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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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]