Put Off: Moratorium on Downtown Site Plans

A six-month moratorium on the acceptance of new site plans for developments in downtown Ann Arbor has been postponed by the city council until its March 4 meeting – in a unanimous vote taken at its Feb. 19, 2013 meeting.

At the same Feb. 19 meeting, the council also postponed a resolution that called for reconvening the downtown design guidelines task force to review and make recommendations to city council regarding improvements to the design review process. Currently, developers must follow a mandatory process of review for downtown projects, but are not required to comply with the board’s recommendations. The resolution was added to the agenda about an hour before the meeting started. Members of the task force mentioned in the resolution are: Marcia Higgins (Ward 4 city council), Tamara Burns (architect), Dick Mitchell (architect), Bill Kinley (construction contractor), Norm Tyler (architect), Kirk Westphal (planning commission chair), and Doug Kelbaugh (University of Michigan professor of architecture and urban planning).

But it’s the possible moratorium that has drawn the most interest, because of developments that are already in the approval process – including a controversial project at 413 E. Huron. Under the proposed moratorium, that project would not be allowed to move forward, because its site plan did not receive a recommendation of approval from the city’s planning commission. However, the wording of the resolution provides for exemptions for site plans that have already received the planning commission’s recommendation of approval.

Specifically, the wording in the resolution means that the moratorium would not apply to the 624 Church St. project, which received a recommendation of approval from the city planning commission on Jan. 15, 2013. That project is expected to be considered by the city council at its March 4 meeting. The 14-story 624 Church St. project would offer 75 apartments with a total of about 175 bedrooms. Local attorney Scott Munzel, who represents the developer on the project, attended the council’s Sunday night caucus to get clarification on that point.

The moratorium also would not impact Kerrytown Place, a proposed development on North Main – the site of the former Greek Orthodox church – that’s zoned D2. Kerrytown Place consists of three 3-4 story buildings with a total of 19 units. The project is scheduled for consideration by the city’s design review board on Feb. 20.

Based on the wording in the resolution, the moratorium would apply to the 413 E. Huron project, which recently failed to gain a recommendation of approval from the city planning commission, and could be on a city council agenda as early as mid-March. That project is located on a site zoned D1, the highest density allowed in the city.

The council’s Feb. 19 meeting featured public commentary from several people in support of the moratorium. Attorneys for the developer of 413 E. Huron also addressed the council, saying that if the moratorium were to be imposed, their client would look to exercise his legal rights.

The council’s resolution also would direct the planning commission to use part of the period of the moratorium to review recently approved and recommended site plans in the D1-zoned areas. The point of the review would be to determine if zoning standards provide appropriate guidance on form and use, and if the zoning conforms to the city’s master plan, downtown plan and character district overlays. The resolution states that the planning commission is to complete its work by June 4 (its first meeting in June) and the council is supposed to take any action by Aug. 19 (its second meeting in August).

The memo accompanying the resolution notes that an initial review of the relatively new A2D2 zoning, enacted in 2009, was supposed to take place after one year. But in that first year no projects had been proposed – because of the economic downturn. Since then, however, the memo points to four projects that have been proposed in D1 areas: Zaragon West (built), The Varsity (under construction), 624 Church Street (proposed) and 413 E. Huron (proposed).

The moratorium was considered at the first council meeting after the city planning commission took action on a site plan for 413 E. Huron – a proposed 14-story, 271,855-square-foot apartment building with 533 bedrooms, marketed primarily to university students. The determination of the planning staff was that the project met the D1 zoning requirements, which in that part of the city include a height limit of 150 feet.

However, the outcome of the planning commission’s vote on Feb. 4, 2013 was not a recommendation for approval, because the 5-3 tally in favor did not give the project the required six-vote majority.

The planning commission vote came after long and harsh criticism during the public hearing on the 413 E. Huron site plan – at the two meetings when the planning commission deliberated on the proposal. Some residents called for a rezoning of the parcel, saying it was inappropriate for that area. The D1 zoning had been part of the A2D2 rezoning package for the downtown, which the council approved at its Nov. 16, 2009 meeting.

But even without a planning commission recommendation, a developer has the option of bringing a site plan proposal for consideration by the city council, which the 413 E. Huron developer intends to do.

The resolution to establish a moratorium was brought forward by Ward 1 councilmember Sabra Briere and was co-sponsored by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). Briere sits on the city planning commission as the council’s representative, and voted as a planning commissioner against the 413 E. Huron project. Joining her in that three-vote dissent were Wendy Woods and Ken Clein.

The council’s dilemma with respect to 413 E. Huron relates to the parcel’s zoning, which many residents contend was inappropriately zoned as D1. Opponents of the project argue that the site should have been zoned D2 (interface), in order to provide a buffer between densely developed areas and neighboring residential areas.

Last year, on April 16, 2012, the city council was asked to contemplate the reverse scenario, when a developer asked for conditional rezoning of a parcel at 1320 S. University – to change its 2009 designation of D2 to D1. The requested D1 zoning would have allowed for a much denser project, which would have exceeded the 60-foot D2 height limit by 85 feet. The council rejected that request. On that occasion, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) argued that the community conversation about the South University area – which had led to the D2 designation – had been significant and warranted the council’s respect.

Taylor did not attend the Feb. 19, 2013 meeting as he was on a family vacation. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) was not at the council meeting because she had to attend an offsite training conference for her employer. The rationale for postponement offered by Briere was that Higgins had wanted to be part of the deliberations. Before postponement, the council held a closed session on the topic lasting about an hour.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]