Ann Arbor Landscape Ordinance Approved

Also, Sigma Phi Epsilon gets OK to convert church

The Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (March 1, 2011): Conducting its business in front of an audience that included more than a dozen Skyline High School students on a class assignment, the planning commission quickly approved revisions to a landscape and screening ordinance that have been in the works for years. They had debated the ordinance extensively at a meeting in December, when they ultimately postponed a vote and asked the staff for additional changes.

Skyline High students at the March 1, 2011 Ann Arbor planning commission meeting.

A cluster of Skyline High students at the March 1, 2011 Ann Arbor planning commission meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

On Tuesday, the issue of screening for privacy came up as commissioners discussed a request from the Michigan Alpha Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon, which had asked for a special exception use that would allow it to convert a church at 730 Tappan into a fraternity house. The building has been the home of the Memorial Christian Church, which plans to move.

Three people spoke during a public hearing on the issue, including a representative from the neighboring sorority, who raised concerns about lighting and privacy – specifically, about the fraternity having “visual access” to the sorority’s sleeping rooms, which face the current church. However, she said she supported the project overall, and commissioners unanimously voted to grant the request.

During her staff communications, Wendy Rampson – head of the city’s planning staff – noted that city administrator Roger Fraser had announced his resignation the previous evening, at a city council working session. His last day with the city will be April 29 – he’s taking a job with the state of Michigan as deputy state treasurer for local government services. Rampson said she’d alert commissioners as soon as a date is set for his farewell gathering.

Rampson also mentioned that at the city council’s March 7 meeting, they’d be voting on a resolution of support for the state’s Complete Streets policies, saying that the city had been following similar policies for decades. Later in the meeting, however, commissioner Erica Briggs expressed some disappointment that the city wasn’t taking additional steps beyond what’s set by the state. “It certainly doesn’t establish us as a leader,” Briggs said.

Landscape Ordinance Revisions

At its Dec. 7, 2010 meeting, the planning commission had heard an extensive presentation from staff about proposed changes to Chapter 62 of the city code – the landscape and screening ordinance. At that meeting, Jerry Hancock, Ann Arbor’s stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator, had told the commission that the intent was to improve water quality by requiring that a greater amount of stormwater runoff be “infiltrated” on the site where it is generated. [Infiltration is a process that retains water before allowing it to filter out into the soil.] The changes also aim to encourage the use of native plants and prohibit the use of non-native invasive plant species, he said.

Jerry Hancock, Wendy Rampson

Jerry Hancock, Ann Arbor’s stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator, talks with city planning manager Wendy Rampson before the start of the March 1 planning commission meeting. Hancock was on hand to answer questions regarding revisions to the city's landscape ordinance, but there were none.

The planning commission’s ordinance review committee, which had evaluated and provided input on the changes, had requested that the ordinance include: (1) additional types of land use – such as multi-family dwellings – that are required to have a conflicting land-use buffer; and (2) an increase in the number of trees in the conflicting land-use buffer.

During a lengthy discussion at their Dec. 7 meeting, commissioners raised several concerns regarding the required landscape buffers between multi-family dwellings and public parks or single-family homes. They ultimately tabled action on the ordinance, and asked city staff to consider additional revisions.

On Tuesday, city planner Jeff Kahan outlined the additional changes that had been made since the Dec. 7 meeting. Most of the changes related to the conflicting land-use buffer requirements, known as CLUB:

  • Responding to a concern about requiring a landscape buffer when new residential development is proposed next to parkland, the ordinance language was changed so that the required 4-foot-high screen may be reduced.
  • Language was changed to clarify that new development will need to adhere to the full requirements. Flexibility in applying the CLUB relates only to existing (developed) sites that are being redeveloped.
  • A requirement calling for a landscape buffer between R3 and R4 residential zoning districts and parkland was removed.
  • A requirement was removed that had called for a wall or fence to be constructed as a buffer between a park and land zoned or primarily used for residential purposes.
  • Language was added to clarify that the planning commission has flexibility in applying the conflicting land-use buffer requirement.
  • A nonconforming site clause, which had previously been removed, was kept in the code.

More generally, the revised ordinance will prohibit the use of non-native invasive plants, encourage the use of native plants, provide design flexibility and modify how the conflicting land-use buffer is applied. Other changes include requiring portions of interior landscape islands to be depressed and utilized as bio-retention to improve water quality. [.pdf of landscape ordinance revisions]

No one spoke during a public hearing on the changes, and commissioners had no additional questions or discussion on the revised ordinance.

Outcome: The planning commission unanimously approved revisions to Chapter 62 of the city code, the landscape and screening ordinance. It now moves to the city council for consideration and final approval.

Sigma Phi Epsilon Request

The commission was asked to approve a special exception use for the Michigan Alpha Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon, allowing it to convert a church at 730 Tappan into a fraternity house. The three-level building is located at the northwest corner of Tappan and Hill, and has been the home of the Memorial Christian Church. No changes are planned for the exterior of the historic building. The church sanctuary was originally built in 1891 – on State Street, where the University of Michigan law quad is now located. It was moved to its current location in 1923, and additions were made to the building in subsequent years.

In giving the planning staff report, Jeff Kahan noted that the 15,560-square-feet structure could accommodate 64 residents, but that the fraternity is requesting a maximum of 44 beds. [The chapter has over 100 members, but more than half live off-site.] The property is currently zoned R2B, a zoning category that allows for fraternities. The neighborhood includes many fraternities, sororities and student rental properties.

The site includes 17 parking spaces. The plan calls for adding 11 bike spaces in the basement of the building as well as 11 bike spaces outside.

Tuesday’s meeting also included a public hearing on the request.

Sigma Phi Epsilon: Public Hearing

Three people spoke during a public hearing about the special exception use request – two of them were affiliated with the project.

Jon Kucera, an architect, is president of SigEp National Housing, a Richmond, Virginia firm that assists local alumni and volunteer groups in the maintenance, management, and purchase of chapter facilities. The UM chapter has been searching for a permanent home for several years, he said. [The chapter is currently located nearby at 704 Hill St., on the southeast corner of Hill and State.]

The fraternity had negotiated an option-to-purchase contract with the church in September 2010, he said. For the purchase to be feasible, they needed, among other things, to secure a zoning variance and the special exception use. They’ve already secured the variance, Kucera said.

He said the reality is that the church is moving, and it’s unlikely another church would be interested in the property. Adaptive reuse of the structure for a fraternity is ideal, he said, because of its proximity to UM’s central campus and because the layout, mass and scale of the building allow for its reuse. The sanctuary space would be converted into a study and meeting area, for example, while the lower level would be used for a meeting and dining area. They hope to finish the project by July of 2012.

In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, Kucera laid out the following timeline for the project:

  • By March 31, 2011: Conclude the due diligence period (dealing with issues of zoning, constructability, fundraising, financing, etc.) and execute the option to purchase.
  • By Sept. 30, 2011: Close on the purchase of the property and take title. After this, the fraternity could occupy the building for limited purposes (such as building security, chapter meetings or fundraising events), subject to approval by the city’s building inspectors.
  • January 2012 to July 2012: Renovations will take place.
  • July 2012: Move in furniture and prepare the building for occupancy for the fall semester.
Memorial Christian Church and UM Ross School of Business

The Memorial Christian Church is located across Tappan from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. This file photo from December 2010 was taken from Hill Street, facing north.

Jerry Mangona, president of the chapter’s alumni association, told commissioners he’d been involved with the chapter since its 1997 “recolonization.” [Recolonization occurs after a chapter is revoked or surrendered, then revived. In a phone conversation with The Chronicle, a spokesman for the UM Greek Life office reported that in 1994 – following a hazing incident in the fall – sanctions were put in place against the fraternity. Members at the time felt the sanctions were too harsh, and voted to surrender their charter. In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, Mangona confirmed that a hazing incident had occurred under the previous charter and someone was injured. Both the UM Interfraternity Council and the SigEp headquarters had placed sanctions on the group, he said.]

At Tuesday’s public hearing, Mangona said that since recolonizing, they’d demonstrated to the Greek community that their chapter can be both popular socially while maintaining a high GPA and a no-hazing program. The chapter has grown, and has received many awards both here and nationally, he said. [He outlined these awards in more detail in a letter submitted to the commission.] Mangona told commissioners that an 11-member alumni board oversees the chapter, and that another board will oversee the renovation of the building and its future management.

Jane Cooper identified herself as president of the Iota House Corp. board of the Delta Delta Delta sorority, which owns the house at 718 Tappan – adjacent to the church. She referred commissioners to a letter she’d submitted about the project, saying that the sorority doesn’t object to having a fraternity next door – “in fact, the girls are quite pleased,” she said. [.pdf of Cooper's letter] However, they did have some concerns, she said, that she hoped commissioners would address. Because the sorority’s sleeping rooms face the church, they are worried about excessive light, noise and “visual access,” Cooper said. She concluded by saying she was probably more in support of the project than opposed to it, but still had concerns.

Kucera then returned to the podium to respond to Cooper. He noted that city standards set certain levels of lighting in the parking area, for safety, as well as cutoff standards that require fixtures to direct light downward. He said those issues would be addressed at the site plan stage, and that he felt the solutions would satisfy their neighbors and the city. The visibility issue “is a bit more elusive,” he conceded, because the “view angle” from the ground on the fraternity’s property to the sorority’s upper windows is fairly steep – 35 to 40 degrees. That means any ground-based screening would have to be very high, he said. Kucera expressed confidence that they could work with the sorority to identify a solution that would be both practical and appropriate.

Regarding noise concerns, Kucera said that most gatherings would occur in the lower level, which he said is both visually and acoustically separated from the adjoining properties. That would go a long way toward mitigating that issue, he said. Kucera also pointed out that the project had letters of support, including one from Chris Haughee, UM assistant director of Greek Life. [.pdf of Chris Haughee letter]

Sigma Phi Epsilon: Commissioner Questions, Comments

Jean Carlberg had several questions about the project. She noted that there aren’t currently windows on the building’s north side, which faces the sorority. Would windows be added? she asked.

Kucera said the building’s educational wing has windows on the east and west facades on both levels – rooms in those areas would be used for sleeping. The concept plan for the building only includes adding one window on the north facade, he said. The other sleeping area will be at the end of the existing sanctuary, with windows facing west.

Carlberg then asked how much traffic they anticipated during the evening, coming into the parking lot. Currently, only a chain link fence separates the parking lot from the sorority, she noted. Mangona said it is hard to speak for the future, but that the current house has only parking spots for four to six vehicles. The lot at 730 Tappan has 17 parking spots, and he didn’t think the fraternity members would need more than that.

Carlberg asked them to consider putting up a wooden fence to block the car lights. The church doesn’t have a lot of night traffic, she said, and she could imagine that the additional traffic from the fraternity would be a real nuisance for the sorority.

She had additional concerns about the lighting used in the parking lot. She cautioned Kucera to choose fixtures that would block the light from intruding into the sorority house. In response, Kucera noted that city standards address the issue of light intrusion, and asked whether she was requesting something beyond that.

Since the sorority house is so close to the parking lot, Carlberg said, the fraternity needs to be more careful than what the ordinance requires, or they’ll be creating a nuisance. But Kucera noted that in the absence of a definitive standard, the issue becomes subjective. Evan Pratt weighed in, saying that even if the fraternity was fully compliant with the city standards, the commission hoped that they would not have a wall-mounted fixture, for example, with light shining into the sorority.

Carlberg added that the fraternity could work with the sorority “in the interest of good neighbor relations” to come up with a solution. Kucera agreed with that approach, but said he hoped the commission wouldn’t add it as a contingent condition for getting the special exception use.

Kirk Westphal asked for more information about the resident manager. Mangona reported that the alumni board hasn’t yet determined the details of that job. However, they’ll be investing nearly $3 million in the property, he added – it’s a large investment, and one that will make the building a crown jewel for the chapter. They’ll want oversight of that asset to be managed professionally and responsibly, he said.

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, told commissioners that the city’s zoning doesn’t define what a resident manager is. In the past, it was typically an adult who lived on the property – a house mother, for example, not a student. Over time, she said, that practice has changed and the resident manager could be a graduate student or undergraduate. Mangona said he could state unequivocally that the resident manager for their property wouldn’t be an undergraduate.

Erica Briggs brought up an issue raised in Cooper’s letter, which stated that there are surface water issues along the sorority’s southern property line. Sorority leaders wanted assurances that the fraternity’s parking lot doesn’t drain into their property.

Kucera said that in the three months he’s worked on this project, he hasn’t encountered drainage issues, nor had he received any comments from city staff about stormwater management. To the extent that there are any problems with drainage to the north of the fraternity’s property, that could be addressed during the construction phase, he said. He asked whether Cooper could elaborate on her concerns.

Cooper stated that the issue had been raised by Jan Culbertson, an architect and board member for the sorority. Their big concern is that whatever changes are made should not add to the problem, she said: “We don’t want the new work to make them worse.”

Kucera observed that the concerns might have stemmed from earlier proposals that had considered adding to the existing structure, but that’s no longer the case.

Outcome: Planning commissioners unanimously approved the special exception use for Sigma Phi Epsilon to convert the church at 730 Tappan into a fraternity. The special exception use requires six votes, and six commissioners were present at Tuesday’s meeting.

Misc. Communications

Wendy Rampson, who leads the city’s planning staff, had several items to report during the time set aside for communications, in addition to noting the recent news of city administrator Roger Fraser’s resignation.

At the March 8 working session, she said, agenda topics will include a legislative update on planning statutes, as well as some planning for an upcoming commission retreat. [The commission's previous retreat took place on March 30, 2010.] Rampson said she’ll also provide an update on the staff’s efforts to develop a sustainability framework, part of the work that’s funded by a recent Home Depot grant. She noted that the first update on the project was posted on Feb. 23 on the Sustainable Cities Institute blog.

The planning commission will be meeting at the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom for at least the next several weeks, Rampson reported. Recent flooding in the basement of city hall has pushed back renovations in that building by about a month, she said. [The flooding resulted from a burst water pipe valve that froze when heat was cut off.]

Among the other upcoming meetings Rampson mentioned was a community open house that the University of Michigan is planning for its new North Quad residence hall on Thursday, March 31 from 3-6 p.m. The event will include tours of the building, which is located on South State Street between Huron and Washington.

Kirk Westphal reported that the commission’s ordinance review committee had met recently with staff to take a preliminary look at how the new downtown design guidelines will be incorporated into the city’s site plan review process. Those changes will eventually be brought forward for review by the planning commission.

Eric Mahler, the commission’s chair, noted that the Library Lot review committee would be meeting on March 3. [The next day, that meeting was canceled. The meeting has been rescheduled for Tuesday, March 8, from 3-5 p.m. in the fourth floor conference room of city hall.] The committee is charged with reviewing responses to the city’s request for proposals on the use of the space above the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage, currently under construction by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

Mahler also announced public hearings for three projects, scheduled for the commission’s March 15 meeting: (1) a request to annex and rezone the Millcreek Townhouses on Stone School Road; (2) a site plan proposal for 215 N. Fifth Ave. to tear down the existing industrial building and construct a two-story single family dwelling; and (3) a site plan proposal for Packard Square, a mixed-use development on 6.52 acres at 2502 Packard – site of the former Georgetown Mall.

Present: Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal.

Absent: Bonnie Bona, Tony Derezinski, Wendy Woods.

Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 7 p.m. for a working session in the 6th floor of city hall, 301 E. Huron. The commission’s next regular meeting is on Tuesday, March 15 at 7 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]