Summers-Knoll School Preps to Relocate

Ann Arbor planning commission grants special exception use

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (May 17, 2011): The most recent meeting of the Ann Arbor planning commission paved the way for the relocation of Summers-Knoll School to a larger facility on Platt Road.

Summers-Knoll, a private school for grades K-8, plans to move from its current location at 2015 Manchester Road in Ann Arbor, which housed 42 students. The new building at 2203 Platt will accommodate up to 144 students.

The move required the planning commission to grant a special exception use, allowing the office building to be converted into a school. After their deliberations, the commission voted unanimously to approve the special exception use, after some conditions were added. It was the only action item on the commission’s agenda, and no one spoke during public commentary at the meeting.

Summers-Knoll Special Exception Use

Theresa Angelini, of Ann Arbor-based Angelini & Associates Architects, serves as lead architect on the project and was on hand Tuesday night to help present the school’s proposal for relocation and answer questions. Joining her was Bethany Schultz, project manager for the school. Chris Cheng, a city planner with the city, gave the staff report.

Angelini and Schultz were the only ones who spoke during a public hearing for the project.

Summers-Knoll: Project Description

The building that the school plans to purchase is located on the east side of Platt, south of Washtenaw Avenue. The original structure was built in the 1940s as part of the Ira Wilson Dairy Company, and was later expanded. It is owned by the Gift of Life, and is in a district zoned for office use. The city’s zoning ordinance permits private schools as a use within the office zoning district, if granted a special exception use.

The school does not plan to make any substantial changes to the site or the building’s exterior, aside from adding a new bike rack and a sidewalk connecting the Platt Road sidewalk to the building’s southeast entrance.

Theresa Angelini

Theresa Angelini of Angelini & Associates Architects spoke to planning commissioners at their May 17 meeting on behalf of Summers-Knoll School.

The school intends to initially have 4-6 classrooms with 14 students per room, and to eventually expand to 8 classrooms and a kindergarten. Additional areas would be designed for music, art, science, lunch and physical activities. School hours are proposed on weekdays from 8:45 a.m to 3:30 p.m., with the option of morning care from 7:30 a.m. and after-school care until 6 p.m.

Angelini told commissioners that the school was flourishing at its current location, a 3,100-square-foot facility located about a quarter-mile west of the Platt Road building, and was looking to expand. She presented several images detailing how the building would be used, although Angelini felt that a lot of the building’s value could not be captured by the pictures.

The photos don’t do the building justice, she said, noting that it resembles a cloister. Overall, she said, it has the appearance and academic character they desire.

She added that the building was also desirable because it’s located near a number of parks, a bus line and the Washtenaw County Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center.

Summers-Knoll: Square Footage

Angelini corrected some figures previously provided to the commission that had listed the building’s available space at about 21,500 square feet. Angelini listed the available space at about 23,629 square feet, a number that includes the building’s two floors, a garage and some space in the building’s attic.

Accuracy for this figure was important because the special exception use includes a provision that would allow the school to expand the facility by 10% in the future, without returning to the commission for approval.

Commissioners accepted Angelini’s figure of around 23,629 square feet. Consequently, an amendment was proposed that would allow for a 10% expansion in the future without requiring approval from the planning commission. An additional 10% would increase the square footage to 25,992 square feet, and commissioners decided to round up to allow for an expansion of up to 26,000 square feet.

Outcome: The amendment to change the square footage calculations for additional expansion passed unanimously.

Summers-Knoll: Play Area

One concern raised by the commissioners was the lack of a designated play area in the plans submitted by Summers-Knoll. Commissioner Jean Carlberg brought it up, worrying that an area to the north of the building, which has been identified by the school as a possible future purchase, would not be suitable for play equipment.

Angelini responded by saying that there were a number of other areas that could serve as play areas, including a plot of land located south of the building and three courtyards next to the building.

Regarding the purchase of the area to the north of the building – two parcels totaling 1.39 acres – Angelini said the school was looking at purchasing it, but not for use as a play area.

“Purchasing the northern area would be for mulch trails – we’re not trying to build on the wetlands and we don’t want to cut down trees,” she said. Angelini added that the school would be looking to put in fences to establish property boundaries.

Use of the nearby Washtenaw County Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center was also mentioned as an option for students.

Summers-Knoll: Traffic Concerns

The biggest issue discussed at Tuesday’s meeting was Summers-Knoll’s plan to have two-way traffic for the road that would run through the property and next to the school. A number of commissioners expressed concern over whether this would create a dangerous environment for students arriving and leaving school.

Angelini and Schultz felt the two-way traffic was acceptable because of the school’s unique nature.

Curb drop-offs are rare because most students are personally brought in by their parents, who often linger to socialize, Angelini said – that’s the culture of the school. She added that as the number of students grow, the leisurely drop-off scene they were used to may change and some training may be necessary.

Angelini also said previous traffic assessments have called for two-way traffic.

Future growth worried some of the commissioners.

“As an engineer, I have dealt with issues where growth turns things into a problem,” Evan Pratt said. “I have a hard time believing that five years from now, if you grow the way you want to, this won’t be a problem.”

Pratt added that the current plan calls for an overlap when it comes to drop-off areas and parking areas. He said that this mix usually does not work well, referencing the fact that a number of other schools in the area have avoided problems by separating the two areas.

Nevertheless, commissioners agreed that traffic, drop-off and parking decisions would be handled internally by the school.

Summers-Knoll: Signs, Walkways

Commissioner Wendy Woods asked how the school would go about acquiring signs for the new location. There could be traffic from people trying to avoid the intersection of Washtenaw Avenue and South Huron Parkway, she noted.

Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, said the school could request signage from the city and if the request was deemed valid, signs would be installed.

The final issue that commissioners discussed was ensuring a suitable system of defined walkways around the school.

Commissioner Erica Briggs said the lack of a continuous sidewalk around the school was troubling. She pointed to the east side of the building where pedestrians would have to walk in the road unless a sidewalk was put in.

Angelini said a continuous sidewalk around the building would be difficult due to an area of land next to the north side of the building that drops off very quickly. However, she added that a sidewalk on the eastern side of the building could be added, and if the need for a continuous sidewalk presented itself, the school would be willing to look into it.

Commissioner Jean Carlberg also wanted to make sure that if there wasn’t a continuous sidewalk around the school, there were adequate walkways to each of the entrances.

A second amendment to the special exception use was then proposed, stating the school would add a continuous sidewalk along the east side of the school and ensure clearly defined walkways to all of the entrances.

Outcome: The sidewalk amendment passed unanimously.

Final outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the Summers-Knoll special exception use.

Several commissioners thanked the Summers-Knoll representatives for the contributions the school had made to the community. “The school has been real asset in neighborhood,” Carlberg said. “We commend you for that and wish you well in your new location.”

Reports from City Council, Staff

The meeting also included updates from city council and the planning manager.

Reports: City Council

Commissioner Tony Derezinski, who also represents Ward 2 on Ann Arbor city council, reported on the previous evening’s city council meeting. The report focused on budget deliberations and the city’s struggles with possible cuts to the fire and police departments.

There were strong differences of opinion when it came to figures on response times for firefighters, Derezinski said. “There are very strong feelings on both sides. We want to balance the budget but not sacrifice the ability to respond.” [For an analysis of that issue, see Chronicle coverage: "Public safety chief questions accuracy of media report"]

Derezinski said that no agreement had been reached yet on the budget, and the council meeting would continue on Monday, May 23.

[Ann Arbor’s city charter requires that the city council amend and adopt a city budget by its second meeting in May. If it fails to act, by default the unamended budget proposed in April by the city administrator is adopted. Rather than take a vote at its May 16 meeting, councilmembers instead chose to recess and continue the meeting the following week, on Monday, May 23. The decision to delay was prompted by uncertainty about revenue from the public parking system. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the city were poised to ratify a new agreement on parking revenue on May 2, but that agreement was put off when questions were raised about the DDA tax increment finance (TIF) capture. Based on actions taken at a special DDA meeting on Friday, May 20, it's likely the city council will extend its meeting again to May 31.]

Reports: Planning Manager

Planning manager Wendy Rampson updated the commissioners on several upcoming government meetings and events on the summer calendar.

Her report included a reminder of a May 25 meeting on public art murals in the city, looking for feedback from the community regarding a mural being proposed on the northern retaining wall on the east side of Huron Parkway. The meeting will be held from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Huron Hills Golf Course, 3465 E. Huron River Drive. [For more details, see Chronicle coverage: "What's Next for Public Mural Program?"]

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

Absent: Kirk Westphal.

Next regular meeting: Tuesday June 7, 2011 a 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]