Knight’s Market Plan Draws Neighbor Interest

Support for Knight family; concern over traffic, "commercial creep"

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (May 15, 2012): At 3.5 hours, the most recent meeting of the Ann Arbor planning commission reflected a trend that city staff say will likely continue: An uptick in projects coming through the city’s planning pipeline.

Sherry Knight Bedolla

Sherry Knight Bedolla speaks to the Ann Arbor planning commission at its May 15, 2012 meeting. Her father, Ray Knight, bought the former Ty's Market on the corner of Spring and Miller in 1952. Knight's Market is seeking to expand and add a bakery in the current single-family house. They are asking the city to rezone the property from residential to C1 commercial. (Photos by the writer.)

The city’s fiscal year ends June 30. Year to date, 10 zoning or planned unit development (PUD) applications have been received, compared to one in fiscal year 2011. Twenty-one site plans have been submitted this year, compared to 13 in FY 2011. And 494 zoning compliance reviews have been completed this year for building permits, up from 215 in FY 2011 – a 129% increase.

At the commission’s May 15 meeting, five projects were considered. The one drawing most interest from residents was a proposed expansion of Knight’s Market at the corner of Spring and Miller. The plan calls for an addition on the current market building, which has been run by the Knight family since 1952. Three parcels would be combined into one that would be rezoned as C1 (local business), allowing the Knights to turn one of two single-family homes next to the market into a bakery. The bakery wouldn’t have a retail space – it would be used to make products for the market and the family’s restaurants in Ann Arbor and Jackson.

Ten people spoke during a public hearing on the project,  mostly residents of the neighborhood. They expressed support and gratitude for the Knights and their business, but raised concerns about increased truck traffic and “commercial creep.” Residents were also cautious about the future of the site, if ownership changes hands after the property is rezoned for commercial uses.

Speaking on behalf of the family, Sherry Knight Bedolla assured commissioners that there are no plans to sell to a developer – the family simply needs to meet demand for its baked goods, she said. The bakery would also be used to repackage food from the restaurant into ready-to-eat meals that would be sold in the market. At the planning staff’s request, commissioners ultimately voted to postpone action on the project to allow time for additional review.

Also postponed was action on the site plan for DTE Energy’s Buckler electrical substation at 984 Broadway near Canal Street. DTE hopes to build the substation in the utility company’s Ann Arbor service center to provide an increase in electrical power to the downtown area, due to increased demand for electricity. The project is expected to be back on the planning commission’s June 5 agenda. A companion project – a site plan for remediation of the nearby MichCon property on Broadway – was unanimously approved, assuming that a list of contingencies are met.

Two other projects were also unanimously approved: (1) an expansion of parking for the Wintermeyer office complex on South State; and (2) a temporary retail sales special exception use for Phantom Fireworks, to sell fireworks in the parking lot of Colonial Lanes at 1950 South Industrial Highway.

Knight’s Market Expansion

Ann Arbor planning commissioners were asked to consider a request from Knight’s Market – a rezoning and site plan proposal to allow the neighborhood market to expand and add a bakery. City planner Alexis DiLeo gave the staff report.

Knight’s Market is located at the northeast corner of Spring and Miller. The market’s owner, Ray Knight, also owns two separate, adjacent parcels. (Knight is perhaps best known for his family’s restaurant, Knight’s Steakhouse, located at 2324 Dexter Ave.) The grocery store is on land zoned zoned C1 (local business) and M1 (light industrial). Another parcel at 306-308 Spring St. has two zoning designations – R2A (two-family dwelling) and M1 – and contains two single-family homes and part of a parking lot. The third parcel at 310 Spring St. is also zoned R2A and M1 and contains the other half of the store’s parking lot. All three parcels are currently non-conforming in some way, according to a staff report, and are located in the 100-year Allen Creek floodplain.

The proposal from Knight’s involves several steps. The request calls for 306, 308 and 310 Spring to be rezoned to C1. That rezoning would allow the building at 306 Spring to be converted into a bakery, although the intent is to leave the exterior of the house intact. The rezoning would also allow for approval to build a 1,200-square-foot addition to the existing grocery store and to expand, reconfigure, and improve the existing parking lot. In addition, the plan requests that 418 Miller Ave. – the site of the existing grocery – also be rezoned to C1.

The proposed work to the parking lot includes providing three additional spaces (for a total of 17 parking spaces), a designated snow pile storage area, solid waste and recycling container storage enclosure, right-of-way screening, conflicting land use buffer, and rain gardens for storm water management. An unused curbcut on Miller Avenue would be removed and the curb and lawn extension would be restored there. A temporary storage building at 418 Miller would be removed. The house at 310 Spring would remain a single-family dwelling.

The staff report notes that a neighborhood meeting in September 2011 drew about 10 people, who raised concerns about the proposed bakery at 306 Spring, as well as possible future uses for adjacent land also owned by Knight at 314 and 422 Spring, which are not part of the current proposal.

Knight’s Market Expansion: Public Hearing

Ten people spoke during the project’s public hearing. Architect Dick Fry described more details of the project. The site will be “cleaned up,” he said, including removal of a trailer that’s been illegally located there for years. No changes to the footprints of the two houses are planned, and the parking is being expanded. He noted that members of the Knight family were attending the meeting – they had been raised on this property. Fry noted that he’s heard speculation about the rezoning being requested in order to sell out to a big developer. That’s not their intention, he said. The Knights need more room to prepare food that will be sold at the grocery.

Dick Fry

Dick Fry, the architect for the Knight's Market expansion.

He said the Knights have agreed to accept the floodplain lines, rather than taking a stand and showing documents that indicate the floodplain had been drawn in a different location when the project first started. They’ll be floodproofing the building – pulling off the siding and putting up brick, which will also make the building look nicer, he said. Fry also told commissioners that there are plans to put up signs – many people don’t know it’s a market. [The building is marked only by black knight chess icons on the sides facing Miller and Spring. The door into the building is off of the parking lot – there is a relatively new sign on that side of the structure, next to the door.]

Sherry Knight Bedolla spoke on behalf of the Knight family. Ray Knight is her father, she said, and two of her four brothers – Jeff and Don – were at the meeting, along with her brother-in-law, Vernon Bedolla. They all work or have worked in the store or at Knight’s restaurant, and want to keep those businesses going. She gave a bit of history about the store, explaining how the small local market became known for its quality meat. She said she was amazed that it’s still in business, after big supermarkets became popular. Yes, the store’s prices are a bit more expensive than larger groceries, she said, but not overly priced. It serves the neighborhood and community. She said she grew up in the house next to the market, and some family members still live in the neighborhood. They don’t plan on going anywhere or selling out.

They aren’t looking to make huge changes, Bedolla said, but she noted that it’s been about 50 years since they’ve made major improvements. They want to make the outside look nicer. If rezoning for the bakery is approved, they’ll be able to do more baking for the restaurants and market, she said. Right now, she can’t satisfy customer demand. They also plan to bring food from the restaurant and package it for ready-to-eat meals that they’ll sell at the store. The changes will also provide jobs for their growing family and others, Bedolla said.

Tim Athan lives on Spring Street, and noted that the project would bring food manufacturing to the neighborhood, with trucks and increased energy use. He said he realized that mixed-use is a tenet of New Urbanism, but this project works against that because it might put the existing bakery – Big City Small World Bakery – out of business. He said he does like mixed-use development, and would like to see the city encourage restoration of older neighborhood stores that already exist.

Athan said it’s a nice neighborhood being encroached on by creeping urban growth. He used to live on Ashley and saw the same thing happen there. He doesn’t want it to happen on “good old Spring Street,” just for the convenience of the Knights. The street already suffers from high traffic, he noted – it’s a well-known cut-through to avoid the stoplights on Main Street. The city’s master plan mandates for reduced neighborhood intrusions, he said, but the city hasn’t helped with that. Each step isn’t bad, but the cumulative effect is negative and transforms the neighborhood. He asked whether anyone would look at the existing Knight’s Market and say that the design they’ve had for decades is big on charm. The proposed plan to use brick is great, but there’s still a long way to go, he said, and past performance should count for something. A sweet neighborhood is being whittled away unnecessarily, he said.

Steve Schewe began by joking that his wife Nancy had told him to speak up. They also live on Spring, and he wanted to read a letter that had been submitted to commissioners earlier. [.pdf of Schewe's letter] He said he’s known the Knights since 1973, and called them ”a classic, hard-working Midwestern family. They are wonderful neighbors and we have complete confidence that they will make improvements in their family-owned and family-operated market that will improve the quality of life in our shared neighborhood.”

Schewe talked about the family’s history and how they help out neighbors by clearing snow or letting people run tabs at the market during tough times. Bob Knight even escorted Nancy Schewe home one night when a murderer had escaped, Schewe said – armed with a baseball bat, Bob Knight had checked to make sure the house was safe for her. Schewe noted that the Knights sell products from local businesses like Mighty Good Coffee, Metzger’s, Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory and Dry Bucket Farms. “The Knights don’t make reckless moves,” Schewe said. “They are slow and cautious, and that is why we trust that they will not abuse this request for rezoning.”

Kathleen Canning, another Spring Street resident, said she’s shopped there since she finally figured out it was a market. Along with Big City bakery, it makes the neighborhood wonderful, she said, and she hopes that the Knights will stay and thrive. However, she also expressed concern about encroaching commercial zoning in an area that’s already seeing urban encroachment. The neighborhood is at its limit. She and Nancy Schewe had organized to get a residential parking program in the neighborhood, which had caused quite a bit of friendly disagreement among neighbors, she said. That program has improved conditions, but there’s still a lot of truck traffic.

Trucks don’t have an easy way out of Spring after they deliver to Knight’s Market, she noted. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that truck traffic will increase with this project, she said. The Knights are asking the neighborhood to bear more traffic, Canning said – that needs to be recognized, and solutions need to be pursued. There are increasing numbers of small children in the neighborhood, and traffic is a concern. The second concern is about the permanence of commercial zoning. She said it’s obviously not possible for zoning to revert to residential, if the property is sold, so she’s very nervous about the potential for commercial buildings that might get built where the houses are now.

Laurie Feldt has lived on the corner of Spring and Cherry since 1992, and said she definitely supported the project. The Knights have traditionally hired from the neighborhood, so it’s an opportunity for more jobs that residents can walk to, she said. The Knights are fair employers – they pay well and treat you well. The amount of truck traffic isn’t a big concern for her – there are already a lot of trucks on Spring, including city trucks and tow trucks. It would be nice for traffic to be mitigated, but she didn’t see how that would happen. Neighbors tolerate parking regulations and home construction projects because properties should work for the owner’s needs.

Feldt said she has a cottage industry baking business in her home, yet she welcomes the Knight’s new bakery. And it would make life easier to have prepared meals available in the market. She said her father is an emeritus professor of urban planning, and he affirmed her guess that the Knight’s project would increase property values and that mixed-use is the way to go. It’s an urban neighborhood, and having these gems gives the neighborhood more value and meaning, she concluded.

Knights Market

The white building, marked only by the black knight chess icons, houses Knight's Market on the northeast corner of Miller and Spring. Across Spring Street in the bright yellow/orange building is Big City Small World Bakery.

Sandra Levitsky also lives on Spring, and echoed her neighbors’ comments both for and against the project. She said she’s an enormous fan of the market and the family. But she’s lived in two neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Minneapolis that suffered from “commercial creep” into a residential neighborhood. In both cases, a benign and seemingly good plan turned bad when the property changed hands. In both LA and Minneapolis, it resulted in fairly ugly fights between residents and commercial owners, she said. She wished for some guarantee to be built into the zoning. ”I trust the Knight family, but who knows what will happen in the future?” As the mother of a 1-year-old, Levitsky also was concerned about traffic and especially increased truck traffic, and hoped the city could address it.

Virginia Gordan lives on Cherry, and said she didn’t mean any disrespect to the Knights or the market by her comments. She agreed with all of the positive attributes that had been cited. But she wanted to highlight a couple of things. Increased traffic is a concern, but the biggest issue is rezoning from residential to C1. What might change in the family’s current plans, or what happens if they sell? Commercial creep is a concern. Now, you can see the market on the corner but you can see houses immediately north of the store. If those are rezoned for commercial use, that’s scary, she said. After the property is rezoned, it seems there’s very little the city can do – South Fifth is an example, she said. [Gordan was alluding to the controversial City Place apartment project on South Fifth, between William and Packard. That property was not rezoned. But Gordan's point was that City Place was seen as an undesirable project that the city council could not reject because it met the conditions of zoning and could thus be built "by right."]

Karen Garrison, who also lives on Spring, began by saying that the character of the Knight family isn’t on trial. She likes the market and family, and appreciates what they’ve done. But what is on trial is the character of the neighborhood, she said. It’s a very special place, and has recently developed into the Water Hill neighborhood, which makes her proud. Garrison said she sees this projects as a conflict with the character of a residential area with community spirit. Ashley doesn’t have that same community feeling – that’s the reason why there’s not a music festival on Ashley, she said.

Scott Newell told commissioners that he owned Big City Small World Bakery at the northwest corner of Miller and Spring. He said he was very conflicted, “but these guys are great,” referring to the Knights. He agreed with the pros and cons he’d heard from previous speakers. If the city does approve the project, he hoped that a real streetlight could be installed on that corner, like one at First and Ashley. Pedestrian traffic is heavy, especially during rush hour, he said, and there are a lot of young families. Newell wrapped up by saying, ”These guys are great and I love ‘em.”

Knight’s Market Expansion: Commission Discussion

Tony Derezinski began the discussion by noting that a range of commentary had been heard but the one constant was a high respect for the Knight family and what they’ve done. People are also concerned about the future, he said, which is natural. It reminded Derezinski about the expansion of Zingerman’s Deli, and how people in the neighborhood praised Zingerman’s but were concerned about delivery trucks and other issues. [The planning commission recommended approval of the Zingerman's expansion at their May 18, 2010 meeting. The project was later approved by the city council and construction is well underway.]

Part of the situation is inevitable, he said. Trucks are already there – it’s a matter of degree as to what might happen in the future, and that’s impossible to predict. People are also worried about the rezoning, Derezinski said, but he felt that the issue was addressed in the staff report. There are natural boundaries to delineate the residential from the commercial. Is it enough to prevent leapfrogging up the street? On these decisions, you do the best you can, he said. Encroachment does happen, but on the other hand it’s good to have neighborhood stores. ”I guess I’m about as conflicted as you are,” he told the residents. It comes down to whether the city is willing to take a chance on the Knights, he said.

The rest of the commissioners’ comments are organized here by topic.

Knight’s Market Expansion: Commission Discussion – Traffic, Parking

Eleanore Adenekan had questions about the truck traffic, and asked for the market’s hours of operation.  Sherry Knight Bedolla said it’s open 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 8-5 on Saturday. The market is closed on Sundays.

Aerial view of Knights Market

Aerial view of Knight's property – the three parcels that are part of the project are outlined in black. Spring Street is the north-south street on the west side of the property. Miller Avenue runs east-west along the market's southern edge.

Adenekan then wanted to know how many trucks come through. Bedolla noted that part of the truck traffic is unrelated to Knight’s – the truck drivers coming down eastbound Miller see the railroad bridge ahead and if they don’t think the truck will fit under it, they cut up Spring Street. As for trucks coming to Knight’s, she estimated there are about a dozen per week, and she didn’t think it would increase very much. Products for the bakery will be delivered on trucks that already make stops at the market, and there are already delivery trucks that go back and forth between the market and restaurant.

Bonnie Bona said the parking expansion made her a little uncomfortable. How much does the market need and use? When she thinks of neighborhood stores – like the Big City bakery or Jefferson Market – she doesn’t think about parking. Neither of those stores have parking. She said she realized that the city has a 14-space minimum requirement, but the site plan calls for 17.

Bedolla reported that there are about six employee cars on the lot each day, with the rest for customers. They’re trying not to use spaces in the neighborhood, she said. Usually four or five customer vehicles are in the lot, though sometimes during rush hour it’s full, she said.

Bona clarified with Dick Fry that two bike hoops are planned, but more could be added.

Evan Pratt said he used to live in that area, on Chapin. It’s true that Spring Street is a cut-through, but most of that traffic is related to the railroad bridge, he said. And he didn’t think it was unreasonable to get two or three deliveries a day.

Pratt also noted that the city has a traffic-calming program, which requires a certain percentage of residents to petition for changes. He said he now lives off of Broadway, and the traffic calming there has been a benefit – maybe not with the amount of traffic, he said, but to reduce speeds.

Kirk Westphal said he didn’t know if a traffic study was warranted, but he noted that traffic creep can also be an issue. Alexis DiLeo replied that the site plan didn’t trigger a traffic study. Typically the trigger is if there’s more than 50 vehicles in the peak hour, but that threshold didn’t speak to deliveries, she noted – it looked at employees and customers. She said she hadn’t previously been aware of the concerns about truck traffic, however, so she could see what the options are for further study.

Knight’s Market Expansion: Commission Discussion – Zoning

Bonnie Bona said she had a couple of concerns about the project. The bakery will be a production facility, not retail – that’s a fact, she said. Her conflict is with the lack of retail. On the other hand, rezoning away from residential in a floodplain makes sense. Hundreds of homes are located in the floodplain, and usually the residents are the most financially challenged, she said. That’s not where people should be living.

Bona asked the planning staff if contract zoning might be an option to add restrictions on what would be allowed on the site. She also wondered about lot size. Currently, C1 has a minimum lot size of 2,000 square feet, she noted. At what point does a national chain become interested in a site – 20,000 square feet? 50,000 square feet? Bona said she’d be more comfortable knowing about that.

Knights Entrance

The entrance to Knight's Market off of Spring Street is between the market building and a single-family house, which would be converted to a bakery if rezoning is approved.

Diane Giannola also expressed concern about commercial creep. After the rezoning, would there still be three separate parcels? Alexis DiLeo said the site plan is contingent on combining the lots. Giannola wondered if it’s big enough that a national chain might want to locate there.

Giannola’s other concern is that there’s no retail in the bakery. Was any kind of store planned inside the bakery? Sherry Knight Bedolla replied that the intent is to make baked goods to sell in the market and restaurants. They didn’t want to encroach on the neighborhood by having another store. The outside of the house will look as it does now, she said – the exterior won’t change.

Giannola thought it didn’t really fit in C1 zoning if there’s no retail. Dick Fry clarified that the retail sales must be on the site, but not necessarily in the same building. It would be easy to have a walk-in room and counter sales, he said, but that would complicate the site and the traffic.

Kirk Westphal observed that it was great to hear the rich input from the community – it helps flesh out the commission’s discussion to picture what the worst case scenario could be, he said. He was struggling with the project as well, and asked planning staff to give examples about what kinds of businesses can operate in C1 districts, and at what scale.

DiLeo said that C1 allows for general retail sales, restaurants, and service businesses like dry cleaners and nail salons. There’s a limit of 8,000 square feet per use, she said, but that’s not a building size limitation. So there could be a strip mall, and each business could have up to 8,000 square feet of space. The limiting factor for building size would be the floor-area ratio (FAR), based on the lot size. Residential use would not be prohibited, but it would be discouraged because of the floodplain, DiLeo said.

Evan Pratt asked if staff had considered other zoning districts. DiLeo replied that C1 is the least intense of the commercial zones. It’s the only zoning district with a size limitation for use, for example.

Pratt commented that the current zoning is “pretty arcane.” What are the uses for M1 – the strip that goes along the railroad tracks? That’s for transportation and railroad uses, DiLeo said, and light manufacturing – something like a small machine shop. M1 allows for items to be assembled, but not created from raw materials. Pratt ventured that cleaning up the M1 zoning is a good thing.

Wendy Woods said she appreciated the concern about commercial creep, but that’s a balancing act that no one can predict. In the past, the Knights have attempted to keep their business going, she said, and it’s their intent to stay. She asked for clarification about whether anything can be done regarding a change of ownership. DiLeo replied that the zoning is tied to the land, not the land’s use or owners. Conditional or contract zoning is something that the property owners could offer to do, but the owners can’t stipulate that the zoning will automatically revert to its previous zoning. That would be in conflict with due process and public noticing, she said. If it’s rezoned from commercial back to residential or to some other kind of district, it would need to go through the rezoning process.

Westphal asked whether contract or conditional zoning could stipulate the size of a building’s footprint or area, for example. DiLeo said she’d need to check with the city attorney’s office on what kind of conditions could be stipulated. Westphal asked about a PUD (planned unit development) – might that type of zoning be useful in this situation? DiLeo said that typically, conditional zoning is a good tool to use when you want to limit what’s allowed, while a PUD is a useful tool when you want to expand what’s allowed from the base zoning.

Knight’s Market Expansion: Commission Discussion – Design

Bonnie Bona noted that she lives in the “upper Water Hill” neighborhood, north of the Spring/Miller area, and she frequents Big City bakery and the Kerrytown shops. But she hasn’t been to Knight’s Market in 25 years, she said, because it’s not welcoming. What are the owners trying to do to make it more welcoming? Windows would be good, to help keep an eye on the street, she said. [The current building has one small window facing Miller, and a few small windows facing Spring.] Bona also noted that Big City bakery has a residence above its shop. Why doesn’t the Knight’s plan have the same?

Dick Fry said they haven’t gotten into details about the building design, and the things that Bona mentioned would help. The entrance will likely stay on the side of the building where it’s currently located, facing north onto the parking lot, but the owners are open to other ideas, he said. Bona encouraged him to invite input from the neighbors – ultimately, she said, they’re the ones who have to live with it.

Kirk Westphal said he echoed Bona’s sentiments regarding the building facade for the sides facing Miller and Spring.

Knight’s Market Expansion: Commission Discussion – Wrapping Up

Eric Mahler asked Alexis DiLeo how much time it would take to address the outstanding issues. Would it be back for review at the planning commission’s June 5 meeting? Planning manager Wendy Rampson said that depends on whether the owners are interested in doing something different with the zoning. If the zoning approach changes, it would take longer. [Rampson subsequently confirmed that the project will not be on the June 5 agenda.]

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone action on the Knight’s Market expansion.

DTE Buckler Substation

Planning commissioners were asked to consider a site plan for a new DTE Buckler electrical substation at 984 Broadway near Canal Street.

Site plan for DTE Buckler substation

Site plan for DTE Buckler substation. (Links to larger image.)

City planner Jeff Kahan gave the staff report. DTE is building the new Buckler substation in the utility company’s Ann Arbor service center to provide an increase in electrical power to the downtown area due to increased demand for electricity.

According to a staff memo, the project will include two 15.5-foot tall electrical transformers and related electrical equipment on raised concrete pads, and a new power delivery center (PDC) – a 630-square-foot, 12.5-foot tall steel structure. The project also will include a new six-foot tall perimeter chain link fence with one foot of barb wire and a concrete block retaining wall. The source of power will be transmitted through underground sub-transmission cables in an existing manhole and conduit system.

Because of floodplain issues, DTE has proposed to build raised transformer pads by bringing in 800 cubic yards of fill. To mitigate that impact to the floodplain, DTE plans to remove 1,155 cubic yards of earth on the MichCon site at 841 Broadway. [MichCon is a DTE subsidiary.] The proposal also calls for removing a building on the MichCon site, which will give the company an additional 55 cubic yards of ”floodplain mitigation credit.” The proposal for this MichCon portion of the project was presented in a separate agenda item (see below).

City planning staff had recommended postponement of the Buckler substation site plan to allow more time to review several outstanding issues. For example, staff has recommended that DTE seek a variance from the city’s zoning board of appeals for a 100-year detention requirement – the proposed site plan would require such a variance. The site is located within the Huron River’s 100-year floodplain.

The project also needs a variance to the 15-foot conflicting land use buffer requirements along the east side property line, adjacent to Riverside Park. DTE is requesting a variance that would allow 33 trees and 38 shrubs to be planted along the far western side of Riverside Park instead of on DTE property. The city’s park advisory commission recommended approval of that variance at its Feb. 28, 2012 meeting.

DTE Buckler Substation: Public Hearing

The only person to speak during the public hearing was Mike Witkowski, DTE planning engineer for Washtenaw County. He thanked Kahan and other city planning staff for their help in working through a number of issues. He noted that DTE’s current infrastructure can’t support demand for electricity in that part of the city. Within a mile radius of the current Argo substation on Broadway, peak loads were 17% higher in 2011 compared to 2009. That’s what happens when you knock down a building and put up a high rise, he said – a probable allusion to the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center on Wall Street, near the proposed substation site.

Without this project, he said, DTE has limited or no ability to serve new businesses, and there would be increased risk of brownouts or blackouts to do equipment overloads. He said the utility has plans to address those concerns in the interim, but they need a long-term solution.

The location is critical because the substation needs to be near the center of the load, he said. The Buckler location would also be near existing infrastructure for DTE’s system. If the project is approved, Witkowski said the first circuits likely would be energized in May of 2013. A lot needs to happen before then, he added – it’s a long design and construction process. But once energized, the new circuits will support new customers.

Witkowski described the Buckler substation project as a $10 million investment in the city. DTE wants to foster a favorable environment for economic development, he said, and this substation should provide the ability to sustain growth for years to come.

DTE Buckler Substation: Commission Discussion

Wendy Woods asked whether the city council would need to vote on this item. Eric Mahler, the planning commission’s chair, replied that only planning commission approval is needed.

Woods highlighted Witkowski’s comments about the growth in demand and DTE’s ability to provide electricity to additional customers. She noted that the city has a focus on sustainability, and those numbers grabbed her attention. She asked for more details about the future ability to serve new customers.

It’s hard to make specific projections, Witkowski said. He noted that the last Ann Arbor substation was built in the 1960s, but Ann Arbor is a hot spot in the state for growth, unlike other areas. Electric vehicles might also increase demand in the future, he said. But if he had to give a ballpark estimate, Witkowski said the new substation would likely meet demand for at least 20 years.

Kirk Westphal’s initial line of questioning focused on the fence, and he wondered whether it could be a solid wall, rather than chain link and barbed wire – that’s the least desirable alternative, he said. Mark Fairless, a civil engineer with DTE, said the design, including the use of chain link and barbed wire, meets the national electrical safety code for substation protection. It’s a standard design, he said, and provides the most protection both for DTE’s assets and the public.

When Westphal pressed about other options that might be available, Fairless repeated that the proposed design is DTE’s standard one – they haven’t looked at other options. The retaining wall is required because of the substation’s location in the floodplain, he said, and the fence construction is standard. Westphal encouraged the designers to consider different materials.

Argo substation at Broadway and Swift

DTE's Argo substation on the northwest corner of Broadway and Swift, looking west over the Broadway bridge.

Westphal then turned to the topic of the Argo substation on Broadway, saying he rides past it every day and “it’s not the best feature of the neighborhood.” Is there any opportunity to consolidate the two sites – to upgrade the new Buckler substation so that the one on Argo wouldn’t be needed?

Witkowski clarified that the Buckler substation isn’t planned to be a replacement for Argo. The two sites would work in tandem, he said. He noted that the Argo substation serves a wide area, including city hall, that couldn’t be picked up by the new substation. It wouldn’t be economically feasible for DTE to decommission it, he said.

Evan Pratt wanted to know what the bigger picture plans are for Buckler and Argo. It would be nice if DTE’s long-range plan were to move Argo off of this major city corridor. What’s the expected life for the Argo substation? he asked.

That’s hard to say, Witkowski replied. When the project began in 2008, the original idea was to do upgrades at the Argo substation, he said. But that was before Ann Arbor started seeing accelerated growth. Because of the type of equipment at Argo, DTE couldn’t do the upgrade until some of the load was taken off of that substation. Now, he said, there’s a strong possibility that they’ll clean up the Argo site and make it less congested. However, essential equipment is there that can’t be moved at this point, and it will remain there for the foreseeable future, he said.

Bonnie Bona said she agreed with Pratt – there’s a bigger aesthetic consideration at Argo. She also pointed out that Michigan Stadium was previously surrounded by a chain link fence, too. Now, the fence is wrought iron and painted blue, with brick pilasters. Bona joked that as long as commissioners were redesigning DTE’s substations, she wanted to bring up the fact that the Buckler substation would be located near the Huron River. In the long term, she said, it would be nice to think that the area could be a more active, integrated part of the community. Is there anything about the substation that makes it integral to that site, or could it stand alone if other parts of the site were used for other purposes, like a park?

Witkowski said the site is perfect for the substation, and he explained how the location would allow the substation’s equipment to feed into DTE’s existing infrastructure.

Bona then asked a question about landscaping – she assumed that no trees would be removed? Fairless replied that six of the 13 trees would be taken down, because they are on the property line, growing into the existing fence. Landscaping plans call for DTE to add 23 trees, however, and to donate another 10 trees to be planted in Riverside Park.

Eric Mahler asked whether the $10 million investment is contingent on making a rate increase request to the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state. No, Witkowski replied. This project has already been approved by DTE’s executive management, and doesn’t require asking for rate adjustments from the MPSC.

Mahler wondered what information the planning staff needed. Jeff Kahan indicated that they had been awaiting several items, and that DTE had recently turned in a revised site plan that the staff hadn’t yet had the opportunity to review. Kahan expected the project would be ready for the planning commission’s meeting on June 5. [Planning staff later confirmed that the project will be on the June 5 agenda.]

After discussion ended, Bona made a motion to postpone, which was seconded by Westphal.

Before the vote, Tony Derezinski asked if DTE was working under any sort of critical timeframe. Scott Trowbridge, DTE’s project manager for the Buckler substation, said the company can move ahead and start making decisions about the project, but there’s some risk involved since it hasn’t yet been approved by the city. He said they’d likely do some work around the existing service center, to accommodate the eventual substation construction. At some point, though, the timing of approval will affect how well DTE can be prepared for electricity demands in the summer of 2013.

Derezinski said it will likely be just a short postponement, and it seemed like “you wouldn’t go bankrupt on that.” Trowbridge indicated that Derezinski was correct – DTE would not go bankrupt.

Outcome: Commissioners voted to postpone action on the Buckler substation project. It will return to the planning commission at its next meeting on June 5.

MichCon Site Remediation

A site plan for remediation of the MichCon property at 841 Broadway was another DTE-related item on the May 21 agenda. The proposal was made in conjunction with the site plan for the new DTE Buckler electrical substation on the opposite side of Broadway. MichCon is a subsidiary of DTE.

The MichCon site plan approval is contingent on three things: (1) obtaining variances from the city’s zoning board of appeals (ZBA) to exempt MichCon from providing a new stormwater management system; (2) obtaining a Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) permit for work within the floodplain and Huron River; and (3) indicating water main and storm sewer easements on the site plan and providing the city with legal descriptions for those easements prior to the city issuing grading permits.

Bonnie Bona, Wendy Woods, Diane Giannola

From left: Planning commissioners Bonnie Bona, Wendy Woods and Diane Giannola.

The remediation site plan entails removing 1,155 cubic yards of earth on the MichCon property, including the site’s most heavily contaminated soil. The company would get another 55 cubic yards of “floodplain mitigation credit” as a result of removing a building on the site. The remediation is intended to offset impact on the Huron River floodplain that’s expected when DTE brings in 800 cubic yards of soil to build raised transformer pads at the new Buckler substation.

According to a staff memo, a ZBA variance is needed to exempt the company from building new stormwater detention systems. Because contaminated soil will remain on the site after remediation, the company has indicated that installing new detention systems would be harmful to groundwater and the Huron River. Detention systems would not be required if impervious surfaces were removed on the site. However, removing impervious surfaces would allow contaminants in the soil to leach into the Huron River and groundwater. The proposal calls for leaving the existing impervious surfaces in place to provide a cap on contaminated soils.

[DTE officials had previously briefed the city's park advisory commission about this project at PAC's March 20, 2012 meeting, and had made a presentation at a March 12, 2012 city council working session. An extensive report on that presentation is included in The Chronicle’s coverage of a recent master plan committee meeting: “Planning Group Revisits Huron River Report.”]

The MichCon remediation requires approval only from the planning commission, and does not require action by the city council.

MichCon Site Remediation: Public Hearing

Two people spoke during the public hearing for this project. Paul Machiele of Ann Arbor told commissioners that he’s overjoyed by many aspects of this project, but also has some concerns. He said he’s a recreational kayaker on the Huron River. Last summer, he visited the city of Bend, Oregon, and was amazed by the transformation of the riverfront there, with pathways, canoe/kayak launch sites and other features. When he returned here and kayaked along the Huron River starting near Argo Pond, he wondered ”why is Ann Arbor wasting our river?” He keeps driving past the MichCon site and wonders why it’s not possible to get access to the river from that site. It’s a flowing stretch of river in the downtown area, and a wonderful opportunity to encourage more people to go to the river, as well as for more businesses to grow in that area. He advocated for opening up both sides of the river along that stretch, including pathways for people to jog or walk. Machiele said he didn’t know what the restrictions would be, but it’s a wonderful opportunity and shouldn’t be wasted.

Shayne Wiesemann, a senior environmental engineer with DTE and project manager for the remediation, said that the request in front of the planning commission is just one piece of a broader effort. The remediation allows DTE to start listening to input from community stakeholders, he said – the Huron River Watershed Council, National Wildlife Federation, and the city, among others. He noted that DTE has entered into a partnership with the city regarding the whitewater feature that DTE will now be building along that stretch of the river. The company will be looking at future uses for the property – there’s been a lot of talk in the community about it becoming a park, or a place for mixed-use development, he said. But for now, DTE’s focus is on remediation, Wiesemann said. It’s an important step in making the site available for other uses. The site has been described as a jewel in the Border-to-Border trail, he noted, and DTE executives see the property as being an economic catalyst for the community. The request at this meeting is just a part of that process, he concluded.

MichCon Site Remediation: Commission Discussion

Tony Derezinski began the discussion by talking about how the project fits into the overall improvement in that area, including the new Argo Cascades bypass. The hard and gritty truth is that the MichCon property needs to be cleaned up, he said. He’s very much in favor of this remediation.

Bonnie Bona asked about the fence on the property. Jeff Kahan replied that the existing fence prevents access from Broadway, but the entire site isn’t enclosed. Shayne Wiesemann of DTE noted that the property’s west side isn’t fenced, and the idea is eventually to take down the fence on the east side, along the river, after remediation is completed.

Evan Pratt asked where he could find a copy of the environmental report for the site. He said he understood that the planning commission couldn’t have much input on that. Wiesemann said the results are posted on the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality’s website.  [The MDEQ keeps a list of contaminated sites in the state, including those in Ann Arbor, with a list of the contaminants at those sites. The contaminants at the MichCon Broadway site include heavy metals (lead, nickel, zinc, etc.) and phthalates.] He noted that the report had been available at a public forum in April, and at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library.

Pratt said it was great that DTE is cleaning up the site, but it gave him pause to hear that asphalt would be left on part of the site because of concerns over what might be underneath it. He understood that it’s complicated, but asked for the simple version – anything that’s left on the site would be authorized by the DEQ? Is it developable in general? he asked.

Wiesemann replied that the cleanup would be amenable for industrial uses. DTE is stopping there until it knows what the future uses for the site will be, he said. They are eliminating risks along the river bank, and remediating some of the bad “hot spots” in the upland area. Beyond that, they don’t want to do too much or too little at this point, he said. When DTE figures out the final use of the property, they’ll submit another plan to the DEQ to fulfill requirements for that end use, and whatever project is proposed would also go through the city’s full site plan process.

Pratt said it sounds like recreational options are still on the table. Wiesemann’s reply was non-committal, saying that DTE was working with Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, and Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Natural Resources Center – both organizations are based in Ann Arbor. Everything’s on the table, Wiesemann said, and DTE wants to see this site fully enjoyed by the community.

Wendy Woods asked where the contaminated soils are transported. Wiesemann said the soil will be taken to a landfill with a Type II license. In the past, they’ve used the landfill in Northville, he said [the Arbor Hills landfill, operated by Veolia ES Arbor Hills Landfill Inc.]. But it might be taken to other appropriately licensed facilities in southeast Michigan, he said.

Woods clarified that this is a different process than a brownfield redevelopment project. That’s right, Wiesemann replied. MichCon/DTE is liable because the company purchased the site as part of a merger. DTE will be paying for it out of the company’s environmental reserve, he said, which is rate recoverable. [That means that DTE could ask the MPSC for an increase in rates to cover the costs.]

Kirk Westphal followed up on the public commentary, and asked about access to the river. Can a boat be launched from this site? No, Kahan replied. Wiesemann said people will be able to access the planned whitewater features from the opposite side of the river, from the pathway running next to Argo Cascades. Wiesemann said the pathways – and a boardwalk that will be built over wetlands in that area – are subject to DEQ approval, as part of the overall whitewater project.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the site plan for remediation of the MichCon property, assuming that the stated contingencies are addressed.

Wintermeyer Parking Expansion

The planning commission was asked to approve an expansion to the Wintermeyer office parking lot at 2144 and 2178 S. State St., south of Stimson and east of the University of Michigan golf course. A landscape modification on the 1.8-acre site also was requested.

Map of 2144 S. State – Wintermeyer Offices

A map showing the location of the Wintermeyer office buildings on the west side of South State Street.

Alexis DiLeo gave the staff report. Two two-story office buildings are currently located on the site, along with an 85-space parking lot. The parcel is zoned O (office). After the expansion, there will be a total of 101 parking spaces on the site. A maximum of 111 parking spaces are allowed for the existing office development.

City staff have notified the property owner, Tracy Wintermeyer, that eight slabs of sidewalk in front of the site are need replacement. He has agreed to do that, DiLeo noted.

Modifications to the landscaping requirements include: (1) allowing the existing landscaping islands in the parking lot to remain in their current locations; and (2) allowing existing runs of 21 and 28 continuous spaces to remain in place. Landscaping regulations limit the number of continuous parking spaces to 15.

Wintermeyer Parking Expansion: Public Hearing

One person – David Diephuis, whose home is located directly north of the site – spoke during the project’s public hearing. He and his wife aren’t enthusiastic about additional parking, he said, but they understand the need for it as well as the owner’s right to build it, based on the property’s zoning. They also support the proposed underground water detention.

They initially had three concerns, Diephuis said, but two of those concerns have been resolved after talking with the owner and city staff. The unresolved issue relates to the buffer between his home and the parking lot retaining wall. The site plan calls for shrubs to be planted between the lot and the wall. Diephuis proposed planting fewer shrubs there, in exchange for larger shrubs between the wall and his property, to soften the sterile look of the wall. He said he hoped the issue could be handled administratively.

Turning to the other two concerns, Diephuis pointed to questions about whether the rain garden/landscaping could handle the water during a heavy rainstorm. The drainage ditch between his property and the Wintermeyer offices is already stressed because of the heavy runoff from the UM golf course – erosion to that ditch is already substantial, he said, especially as it nears State Street. He said city staff have assured him that remediation would be possible if the rain garden doesn’t work as planned. “I’ll cling to the hope that the engineers that reviewed the data and analyzed the risk are better at their jobs than some of today’s Wall Street bankers,” he quipped.

Finally, Diephuis noted that the project will impact the root zone of some landmark trees on his property. City staff have informed him that state law allows this, even if it kills the tree. He suggested that the city consider creating some kind of tree escrow account, to mitigate damage that might occur not just on a developer’s land, but for adjacent neighbors too.

Wintermeyer Parking Expansion: Commission Discussion

Evan Pratt asked about the landmark trees – are those scheduled for removal? Alexis DiLeo indicated that while the trees won’t be removed, the project will create a disturbance in the critical root zones of the trees.

Wendy Woods asked about the landscaping issue that had been raised during the public hearing. Is it staff’s intention to work on this, or is there something that the planning commission should do? she asked. DiLeo replied that it seemed Diephuis was asking the commission to give conditional approval of the project, and that staff would work on changes to the landscaping plan.

The property’s owner, Tracy Wintermeyer, stepped forward and told commissioners that he has a good relationship with Diephuis and is happy to put plantings on the north side of the retaining wall. He said he’d be amenable to making the project contingent on that, if necessary. “I want to keep Dave as a good neighbor,” he said.

Planning manager Wendy Rampson suggested making a formal amendment “just to be safe.”

Outcome on amendment: Commissioners unanimously approved an amendment making the project contingent on administrative approval of changes to the landscaping plan.

There was little additional discussion. Pratt said that in general, when infiltration is proposed as a way to handle stormwater runoff, it would be helpful for staff reports to include the soil type for that area.

Outcome: In two separate votes, commissioners unanimously approved the landscaping modifications, as amended, and site plan for expanding the Wintermeyer office parking lot.

Phantom Fireworks Permit

Planning commissioners were asked to grant a temporary retail sales special exception use for Phantom Fireworks, a firm based in Youngstown, Ohio.

City planner Alexis DiLeo gave the staff report. The business is proposing to put up a 40×40-foot tent and an 8×40-foot storage pod in the parking lot of Colonial Lanes at 1950 South Industrial Highway. The tent would be set back 25 feet from South Industrial and take up 24 parking spaces on 2.96-acre site, leaving 203 parking spaces for the bowling alley and Cubs A.C. restaurant.

The northeast, two-way traffic entrance would be temporarily closed by placing four orange traffic cones and yellow tape in the parking lot. The remaining four entrances to the site would remain open. The sales tent would operate from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week, with sales hours extended to midnight depending upon sales demand leading up to July 4, according to the staff report.

The site is zoned C3 (fringe commercial district), which allows certain types of temporary outdoor sales. A special exception use is needed because the proposed sales are different from items sold at the property’s permanent business.

Phantom Fireworks Permit: Public Hearing

Rick Tapper introduced himself as the Michigan representative for Phantom Fireworks. He noted that although they’ve signed a lease for 30 days, they only plan to have the tent up for 10 days. On July 5, he said, the tent – which is fire resistant, he noted – comes down. They’ll be selling Class C fireworks, and using employees from Colonial Lanes who would have otherwise been laid off during this slow period for the bowling alley, Tapper said. The operation is insured, and he hoped that commissioners would approve the permit.

Phantom Fireworks Permit: Commission Discussion

Wendy Woods asked for a clarification regarding Class C fireworks – does the buyer have to be over age 18? Yes, Tapper replied, and the staff are trained to check everyone’s ID.

Rick Tapper of Phantom Fireworks

Rick Tapper of Phantom Fireworks.

Woods then noted that people tend to “get happy” on July 4th while using fireworks. She asked Tapper about how the staff would identify people who are intoxicated. Tapper assured her that training is provided to staff about how to recognize if someone is drunk or high.

Responding to additional queries from Woods, Tapper described how the tent and storage unit will be inspected by the city’s fire marshal, and how a lock on the storage unit will provide security when the business is closed.

Woods ventured that the hours of operation – until midnight – seem late. Tapper replied that about 70% of their business happens in three days, from July 2-4. That’s likely the only time they would sell past the normal closing of 10 p.m.

In response to a question from Tony Derezinski, DiLeo said that notices about the special exception use for Phantom Fireworks had been mailed out to neighbors in that area, but the planning staff had heard no questions or concerns about it.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the temporary retail sales special exception use for Phantom Fireworks. Special exception use is granted by the planning commission and does not require additional approval by the city council. 

Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Bonnie Bona, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.

Absent: Erica Briggs.

Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listings to 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 plan on doing the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.


  1. June 1, 2012 at 8:32 pm | permalink

    Regarding truck traffic at Knight’s, wouldn’t there be more traffic, not less, if the zoning change is denied? The bakery would have to go somewhere else, and the baked goods would be trucked in to the market instead of walked over across the parking lot.

  2. By Trevor
    June 1, 2012 at 11:07 pm | permalink

    Did I hear Commissioner Bona say she lives in “Upper Waterhill”? Here I was thinking we were so cool to live in Waterhill. I guess we’ll have to just tell people, “Yes, we live in Waterhill… Well, LOWER Waterhill.” (hangs head in shame)

  3. June 2, 2012 at 7:31 am | permalink

    I think Commissioner Bona and I live in “Outer Waterhill” or perhaps “Vista de Waterhill”, meaning you can see it from your front porch. It (the real one) is indeed a cool neighborhood, and in my opinion, Knight’s Market is one of the reasons. It is a genuine neighborhood grocery, with a Goldilocks’ store of staples, many local foods, and that excellent meat market. It is within walking distance of most of the neighborhood, the new urbanist’s dream.

    I hope that Cmr. Bona revisits it. It has undergone many changes in the last couple of years, including updated lighting, new fixtures and a modestly landscaped entrance. She may be letting her architect’s sensibility influence her perception of “welcoming” (the lack of signage and windows) but the experience should change her mind.

  4. By Sandi Smith
    June 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm | permalink

    Trevor, if you are “Lower Water Hill”, then those of on N Ashley are “Under Water Hill”!

  5. By Trevor
    June 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm | permalink

    I prefer the term “neighborhood store” over “commercial creep”.

    There are many things we love about our neighborhood. Knight’s and Big City Bakery are two of them. The Knight family’s plans will only add to the quality of where we live. They are part of our community, not some corporate monster that wants to take over our neighborhood.

  6. By A2Person
    June 3, 2012 at 9:07 am | permalink

    Assuming some sort of conditional zoning could protect the neighborhood from future disaster, and the new offerings don’t take away from Big City’s business,, I’m all for the expansion! I love our Water Hill businesses!

  7. By John Floyd
    June 4, 2012 at 5:25 pm | permalink


    Only a few people think that the Knight family’s immediate plans will be bad for the neighborhood. This isn’t the big issue, its a red herring. The question is about what happens in the day that the Knight’s no longer own it. Whether in 100 days or 100 years, the day when any one family ceases to own a particular piece of property is out there. As Water Hill is increasingly perceived as a “Cool” neighborhood, it is inevitable that commercial interests will seek to exploit the zoning of this property to the max. That’s the real issue.

    Commercial creep is the correct description. Again, the issue is not the Knight family, or its immediate plans. These topics are just a distraction from the real issue, which is what would be allowed on the site after this request for re-zoning.

    Similarly, fear over “The Poor” moving into a flood plain on the site is also a red herring. While apparently there is some controversy over whether or not this site actually is in the floodplain, the idea that attractive housing that fit in with the neighborhood on that site would become low-income housing is absurd. 25 or 30 years ago, you might have been able to make the case that low-income families still remained in lower-lying parts of town, but even then you would have been hard pressed to find new low-income families moving in (transient undergraduates, perhaps).

    It doesn’t strike me that someone who has lived “in the neighborhood”, but has not been in the store for “25 years”, could have enough familiarity to have much of substance to say about this part of the neighborhood, period.

    Given our experience with German Town, this government and its allies may not in a position to be fully trusted when its representatives and friends speak about preserving the neighborhood’s integrity. Councilmember Derezinski’s answer to his own question “Is it enough to prevent leapfrogging up the street?” is “On these decisions, you do the best you can, he said. Encroachment does happen…” is effectively the announcement that Water Hill is now in play (“But only a little bit, just at the bottom of Spring. Nothing more…”)

    Bad government does happen. Let’s find a way to let the Knight’s bake away, while preventing “Encroachment does happen” from happening.