was to address neighbors’ concerns over noise from the station – though several commissioners noted that they couldn’t control noise – including loud music – coming from the customers’ vehicles.

If approval is gained from council, the project will likely begin in April, Quatro said.

Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to approve the rezoning, site plan and a special exemption use. The project will next be considered by city council.

Present: Bonnie Bona, Diane Giannola, Erica Briggs, Evan Pratt, Jean Carlberg, Kirk Westphal, Tony Derezinski, Wendy Woods

Absent: Eric Mahler

Next meeting: Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, in city council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. The meeting is pushed back from its usual Tuesday date because of the Jan. 18 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. [confirm date]


  1. By Margaret S
    January 7, 2010 at 8:11 am | permalink

    Ahh, Tony “never saw a development he didn’t like” Dezerinski is at it again. Just making it up as he goes along. If staff recommendations were so important to him, then he would vote down projects when staff recommends denial, no? But when staff goes against his preconceived opinion, their report is irrelevant.

    Kirk Westphal, on the other hand, actually does constistently respect staff reports and I appreciate his pointing out that this one read like a marketing brochure for the developer. I just wish he had seen through all of the b.s. in it.

    Shame on the city for springing this hearing on the community with so little time and notice.

    Finally, it seems it is time for the notion of “public benefit” to be quantified somehow. Otherwise, anything can and is being accepted as a benefit. For example, a net loss of affordable units should not be considered a benefit, nor should vague promises of LEEDS certification be allowed to fly. There is no penalty for waiving geo-thermal heating in front of planning commissioners and in the end comitting to the lowest level of certification.

  2. January 7, 2010 at 9:48 am | permalink

    I thought it was interesting that Councilmember Derezinski made a point that some speakers were not from the neighborhood. Isn’t that an indication that there are indeed substantive concerns about this development that can be seen by any interested citizen? And if the speakers had all been from the neighborhood, wouldn’t they have been slammed with the NIMBY label?

    I haven’t yet read the staff report but was concerned about this project’s presence on the floodplain. I have heard anecdotal comments that the new FIRM map for the city, not yet official, places the location even more centrally to the floodway. What will be the effect of such a large installation if this is so? Some cities ban any construction in the floodplain but we are placing a very large obstruction there.

  3. By Jeff H
    January 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm | permalink

    I thought this quote from a resident opposed to the development best summed up Ann Arbor’s attitude toward any development:

    “Kachadoorian concluded by saying the project would be perfect for Ann Arbor – just not at that location.”

  4. By jcp2
    January 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm | permalink

    The comment thread on has many posts that support this type of development that sound like they come from the exact demographic of young professionals that want to live downtown that the city is trying to attract.

    My impression is that the existing houses are really dumpy, it’s right across the street from an industrial lumbaryard, and the majority of houses in the area are already rentals.

  5. By Shirley Zempel
    January 7, 2010 at 4:00 pm | permalink

    In regards to Jeff’s comment, #3, this quote was a part of my statement. He repeated what he wanted it to say. I said it was a nice building but not in that location because it was not suitable for the location. It would be better suited in a larger lot, back from the sidewalk. Also that the streets there are small with a tricky corner at Madison, making traffic there and all the way up 4th Ave a nightmare. The building goes up to the sidewalk on 3 sides). What I should have said (and what I felt) is that it is a massive solid structure that looks like a foreboding fortress!

  6. By John Q.
    January 7, 2010 at 4:09 pm | permalink

    “The comment thread on has many posts that support this type of development that sound like they come from the exact demographic of young professionals that want to live downtown that the city is trying to attract.”

    How did you manage to determine the exact demographic profile of all those posters when few of them included any personal information?

  7. By Marvin Face
    January 7, 2010 at 9:56 pm | permalink

    If you ask me, this is a scary little part of town right now and it could absolutely be improved with this project. I walk through this area often and there’s a building that has always intrigued me. It’s on S. 4th and I think its 3 buildings north of Madison. East side. It’s two stories with a garage on the bottom and some clearly unlivable space above. No windows but a couple doors with sytairs leading up there. It’s a super sketchy building and I’ve always wondered what goes on in there. That place has gots to go.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    January 8, 2010 at 12:14 am | permalink

    Clearly unlivable, yet, curiously, quite lived in. I used to live behind that place (Harry’s Garage) on 5th, and, oh, the stories I could tell you. Lots of guys straight out of Jackson there. Lots of drunken violence and people screaming “GIVE ME MY FUCKIN’ CIGARETTES!!!!” at 3 in the morning. Super sketchy isn’t the half of it.

  9. By Stephen Kunselman
    January 8, 2010 at 12:21 am | permalink

    @7 – That building has a sketchy past. A high school buddy of mine (Andrew) lived in one of the apartments upstairs in that building in the early 80′s – he was murdered there by a neighbor for playing his music too loud.

  10. By jcp2
    January 8, 2010 at 8:00 am | permalink

    @6 – I made that judgment based on references within those posts about having lived in downtown Ann Arbor in the past, the more informal sound of the posts, the presence of relatively decent grammar and vocabulary, as well as the unfamiliarity of the user names. Most comments on seem come from more regular posters that sound like they are in their mid-thirties and up, as do the comments on this site.

  11. By John Q.
    January 8, 2010 at 10:32 am | permalink

    “I made that judgment based on references within those posts about having lived in downtown Ann Arbor in the past, the more informal sound of the posts, the presence of relatively decent grammar and vocabulary, as well as the unfamiliarity of the user names.”

    Seems like a stretch to me. It sounded more like an organized effort by an individual to astroturf the issue but that’s just my cynical view.

  12. By Marvin Face
    January 8, 2010 at 1:43 pm | permalink

    Rod and Stephen, thanks for the…ahem…interesting information on the building. And when I said (in #7) that I was always “intrigued” by it, I meant skeeved.

    I certainly can see now why the neighbors want to keep it.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm | permalink

    This project appears to have the potential for significantly improving the vibrancy of that area.

    It is always interesting to me that there is not much middle ground on development issues in Ann Arbor.

    Many folks (myself included) take the view that Ann Arbor tends to be hostile to development and improvements, and well-meaning businesspeople are unnecessarily stymied while trying to the right thing (can you say “Zingerman’s Debacle”?)

    Others take the polar opposite view that Ann Arbor tends to let developers run roughshod over people and policies.

    So, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, which is where it should be.

  14. By Christopher
    January 8, 2010 at 6:46 pm | permalink

    The LEED certification comments trouble me. Did the developer get specific about which LEED level he plans to qualify for? And will it be classified for LEED purposes as a commercial building or a “home.” Exactly which of the many LEED criteria is he going to meet, and how?

    Is this information available anywhere?

  15. By Dave Askins
    January 8, 2010 at 7:05 pm | permalink

    Re: [14] and questions about the kind of LEED certification by the Moravian: “Is this information available anywhere?”

    From the staff report summary (there’s a link in the article, but it’s a rather large file at 32 MB), the most recent draft of the supplemental regulations associated with the PUD application reads in relevant part:

    (I) Energy and Environmental Design: Development in the district shall obtain LEED New Construction Version 2.2, or higher, certification by the US Green Building Council within 6 months of issuance of a certificate of occupancy (the first certificate of occupancy if more than one is necessary). Failure to obtain certification shall be a violation of this ordinance. The penalty of such violation shall be calculated by the following formula: P=[LCM – CE)/LCM]xCVx0.375 where P is the amount of the penalty, LCM is the minimum credits needed to earn a LEED Certified rating, CE is the credits earned as documented by the US Green Building Council, and CV is the construction value as set forth on building permits for the site. Failure to obtain certification shall not affect the right to occupy the development and no additional penalty shall be imposed for failure to obtain certification. Payment of the penalty shall constitute compliance with this provision. A renewable energy source shall be utilized as the primary energy source for the building. The renewable energy source may be located on-site, such as geothermal energy for heating and cooling systems, or off-site such as purchasing renewably produced energy for electricity, or a combination thereof. Best management practices shall be provided for solid waste disposal, including, but not limited to, recycling facilities provided for all residents of the district.

  16. By John Floyd
    January 8, 2010 at 8:11 pm | permalink

    @13 Fridgeman, one of the reasons people leave urban settings for sprawl environments is the desire to have some control over one’s environment. Development that runs roughshod over a neighborhood hurts the long-term stability of population, and encourages “the heck with this, I’m moving out to some cut-up pastureland” feelings. The refusal to build projects to existing scale is a big reason people get upset. Another is the perception that city government has an agenda different from its citizens, that the city will not protect the interests of residents, and is in fact abetting over-large developments that will negatively impact their quality of life. It’s hard to find a middle ground when folks have the perception that “the powers that be” are aligned against them.

    It’s popular in some quarters to call people NIMBY’s when they act to protect their quality of life. Seldom, however, have I noticed that the name-callers live in proximity to the projects they support. It’s always easy to sacrifice someone else’s environment.

    Many people feel that the older downtown neighborhoods are part of what make Ann Arbor visually distinct, and give it its sense of place. They would prefer to find ways to encourage renovation of existing structures rather than see them torn down and replaced with structures of a more generic nature.

    Prediction: the new R4C zoning rules now under review will be changed to encourage the bulldozing of any older neighborhood not now protected by an historic district designation. I would love to be wrong about this.

  17. By Christopher
    January 9, 2010 at 12:46 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the additional LEED info, Dave Askins.

    So it looks like they can simply talk about LEED but in the end buy their way out of it and not do LEED at all. Hmmm. A big opening for slippery developers; the question is whether THIS developer is a slippery one.

  18. By Tom Whitaker
    January 9, 2010 at 1:43 pm | permalink

    Here is the statement I read to the Planning Commission:

    Under Chapter 55, Article II, a paragraph describes the City’s intent for the PUD district classification and sets the bar very high. After listing these high standards, the ordinance states: “This zoning district shall not be allowed where [it] is sought primarily to avoid the imposition of standards and requirements of other zoning classifications or other City regulations….”. This commission must hold that bar high for the property owners of this City, and not lower it for any personal visions or individual ambitions.

    Make no mistake, PUDs are potential give-aways to developers because they provide windfall variances from stricter underlying zoning requirements. In return, the City is supposed to receive a benefit that is very substantial. This is described in Chapter 55, Article VI of the Code, but the last clause is often overlooked. The complete sentence reads: “The use or uses, physical characteristics, design features, or amenities proposed shall have a beneficial effect for the City, in terms of public health, safety, welfare, aesthetics, or convenience, or any combination thereof, on present and potential SURROUNDING land uses. Notice it does not say “a beneficial effect on global warming due to the installation of a geo-thermal HVAC system.” Nor does it say a beneficial effect on Generation Y, by providing apartments close to downtown bars and low-paying Google jobs. The immediate surroundings, our neighborhood, will be harmed, not benefitted by the Moravian.

    The Code goes on to say that: “This beneficial effect…shall be one which could not be achieved under any other zoning classification and shall be one which is not required to be provided under any existing standard, regulation or ordinance….” To turn down this proposal, this commission only needs to determine that this project could be be built elsewhere in the City as a matter-of-right, which it can. There is no need to force this square peg into a round hole when there are square holes available. It is not this commission’s job to determine if there are actual parcels available, like the YMCA lot, or if that land is cheap enough for this developer to make a profit. You only need to know that the City has provided for this type of project elsewhere in the zoning.

    Further, to count as a beneficial effect under the ordinance, the benefit must EXCEED any legal requirements, not merely satisfy them. The benefits must far outweigh the negative impacts, not just mitigate them. Affordable housing? Required. Storm water detention? Required. Floodplain mitigation? Required. Remediation of contaminated soils? Required. The negative effects include traffic congestion, parking, loss of light, air and open space, noise, and the loss of historic buildings and natural features.

    In the case of the Moravian, the negative effects on the surrounding neighborhood far outweigh any legitimately claimed benefits to the surrounding neighborhood, so therefore, you have no option under the law but to recommend that City Council turn this down.

  19. By John Rinne
    January 10, 2010 at 12:24 am | permalink

    With the recent glut of large-scale housing, this is going to be extremely detrimental to small neighborhood landlords. Area parking will become even more of a bear.

    The development near downtown itself is not a bad idea, but the massive scale, the prison-look of it, combined with the way it was shoved through the process(without regard to the community, zoning restrictions, and review process) shows the planning commision’s goal is unrestricted growth at all costs.
    Never mind the spending, the residents, or the law.
    China has done the same thing and many developements there are broderline as it is.

    With the DDR buying another 150 of those god-forsaken e-parking meters(at $15K each), I’m noticing a trend here:
    Ann Arbor residents should be getting prepared for the “creeping parking meter” effect expanding from downtown.
    This is the result of unrestricted growth and what downtown is banking on.
    First it starts with 2 hour zones, then 15 minute, then the meters creep into all neighborhoods. Six o’clock cutoff? Bah. Hope you have a big enough driveway for your guests.

    Mabye it is a good time for expansion, and the last/best hope for Ann Arbor? That doesn’t mean we have to sell our soul in the process. Any lasting company has planned it’s expansion in steps, and there are plenty of former dotcoms which haven’t.

  20. By Margaret S
    January 10, 2010 at 10:01 am | permalink

    @ Marvin – Regarding “what goes on” in the little commercial building on 4th Ave. I operated a children’s clothing business out of there from 2001 to 2004. This well-located space in less than prime condition enabled me to move by growing business out of my basement for a very affordable rent. I moved to a larger warehouse in Scio Twp. when I outgrew this space.

    Myself and my mainly female staff felt 100% comfortable working here and bringing our little kids there. We never had a single problem with the apartment residents.

    I find it amusing that the developers claim these live/work units are a novel idea and an addition to the neighborhood. My unit served that purpose for many businesses before me and after me. If the walls in that building could talk they would tell some of the most colorful stories about life in Ann Arbor.

    Tearing it down and replacing it with units too expensive for anyone starting up a business is a backward move. This is one of the most affordable blocks to live in near downtown. This project will displace many students and others who will have a hard time finding anything comparably priced anywhere in the city.

  21. By Rod Johnson
    January 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm | permalink

    Are we talking about the same space? Maybe it’s been upgraded, but I can’t imagine many businesses being able to operate in the atmosphere I remember. There was this guy Willie (?) who made his living disposing of toxic materials for local businesses. I never inquired too closely into the legality of his methods, but there were always barrels oozing mysterious goo on his broken-down truck that made me a little leery of hanging around.

  22. By Tom Whitaker
    January 10, 2010 at 1:35 pm | permalink

    Everyone should take a moment and do the following exercise:

    Click on the rendering labeled “Aerial view…” above. On the larger version, take a straight edge, like a piece of paper, and hold it along the top of the 109 E. Madison building (the three-story, historic brick building on the left). Notice how the paper crosses the Moravian rendering just below the top of it. The Moravian is a five-story building, 69 feet high. 109 E. Madison is a three-story building, approximately 40 feet high. This rendering shrinks the Moravian so that it appears to be not much higher than 109 E. Madison. I don’t blame the developer for skewing a rendering to his favor. I suppose I would do the same in his position, if given the opportunity. Problem is, this is not what our staff and planning commission should be basing their decisions on.

    This is important, and what Mr. Vincenz was referring to when he said the commission had done a “coloring-book” analysis of this project. Several commissioners used this rendering (without giving it the straight-edge test) as their justification for stating that the project was not out-of-scale with the neighborhood. They actually asked that it be put back up on the screen while they spoke about how this project fit right in. The commission should instead have used the actual dimensioned elevations provided in their packets (you know, the ones with the 75-foot high trees that don’t exist).

    Note that the elevations are not all that accurate either. Notice (in addition to the 75 foot trees) the house on the right in the elevation above. In reality, this house has 1-1.5 steps up to the front porch. In the developer’s rendering, it has six steps, in an apparent attempt to raise the house and soften the impact of the massive Moravian which will block the sun from this house in the winter. (The shadowing of this house was demonstrated at a previous meeting, but left out of the analysis at this meeting.)

    Finally, to provide additional detail to the alledged “affordable housing” benefit: Commission Chair Bona seemed quite pleased that this project was exceeding the code requirement for affordable units by a whopping 4%! This is 2 units, folks. The requirement is 10 and they are providing 12. These are 12 one-bedroom and efficiency units with no yards. (Lower-income families apparently need not apply to live in this “young professional” Mecca.) Units that are REQUIRED are not allowed by ordinance to be considered as benefits of a PUD, yet they were. When they are tearing down 19 larger affordable units, most with yard space, I would say it is actually a NEGATIVE impact on affordable housing, not a substantial benefit as the law requires.

    One of the commissioners on the prevailing side of this vote ought to use parlimentary rules and ask for a reconsideration of this project at the next meeting. This time, they should base their decisions on the City’s PUD ordinance and the actual dimensions of the project, not artificial renderings skewed to the developer’s favor. Features that are required by law should also be ignored, concentrating on features that provide substantial benefit to the neighborhood, if they can find any.

  23. By John Rinne
    January 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm | permalink

    I thought that building was unique in it’s mixed-use potential and considered purchasing it, Savarino properties can be on the high-side though. As it stands now, it’s ugly as sin and desperately in need of some re-engineering and serious makeup.

    Good/bad tenants at a single building years ago doesn’t have very much relevence to the issue of the Moravian monster locating in a quiet neighborhood and A2 housing expansion.

  24. January 10, 2010 at 4:07 pm | permalink

    Tom, wouldn’t that be a 40% exceedance? In any case, percentages with such low numbers aren’t a good way to evaluate that benefit.

    Thanks for continuing to draw attention to the details that deserve consideration though. I know most of the commissioners and would be willing to act as a mediator of sorts if you plan to approach any of them to request a motion to reconsider. I haven’t been involved in this issue at all and might be able to offer an objective perspective (assuming that you would see mine as such — I’m thinking that the fact that they know, and presumably trust, me would be in your favor relative to going it alone.)

  25. By Tom Whitaker
    January 10, 2010 at 5:17 pm | permalink

    Steve: The frustrated property owners and residents of this neighborhood would welcome any help we could get. Thank you. On the heels of this, we have Heritage Row (formerly City Place) coming back, too. It seems we may never see an end to the targeting of our residential neighborhoods for out-of-scale development. I would hope downtown businesses, which we support with our consumer dollars would speak out in our defense, too. We are the best customers they have, yet the Chamber BOD has issued a statement calling for us to be forced out for new developments.

    This community has invested a tremendous amount of time, money and effort into reworking the downtown plan and zoning so that large developments like this would find a welcome home in the downtown core. The greenbelt is the companion program that is intended to restrict development sprawl and force it into the core. Because money is tight and land is cheaper just outside the core, we still have these developers trying to force big developmentd into our near downtown neighborhoods. This will weaken an already weak market for large scale housing and other developments in the downtown proper, where we had consensus that they should go. Just like the greenbelt restricts development in rural areas, our existing zoning and master plans call for restricting it outside the D1 and D2 areas (roughly the DDA boundary). We just want to see them enforced!

    On the math, because the project exceeds the underlying allowable density for the site, it must provide 15% of its units as affordable, or, as an equivalent option, pay a designated amount into the housing fund. 15% of 62 total units is 9.3 units. Policy is to round up, so therefore 10 are required. The developers are providing 12 units, which is 19.3% of 62. Thus, Commissioner Bona’s assertion that the project was providing 4% more units than was required. (I suppose one could also say that 12 is 20% more than 10, but not sure where the 40% came from. Regardless, it is only two units more than required. I don’t think this is enough justification for waiving our zoning and master planning when our PUD ordinance requires substantial benefits be provided in trade for such a windfall.)

  26. By Margaret S
    January 10, 2010 at 7:36 pm | permalink

    @Rod – The space I am referring to is 551 S. Fourth Ave. Maybe 15-20 years ago the first floor was an auto shop (some say chop shop) but it was later converted to a rough apartment & loft (complete with spiral stair case). One long-term tenant was an artist/musician who held events there. The rear unit was used as a workshop for the apartment management company. Not sure what’s been going on there since 2004. My point is that structures like this ARE appealing to young creative types and entrepeneurs who need a place to start. It is not a scary, sketchy place that should be razed. I thought we had learned something from the failures of urban renewal in the 60/70s.

  27. By Rod Johnson
    January 10, 2010 at 9:27 pm | permalink

    Margaret–good to hear it’s been renovated. I lived behind it in the early 80s, when it was very sketchy (my landlord and housemate Walt Spiller, pictured and quoted in the article, no doubt remembers a lot more of the history than me).

    I think your point is valid, by the way–it’s not always easy to draw the line between cheap urban space and scary-sketchy space, and people are going to draw it in different places. Thanks for pointing out a different interpretation.

  28. By Rod Johnson
    January 10, 2010 at 9:31 pm | permalink

    BTW–Margaret, I live right around the corner from what must be your new warehouse (Parkland Plaza, right?). Congratulations on a cool business. Amazing that it got its start at Harry’s!

  29. January 10, 2010 at 10:12 pm | permalink

    Tom, yes, I meant 20%, not 40%.

    If the existing 19 units do indeed meet the affordable criteria, and they are larger, i.e., contain more bedrooms, it might be more meaningful to compare occupancy than units. We don’t want buildings (near) downtown, per se, we want people.

    I also think that you might have a valid point (in #18) about LEED certification. I’m not clear on their connection to that credit, but geothermal systems are becoming more popular and may not be the significant investment that they were originally thought to be anymore. I’ll ponder it and ask around.

    You can click my name and then get my email from the environmental commission web site if you want to contact me.

  30. By Piotr Michalowski
    January 11, 2010 at 10:20 am | permalink

    I think that Tom Whittaker has succinctly presented the best argument against the Moravian. We can complain about many aspects of the project, including its ugliness, but in the end the decision is not about how nice it is or is not, but whether it deserves a PUD, that is an exception for legally established zoning regulations. The developer has presented arguments that are supposed to support granting a PUD, but almost all of them are required by law or regulation, that is they apply to ANY new construction. All the others actually result in a negative balance, as is the case with the issue of affordable housing. By approving this project, the commission is essentially saying that zoning does not matter, and any building project that meets code should be granted a PUD, thus obviating the PUD regulations and suggesting that we should just have a free-for-all construction boom. I assume that this was not the intention, and therefore it may be useful for them to rethink the matter and review their decision.

  31. By CDBF
    January 12, 2010 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    Tom @#25, I hope that you support one of the built options for the library lot and not one of the open space proposals. Your argument is that that is where density belongs. Have you offered an opinion?

  32. By Tom Whitaker
    January 12, 2010 at 5:20 pm | permalink

    I have commented on the library site in the “Apples, Pears” article.

    I do not believe in public subsidies for private development, which all of the library lot building proposals require in one form or another.

    The Moravian seeks a subsidy of another type. These developers would like us to waive all of our planning and zoning so they can build on cheap land, with the City getting nothing but negative impacts in return.

    If they can’t make the project work downtown, where our zoning permits this type of building (and bigger!), then it isn’t viable. It’s not the City’s obligation to help Jeff Helminski and Newcombe Clark turn a profit on a bad idea.

  33. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 13, 2010 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    “It’s not the City’s obligation to help Jeff Helminski and Newcombe Clark turn a profit on a bad idea.”

    Tom, I’m confused. Newcombe Clark was just appointed to the DDA wasn’t he? Why would the Mayor and Council appoint members to boards and commissions where there could be obvious financial conflicts of interest?

    Until the Mayor and certain members of council are replaced, the appointments to City Boards and Commissions are going to continue to be rubber stamps for this kind of out of place development. Something to keep in mind if anyone on the Planning Commission decides to run for Council in the 4th Ward in August.