Packard Square, Fraternity Site Plans OK’d

Planning commission also approves house at former bindery

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (March 15, 2011): Commissioners spent more than 90 minutes on Tuesday discussing a project that could transform the site of the former Georgetown Mall, which has been sitting vacant for well over a year.

Eric Mahler

Eric Mahler, chair of the Ann Arbor planning commission. He cautioned developers of Packard Square not to try to undersell the size of their project. (Photos by the writer.)

Despite concerns raised by some commissioners, as well as residents who spoke during a public hearing, the planning commission ultimately voted to recommend approval of the site plan and development agreement for Packard Square, a complex off of Packard Street. The plan calls for 230 apartments and 23,790-square-feet of retail space in a single building.

The commission also recommended approval of two other site plans: (1) at 630 Oxford, between South University and Hill, where the University of Michigan chapter of Phi Kappa Psi plans to convert a rental duplex  into a fraternity house for up to 24 occupants; and (2) at 215 N. Fifth, where owners want to tear down the former Bessenberg Bindery building and construct a two-story, single-family house.

All votes were unanimous. The three site plans will now be considered by the Ann Arbor city council for final approval.

Packard Square Site Plan

Planning commissioners were asked to recommend approval of a site plan and development agreement for a new mixed-use development at the former Georgetown Mall on Packard Road – which has been vacant for about two years. Called Packard Square, the project consists of 230 apartments and 23,790-square-feet of retail space in a single building. It’s located on the west side of Packard, between Pine Valley and King George boulevards.

The project includes a 144-space parking garage underneath the apartment building, and 310 surface parking spaces. A total of 44 carports are proposed along the two main drives from Packard Road to the rear of the site. Fifty-four bicycle parking spaces will also be provided. The apartment complex will include indoor recreational amenities and services, an outdoor pool and courtyard. Also as part of the project, the developer has agreed to pay a contribution of $50,000 to the city, in lieu of providing a dedicated area of parkland on the project site.

A brownfield plan to remove contaminated soils and dewater the site is currently under review by the city.

Packard Square: Public Hearing

Five residents from the neighborhood near Packard Square spoke during the public hearing.

Mary Krasan identified herself as a member of the Georgetown Neighborhood Association. There’s been some concern about the project’s stormwater and sanitary system, she said, and whether it will be draining into the city’s existing infrastructure. They wanted some assurances that studies have been done on the maximum capacity for the existing infrastructure, and whether the project would result in volume exceeding that capacity. If so, what measures are being taken to ensure that the city’s system isn’t overloaded along King George Boulevard and Page Avenue?

Richard Dokas, as a representative of the Kensington-Marlborough Neighborhood Association, expressed four concerns. At a recent public meeting about the project, he said he’d asked about stormwater retention and was told it would be handled underground. He noted that it was a 6.5-acre parcel with mostly impervious surfaces and a sharp slope down from Packard. A one-inch rainfall – which the city routinely gets – would result in 176,502 gallons of water. Two years ago, they got over six inches of rain – that’s over a million gallons of water, he said. Dokas noted that Chapter 63 of the city’s code, in the section on stormwater retention, requires that projects be able to handle a 100-year storm event – though that the ordinance didn’t define what a 100-year storm event means, he said. They should also keep in mind that land in that area is mostly clay, and doesn’t drain well.

Another concern is that one of the egresses for the high-density development is on Page Avenue, which leads into the Kensington-Marlborough neighborhood, he said. There’s a stop sign at Marlborough that people already typically ignore. If you add 230 more people, that adds a lot of traffic to the area. Trash pickup is another concern, Dokas said. He lives near an industrial area, and “when the trash pickup takes place, you know it.” For Packard Square, the pickup will likely be more often than once a week, and that’s something to consider. Finally, Dokas noted that it’s the developers who have owned this property and have shown “absolutely no regard to maintenance.” The city has cited them a number of times on this issue. Given the number of apartments, he wondered how high the occupancy rate will be, and what that might mean for maintenance. It’s an issue, especially in light of the owner’s history, he said.

Jenna Jordan told commissioners that she lives in a house on King George that will have a view onto the four-story apartment building. She’ll lose her privacy, and her view of the sky. She’s extremely upset about the aesthetics, but she’s also concerned about stormwater runoff and trash pickup. Thirty-five years ago she planted a berm of trees, which won’t do well in the shadow of the apartment complex. Jordan said she knows she’s just “a little cog in the wheel,” and there are only eight homes that border the complex, but she hoped commissioners would consider these issues. She suggested that trash pickup and deliveries be moved to the north side of the complex, away from the residential area. She also proposed building only a two-story structure on the residential side, and putting the taller part of the building near the commercial area on the other side of the complex.

Matthew Williams wants the city to consider adding another pedestrian crossing on Packard – possibly a HAWK signal, like the one recently installed at the intersection of Chapin and Huron. [HAWK stands for high intensity activated crosswalk. Pedestrians press a button and activate a traffic signal, stopping traffic and allowing them to cross the street.] Williams also noted that the city had installed traffic-calming measures on the northbound side of King George up to Page Avenue, in the form of speed humps and raised intersections. But there’s nothing to slow traffic between Page and Packard, and drivers tend to “floor it.” Anticipating additional traffic from Packard Square, he’d like another traffic hump along that stretch.

Robert Baxtresser wondered how the proposed elimination of brownfield tax credits would affect the financing of this project – he thought it could affect the project significantly. [The state budget proposal by Gov. Rick Snyder calls for eliminating several tax incentives, including those for brownfield redevelopment.] In general, Baxtresser asked whether the city staff or planning commission would endorse a project without regard to a developer’s ability to finance it. And would the city or the developer lobby to get those tax credits restored?

Eric Mahler, the planning commission’s chair, responded to Baxstresser by saying that it’s not within the commission’s purview to consider a project’s financing or whether brownfield tax credits will be available.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion

Commissioners spent the next hour asking questions about the project. For this report, their comments are organized thematically.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Density, Design

Bonnie Bona began by wondering why the developer didn’t take full advantage of the density that’s allowed under the parcel’s zoning. The project is using 126% FAR [floor-area ratio], when zoning there allows for 150%. [FAR, a measure of density, is the ratio of the square footage of a building divided by the size of the lot. A one-story structure built lot-line-to-lot-line with no setbacks corresponds to an FAR of 100%. A similar structure built two-stories tall would result in an FAR of 200%.]

Craig Schubiner of Bloomfield Hills-based Harbor Companies, which is developing the site, said they’ve been working for a long time to design a project that’s feasible from a market-demand standpoint as well as a financing standpoint. Market studies show there are two feasible uses for developments at this point, he said – apartments, and small-scale retail. His company determined that the project would support 230 apartments. When they approached the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with the proposal, HUD officials invited them to apply for financing based on that same number of units. So it seems like an appropriate level of density, he said.

Bona then noted that when the city went through the process of developing its area, height and placement (AHP) standards, she felt they should have included site design guidelines as well. [For a primer on AHP, see Chronicle coverage: "Zoning 101: Area, Height, Placement." Additional information is provided on a page of the city's website dedicated to the AHP revision process.]

The Packard Square building is a prime example of the need for those guidelines, she said. It’s basically a simple box. There are some subtleties to the design, but those won’t have an impact, given the scale of the building. It would be nice if the retail area had some character to it, she said. The design could be a lot more architecturally supportive of the surrounding neighborhood. Though she was disappointed in its appearance and massing, Bona added that it’s a huge improvement over the old complex. She felt the amount of housing will make the retail work, as will the pedestrian piece of the development.

Erica Briggs

Planning commissioner Erica Briggs.

Erica Briggs asked Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff to explain how the setbacks were calculated. She noted that the proposed 22.5-foot front setback of the building from Packard was obviously far better than the current building’s 202-foot setback, but part of the proposed building is further back than 22.5 feet. That’s true, Kahan said – only a portion of the building needs to comply with the minimum (10 feet) and maximum (25 feet) setbacks. For this project, the building’s setback falls within that range in two places, which is sufficient.

Kirk Westphal noted that the plaza at the front of the property could be a nice amenity for the complex and for people traveling along Packard, but surrounding it with a parking lot might feel isolating. He asked whether they’d thought of making it a true plaza – where it’s more oriented toward pedestrians, treating cars more like a guest. He said it’s not in their purview, but he’d consider it an enhancement.

Briggs and Bona also talked about making the plaza area more appealing. Briggs suggested experimenting with less parking in the front, but Schubiner said they need to balance the desires of pedestrians with the needs of retailers, who always want as much parking as possible in front of their stores. He noted that the plaza is about 25 feet wide and designed to be like a village square – hence the name, Packard Square.

Bona said she completely agreed that parking is critical for the survival of retailers and for the developer’s ability to secure tenants. But there are other ways to make that area more pedestrian friendly. She said she was concerned that the sidewalks – which are only 12-feet wide – will be too narrow to accommodate a coffee shop with outdoor tables, for example. And they’ll lose some of that width if cars park so that their bumpers overlap the sidewalk. Bona suggested making the parking lot out of  a material other than asphalt, and to look for ways that the island in the middle won’t be isolated. If it’s an island, it won’t be used, she said.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Parking

Tony Derezinski commented that they were putting in a lot of parking. How much were they including beyond the need for residential parking? Schubiner said they were accounting for 1.5 parking spaces per apartment, plus the maximum number allowed by zoning for the retail component. He said it’s a safe amount.

Westphal observed that for the 230 units, the site includes 188 reserved parking spots. How will those get assigned? Schubiner said they’ll be assigned based on people’s willingness to pay for a covered spot. There won’t be a premium for uncovered, unassigned parking. Westphal said he assumed that was conventional. But with the city’s stated goal of encouraging more non-motorized transporation, he added, the planning commission looks for ways to ensure that the people with cars won’t be subsidized by those who don’t have cars. He asked whether it was too logistically complicated to charge a nominal fee for any kind of parking. It’s called “cashing out” parking, he said – you could separate it out from the rent. Schubiner said they could think about it.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Stormwater

Jean Carlberg asked about the slope of the land coming down from Packard. Schubiner noted that the existing building – the old Georgetown Mall – sits much farther back from Packard than the new structure will. They plan to fill in some of the front land, but there will still be a five- or six-foot drop from Packard. It will still be a slope, but not as steep, he said. Andrew Wiseman with Nowak & Fraus Engineers noted that the existing property slopes about 30 feet.

Jean Carlberg

Planning commissioner Jean Carlberg.

Carlberg also asked how the project is meeting the city code for stormwater retention, given the concerns expressed during public commentary. Wiseman described various provisions they were making on the site, including an underground detention system that captures 71,000 cubic feet of stormwater runoff. It will be released into the existing stormwater system at a controlled rate, he said, per city and county requirements.

Carlberg asked how they assessed the capacity of the sanitary sewer system – a lot of additional people will be brought to the site, she noted. Wiseman said the project is designed based on city standards. City staff is doing a modeling study to determine if any improvements are needed downstream, he said. If so, those will have to be addressed so that the system can handle the capacity.

Evan Pratt also asked about the issue of stormwater runoff that had been raised during public commentary. Wiseman said that currently, stormwater is running off the site without being detained. When the underground detention system is installed, the situation should get better, not worse.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Traffic

Diane Giannola asked about the traffic study – did it estimate that traffic at the new complex would be greater or less than the traffic at the Kroger grocery store, formerly located at that site? Kahan said the study indicated that traffic patterns would be different. For Kroger, peak hours tended to be on weekends. For a residential complex, peak hours are expected to be in the mornings and evenings.

Saying she lived in that area, Giannola said she was worried about drivers making a lefthand turn out of the development onto Packard. The slope made it difficult to see, she said – without a stoplight, she was concerned there would be accidents. Schubiner noted that they’ll be adjusting the slope – it won’t be as steep, which he felt would improve visibility.

Schubiner also downplayed the traffic issue, saying it wouldn’t be much different than when there was a 30,000-square-foot office building and a 50,000-square-foot shopping center there. Having 230 apartments sounds like a lot, he said, but when you go to an apartment complex elsewhere, it rarely strikes you as a high-traffic place.

Later in the meeting, Pratt returned to the issue of traffic. Looking at peak times was comparing apples and oranges, he said. Overall, would there be more traffic now than before? And how much more would there be compared to existing traffic – what percentage increase would they estimate?

When Schubiner reported that those comparisons were already in the traffic study, Pratt said he understood that, but he was asking for them to present that information publicly at some point in the future. Bruce Measom, also with Harbor Companies, said they’d shared the traffic study results with neighborhood associations in the area. He noted that after the study had been completed, they realized that the baseline measure was taken after Georgetown Mall was closed – so the traffic count was lower than what it would have been when that complex was active.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Trash, Privacy, Maintenance

Wendy Woods asked Schubiner to address some of the concerns raised during public commentary about noise from trash pickup. He said he’d be happy to coordinate with the company that picks up the trash, to find a pickup time that will be less intrusive to neighbors. Later in the meeting, Pratt said they can’t require it, but it would be nice if Harbor would write that commitment into its development agreement with the city. Schubiner indicated that they’d be willing to do that.

Woods also asked about the privacy issue – would there be balconies on the back? Yes, Schubiner said, nearly all the units have a balcony. But the design calls for putting up evergreens to provide some screening, though he acknowledged that the trees wouldn’t screen all four stories.

Briggs noted that it seems like the situation won’t get worse than it is – but that’s not comforting. Residents are saying there are already problems with trash pickup, traffic and maintenance. Some of the issues should be looked at by the city, she said, such as traffic calming along Page Avenue. They need to be looking at current problems, and address these issues proactively. She asked the developers to talk about trash pickup – could it be moved to a different location?

Trash containers are located both on the north and south sides of the site. With 230 units, it would be difficult to expect residents on one side of the complex to take their trash to the other side, Schubiner said. Joe Burnell, an architect on the project, said that carports on one side would help screen the view from the neighborhood, to a certain extent.

Briggs then asked about current maintenance, which neighbors have cited as a problem. What’s the maintenance plan? Schubiner said it’s obviously been an issue since Kroger and Rite Aid moved out. They’ve been working actively with the city and neighbors, he said, and have made some changes, like paving portions of the sidewalk and hiring someone to pick up trash around the property. It’s been difficult, because the property is vacant. But when you have a 230-unit apartment complex, they’ll have full-time staff on site and maintenance will be easier. From the need to keep residents and retailers happy to the desire not to get citations from the city, “there’s a thousand reasons why we’d want to have great upkeep of the property,” he said.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Pedestrians

Responding to a query from Woods about the process for getting a HAWK signal installed, Kahan said that residents should contact him directly, and he’d put them in touch with the right people. Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, said that typically HAWK signals are installed in locations where there’s a long stretch between traffic lights. In this case, there are two nearby stoplights on Packard – at Pine Valley, and another at Stone School. So it’s probably not the best location for a HAWK, she said.

Carlberg noted that the project is in her neighborhood, and she’s very familiar with the area. The stoplight at Packard and Pine Valley would just be a short walk, she said. She described the location as ideal for multifamily housing, given its location near a bus line. There’s also an exit from the complex onto Page Avenue – there are many ways to get out of the complex, even during busy times, she said.

Derezinski wanted to clarify how pedestrians would access the site. Kahan pointed to four different entry points from sidewalks on the project’s perimeter – the developer later clarified that there were five entry points. Several commissioners encouraged the developers to think about how they could clearly distinguish the sidewalks from the parking lot, perhaps by using different materials or colors.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Brownfield Tax Credits

Pratt asked whether eliminating the brownfield tax credits would kill the project, as one of the speakers during public commentary had implied. They hope not, Schubiner replied, though it’s hard to know the costs until the construction documents are drawn up and the project is competitively bid. But getting tax-increment financing is critical, he noted. They’re also hoping to get a grant and tax credits from the Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Pratt said it would be good to clean up the contaminants on that site. [For background on how the brownfield program works, see Chronicle coverage: "Zingerman's Project Seeks Brownfield Status"]

Woods asked how the developer’s brownfield plan is being reviewed. Kahan reported that the city has a brownfield plan review committee that meets once a month – they might take action, in the form of a recommendation, at their April meeting, he said. He described the plan as mostly a financial tool, allowing the developer to recoup upfront costs of remediation by getting property tax credits in the future.

Woods then asked whether they know if the contamination from the former dry-cleaning store has been contained, or if there’s a plume – like the Pall Gelman 1,4-dioxane plume that’s spreading on Ann Arbor’s west side. Kahan replied that the contamination is localized, sitting on a ledge of clay that prevents it from percolating into the groundwater.

Packard Square: Commissioner Discussion – Development Agreement

Westphal asked city staff about a couple of items in the proposed development agreement, related to the removal of discarded building materials and trash during redevelopment, as well as a section about the failure to construct. If the project is only partially completed, what’s the city’s remedy, and what timeframe is considered to reach a point of “failure to construct.” [.pdf file of draft development agreement]

Kirk Westphal, Wendy Rampson

Planning commissioner Kirk Westphal talks with Wendy Rampson, head of Ann Arbor's planning staff, before the start of the March 15, 2011 planning commission meeting.

Rampson fielded the question, saying that many communities require a cash bond or some type of bonding mechanism up front. Ann Arbor typically hasn’t done that, she said. They’ve had success in simply withholding the certificate of occupancy in order to get the site into compliance. But Westphal brought up a good point, she said, because a number of projects have stopped before completion. That’s why the development agreement includes a section allowing the city to take civil action in court.

When does the development agreement time out? Westphal asked. Rampson said the developer can’t start construction until the agreement is signed and recorded. But once it’s signed, it stays – it’s binding on the land. The site plan would expire in three years, she said, but the development agreement would stay in place for a subsequent developer, unless it’s extinguished by the city. She clarified that it doesn’t address the condition of the current site – the agreement only relates to the future project. Kahan has been working with neighbors and the developer, she said, and the site currently seems to be in a steady state – it’s not deteriorating.

Derezinski asked the developer what their ideal construction timeline will be. Schubiner said they’d like to start in August and finish by the end of 2012 or early 2013.

Woods commented that the $50,000 contribution to the parks system is great. She noted that the development agreement outlines that the funds will be used in Esch and Woodbury parks – how was that determined? Parks are chosen based on their proximity to the development that’s making the contribution, Kahan said. The idea is that it will benefit nearby residents.

Eric Mahler directed his comments to the developers, saying that they were trying to undersell the scope of the project. When residents express concern that their views will be blocked, the response is that the building won’t be that noticeable. But Mahler described it as a massive project, and he cautioned the developers not to undersell it to the commission, the city council or the public. “That’s not going to work,” he said.

Mahler also asked whether the developers would be willing to commit in the development agreement to making the building LEED-certified, given that they said many aspects of the construction would qualify it for that. Schubiner said there were some stumbling blocks to doing that, including the cost of certification. The numbers on the project are already borderline, he said.

Mahler concluded his remarks by noting that there are many good aspects to the project, and it would be a great improvement over what’s there now, or even what was there previously. But he did have concerns, including issues about privacy and lighting that might affect the neighbors. Burnell, the project’s architect, said they’d be using lighting fixtures with cutoff shields, so that very little light would leave the site.

Pratt suggested that before taking the project to the city council for final approval, the developers might want to do some drawings that show how the landscaping they plan will help screen the building from  houses in the neighborhood.

Outcome: The planning commission unanimously recommended approval of the site plan and development agreement for Packard Square. The plan will be next considered by the city council for final approval.

Phi Kappa Psi Site Plan

Commissioners were asked to recommend approval of a site plan and to grant a special exception use for a property at 630 Oxford, between South University and Hill. The University of Michigan chapter of Phi Kappa Psi plans to convert a rental duplex – which now allows for up to eight occupants – into a fraternity house for up to 24 occupants. The plan calls for a rear parking lot with eight spaces, plus a shed for up to 12 bikes and hoops for additional bikes.

The commission had postponed the item at its Jan. 20, 2011 meeting, in order for the fraternity to make revisions to the plan as requested by city planning staff.

Phi Kappa Psi: Public Hearing

The only speaker during the project’s public hearing was Allan Lutes of Alpha Management Group, who spoke on behalf of the owners. [The owners are listed in the site plan application as BH630Ox LLC, at 2112 Vinewood in Ann Arbor, where Big House Rentals is located.]

Allan Lutes

Allan Lutes of Alpha Management Group sets up a map showing the neighborhood around 630 Oxford, where the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity wants to locate. (Image links to a close-up of the map.)

He told commissioners that as they developed the site plan, the owners were trying to be sensitive to the concerns of neighbors and the environment – trying to preserve the landmark trees, for example, provide additional screening between the properties, and choose lighting fixtures that would minimize glare. They’ve worked hard to build support in the community, he said. People from the neighborhood had sent in at least 16 letters of support for the project, he noted.

Lutes showed commissioners a map of the neighborhood, highlighting the locations of many other fraternities and sororities, as well as University of Michigan property and city-owned land, like the nearby Angell Elementary School. His point was to make clear that allowing the fraternity to move there would fit within the existing character of the neighborhood. A special exception use is needed so that the fraternity can occupy the building.

Phi Kappa Psi: Commissioner Discussion

Jean Carlberg said she liked the fact that they included a covered area for bikes – “that’s a real bonus.” She also liked their attention to using lights that reduce glare onto neighboring properties. She asked where the fraternity members were likely to recreate in warmer weather.

Lutes replied there’s an area between the back of the house and the parking lot that will likely be a place for members to gather outside. The intent is to keep social gatherings off of the front lawn. Also, the location of the bike shed and attached garage – which had been converted into a bedroom – should help shield that back area from neighbors, he said.

Carlberg then asked whether the resident manager would be an adult. Lutes said the fraternity’s advisory board discussed that issue, and endorsed the need for a “mature person” to live on site. Carlberg asked whether everyone understood what “mature” meant. Lutes clarified that they intend that person to be someone who’s been out of school for more than a few years.

Tony Derezinski asked about the fraternity’s membership. There are about 100 members now, Lutes reported. In the fall, there will likely be around 90 members and new pledges. Derezinski asked whether the house – with an occupancy set for 24 – would be adequate to meet the fraternity’s needs. For the immediate future, it will, Lutes said. However, if a “sugar daddy” writes them a check that would allow expansion, he added, they might return to ask the city for additional occupancy.

Derezinski recalled that at the January 2011 planning commission meeting, there’d been a report that only one person had attended a meeting for residents that the fraternity had held – that woman had represented the Oxbridge Neighborhood Association. Was there any follow-up with her? No, Lutes said, they haven’t heard anything else from that group.

Derezinski then asked about the history of the house – hadn’t it been the residence for Wilbur Cohen? Lutes wasn’t sure, but thought it had originally been built for someone prominent – perhaps the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. Derezinski said it was a nice neighborhood, and the fraternity would be a good fit there.

Erica Briggs wanted to know where trash bins would be kept. The location is in the side yard, against the house, Lutes said. There will be screening and it will be located near the bike shed, so it won’t be visible, he added.

Bonnie Bona had a question about the use of a drywell for stormwater management – that’s somewhat unusual, she noted. What’s the capacity, and how much water are they retaining? John Adams of Adams Engineering fielded this question, saying they’ll meet the “first flush” requirements for the site. [First flush refers to a rainstorm's initial surface runoff.] They’re proposing a pervious underground tank to handle the volume, which will capture the first flush, then allow it to slowly drain out. He said it’s been a design challenge, given the constraints of the site.

Wendy Woods recalled that at the commission’s  January meeting, she had asked about the building’s occupancy capacity for parties. Had anyone followed up with the fire department about that? Lutes said there hadn’t been a comment about it from staff, so they didn’t contact the fire department. He noted that his firm manages facilities for 13 fraternities and one sorority at UM, and that he’s never heard of a fire marshal coming in and imposing capacity restrictions.

Woods asked how many calls his company typically gets that  are related to noise complaints at the facilities they manage. Generally, Lutes replied, they get about two after-hours calls per month, typically related to a false fire alarm or maintenance issues, like broken pipes.

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, responded to the building capacity question, saying that residences aren’t regulated in the same way that a commercial facility – like a restaurant – would be. She noted that the fraternity would be monitored by the university’s Interfraternity Council, as well as neighbors, who could call the city if there are noise problems. Previously, she said, the fraternity had indicated that it will hold parties in the building’s lower level, to minimize noise coming from inside.

Outcome: The planning commission unanimously recommended approval of a site plan for the property at 630 Oxford – the plan will be forwarded to city council for final approval. Commissioners also voted to grant a special exception use to allow the building to house the fraternity. That action does not require further approval.

215 N. Fifth: House at Former Bindery Site

Planning commissioners were asked to recommend approval of a site plan for a single-family house at 215 N. Fifth Ave. – formerly the site of the Bessenberg Bindery, which has moved to the Thomson-Shore Inc. facility in Dexter. The property is now owned by Jon and Lisa Rye. Jon Rye, a University of Michigan alumnus, is president and chairman of Greenfield Partners and Greenfield Commercial Credit, both located in Bloomfield Hills.

Former Bessenberg Bindery building

The former Bessenberg Bindery building will be demolished and replaced by a two-story, single-family house. The site is on the west side of Fifth Avenue, north of the Armory condos.

The plan calls for tearing down the one-story building and constructing a two-story, single-family, owner-occupied house with an attached two-car garage. The entrance will be oriented to the north, and the garage will be accessed from the public alley on the west side of the site. The site is directly north of the Armory condos and south of a two-story residential rental property.

The project requires a site plan because the single-family house is on property that’s not zoned solely for residential purposes. It’s zoned D2 (downtown interface) and is located in the Old Fourth Ward Historic District. The Ann Arbor historic district commission already reviewed the site plan and issued a certificate of appropriateness at its Feb. 10, 2011 meeting. Jill Thacher, who gave the planning staff report for the project, and who’s also the staff liaison to the HDC, indicated that the design had been modified slightly, based on feedback from that group.

215 N. Fifth: Public Hearing

Dick Mitchell, the project’s architect, was the only speaker during the public hearing. He noted that North Fifth Avenue, a one-way street heading south, is one of the city’s main arteries and is heavily trafficked. Because the site is in a transitional zone – zoned D2, located in an historic district, and adjacent to both residential and commercial sites – an inward-oriented design worked best. The building is oriented around two small courtyards with rain gardens on the north side, where the entrance to the home will be. An inward focus allows them to better control the views, Mitchell said.

Mitchell also noted that comments from historic district commissioners indicated they would have preferred a more traditional design, with a front porch facing North Fifth.

215 N. Fifth: Commissioner Discussion

Diane Giannola asked why there weren’t more second-floor windows on the south side, facing the Armory. [The design indicates only one second-floor window, toward the center of the building.] Mitchell replied that the house will be in the shadow of the Armory, so he’d designed closets, bathrooms and mechanicals along that side of the second floor.

Kirk Westphal noted that an auto repair shop, built in the 1950s, had been located on part of the property. He wondered what triggered the requirement for soil testing. Jill Thacher of the city’s planning staff said there weren’t any triggers for it in this case – the house would be built on a slab, so no excavation is planned. Mitchell indicated that they had performed initial soil testing, and found it to be clean.

Westphal then noted that even though it wasn’t in the planning commission’s purview to comment, he assumed that the historic district commission had discussed the building’s entrance. Yes, Thacher said – there had been mixed views on that at the HDC.

Evan Pratt wanted to ensure that the owners knew there might be buildings of “substantial massing” constructed in that area, given its zoning. The views they have now might not remain in the future. Mitchell replied that they are aware, but he noted that even though zoning allows buildings to be as high as 60 feet, getting the approval of the historic district commission for that would be a struggle.

Mitchell clarified for Tony Derezinski that the chimney indicated in the design would be for a real fireplace.

Noting that it’s not in the planning commission’s purview, Erica Briggs said she felt compelled to weigh in with her frustration over the building’s design. The inward-focused design reflects a lack of desire to be pedestrian-oriented. In thinking of the city’s long-term goals, it seems likely that Fifth Avenue will have traffic-calming measures at some point. It’s frustrating that the house doesn’t include “eyes on the street” in some capacity. The design seems very insulated, and it’s not necessary to be that way, she said.

Eric Mahler said he was glad to see a single-family house built there, and glad that it received approval from the HDC. It meets with the conceptual goals of building more density in the downtown area – goals that they’ve spent much time discussing, he noted.

Outcome: Commissioners recommended approval of the site plan for a single-family house at 215 N. Fifth Ave., formerly the site of the Bessenberg Bindery. The project will next be voted on by the Ann Arbor city council for final approval.

Land Annexed Near Mill Creek Townhouses

Planning commissioners unanimously recommended approval of a request to annex three parcels totaling about one acre on the east side of Stone School Road at Birch Hollow Drive. The vacant land is located in Pittsfield Township, on the west end of the Mill Creek Townhouses, which was annexed into the city in 1976. The commission also approved zoning the land as R3 (townhouse dwelling use).

No one spoke during the public hearing on this issue. Commissioner Bonnie Bona said she didn’t oppose it, but she wondered why the request was being made. City planner Jeff Kahan indicated that the request was made because the owner was tired of receiving tax bills from multiple jurisdictions.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to recommend approval of the annexation request, as well as the move to rezone the land as R3 (townhouse dwelling use). It will next be considered by the Ann Arbor city council for final approval.

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

Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, April 5 at 7 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]


  1. March 21, 2011 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    Have the site plans (especially for Packard Square) been made available online? Would save folks the trek to City Hall.

  2. By Mary Morgan
    March 21, 2011 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    Re. site plans: I’ve extracted three pages from the 20.5MB Packard Square site plan packet here [1.3MB .pdf file of Packard Square site plan] – or you can download the entire file from the city’s Legistar system: [link]

    215 N. Fifth site plan: [three-page excerpt – 1.6M .pdf file] The full 4.1MB packet has been temporarily removed from the Legistar system.

    Phi Kappa Psi site plan: [full site plan packet – 1.6MB .pdf file]

  3. By Mary Morgan
    March 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm | permalink

    Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, pointed out a better alternative to getting at this site plan info – the city’s eTrakit system. For 215 N. Fifth, select “Projects” then use the Project Search to enter “Address” “Begins with” “215 N Fifth” – this will bring up the Historic District Commission (HDC) file and the Site Plan (SP) file. Double click on SP11-002 and all of the file attachments will be listed below the box. The planning commission staff report is the last one on the list.

    Packard Square can be accessed by selecting “Projects” then choosing “Project Name” and “Contains” and typing in “Packard Square”

  4. By Rod Johnson
    March 21, 2011 at 9:56 pm | permalink

    That Fifth Avenue project is one strangely-proportioned house.

  5. By Tom Whitaker
    March 23, 2011 at 10:16 pm | permalink

    It does sort of give the impression of being a duplex–at least from the south elevation, but I’m glad to hear it’s a single family home.

    Good to see another family moving into the heart of the City. I hope they enjoy their new neighborhood as much as we’ve enjoyed ours (in-between our battles to save it).

  6. By susan wineberg
    March 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm | permalink

    Regarding the history of 630 Oxford. It was built in 1914 for Albert Barrett the Director of the State Psychopathic Hospital in Ann arbor. Later, after 1952, it was the home of Marston Bates, Prof of Zoology and grandson of Alexander Graham Bell.
    A group who lived there in the 1970s and 80s has sponsored a prize in the Ann Arbor Film Festival called the 630 Award.
    Many illustrious faculty built their homes on Oxford in the early part of the 20th century and this was one of them.