S. Fifth Ave: Historic District, Development

Area of proposed Heritage Row could be historic district

On May 17, 2010 the Ann Arbor city council gave final approval to the city’s FY 2011 budget.

Also that same evening, at a different public meeting away from the glitz and glamour of budget deliberations, an historic district study committee – appointed by the council in August 2009 – adopted its final report. The report recommends creation of an historic district along South Fifth and Fourth avenues, from William Street down to Packard Avenue, including the south side of Packard.


The colored overlays indicate existing Ann Arbor historic districts. The question mark indicates the general vicinity of the proposed new historic district. (Image links to .kmz file from the city's data catalog, which will open in GoogleEarth, displaying all the current historic districts in the city.)

The council would still need to approve the creation of the district. The issue is currently scheduled to come before the council for a first reading on June 21, followed by a second reading on July 5. A moratorium on all construction work in the area of the study will expire on Aug. 6.

If the historic district is approved, then the Heritage Row project – a planned unit development (PUD) proposed along the east side of Fifth Avenue south of William Street – would need to win approval not just from the city council, but also from the city’s historic district commission (HDC).

Heritage Row is due to come before the city council for its second reading on June 7. It received its first reading approval from the city council on May 3 – with no discussion, but with one dissenting vote from Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

This article takes a look at the recommendation of the historic district study committee, primarily through the lens of the public hearing held on May 5 in city council chambers. The conclusion of the hearing found Scott Munzel and Alex de Parry kidding back and forth with Beverly Strassmann – over their respective remarks at the public hearing. Munzel and de Parry are legal counsel and developer for the Heritage Row project, respectively, while Strassmann is president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association.

In his public hearing remarks, Munzel had – somewhat unexpectedly – presented a case that the area recommended as an historic district should, if anything, be larger than the study committee is recommending. The issue of the possible district’s size was already controversial at the point when the committee was appointed, and continues to be a bit of a chaffing point among residents.

To get to the point of the May 5 public hearing on the historic district study committee’s preliminary report, there’s a long chunk of recent history to wade through.

The city of Ann Arbor currently has 14 different historic districts. The first step in creating a new historic district is a city council appointment of a committee to undertake a study of an area. The study is supposed to determine if the built environment meets the criteria set forth in the Secretary of the Interior standards for historic districts.

We begin by looking at some background on how the size of the study area and pending development there factored into the council’s decision to appoint a study committee. Then we consider how the size of the recommended district is now factoring into support and opposition to the creation of the district.

City Council Says No to Study Committee

The proposal to appoint a study committee for the area south of William Street was first considered by the city council back in December 2008. It was a resolution sponsored by Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1), and called for a study area roughly three blocks wide and two blocks long. From the Dec. 15, 2008 council resolution:

RESOLVED, That the area to be examined by this committee (“Study Area”) be generally the area between Fourth Avenue and Division Street, south of the East William Historic District, bounded by William Street and Madison Street;

Several people spoke at the public hearing that night and the council deliberated at some length on the question. Some wondered why the item had been added to the agenda only on Friday before their Monday meeting – but the counter to that complaint was that they’d received a draft resolution a week before. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) had concerns about the “rush” to establish the committee.

Others had concerns that the establishment of the study committee would create a momentum and expectation that the district would actually be established. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) warned of a “self-full filling prophecy.” Objections also came from councilmembers, including the mayor, that many of the properties in the area lacked sufficient historical merit to contemplate their inclusion in an historic district. Christopher Taylor said he needed to see a larger pile of data for him to support a study committee.

In arguing for the appointment of the committee, Margie Teall (Ward 4) said that it was just a study committee, which did not mean that the council had to approve any recommendation of the committee.

In the end, the proposal won support only from Anglin, Briere, and Teall. For a more detailed account of public commentary and council deliberations from that meeting, see Chronicle coverage: “No Formal Study Committee for Germantown.”

City Council Says Yes to Study Committee

About eight months later, in August 2009, the city council had re-thought the issue of appointing an historic district study committee. The impetus behind the change in thinking was a development proposed for Fifth Avenue called City Place. The council had rejected a planned unit development (PUD) version of the project in January 2009. The council has fairly broad discretion to weigh the benefits of a project against the zoning changes inherent in a PUD proposal.

But by April 2009, the developer of the City Place project, Alex de Parry, had begun to move a “matter of right” (MOR) project through the site plan approval process. The city planning commission gave its approval to the MOR version on a 6-3 vote on April 21, 2009.

The city council has less discretion in approving a MOR project – one that is determined by city planning staff to meet all applicable codes. In the case of the City Place project, neighbors questioned the judgment of city staff in their determination that the project did meet applicable codes, specifically for height and setback requirements. Neighbors also raised questions about the version of project drawings that had been supplied in the lobby of city hall and to the planning commission – had the available drawings included the most recent revisions?

After review by the city attorney staff, opponents of the project won an intermediate victory: The City Place MOR project was remanded back to the planning commission in July 2009 due to problems in the version of drawings that had been made available to the planning commission. The commission’s 5-1 re-vote for the project on July 7 was a denial, lacking the six votes required for approval. But approval by the planning commission is not required in order for a site plan to be moved on for consideration by the city council, which has the final say.

On July 20, 2009 the City Place MOR project was back before the city council. And if a vote had been taken on the project, it would have almost certainly have passed. But an agreement had been struck with de Parry in order to avoid approving the MOR version, which consisted of two apartment buildings separated by a parking lot between them. It did not offer the energy efficiencies, below-grade parking, or affordable housing units that had been part of the case that de Parry had presented for the PUD version of the project.

The agreement was this: The city council would postpone the vote on the MOR, but de Parry could bring it back with a 35-day notice. In the interim, de Parry would work on revisions to the PUD, hoping to win support from the neighbors, or at least to damp down their opposition.

Ann Arbor Historic District Study Areas

Orange-ish blocks are the proposed Heritage Row (top) and Moravian (bottom) developments. The whole magenta area was the area of study for the historic district study committee that was rejected by the city council in December 2008. The smaller, more opaque part of the magenta area has been recommended as an historic district by the committee that the council eventually did appoint in August 2009. That committee's area of study was the same as the opaque magenta area, except for the parcels on the south side of Packard. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

So on July 20, the council voted to postpone their vote on the City Place MOR until the following January.

At their next meeting, on Aug. 6, 2009, the city council considered a resolution to establish an historic district study committee with an associated moratorium on any construction work in the area of study. It was added to the agenda – on the same day as the council meeting – by Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4).

Objections to the resolution on the grounds that it had come at the last minute came from four councilmembers who supported a motion to postpone it: Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), Leigh Greden (Ward 3), Sandi Smith (Ward 1), and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2).

On the question of the resolution itself, only Smith and Derezinski were opposed.

The area proposed for study was smaller than the one that Anglin and Briere had suggested back in December 2008. It was confined to both sides of Fourth and Fifth avenues and bounded by Packard Street on the south.

The deliberations on the historic district and its associated moratorium on demolition and construction in the area of study reflected the fact that councilmembers wanted to block de Parry’s MOR project. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) characterized the use of a moratorium associated with an historic district as within the council’s arsenal of options.

At the same meeting, before it dealt with the historic district study committee, the council had entertained a moratorium on work in all R4C zoning districts, which would have also effectively blocked de Parry’s City Place project.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5), who brought the R4C moratorium forward, had talked about the idea at prior council meetings. During deliberations, Taylor was successful in amending the resolution to provide, among other things, an explicit exemption for The Moravian, a project located between Fourth and Fifth avenues along Madison Street. In the end, Anglin did not support his own amended resolution, but Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Leigh Greden (Ward 3) did.

The specific exemption for The Moravian was not necessary for the historic district study committee resolution – the area of study and its associated moratorium was smaller than the one proposed by Briere and Anglin back in December 2008. The study area did not include the area south of Packard, where the proposed Moravian was located:

RESOLVED, That the study area to be examined by this committee be the area encompassing properties that abut the east and west sides of South Fourth Avenue and South Fifth Avenue, bounded by the East William Historic District on the north, and Packard Street on the south, and also including 209, 215, and 219 Packard Street;

For a more detailed account of the council’s deliberations that evening, see Chronicle coverage: “Demolition Moratorium for Two-Block Area.”

Timeline Overview of City Place, Moravian, and Study Committee

The following timeline summarizes key points in the evolution of the study committee and the two developments proposed in the neighborhood.

  • Jan. 15, 2008: City Place conditional rezoning – planning commission recommends denial.
  • May 20, 2008: City Place PUD (planned unit development) – planning commission recommends denial.
  • Sept. 4, 2008: City Place PUD – planning commission recommends denial.
  • Dec. 15, 2008: Historic District Study Committee – city council rejects resolution to establish study committee for Germantown neighborhood.
  • Jan. 5, 2009: City Place PUD – city council denies project on a unanimous 0-10 vote.
  • April 21, 2009: City Place MOR (matter of right) – planning commission recommends approval on 6-3 vote.
  • June 1, 2009: City Place MOR – city council postpones it due to inconsistencies in drawings provided on city’s website. [Errors attributed to city staff.]
  • June 15, 2009: City Place MOR – city council sends it back to planning commission due to technical errors with drawings provided at the planning commission’s April meeting. [Errors attributed to city staff.]
  • July 7, 2009: City Place MOR – planning commission recommends denial on 5-1 vote to approve (needed 6 votes for approval).
  • July 20, 2009: City Place MOR – city council postpones until January 2010, to give the developer the opportunity to pursue a revised PUD. A condition was that the developer could bring back the matter of right project with 35-days notice.
  • Aug. 6, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – city council establishes study committee plus a moratorium on demolition for a two-block area, including the proposed site of City Place, but not The Moravian.
  • Aug. 11, 2009: City Place “Streetscape PUD” (a revised version of de Parry’s project) – receives planning staff initial review.
  • Aug. 12, 2009: City Place “Streetscape PUD” – introduced to neighbors to comply with the neighbor participation ordinance.
  • Aug. 17, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – city council revises language of moratorium to include all forms of work, including demolition.
  • Aug. 30, 2009: City Place “Streetscape PUD” – application for project was not accepted by city planning staff.
  • Sept. 8, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – members appointed.
  • Sept. 21, 2009: City Place MOR – city council approves the project, but it cannot move forward because of the moratorium on demolition passed, together with the historic district study committee.
  • Sept. 21, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – first meeting of the committee.
  • Sept. 30, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – committee meets.
  • Oct. 12, 2009: City Place “Streetscape PUD” –  de Parry gives update on “Streetscape PUD” at public meeting held at Conor O’Neill’s.
  • Oct. 14, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – committee meets, expands area of research.
  • Nov. 4, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – committee meets.
  • Dec. 1, 2009: Historic District Study Committee – committee meets, contemplates recommendation to expand area of recommended district, 3-3 vote.
  • Dec. 14, 2009: City Place “Streetscape PUD” – project now called “Heritage Row” and de Parry gives update at public meeting held at the Ann Arbor District Library.
  • Jan. 5, 2010: The Moravian – the planning commission approves the project.
  • Jan. 12, 2010: Historic District Study Committee – committee meets, consensus for smaller district.
  • Feb. 16, 2010: Historic District Study Committee – committee meets.
  • March 1, 2010: The Moravian – the city council approves at it at first reading.
  • April 5, 2010: The Moravian – the city council rejects it at  second reading.
  • May 3, 2010: Heritage Row –  the city council approves it at first reading.
  • May 5, 2010: Historic District Public Hearing.
  • May 17, 2010: Historic District Study Committee – committee meets, adopts final report.
  • [scheduled] June 7, 2010: Heritage Row – second reading at city council.
  • [scheduled] June 21, 2010: Fourth/Fifth Avenue Historic District – first reading at city council.
  • [scheduled] July 5, 2010: Fourth/Fifth Avenue Historic District – second reading at city council.

Study Committee’s Dilemma: How Big a District?

The work of the study committee, which was appointed by the city council on Sept. 8, 2009, began at their first meeting on Sept. 21 with a division of labor to inventory the properties in the study area. Members of the committee are: Ina Hanel-Gerdenich, Susan Wineberg, Sarah (Shotwell) Wallace, Patrick McCauley, Rebecca Lopez Kriss, Tom Whitaker and Kristi Gilbert. McCauley and Wallace also serve on the city’s historic district commission. The committee was supported in their work by city planner Jill Thacher and consultant Kristine Kidorff.

The final product of the inventory is a series of “cards” – one per property – with detailed descriptions and photographs. Here’s an example of the text from one such card:

ADDRESS: 438 S Fifth Avenue, Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, Michigan HISTORIC NAME: Erwin Schmid House #2    COMMON NAME: Schmid House
CONTRIBUTING: Yes DATE CONSTRUCTED: 1925 STYLE: Arts and Crafts MATERIALS FOUNDATION: Brick    WALLS: Brick    ROOF: Asphalt OTHER: Wood/Weatherboard
ARCHITECT: Herman Pipp SOURCE: Window shop drawings / Sanborn maps HISTORIC USE: DO/Single Dwelling    CURRENT USE: DO/Single Dwelling
DESCRIPTIVE NOTES: Two-story side gable with brick at first floor and wood clapboards at second floor. Tile shingles on dormer walls. Retains essential physical characteristics such as massing, materials, architectural details and retains historic integrity.
OTHER BUILDINGS/FEATURES: Wrought iron fence at front, shared with 444 S. Fifth Ave. Monumental tulip tree at south west corner of house and maple tree in rear yard contributes. Four bay garage with hip roof, brick facade, wood drop-lap siding sides and rear (built 1926-1931 – appears on 1931 Sanborn Map).
HISTORY: Built for Erwin E. Schmid in 1925 to replace the original italianate house built by his father Frederick Schmid, Jr., ca. 1874 (depicted in 1874 atlas of Washtenaw County). Erwin Schmid, who had been living next door at 444 S. Fifth Ave., moved into the older house in 1917, following the death of his father. The 1925 Sanborn map shows the rear wing of the old house remaining behind the new one (perhaps where the family lived while the new house was constructed). His widow and two children, Frederick K. and Emma M. lived in the house after Erwin’s death. Emma, who never married, remained there until she passed away in the 2000s and the house was sold to the current owners.
REFERENCES: 1874 Atlas, Sanborn maps, City Directories, Ann Arbor Daily News PHOTO FILE NAME: Fifth_438.jpg    DATE: September 30, 2009

How Big a District: Expanding the Scope of Study

With committee members well into their work cataloging the properties in the area of study specified in the city council resolution, at its Oct. 14, 2009 meeting the committee contemplated expanding the geographic scope of their research. Residents of the neighborhood south of Packard Street along Fourth and Fifth avenues were hopeful that the study committee would recommend as a district an area that extended south past Packard Street to Madison Street.

The appropriateness of inspecting a wider area than the area to be recommended as a district is implied by the applicable standards for defining boundaries:

Michigan’s Local Historic District Manual cites National Register Bulletin 15 [emphasis added]:

A district must be a definable geographic area that can be distinguished from surrounding properties by changes such as density, scale, type, age, style of sites, buildings, structures, and objects or by documented differences in patterns of historic development or associations. It is seldom defined, however, by the limits of current parcels of ownership, management or planning boundaries. The boundaries must be based upon a shared relationship among the properties constituting the district.

To build a case for any particular boundaries, then, it seems incumbent upon a study committee to peer over any preliminary boundaries to test whether those properties outside the boundary should be properly included in the recommended district, or rather be analyzed as providing exactly the distinguishing features that provide a contrast to the properties inside the preliminary boundary.

The work by the study committee to inventory the additional properties south of Packard commenced. And by Dec. 1 enough of that work had been completed that the committee was ready to contemplate a recommendation for a district stretching south to Madison. With one member absent, there was a 3-3 split on the vote about that recommendation. From previous Chronicle coverage ["Fifth Ave. Project to Meet Historic Standards"]:

… Patrick McCauley, who also serves on the city’s historic district commission, expressed concerns about recommending an historic district to the city council that stretched the boundaries of the area they’d been asked to study. McCauley indicated that Ward 5 representative to the council, Carsten Hohnke, had said the council had approved the study committee because it included a study area smaller than the one they’d rejected for study in late 2008. [Chronicle coverage: "No Formal Study Committee for Germantown"]

Committee member Rebecca Lopez Kriss indicated that she’d talked to a number of councilmembers about the possibility of expanding the district. What she’d heard, she said, was for the most part “wishy-washy political speak.” But councilmember Sandi Smith and mayor John Hieftje had said, according to Lopez Kriss, that they would not support an expanded district. Lopez Kriss at one point suggested submitting a recommendation for an expanded district and “letting the politicos fight it out.”

For her part, Ina Hanel-Gerdenich said that in conversation with Ward 1 councilmember Sabra Briere, Briere had stressed that it was important to define boundaries “that make sense.” [Briere worked on the study committee that eventually recommended establishment of the Broadway historic district.]

Some of that “fighting it out” would involve a second development in the area. A district expanded down to Madison street would include the area of a development now named “The Moravian.” [Chronicle coverage: "The Madison Redux"].

Whitaker noted that there was support for homeowners on both sides of Packard for inclusion in an historic district. He was concerned, however, about the committee’s obligation to those who lived north of Packard. He worried that if they recommended an expanded district, that the city council, faced with a choice of voting it up or down, would vote it down. That, he said, put those to the north of Packard at risk.

The general understanding of the committee is that council would likely approve a recommendation that was limited to the orginal study area. That view is supported by councilmember comments that were made at the meeting when council established the study committee.

Said committee member Kristi Gilbert at one point, “If they [the city council] were inclined to vote for it [expanded area], they’d have made the study area bigger.” She encouraged the committee to recommend the smaller area as an historic district.

Susan Wineberg said that her assumption all along in doing the research on the area south of Packard was that they were going to recommend that area for inclusion in an historic district.

Patrick McCauley noted that the key was to meet the definition of the boundaries, and that to him, the original boundaries made as much sense as the boundaries of the expansion they were considering.

At the committee’s December meeting, when they voted on the question of recommending an expanded district, it was a 3-3 split, with Sarah Shotwell [Wallace] absent from the meeting. Voting for the larger district: Ina Hanel-Gerdenich, Susan Wineberg, Tom Whitaker.  Voting for the smaller district: Kristi Gilbert, Patrick McCauley, Rebecca Lopez Kriss.

How Big a District: Consensus for Smaller District

At the Jan. 12, 2010 meeting, there was not a formal vote taken, but the consensus for a smaller district prevailed. Committee members felt the area south of Packard was of historical significance, but had a different history from the area north of Packard.

They discussed the possibility of forwarding a recommendation to the city council – either as part of their preliminary report, or as a separate communication – to establish an additional study committee for that area, or to add the area to the existing committee’s charge.

The end result was a resolution from the committee, made at its May 17 meeting, asking the city council to consider expanding the district. [.pdf of committee resolution on an expanded district] The study committee’s minutes show that a motion made at the committee’s May 17 meeting by Tom Whitaker, to expand the boundaries of the recommended district south to Madison, received no support from the committee other than Whitaker’s.

So the preliminary, as well as the final, report by the committee recommended an area for the historic district that is virtually the same as the study area. The only difference is that the committee is recommending that the historic district also include the houses on the south side of Packard Street itself. The recommended area does not include the houses on Fourth and Fifth avenues as far south as Madison.

How Big a District: Boundary Justification

Even though the boundary recommendation for the proposed historic district did not change between the preliminary and the final committee report, the discussion in the report of the boundary justification was amended. The bulk of the amendments to the boundary justification section addressed the eastern boundary. The preliminary report’s section on boundary justification read as follows:

BOUNDARY JUSTIFICATION [preliminary report] …

The eastern boundary echoes the eastern boundary of the original plat of Ann Arbor. This area and that along the southern boundary of the district are marked by residential areas illustrating contextual themes separate from those of the proposed district. To the east lies Hamilton Place, a cluster of houses associated with a development by land owner Francis Hamilton in the early 20th century.

That contrasts with the longer passage in the final report:


The eastern boundary is defined on the north end by the rear lot lines of the properties along the east side of South Fifth Avenue. Behind these properties is an early twentieth-century development that bisected Block 4 South, Range 6 East, of the original plat of Ann Arbor. This development, created by Francis Hamilton, included a new street called Hamilton Place, and featured densely-packed vernacular houses on smaller-than-average-sized lots. While the houses on Hamilton Place were constructed during the period of significance, they represent only one small phase of the period and generally share a common vernacular architectural style. This is distinct from the district itself which includes intact resources that span almost the entire period of significance, and which represent a variety of architectural styles. This area was not studied by the committee. The eastern boundary line is extended to Packard Street by continuing to follow the rear lot lines of the houses along the east side of South Fifth Avenue, and includes 305 Packard Street. Next to 305 Packard to the east, there is a modern apartment building. The area to the east and the one beyond the southern boundary of the district are marked by residential areas illustrating contextual themes separate from those of the proposed district. Both of these areas contain some residential buildings that were constructed at the same time as in the proposed district; however neither area was so densely developed as early as the proposed district.

The amplification of the eastern boundary discussion came after comments from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, which had provided comments to the study committee indicating the possible historical significance of properties in the vicinity of Hamilton Place.

Council’s Historic District Consideration

When the city council considers the committee’s recommendation to create the Fourth/Fifth Avenue Historic District – at a first reading on June 21, likely followed by a second  reading on July 5 – it will have already considered the Heritage Row project and either approved it or rejected it.

The Heritage Row project includes 79 units – 12 efficiencies, 9 1-bedroom, 43 2-bedroom, 14 3-bedroom, and 1 5-bedroom apartment. Those units will be distributed over seven renovated existing houses and three buildings to be constructed behind the existing houses.

Council’s HD Consideration: Implications for Heritage Row

If the council approves the Heritage Row PUD and then subsequently approves the creation of the historic district, Heritage Row would then need to be reviewed by the city’s historic district commission. That’s because the city council’s approval of the site plan and zoning would not include construction permitting. Approval from the historic district commission would still be required – in the form of a certificate of appropriateness or a notice to proceed – to undertake the construction of the project.

If the city council were to approve creation of the historic district, it’s conceivable that the Heritage Row project would pass muster with the historic district commission. In fact, de Parry has stated that he intends the project to be consistant with historic district guidelines and is not afraid of the possibility that the area would be declared an historic district.

On the other hand, it’s fair to say that if an historic district were established, the historic district commission would not approve the City Place matter of right project – that would entail the demolition of seven existing houses deemed to contribute to an historic district.

Given that de Parry has already won approval for the City Place matter of right project, it’s worth considering whether there’s any chance that the matter of right project could still be built. For example, if the city council approves the Heritage Row PUD, but does not establish an historic district, could de Parry go back to the City Place MOR?

No. Here’s why not. Approval of the Heritage Row PUD would entail a change in the city’s zoning to fit the project – that’s inherently what a PUD is. So the matter of right project would no longer be “matter of right,” because it would no longer meet the city’s code, which would now be defined by the PUD zoning.

Council’s HD Consideration: Arguments from the Public Hearing

The public commentary that the city council will likely hear on June 21, when it contemplates the creation of the historic district, is likely to be similar in flavor to the sentiments expressed at the May 5 public hearing held by the study committee on the preliminary report. The hearing took place at city council chambers.

The boundary issues were a common theme at the May 5 hearing, as was all-around praise for the hard work done by the study committee members – members of such committees are volunteers, who serve without compensation. Tom Luczak, for example, said he was impressed with the diligence and dedication of the committee members.

Luczak, who lives within the recommended historic district, allowed that one of his reasons for supporting the district could be seen as selfish – it might enhance property values. On the boundary issue, he said it would be nice for the neighborhood’s integrity if the neighborhood were extended farther south, but noted that it was a sensitive issue. He also pointed out that it might be extended farther east. But given a choice of having a smaller historic district or having none at all, he said, he’d prefer the smaller district.

Also addressing the study committee at the public hearing was Alice Ralph, who’s a candidate for the District 11 county commission seat that’s coming free due to commissioner Jeff Irwin’s candidacy for the District 53 state house seat. Ralph serves on the county’s historic district commission. She pointed out that part of the mission of the county’s historic district commission is to promote coordination and cooperation with other historic district commissions. She said she was always pleased to see community members working together on a common goal. She indicated a preference for making the boundaries of historic districts as generous as possible.

Addressing the committee as the owner of a house that was previously included in a now-defunct district [ruled in 2001 to be out of compliance with the regulations on establishment of historic districts] was Piotr Michalowski. He characterized his current ownership of the property as “just passing through” and said that it would be left to other generations as well. There were other places people could develop property in Ann Arbor, he said.

Another candidate for office addressed the committee in the form of John Floyd – he’s contesting the Ward 5 city council seat currently held by Carsten Hohnke. He described himself as a current property owner and past resident of an historic district – the Old West Side. What makes the Old West Side an historic district is not the buildings themselves, but rather the collection of buildings that gives the area its character, he said.

The city council had made a political decision to establish the boundaries of the study area in a particular way, Floyd said. But the decision about the boundaries for the recommended district, he told the committee, was a technical one, not a political one. It was important for the district to cross Packard Street and to go up East Jefferson Street, if it could. The area could become an asset to the city that is not available to other communities, he concluded.

Beverly Strassmann, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, began her remarks by noting that she’d not been sent an email notification and had only two days notice of the hearing. She’d been told in February, she said, that she’d have adequate opportunity to state the case for an expanded district. She criticized the committee’s performance with respect to communication as being too much like the function of the city’s planning commission.

Strassmann gave examples of two houses from the 1860s located south of Packard Street and asked the committee to respect the wishes of the residents south of Packard who wished to be included in the historic district.

Also addressing the smaller-than-wished-for recommended district was Claudius Vincenz. Because it’s not the individual houses that are being designated, he said, it was important to include a larger area to capture the character of the entire neighborhood. He granted that the houses south of Packard were perhaps not as stately as those north of Packard, but contended that they were equally old. The perfectly natural physical boundary based on the floodplain, he said, would be at Madison Street, not Packard.

Graham Niles Miles introduced himself as the owner of 526 and 528 S. Fifth Ave. He reported that in the 1970s he had lived at the house at 539 S. Fifth Ave. In addition to that, Niles said he also owned four houses on South Fourth Avenue. Based on the floor joists – which are logs with the bark still visible – he estimates that they date from the 1860s. One of the houses he’d renovated a few years ago. And when the lathe and plaster were removed from the walls, he found old German newspapers and bricks lining the walls. The thermal mass of the bricks, he said, was intended to moderate the temperature of the house. Niles concluded that he’d like to see the houses south of Packard included in the historic district.

Former planning commissioner Ethel Potts declared that she’d never seen any task force or committee get off to as fast a start and work so hard as the study committee had. She said it was important to share Ann Arbor’s shared built heritage and that this was truly an historic neighborhood – and it’s larger than two blocks, she said. She said she was distressed about the number of historic houses that the city had lost, partly due to the disturbing record of the University of Michigan in destroying parts of neighborhoods.

Rita Mitchell advocated for workmanlike houses that were not necessarily by themselves noteworthy, but together as a collection they were valuable, she said. She told the committee she’d lived in such a house for 15 years, and she was happy with its quality – real plaster, real wood, real doors. She said she was in favor of preserving what the city has. The residents of the Old West Side historic district understand its value and they’ve chosen to live there and to stay there, she said. She concluded that it has not been a burden to live in an historic district.

Shirley Zempel said she’d moved to her house on South Fourth Avenue in 1977 and had never thought about it as an historic district. But she said that when she attended conferences in other university towns, she would walk around and noticed that all reasonably-sized college towns have neighborhoods such as these. It would behoove us to keep what we have and not destroy it, she concluded.

Ellen Ramsburgh, a member of the city’s historic district commission, lamented the fact that the city council, through a political process, had put the boundary where it had. As a member of the study committee that had recommended the Washtenaw-Hill Street historic district, she recalled that there had been similar distress over where to draw the boundary. She suggested that there be a recommendation to the council made that another study committee be appointed to consider expanding the district, noting that one of the strengths of other districts like the Old West Side was their size.

Scott Munzel addressed the committee as a representative of the Fifth Avenue Limited Partnership, which is the legal entity owning the Heritage Row project. He recognized that a lot of work went into the committee’s efforts, but as it currently stood, he said that the recommendation violated both state and federal law.

On the state level, he cited the 2001 case of Draprop Corp. versus Ann Arbor, in which the court had found that the individual properties across the city – which had been lumped together into one historic district – did not constitute an historic district. The reasoning was based on the fact that the properties were not “related by history, architecture, archeology, engineering, or culture.” Munzel was citing the definition of an historic district from Michigan’s Public Act 169, passed in 1970.

Although the boundary justification in the report offered three different theories as to why the area was an historic district, Munzel said, none of them related the properties in terms of the state legislation. The justifications for this district, he said, were remarkably similar to the justifications offered for the district that had been ruled in violation of the state’s statute 10 years ago. He concluded that the recommended district would not pass legal muster.

On the federal level, Munzel argued that the recommended district would violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause that required people in similar circumstances to be treated similarly. The property owners south of Packard, he said, were not being treated similarly to those north of Packard. There was zero rationale for the exclusion of the houses south of Packard from the district, he said. Why not extend along Jefferson? Why not extend all the way to Division? It did not take a rocket scientist, or even a clever lawyer, he said, to see that the equal protection clause was violated.

Munzel concluded with a third argument, “just to stir the pot a little bit,” he said. It involved the Bethlehem United Church of Christ in the recommended district. The historic district regulations would not apply to the church in any case, he said, because restricting the land use of a religious institution would impinge on the free exercise of religion. That was ironic, he said, because part of the rationale for recommending the district was based on the church building.

Bob Giles introduced himself as a homeowner on Fourth Avenue. He characterized the neighborhood as closely attached to the section that is south of Packard. He cautioned that the impact of excluding it would be significant. He had the abstract of his property, which dates from 1856. Reading through it was like reading the history of Ann Arbor, he said.

Alex de Parry told the committee that he’d been in Ann Arbor on Fifth Avenue since 1971. He told the committee he knew the neighborhood. De Parry said it was ironic because he actually agreed with the other comments that had been made during the hearing. The boundaries of the proposed district, however, were flawed, he said. He noted that there were six people opposed to the district within the current boundaries, but one of those had passed away the previous night.

Peter Webster told the committee he had submitted his comments in writing. In his verbal comments to the committee, he noted it was a requirement that prior study committee reports had to be included as part of the report. But there was only one sentence in the report that says anything about prior reports, he said.

Webster said there were other studies that had all concluded against a recommendation for establishing an historic district here. The themes identified in the study committee’s report are not identified in any of the prior study reports, he contended. Webster also pointed out that the report is supposed to establish a percentage of what is historic. The report, he said, just identifies every building as historic.

Anne Eisen told the committee that when she bought her house on South Fourth Ave in 1995, the house had a plaque, so she thought it had historic protection. And when she found out it was not protected, she had advocated for its protection. She’d been told that it was stupid to buy a house in that neighborhood, because it would be redeveloped. She felt like the benefit to the city was that it was getting an “historic park” at the homeowners’ expense within walking distance of downtown.

Ray Detter introduced himself as a resident and property owner in the Division Street historic district. He said he’d worked to establish that historic district. He allowed that every historic district has arbitrary boundaries. But he said that part of the value of the neighborhood was in the area south of Packard, and it deserved to be preserved. Detter warned that it was a policy of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce to oppose additional historic districts near downtown, and instead to encourage development. He warned against that approach and said the city should encourage the preservation, not redevelopment, of these properties.

Frank Jacobson introduced himself as the owner of a Fifth Avenue house since 1992. Based on an aerial photo of the neighborhood he showed the committee, he concluded that the area north of Packard is not as coherent as the neighborhood south of Packard. He called for the historic district to extend farther south on Fifth Avenue. He characterized the proposed boundary as inconsistent with state law and suggested that one of the committee members owned property in the proposed district and therefore had a conflict of interest.


  1. May 27, 2010 at 10:24 am | permalink

    Is there anyway to get a look at the inventory cards produced by the study committee? A detailed index of all of those houses would make for a very interesting read!

  2. By Dave Askins
    May 27, 2010 at 10:27 am | permalink

    Re: [1] Yes. They’re in a set of a few different .pdf files available on the city’s website: [link]

  3. By Marvin Face
    May 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm | permalink

    So you’re telling me that a committee made up of historic preservation advocates and neighborhood residents came to the unlikely conclusion that historic preservation was the way to go? UNEXPECTED!

    One other observation: is it true that there is some sort of historic district up Braodway? That’s incredible, if true. Nothing historic up there but one house and even that is tenuous.

  4. By Dave Askins
    May 27, 2010 at 3:57 pm | permalink

    Re: [3] “Is it true that there is some sort of historic district up Braodway? That’s incredible, if true.”

    The Broadway Historic District is the brownish area in the upper right part of the top-most graphic in the article. It was approved by the city council in the spring of 2008.

  5. May 27, 2010 at 7:37 pm | permalink

    “The study is supposed to determine if the built environment meets the criteria set forth in the Secretary of the Interior standards for historic districts.”

    I think it’s important to remember that the committee was only tasked to answer 1 question: does the proposed area fit with the standards of a historic district. re: @Marvin, in that regard, I think it’s appropriate it was staffed with preservationists.

    That said, there are other important questions (impact on tax policy, land use, etc.) that should also be part of the discussion. I’m grateful for the hard work the committee put in, but their judgment on if the area meets the criteria for a historic district is not the only decision to make here.

    On a side note, I was surprised to learn that religious buildings are exempt from historic district regulations. My faith community, Ann Arbor Friends Meeting, is in a historic district, and we recently spent A LOT of money replacing gutters in a manner to meet historic district guidelines (copper ain’t cheap). It was an experience that made me glad I don’t live in a historic district.

    Finally, Dave, you write, “Approval of the Heritage Row PUD would entail a change in the city’s zoning to fit the project – that’s inherently what a PUD is. So the matter of right project would no longer be “matter of right,” because it would no longer meet the city’s code, which would now be defined by the PUD zoning.” Is this argument accepted by all sides or clearly resolved in case law? It seems to me the kind of thing lawyers would have a lot of fun (and make a lot of money) arguing about.

  6. By Dave Askins
    May 27, 2010 at 8:43 pm | permalink

    Re: [5]

    Finally, Dave, you write, “Approval of the Heritage Row PUD would entail a change in the city’s zoning to fit the project – that’s inherently what a PUD is. So the matter of right project would no longer be “matter of right,” because it would no longer meet the city’s code, which would now be defined by the PUD zoning.” Is this argument accepted by all sides or clearly resolved in case law? It seems to me the kind of thing lawyers would have a lot of fun (and make a lot of money) arguing about.

    That’s an understanding that I confirmed with Wendy Rampson, who’s head of planning for the city of Ann Arbor, and Jill Thacher, who’s the city’s planner who specializes in historic preservation issues.

  7. May 28, 2010 at 8:49 am | permalink

    Thank you for the extensive timeline and description of the process. You provide an important archival resource.

  8. May 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm | permalink

    Dave -

    Can you provide any insight on the issue Mr. Munzel is quoted on in the article about historic districts not affecting religious institutions, which Chuck responds to in comments? Is this an idea that’s been verified by anyone involved in the process?

    That is not my understanding. IANAL, but have spent some years administering both zoning and historic preservation ordinances, including legal challenge-free application of those to religious properties.

    The most relevant area of statute and case law here is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which provides generally that,

    “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government can demonstrate that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly or institution

    1. is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
    2. is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

    Nothing in there automatically exempts a religious building from historic preservation ordinances. In order to make a successful claim under RLUIPA, the church would have to demonstrate that, in Chuck’s example, the requirement to use Gutter A rather than Gutter B would impose a substantial burden on religious exercise, with extra cost not automatically being a substantial burden.

    RLUIPA goes on with other portions that require land use regulations not discriminate against or put religious institutions on less-than-equal-terms with other land uses. (e.g. prohibiting a church but permitting a concert hall with similar objective impacts because the concert hall will pay taxes.)

  9. May 28, 2010 at 6:03 pm | permalink

    Ten years ago I was on a “historic district evaluation study committee” (a long but accurate term). This type of volunteer committee is appointed by the local jurisdiction — in my case, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners (WCBOC)–in order to fulfill certain articles of preservation ordinance concerning designation of a local historic district. Our committee would not have been appointed if county staff planners and the Washtenaw County Historic Dictrict Commission (WCHDC) had not received the request from the owner (there was only one, UM) of the nearly 70-acres concerned, and deemed it worthy of the months of effort on all parts. So, yes, the outcome can seem predictable. It isn’t.
    Our committee was diligent and cognizant of the seriousness of our charge (as I believe the Germantown committee has been). We disagreed only on the boundary definition. (Sound familiar?) Our result was a unanimous committee recommendation for local historic district designation, with two alternate boundary definitions.
    The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) reviews and comments on study committee reports before final submission by the study committee to the local jusrisdiction. Upon final submission of our report, the WCBOC could hade made any decision or amendment they deemed appropriate, with or without regard to the recommendations. With the recommendations, they could have moved on either boundary recommendation in approving designation. The difference was about 60 acres.
    At the time, there were 15 members of the WCBOC. With a great deal of public support and some political advocates, the WCBOC approved the Gordon Hall Historic District (GHHD) based on the alternate recommendation that used historic boundaries for the entire acreage. The vote was 14 to one dissenter.
    There are two GHHD owners now, both non-profits who, as non-profits, do not benefit from historic preservation tax credit programs availbale to tax-paying businesses and private individuals. This is somewhat related to the basis for exemptions permitted to religious institutions. But it doesn’t mean that churches do not have historic value. Non-profit owners and religious institutions still have the opportunity to follow best practices of historic preservation with the assistance and review of historic district commissions who have jurisdiction over a larger district. In fact, with a certificate of appropriateness granted by WCHDC review, the new owner of 15 GHHD acres has nearly completed a compatible development of 60 low-profile semi-attached bungalows for active seniors.
    This is more than I could or wanted to say in the three minutes correctly reported above. I still believe that historical context, topographical and overall character provide the best justification for a district boundary. As the study committee discovered, City Council could [but seems likely not to] justifiably decide on a larger district than they originally outlined. There is public support for it. My experience says to be as generous as best practices make possible.