Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Feb. 7, 2012): In their main action item at Tuesday’s meeting, planning commissioners voted unanimously against a rezoning request at 1320 S. University – reaffirming one of the decisions of the contentious, multi-year A2D2 initiative that was approved by the city council in 2009.
Currently at the site – on the south side of South University, between Forest and Washtenaw avenues – is the three-story Park Plaza apartment building. It’s owned by Philip Sotiroff, who hoped to construct a mixed-use building – retail and residential – as tall as 145 feet. That height would allow for a structure between 10-14 stories on the 0.82-acre site. The current zoning is D2 (downtown interface), which does not allow for a structure taller than 60 feet.
Sotiroff is asking the city to rezone the parcel to D1, a zoning district that allows for the greatest density development. Representatives from his development team noted that higher density zoning was allowed prior to 2009, and pointed out that initially the D1 designation had been recommended by the planning commission before the final version of A2D2 was adopted.
The site is adjacent to a D1 parcel to the east, where the Landmark apartment building is being constructed, at 601 S. Forest. But the 1320 S. University property also abuts lower-density residential zoning. Single-family homes are located to the south of the site, and a fraternity is located to the west.
Fifteen people spoke during a public hearing about the rezoning. Most of them were residents and neighborhood leaders who objected to the proposed rezoning, though the request did receive letters of support from owners of the Landmark as well as from the South University Area Association, a merchants’ group.
Planning staff recommended denial. All of the planning commissioners spoke in support of the current zoning, saying that the community had reached a hard-won consensus that was not to be overturned lightly, especially since it was implemented fairly recently. A couple of commissioners noted that the owner could find flexibility within the existing zoning by submitting a planned project – like the 618 S. Main development that planning commission approved at its Jan. 19, 2012 meeting.
Rezoning for 1320 S. University
At the Feb. 7 meeting, city planner Alexis DiLeo delivered the staff report. [.pdf of staff report, excluding maps and other images]
She described the location of the site in the context of the surrounding properties. To the east is the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity – well known as the location for the annual Mud Bowl, at the corner of South University and Washtenaw Avenue. To the west is the Landmark apartment building, formerly known as 601 S. Forest, a development that’s nearing completion. The 1320 S. University site is on the border of the D1 zoning district. The Landmark building is located in D1, as is property on the north side of South University.
The property also is directly north of Forest Court, a cul-de-sac of owner-occupied and rental houses in a R4C (multi-family residential) zoning district.
In seeking D1 zoning, the owner proposed setting conditions as part of the rezoning approval. Those conditions would: (1) limit the maximum height to 145 feet, which would allow for between 10-14 stories; (2) increase minimum side and rear setback requirements; and (3) limit permitted principal uses to those allowed in D2 districts.
Another condition proposed by the developer would limit the maximum floor area ratio (FAR) to 700%, with premiums. 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%. The D1 zoning normally allows for up to 900% FAR, with premiums.
DiLeo noted that the owner did not submit a detailed proposal for a building. But she calculated that based on the assumption of residential units on all of the upper floors with an average of 800 square feet per unit, more than 225 apartments would be possible. About 100 off-street parking spaces would also be required.
DiLeo described the long zoning history at the site. Until 2006, it was zoned R4C (multi-family residential). As part of a broader rezoning initiative, in 2006 the planning commission recommended – and the city council ultimately approved – rezoning the site to C2A, which would allow for density up to 400% FAR.
In 2007, the A2D2 rezoning initiative kicked off. Initially, the recommendation put forward in late 2008 called for the 1320 S. University parcel to be rezoned D1. Following that initial recommendation, which the planning commission had supported, there was a lot of back-and-forth, DiLeo said. But ultimately, the downtown master plan adopted by city council designated this site as D2 – and it was on that basis that the A2D2 rezoning was adopted in late 2009. [For a timeline overview of the A2D2 and design guidelines process, with links to previous Chronicle coverage, see "Ann Arbor Hotel First to Get Design Review?"]
DiLeo summarized what she described as the owner’s lengthy rezoning proposal. The owner cited several reasons that rezoning was appropriate, including:
- The D2 zoning “unnecessarily and unfairly restricts” the use of the property, and limits the South University area’s potential for growth and economic vitality.
- The property is better suited for D1 development than are most other D1 parcels in that area, because it can achieve the required density without aggregating multiple parcels.
- The parcel is only partially located in the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority district, so it would benefit all taxing units.
Planning staff disagreed with the owner’s assessment, and found that the arguments in favor of rezoning weren’t strong enough to support deviating from the A2D2 zoning, DiLeo said. She noted that the A2D2 process had included a public hearing in 2009 specifically for the 1320 S. University parcel, at the owner’s request. The current zoning has been in place for over two years, and changing it would negatively affect expectations for the site, she said. No conditions have changed since the zoning was adopted, DiLeo noted. The owner did provide census information that wasn’t available at the time of the A2D2 process, she said, but the data simply affirmed what planning staff had already believed regarding demographics for that area.
DiLeo also noted that the owner felt an error had been made in assigning D2 zoning to that parcel. Planning staff doesn’t believe that’s the case, she said. It’s possible to disagree with the decision of the planning commission and city council, but the record is clear, she concluded, and all documents accurately reflect that.
The city’s planning staff recommended denial of the rezoning request.
Rezoning for 1320 S. University: Public Hearing
Fifteen people spoke during a public hearing about the rezoning. Most of them were residents and neighborhood leaders who objected to the proposed rezoning. However letters supporting the project were sent to the planning commission from Maggie Ladd, executive director of the South University Area Association, and from Rajen Shastri on behalf of Campus Investors 601 Forest Property Owner LLC, owners of the Landmark apartment building. Neither Ladd nor Shastri attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Bob Snyder, speaking on behalf of the South University Neighborhood Association, began by introducing Walter, his Parkinson’s service dog. It was Walter’s first meeting, Snyder noted, and “he might cut me short.” Snyder asked what had happened to the Ann Arbor that had been a true university town – with a sprawling campus and trees, as typified by the Arboretum and Burton Tower. When and why had the city and university decided it was better to build up? he wondered. But he quipped that UM’s buildings have managed to keep below the low-flying cloud height.
Questions like “How big is too big?” and “How tall is too tall?” keep being redefined, Snyder said. Didn’t the citizens, acting in good faith, reach a conclusion about the D1 and D2 zoning? At that point, everyone said “at least it’s over and done with.” But here we go again, Snyder continued. So now there’s only one question regarding this issue, he said: “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand? Is it the ‘N’ or the ‘O’?” Snyder concluded by thanking the commissioners, adding “Walter thanks you, too.”
Marc Gerstein told commissioners that he’s lived on Forest Court since 1982 – his property abuts the south end of the 1320 S. University parcel, and any change will affect his home directly, he said. Gerstein urged commissioners to support the staff recommendation of denial. The staff report examines the history, rationale and merits of the request, he said, and repeatedly found that the D2 zoning designation was warranted. To rezone the parcel would take away the buffer between Forest Court and the densest D1 development of South University, he noted.
Saying she was one of the people involved in developing the A2D2 zoning, former city planning commissioner Ethel Potts also voiced opposition to the rezoning request. The staff report accurately reflects the actions that led to the D2 zoning for this parcel, she said. Potts would have preferred if the lot had been rezoned for residential use, but since it was declared to be part of the downtown, then D2 zoning is appropriate. It’s a buffer between D1 districts and the neighborhoods, she said. Potts concluded by saying that everyone relies on zoning to be stable, not changed because of someone’s preference. D2 is what belongs there, she concluded.
John Nystuen read a letter from Anthony Pinnell, a resident and businessman in the South University neighborhood who could not attend the meeting. Pinnell had wanted to express strong opposition to the rezoning request. Pinnell had attended a community forum about the project, and reported that residents had proposed alternative ideas for the site that would comply with the current D2 zoning. In his letter, Pinnell also argued that any attempt to characterize the neighborhood as primarily student housing is wrong.
Steve Kaplan told commissioners that he owned property on nearby Church Street. The property at 1320 S. University is the textbook definition of a buffer area, he said. Not only is the zoning not a mistake, he said it’s the perfect application of D2 zoning. Saying he had no affiliation with the Landmark development, Kaplan noted that those developers made a major investment under terms that the city laid out. To make a change now for the adjacent property would be harmful to Landmark, he said, as well as to any sense of integrity that the city might retain – integrity that a developer would rely on to do business in this town. The zoning should remain D2, Kaplan concluded.
Chris Crockett introduced herself as president of the Old Fourth Ward Association. She ventured that perhaps the developer wasn’t involved in the multi-year deliberations in the community regarding the A2D2 zoning, and that’s why he doesn’t realize that D2 isn’t a mistake for their property. As someone who was part of the process to develop A2D2, Crockett said it’s shocking to have the developer come in and describe something as an error when it was so thoroughly deliberated, and approved by the planning commission and city council. The A2D2 zoning expresses the intent of the community, she said. Nobody got everything they wanted, she added – it was a compromise, but one that people can live with. It’s egregious to have someone come in from out of town and say that it’s wrong, she concluded.
Betsy Price, a resident of the South University area, apologized for belaboring the issue, and thanked city staff for their hard work. She noted that the city had achieved a compromise with the D1/D2 zoning, and standards were set. Those decisions weren’t made in haste, and weren’t serendipitous. It’s time to adhere to the rules that were established, she said.
Brad Moore, an architect for the project, characterized the petitioner as a property owner, not a developer. He noted that initially, the planning commission had recommended D1 zoning for the 1320 S. University lot. It wasn’t until the city council asked for a change that the planning commission revised its recommendation. He then described the difficulties of building on the lot within the constraints of the current D2 zoning – because of setback requirements, building code issues related to windows, and mandatory storm sewer easement.
Saying that she represented the owner, Susan Friedlaender – a Farmington Hills attorney – described the history of zoning for the site. She noted that prior to the A2D2 process, the site had been rezoned to C2A, which she said was more liberal than D1 in terms of setbacks. Then the planning commission and planning staff had recommended D1 zoning there, but the city council requested that it be downzoned to D2.
Friedlaender noted that the owners of the adjacent Landmark building sent a letter of support for the rezoning of 1320 S. University. She also said that the city’s master plan is very inconsistent with regard to this site. Page 42 of the land use plan (Chapter 5) has a map of future land use for this area that shows the parcel as “core” downtown, she noted, not interface. [The D2 zoning is considered interface zoning, for buffer areas between neighborhoods and areas zoned for denser development.] And the city’s transportation master plan, she said, shows the parcel as intended for the highest possible density. But the downtown plan shows the site as an interface area.
Friedlaender said the owner and his representatives disagree with the city planning staff’s assessment that the land can be developed in a financially viable way with D2 zoning. She’d like to see what the staff has come up with in that regard, because the owner has reached a conclusion that’s very different, she said.
If the parcel is granted D1 zoning, the owner has offered to restrict uses to those allowed in D2 districts, but would be willing to further limit those uses, Friedlaender said. She also mentioned the issue of the area’s demographics, noting that of the 1,718 people in the same census block group as the 1320 S. University parcel, 1,712 are renters, with a high turnover in residency. She asked that the city not make decisions based on the expectations of a handful of people.
Jim Valenta of Midwestern Consulting identified himself as a member of the development team. He had authored the traffic study for the 1320 S. University project. He also had authored the transportation study for the Landmark development, as well as for The Varsity and both Zaragon projects – all of them recent residential developments in downtown Ann Arbor. All of those projects cater to a non-motorized mode of transportation, he said. Planning staff comments regarding transportation issues can easily be reconciled at the site plan level, he concluded. [If rezoning were approved, the owner would then need to submit a site plan for approval by the planning commission and city council.]
Gwen Nystuen told commissioners that she didn’t want to repeat what’s already been said. She’s lived in near-downtown neighborhoods for almost 50 years, and residents don’t want to live next to Main Street. This is a perfect example of zoning that steps down from commercial to residential, she said. Compatibility with neighborhoods is extremely important, and she urged commissioners to support the planning staff’s recommendation of denial.
Saying that he represented the North Burns Park Association, Peter Nagourney supported the staff recommendation to deny the rezoning request. He regretted that citizens, as taxpayers, are paying for staff time to consider a request that should never have been made. Any change to the D2 zoning would be seen as a precedent that could threaten other D2 districts, like Kerrytown. Why aren’t these zoning decisions respected? he wondered. Why are they being challenged? It must be because developers believe there’s wiggle room and a pro-density sentiment in city hall.
Past successes by some developers might inspire hope that the system can be broken, Nagourney said. As a citizen and president of a neighborhood association, Nagourney hoped he could maintain faith in the integrity of existing rules. If the current request is approved, he’d have to conclude that the city has sold out to developers and the master plan has no meaning. That’s not the preferred outcome, he concluded.
Earl Barr spoke briefly, simply noting that he lived on Forest Court and agreed that the rezoning request should be denied.
Alluding to a previous speaker, Ray Detter joked that he wasn’t going to promise not to repeat comments that had already been made. He said he was speaking on behalf of the downtown citizens advisory council, and that the group had spent most of their recent meeting talking about this property. Detter reiterated many of the arguments against the rezoning request. He noted that the 618 S. Main project, which the planning commission approved at their Jan. 19, 2012 meeting, is in a D2 district, as is most of Kerrytown. He observed that several people in Kerrytown who want to develop their property would love to see the 1320 S. University rezoning request approved.
The final speaker was Eleanor Linn, a resident of Forest Court directly to the south of 1320 S. University. It’s been a long slog, she said, with the property owner repeatedly trying to get the site rezoned so that he can put up a tall building behind her two-story house. The apartment building that’s there now already brings him income, she noted, and it could be redeveloped under D2 zoning. Her neighborhood has houses that are well-maintained – it’s a real community, she said. They’ve even created an informal group called Friends of Forest Court, to help people learn about their responsibilities as residents.
The developer tries to characterize it as a transient student neighborhood, Linn said, but “this is far from the truth.” She said she contributes to the vibrancy of the city and expects the city to uphold its master plan and keep neighborhoods liveable. She urged commissioners to deny the request and protect residents from the annoyance of these repeated rezoning efforts.
Rezoning for 1320 S. University: Commission Discussion
Bonnie Bona began the discussion by responding to Friedlaender’s remarks about inconsistencies in the city’s various master plans. There is only one land use plan, Bona said – the downtown plan. Other plans are intended to complement that.
Bona then noted that she had participated in the entire A2D2 process. Her first meeting as a planning commissioner was a retreat to initiate the A2D2 process. Having gone through that – as well as having participated in the rezoning of this particular parcel – Bona said she’s not in the same place now as she was when the process started. She had strong opinions, but completely agreed with where the zoning ended up. The city shouldn’t have knee-jerk reactions to requests, she said. Even if she didn’t entirely agree, the community reached a decision and it would be hard for her to deviate from that.
Bona described the history of the various rezoning decisions for this parcel. When it was rezoned to C2A, it had been a long, complicated process, she said. It has already been developed beyond the density of a residential zoning district, so it was rezoned to C2A because it was viewed as part of the downtown, even though it was an outlier. At the time there was no D2 interface option – the idea of an interface zone was suggested in the master plan, but had not yet been implemented. So while it might not seem obvious why the city upzoned it to C2A, and then downzoned it to D2 during the A2D2 process, there are reasons why it makes sense, she said.
Bona concluded by noting that the option of proposing a planned project allows for greater flexibility within the D2 district, without having to rezone the property.
Evan Pratt agreed with Bona, pointing specifically to her statement about planned projects. The A2D2 process was a long one, but everyone agreed at the end. He said he had no interest in undoing all the time and energy it took to reach consensus. Nothing has changed since then, he added. Perhaps in six or seven years, the situation will have changed, he concluded, but that’s not the case now.
Noting that she hadn’t been on the planning commission at the time of the A2D2 process, Eleanore Adenekan thanked Bona and Pratt for putting the situation in historical context.
Tony Derezinski indicated that the city regularly faces controversial decisions. A2D2 was one of those, he said, as is another one that’s coming before the planning commission later this year: changes to R4C (multi-family) zoning districts. But that’s the process, he said.
Derezinski said he was so glad to hear the planning staff praised – he read aloud several comments that he had written down during public commentary, complimenting the staff. He hoped people who had made those comments would have similar things to say the next time the staff makes a recommendation.
It’s not unheard-of for a property owner to take another bite at the apple, Derezinski said, and that’s fine. The A2D2 process was tough, and not everyone got what they wanted. But the final result is something that should be relied on, he said. Zoning was invented in order to provide certainty, he said, and the zoning for this parcel is reasonable. It’s not wrong to try to change it, he concluded, but the owner should let it rest for a while.
Kirk Westphal observed that everyone shares the excitement of changes happening in the South University area, and over the years they’ve appreciated the input of the merchants’ association and others who’ve advocated for a more active downtown. He said he believes the planning commission and staff are often informed by the economic realities of a situation, and it would be nice to have more development in the South University district.
However, Westphal said he had to concur with other commissioners. They have a track record of working out compromises when a parcel doesn’t fit the zoning, and have unanimously approved several planned unit developments and planned projects. He said it’s unusual that this parcel has been bounced around, from zoning that was too high, to zoning that was too low. But now it’s in the “Goldilocks” area, he said – presumably a reference to the zoning being “just right.”
Wendy Woods teased her colleagues, saying that everyone seemed so reasonable, and she agreed with them. When she first saw this request on the agenda for a February meeting, she thought it seemed appropriate because it was like the movie “Groundhog Day,” when everything is repeated. She said the city got it right the last time, when D2 zoning was approved. It’s also important to see the impact of the Landmark building, which is expected to be completed later this year. Woods concluded by praising the city’s planning staff for their work.
Diane Giannola said she agreed with other commissioners. She hadn’t been on planning commission at the time of the A2D2 process, but she watched deliberations on TV. It had been very intense, and there was a lot of compromise. There is no doubt that the intent was to make this parcel D2. For her, it would have made sense to zone it D1, she said, so that the entire block would have consistent zoning. She’d prefer to have a taller building there, but the will of the public overrides that. The D2 zoning doesn’t rise to the level of bad planning, she said. If it did, she added, the commission would have an obligation to say something about it.
Eric Mahler said he had supported D1 zoning for this parcel, and if it had been zoned D1 he would support keeping it that way. But it was a robust discussion and a compromise was reached for A2D2. “It is what it is,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see any appealable errors. Mahler also noted that it’s not within the planning commission’s purview to consider economic factors when making their decisions.
Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, said she wanted to point out that the petitioner did offer to make additional conditions to the D1 zoning. City planner Alexis DiLeo explained that those conditions would include limiting the uses on the site to those allowed in D2 districts, except there would be no transportation- or industrial-oriented uses allowed. Those types of uses are permitted in D2 districts.
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously against recommending the rezoning request for 1320 S. University. The recommendation will be forwarded to city council.
Present: Bonnie Bona, Eleanore Adenekan, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Absent: Erica Briggs.
Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the city planning commission. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.