Downtown Zoning Review Nears Final Phase

Ann Arbor planning commissioners discuss recommendations for revisions to A2D2 zoning; topic is on Oct. 15 meeting agenda

Ann Arbor planning commission work session (Oct. 8, 2013): Planning commissioners discussed a consultant’s downtown zoning report at their recent work session, after hearing over 30 minutes of public commentary. The session changed venue because of an anticipated crowd, moving from city hall to the fourth-floor jury assembly room in the Justice Center.

Will Leaf, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Will Leaf was among about two dozen residents who attended the Oct. 8 working session of the Ann Arbor planning commission, which was held in the Justice Center next to city hall. (Photos by the writer.)

Generally, commissioners at the session seemed to favor downzoning certain areas of the downtown. They are looking for ways to create better transitions between residential neighborhoods and property that’s zoned for denser development. They’re also interested in requiring approval from the design review board for projects that are seeking premiums. A premium allows developers to construct larger buildings, in exchange for providing certain features that the city wants to encourage, like affordable housing, pedestrian amenities and public parking. Currently, projects must be reviewed by the design review board, but no approval from the board is needed.

The zoning evaluation was set in motion earlier this year, following a city council directive to the planning commission that was prompted in part by the controversial 413 E. Huron development. Planning consultant ENP & Associates was hired to gather public input and evaluate certain aspects of downtown zoning known as A2D2, which was adopted in 2009.

Erin Perdu of ENP & Associates attended the commission’s Oct. 8 working session to present her report. After public commentary, commissioners gave feedback on Perdu’s recommendations, which she then used to revise the report. [.pdf of revised downtown zoning report]

Commissioners will take up the topic at their regular meeting on Oct. 15. That meeting will also include a formal public hearing to gather additional feedback.

The recommendations they’ll be considering are: (1) rezone the parcel located at 336 E. Ann from D1 (downtown core) to D2 (downtown interface); (2) rezone the Municipal Center parcel from PL (public land) to D2; (3) reduce the maximum height in the East Huron 1 Character District (on the north side of Huron, between Division and State) to 120 feet and add a tower diagonal maximum of 130 feet; (4) rezone the D-zoned parcels on the block bounded by Huron, Division, Ann and Fifth Avenue (where city hall is located) from East Huron 2 Character District to East Huron 1 Character District; (5) change the maximum height in the Main Street Character District to 150 feet when within 20 feet of a residentially zoned area and add a tower diagonal requirement of 50% of the maximum parcel diagonal; (6) rezone the south half of the parcel at 425 S. Main (between William and Packard) from D1 to D2.

In addition, several recommendations relate to premiums: (1) require approval of the design review board for a project to be eligible for any premium; (2) revise the residential premium to be more specific about the types of units that will be eligible for premiums; (3) revise the affordable housing premium so that the provision of affordable housing is mandatory for receiving any premiums; (4) eliminate the affordable housing 900% FAR (floor area ratio) “super premium”; and (5) include other types of premiums in addition to those currently available.

It’s possible that planning commissioners would wrap up their discussion on Oct. 15 and vote on the recommendations at that meeting, to be forwarded to the city council. But during the Oct. 8 working session, several commissioners indicated that they felt they’d need more time, and were prepared to postpone a vote until a later date.

Zoning Review Background

In late 2009 – after a multi-year process and considerable debate – the city council adopted the A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) zoning. The intent was to review the zoning after a year, to see whether the changes resulted in the kind of downtown development that the city wants. However, in part because relatively few projects were brought forward in the first year or two after the A2D2 zoning was put in place, an A2D2 evaluation was not conducted in the original timeframe.

Erin Perdu, ENP & Associates, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Erin Perdu of ENP & Associates, the consultant hired by the city of Ann Arbor to conduct a review of downtown zoning.

Interest in a review was heightened by a proposal for the 14-story 413 E. Huron apartment project on a site zoned D1, the highest density allowed. The proposal spurred controversy in part because of its location adjacent to a residential historic district.

So on April 1, 2013, the city council directed the planning commission to review A2D2 and address three specific questions: (1) whether D1 zoning is appropriately located on the north side of Huron Street between Division and South State, and on the south side of William Street between South Main and Fourth Avenue; (2) whether the D1 residential FAR [floor area ratio] premiums effectively encourage a diverse downtown population; and (3) whether a parcel on the south side of Ann Street adjacent to city hall should be rezoned “to the appropriate zoning for this neighborhood.” That parcel, currently a surface parking lot, is now zoned D1.

On April 1, the council set a deadline of Oct. 1 to deliver recommendations to the council. Councilmembers subsequently approved the 413 E. Huron project on May 13, 2013 on a 6-5 vote.

Over the past few months, consultants Erin Perdu and Megan Masson-Minock of ENP & Associates have been conducting public forums, focus sessions, surveys and other means of getting feedback on the current zoning, as well as on ideas for zoning changes. The work has taken slightly longer than anticipated, and the draft report was presented to the planning commission in early October. [.pdf of initial draft report, which was discussed at the Oct. 8 working session]

According to the draft report, the consultants heard from 131 individuals in person and received 142 survey responses. The draft report was based on that feedback, as well as discussions with planning commissioners.

The draft report’s recommendations that were presented at the Oct. 8 work session included:

  • Rezone the Ann Street site from D1 to D2, a zoning designation that has a lower height limit – 60 feet, compared to 180 feet. The consultants also recommend rezoning the city-owned property on a portion of parcels on the south side of Ann Street – where the city hall, Justice Center and fire station are now located. The recommendation was to rezone the northern half of those parcels from D1 to D2.
  • Keep the D1 zoning of the East Huron 1 character district – on the north side of Huron, between Division and State – but reduce the maximum height from 150 feet to 120 feet and add diagonal requirements to allow for a building with a “tower” of up to 160 feet. [Diagonals are a method of controlling shape, and typically allow for taller but less massive buildings.] The main undeveloped property there is a surface parking lot between Campus Inn and Sloan Plaza.
  • Keep the D1 zoning but change the height maximum in the Main Street character district to 150 feet – compared to the existing 180 feet maximum – when within 20 feet of a residentially zoned area, and add diagonal requirements. This would affect the zoning requirements for the area along William Street, including the lot at the southeast corner of Main and William, which stretches between William and Packard.
  • Require approval of the Design Review Board for a project to be eligible for any premium. Premiums are considered “by right” increases to FAR [floor area ratio] if certain criteria are met. For example, in D1 the basic “by right” FAR is 400% – meaning that if a building covered the entire lot, it could be four stories tall. If the use of the property is residential, that can increase the FAR to 700%. This reflects a priority on residential buildings. This recommendation also proposes changes to the current design review process, to more clearly define certain aspects of the review.
  • Revise the residential premium to be more specific about the types of units that will be eligible for premiums. Instead of any residential unit, the consultants recommend that a two-bedroom unit or smaller be required in order to get premiums. The intent is to encourage development of those types of units, rather than units with more bedrooms.
  • Revise the affordable housing premium so that providing affordable housing – a minimum of 15% of all new units – is mandatory in order to receive any residential premium. Eliminate the affordable housing 900% FAR “super-premium,” which isn’t being used by developers.
  • Include other types of premiums in addition to those currently available. Some options might be providing an incentive for developers to include balconies on new residential developments, providing a premium for certain types of retail on the ground floor of new developments, or allowing/encouraging open spaces that are managed and programmed privately rather than merely requiring a contribution to the parks fund (or dedication of public spaces).

The draft report also identified some issues that should receive additional attention from the city, but that were outside the scope of this particular project. Those issues are: (1) consider a review of D1 zoning for other “sensitive” properties that were not identified in the city council resolution, such as some areas of South University and Thayer; (2) survey what other communities have done to regulate the shading impacts of new high-rise developments, in addition to requiring step-backs and diagonals; and (3) further study of the sewer and stormwater infrastructure, and the connection between new development and requiring city residents to disconnect their footing drains.

For more background, see Chronicle coverage: “Priorities Emerge in Downtown Zoning Review” and ”Downtown Zoning Review Moves Forward.”

At the Oct. 8 working session, Perdu noted that this effort wasn’t intended to revise the entire vision for downtown Ann Arbor. This project operates within the goals that were established in the downtown plan, which is part of the city’s master plan. She also stressed that public input occurred in many ways, including public and private forums, and that the process of gathering feedback was not scientific – that wasn’t part of the project’s scope, she noted.

That said, the recommendations are based heavily on public input, Perdu reported, as well as on the principles laid out in the downtown plan. The consultants looked at the impact of possible changes on the nearby residents, but also on the property owners and the downtown as a whole. The feasibility of implementing certain options played a big role in the recommendations too, Perdu said, and planning staff was consulted about that. Other factors included whether the recommendations were legally defensible and economically feasible.

Perdu also noted that there were illustrations in the draft report to show potential development using diagonals, but they had been drawn based on a misunderstanding of how diagonals are defined. Those illustrations would be revised prior to the formal consideration of these recommendations, she said.

Public Commentary

Ten people spoke during the opportunity for public commentary. Several more residents attended the meeting but did not formally address the planning commission.

Christine Crockett began by highlighting the illustrations in the draft report that show how development might look using diagonals. She pointed to the illustration for the property along East Huron Street between Sloan Plaza and Campus Inn, which indicated that the highest 120-foot wall of the building was against the Ann Street side of the lot. That would totally overshadow the residential properties in the Ann Street historic district, she said. Crockett noted that the same thing is true for the illustration on the Main and William site, where “the tall chasm of the wall” would overshadow houses in the historic South Fourth Avenue neighborhood.

She didn’t understand how these illustrations reflected a respect for the character areas and traditional residential neighborhoods. [The consultant, Erin Perdu, had indicated that these illustrations were based on a misunderstanding of how the diagonals would work, and that they would be revised in a subsequent draft of the report.]

ENP & Associates, Ann Arbor planning commission, zoning, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

This example of a possible development on East Huron – between Sloan Plaza and Campus Inn – was included in the draft report by ENP & Associates, but was based on inaccurate “diagonal” calculations. (Image from draft report by ENP & Associates.)

Ann Arbor planning commission, diagonals, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A revised illustration of the East Huron site between Sloan Plaza and Campus Inn, showing possible building height with diagonals. This illustration is part of the updated draft report that the planning commission will discuss on Oct. 15.

Steve Kaplan told commissioners that diagonals are an effective tool to mask the mass of a building from the pedestrian experience on one side, but it does nothing to mask the mass at the back of the building – at least, as illustrated [erroneously] in the draft report. Lowering the height maximum along East Huron is a positive step, he said, “it’s just too small a step.” Kaplan thought that the East Huron area needed to be changed to D2 zoning. The point is to have transitional areas where it’s most sensitive, and this area is one of the clearest examples of a true transition area between the densest core of the city and a residential area, he argued. Kaplan also said that having tall buildings on either side of a property doesn’t justify having a tall building in between them. “It actually calls for more relief, not less.”

Eppie Potts called the draft report “a very good beginning.” But the city council had put limitations on the commission and consultants, she said, and there are other sites that should be evaluated – like property near the University of Michigan campus. She also wondered whether the provisions in D1 and D2 zoning should be reviewed more broadly. “Have you read D2?” Potts asked. “Are you sure you really want D2 as a buffer between neighborhoods and D1? Read it again – see what you’d be getting. I’m not sure you would really want it.”

Potts thought the city needs new premiums, and she’s pleased that some modifications are recommended. But more changes might be necessary, she said. People really want more green space, and want developers to respect the context of the neighborhood. Premiums should be offered for those things. For Potts, the current draft recommendations are “step one that does a teeny bit about a few tiny little places in the downtown.” The city needs to consider rewriting D1 and D2 zoning, she concluded.

Ted Annis, Eppie Potts

Ted Annis and Eppie Potts were among the two dozen or so residents who attended the Oct. 8 planning commission work session. Potts is talking to Jack Eaton, who is the Democratic candidate for Ward 4 Ann Arbor city council, and is unopposed in the Nov. 5 election.

Ted Annis told commissioners that he lives at the corner of William and South Main, so he’s very sensitive to what’s being proposed. He said the zoning for the parcel on South Main, between William and Packard, is a “big mistake.” It’s currently zoned D1, and should be zoned D2, he said. Everything around it is D2 [or residential], and the fact that it’s zoned D1 “doesn’t make sense,” Annis said. He pointed to the draft report’s illustration that showed the size of a building that could be constructed on the site, given the current zoning. It “absolutely swamps and dwarfs” the largest buildings around the site, Annis noted, and looms over the nearby two-story residential buildings. The zoning needs to be scaled back, he said.

Marc Gerstein said he was generally pleased with the recommendations. He agreed with Annis that any building on the DTE lot – on Main Street between William and Packard – would be enormously large, under existing zoning. It seems very much out of scale with surrounding buildings, including Ashley Mews on Main Street and smaller homes on South Fourth. He likes the recommendations for premiums for affordable housing, because the current approach isn’t working.

Gerstein also liked Perdu’s recommendations for other topics to explore, including the zoning on Thayer next to Hill Auditorium and Rackham. You don’t want to put buildings there that are 150 or 180 feet tall, he said. And his direct concern is the South University area, specifically Willard Street. [He lives in that area.] There was talk at one time of zoning the north side of Willard Street as D2, he recalled. There was some horse-trading on city council, Gerstein said, and that proposal was eliminated. The idea of a buffer area needs to be considered again. He hoped that the recommendations for further study could be more specific than just the “South University area,” and that it would call out Willard Street in particular.

Eleanor Linn thought that the process of developing this report was a good one. Having opportunities for people to see what buildings might look like was useful, she added, but she was surprised to see the illustrations showing step-backs that weren’t on the side facing residential neighborhoods. Hopefully that’s just an error in how the illustrations were drawn, she said.

Linn was also surprised by the idea that if there are buildings on one side of an intersection, then there should be similarly-sized buildings on the other side. She said she’d been pretty active during the development of the D1 and D2 zoning, and at that time she’d been told that what’s across the street had nothing to do with zoning on the other side of the street. She’d been told that zoning is specific to a block, and not to what’s across the street. So it feels like the attitude is that zoning across the street only matters when you’re talking about big buildings, not small buildings, she said. “And that seems totally unfair,” Linn added, because it pits “big buildings people against small buildings people.” Linn also noted that the appendixes referred to by Perdu didn’t appear to be available to the public, and she hoped they would be made available. [The appendices are now available, and were posted as part of the planning commission's Oct. 15 agenda on Legistar.]

Ray Detter reported that he was speaking for the downtown citizens advisory council, which he said has been working on this issue since 2009. The CAC is looking for consistency, and to correct mistakes that were made in the original A2D2 zoning, he said. Ann Street, for example, should have been D2 from the beginning, he said. Another mistake was on the north side of East Huron, he said: It shouldn’t have been zoned D1 with a 150-foot height limit, because it’s directly related to the Old Fourth Ward historic district and other historic properties on Ann Street. It should have been D2 or a hybrid zoning. He’s delighted to see a recommendation to reduce the height allowed in that area. He noted that Dennis Dahlmann, whose family owns Campus Inn and the property next to it, supports this recommendation.

Detter said the city council recognized that the development on 413 E. Huron “was a terrible mistake that we got trapped into by people who came back and said it was a by-right project.” There’s nothing the city can do about that now, he added, but it can look at another mistake – the property across the street from 413 E. Huron, where Ahmo’s Gyros & Deli is located. [That parcel is at the northwest corner of Huron and Division.] It’s zoned D1 with a 180-foot height maximum. Detter thought it should be D2 or some kind of hybrid zoning, because it would have an impact on the nearby residential and historic neighborhood. [Detter lives in that neighborhood, on North Division.] He said the CAC agrees with Ted Annis regarding the property on Main Street south of William – in that it should be zoned D2. They also believe that approval by the design review board should be required in order to get any premium.

Eleanore Adenekan, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Eleanore Adenekan.

Dorothy Nordness said she agreed with a lot of what other speakers had said, and the consultants’ report has done a nice job of reflecting what’s been said at public meetings. She called it a mistake that a tall building could be constructed right next to Mark’s Carts on West Washington. The building [City Apartments, at First & Washington] shades the Mark’s Carts site, making it colder and less comfortable, she said. The building is also creating a wind tunnel there. Mark’s Carts is a great community gathering place, she said, “and having a building looming next to it is a real mistake.”

In general, Nordness wanted to see even lower height limits and a different kind of zoning that’s more transitional. People need to get the light they need in their houses. Nordness also felt that design guidelines need to be mandatory. “Developers will take advantage of whatever the possibility is for making more money,” she said. The D1 and D2 zoning regulations should be taken back to the drawing board, she said, “to make something more welcoming to people and avoid the mistakes that have been made.”

Julie Ritter also agreed with previous speakers, saying she typically didn’t come to these kinds of meetings because she gets so frustrated. She passed out copies of an article by Brent Toderian of the Council on Canadian Urbanism, which she said addresses the concepts of neighborliness, people-friendly architecture, and ways to encourage people to come downtown to high-density areas that are well-designed, not ugly. She questioned the premise that all high-rises need to be concentrated downtown. Why can’t there be high-rises on West Stadium Boulevard or South State? She and others have worked really hard to make the Old Fourth Ward an attractive residential district, Ritter said, and the 413 E. Huron project was a real setback – “it’s kind of heart-breaking” that the city council allowed it to go through, she said.

Doug Kelbaugh, a professor at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning, said he was glad the city council started this process and that Perdu had been hired. He said Detter was right in describing some of the issues as corrections to oversights in the original A2D2 process. There are some other “glaring vulnerabilities” that aren’t addressed in this current review, he noted. On South Thayer, for example, a 180-foot building could be constructed under existing zoning, which would loom over Hill Auditorium. Or someone could tear down the former Borders store on East Liberty and put up a 180-foot building there, Kelbaugh noted, which he didn’t think was appropriate.

The idea of extending D2 zoning along Ann Street is good, Kelbaugh said, but why not extend it further west? It seems like there should be further study that’s broader than the existing recommendations. Going from 180 feet in D1 to 60 feet in D2 is a very abrupt transition, for example – and he wasn’t sure how that decision had been made. There should be an intermediate zoning between D1 and D2, he said. This review has been a good effort, Kelbaugh concluded, “but a piecemeal one.”

Commission Discussion

Following public commentary at the Oct. 8 working session, planning commissioners discussed the recommendations for over two hours. Topics ranged from general issues like the use of diagonals and the role of a design review board, to some of the recommendations for specific sites. This article summarizes the discussion thematically. [.pdf of initial draft report discussed at the Oct. 8 working session] [.pdf of Appendix A – original city council resolution] [.pdf of Appendix B – summary of downtown projects since 2000] [.pdf of Appendix C – 111-page report on public input]

Commission Discussion: Diagonals, Height

By way of background, the term “diagonal” refers to the horizontal dimension of a building or tower, measured corner-to-corner of a floor. A maximum diagonal would be the longest allowable corner-to-corner measurement.

diagonal, zoning, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Illustration of a diagonal measurement, taken at the top of a “tower” building. This example was part of the original A2D2 proposed zoning ordinance, but all references to diagonals were ultimately amended out of the final ordinance.

After public commentary, Erin Perdu re-stated that some of the illustrations in the draft report were incorrect, based on a misunderstanding of how the diagonals would work. Those illustrations would be revised, she said. The intent of the diagonal measurement is to shrink the footprint of a tower building. City planning manager Wendy Rampson elaborated, saying that a diagonal would allow for slender towers: When the diagonal dimension is smaller, it results in more slender towers.

Perdu said that the report would be updated with new illustrations as well as a revised numeric recommendation for diagonals. [The revised report, which the planning commission will consider on Oct. 15, now includes a recommendation for the East Huron 1 character district – between Division and State – of a 120-foot height maximum and a diagonal maximum of 130 feet.] Diagonals are only recommended for the East Huron 1 character district and the site on South Main between William and Packard.

Rampson explained that older tower buildings constructed in the 1960s tended to be taller and more slender, because the economics of development were different at the time. One of the proposals for the original A2D2 – a proposal that didn’t get approved – was that larger sites would require subdividing the lots in order to build multiple towers with diagonal requirements, Rampson said. As examples of larger lots, Rampson cited the city-owned Kline lot (on the east side of Ashley, north of William) and the Brown block (a surface parking lot leased to the city by First Martin Corp., bounded by Huron, Ashley, Washington, and First streets).

Rampson noted that Perdu was being as specific as possible in her recommendations, but the planning commission could decide whether to be more or less specific in the recommendations it ultimately forwards to the city council.

Bonnie Bona described herself as a strong supporter of diagonals, but she noted that diagonals conflict with having a height limit. That was the tradeoff in the original A2D2 debate, she said – whether to have diagonals with no height limit in order to get tall slender towers, or to have a height limit and “throw the diagonals out.” Ultimately, the compromise was to have a height limit and no diagonals. She advocated for having a specific recommendation about that.

Kirk Westphal also noted that the original A2D2 proposal – but not the one that was ultimately approved – had called for diagonals. The idea was that taller, more slender buildings would disperse the shading over a wider but less centralized area. He recalled that the rationale for eliminating the diagonals was that if diagonals were required, it would be difficult to construct buildings with large floor-plates for offices.

That was one piece of the discussion, Rampson told Westphal, but the main issue was the desire for a maximum height limit. It was thought that the two ideas – maximum height and diagonals – did not mesh well for maximizing the floor area on a site.

Ken Clein thought the use of diagonals could be a viable approach to preventing buildings from getting too massive, like 413 E. Huron. He thought the issue deserved more study.

Jeremy Peters, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor planning commissioner Jeremy Peters.

Westphal wondered whether there’s interest in looking at the height cap again, in light of a recommendation about diagonals. Rampson replied that it’s a question for the planning commission to decide.

Clein said he’d be curious to look at available downtown property that might be developed, and to see how big a building could get with 700% FAR and no height limit. You might not need a height limit, he said. The concern about putting on a height limit was that you’d get shorter, “stouter” buildings, he noted. Clein acknowledged that it’s guesswork, because you never know what sites might be redeveloped.

He noted that for the 413 E. Huron project, the developer combined parcels that resulted in a larger site than people had anticipated when those parcels were zoned. The city could see more of that happening as the economy turns around, he said, and that could change the scale of buildings dramatically.

Clein pointed out that diagonals are irrelevant in D2 zoning districts, because of the height restrictions. So if commissioners want to recommend rezoning an area to D2, diagonal requirements aren’t needed.

Paras Parekh had concerns about only looking at diagonals for certain parts of the downtown, calling it “spot diagonaling.” He’s not opposed to diagonals, but would prefer a more uniform approach – one way or another.

Commission Discussion: Transitions

Bonnie Bona said she’d like to see some recommendations for step-backs in buildings – for example, there should be step-backs required on D2 sites that are next to “non-D” sites. Also, D1 sites that are next to D2 sites should have some kind of step-backs. The idea is to help create more of a transition between different zoning designations. ["Step-backs" refer to a building's upper floors that are "stepped back" from the lower-level facade, so that the upper levels are narrower than the building's base. "Setbacks" refer to the distance that a building is located from the lot line.]

Paras Parekh also supported the idea of step-backs between different types of zoning.

Diane Giannola asked whether step-backs could be on any side of a building. Erin Perdu replied that step-backs could be on any side, or there could be ordinance requirements specifying that step-backs are located on a particular side – such as the front or back of a lot.

Jeremy Peters noted that transitions are a huge concern, especially between downtown zoning and residential neighborhoods. He wanted to find a “middle ground” for smoother transitions.

Ken Clein agreed with the point that Doug Kelbaugh had made during public commentary, that the city should explore some kind of transitional zoning between D1 and D2. Clein said he imagined the current zoning could result in a kind of “Emerald City,” with tall buildings emerging abruptly at the boundaries of downtown. But it’s messier than that, he said, and there’s a need for a smoother transition. Handling it through character district requirements might be the best approach, he said.

Clein would prefer to zone all three sites – those mentioned in the council resolution – as D2. He appreciated that Perdu had included illustrations showing what could be built under the existing zoning. “You weren’t trying to sugarcoat it, and that’s good,” he said.

Jeremy Peters supported D2 zoning for the Main and William site and East Huron 1 character district, abutting Ann Street – or perhaps looking at some kind of intermediate hybrid, like a “D 1.5″ zoning.

Noting that she was on the original A2D2 advisory committee, Bona said the committee had recommended putting D2 zoning around the entire perimeter of the downtown core. “How it got pulled out, I have no idea,” she said, adding that she’s still in favor of that approach.

Commission Discussion: Design Guidelines & Premiums

Kirk Westphal noted that some of the characteristics and needs for downtown sites are so specific that it’s difficult to codify. He wondered if the idea would be to put some of these issues into the hands of the design review board.

Kirk Westphal, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Kirk Westphal, chair of the Ann Arbor planning commission.

Erin Perdu replied that the design guidelines could be “beefed up” to address certain issues. She recommended looking at other communities to see how some of these issues – like transitions between downtown districts and neighborhoods – are handled.

In response to a query from Diane Giannola, Perdu clarified that her recommendation is to make it mandatory to follow the city’s design guidelines for any project that’s requesting premiums. Giannola wondered if it just required approval from the design review board, or whether a project would actually need to follow the specific design guidelines. What if a developer wanted to do something creative? Giannola wanted to ensure that the process wasn’t too limiting.

Perdu said she had discussed this issue with Wendy Rampson, and that the design review process would likely need to be changed. The intent is for the design review board to approve the project, but that the board would have some flexibility.

Sabra Briere brought up the example of The Varsity development on East Washington, which also has an entrance off of East Huron. The zoning required a smaller courtyard than the developer had negotiated with the neighboring property owner on the East Washington side. So to get a larger courtyard, the developer had to pursue a “planned project” development. Would it be possible for the developer to propose certain kinds of features – like larger courtyards or pedestrian amenities – and not be required to do a “planned project”? Probably not, Rampson replied: “If it’s in the zoning, the only body that can adjust it is the city council or the zoning board of appeals.”

However, if certain requirements were removed from the zoning ordinance and put into the design guidelines instead, Rampson added, that would provide more flexibility.

Ken Clein thought it was a good idea to make approval by the design review board mandatory, in order to secure premiums. It seems like premiums are desirable to developers, he said, and he didn’t think that requiring approval by the design review board would dramatically alter that, though there might be some pushback.

Briere noted that there are a range of premiums that developers could pursue now, but they’re only going after one – residential. By building residential units, developers are able to increase the 400% FAR to 700%. So the other premiums – like affordable housing, more open space, and “green” buildings – haven’t been pursued. She’d like to reduce the FAR that’s given for a general residential premium, so that a developer will have to do more than simply build residential units in order to get 700% FAR.

Regarding the affordable housing premium, Westphal noted that he and others have heard from affordable housing advocates who say they miss the planned unit developments (PUDs) that were more common prior to the A2D2 zoning. PUDs can require affordable housing units as part of the development, or a contribution to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. He’s also heard concerns about the need for more workforce housing. But paying into the affordable housing trust fund impacts a project’s finances, he noted, which results in housing units that are more expensive. He wondered if there was a way to be more sensitive to that issue.

Ken Clein supported efforts to encourage housing at different price points.

Paras Parekh was interested in making premiums for mixed use or commercial developments, rather than residential, since it seems like most developers are pursuing residential developments anyway. Rampson explained that when A2D2 zoning was being debated, there was an interest in promoting residential developments.

Westphal wondered why developers weren’t pursing other premiums, besides residential. Rampson said the recent recession was a factor. There hasn’t been a market for anything beyond a very specialized type of residential, she said. [That specialized type of residential is typically targeted for student housing.] As the economy improves, she expects to see a market for other types of uses.

One example is a hotel, Rampson said. Under previous zoning, you could not build a hotel and be eligible for premiums. But under A2D2, you could get premiums for LEED construction, pedestrian amenities or a plaza in order to build beyond the by-right FAR.

Sabra Briere, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Sabra Briere, who serves on both the planning commission and city council.

Jeremy Peters wondered if there could be premiums related to shading – suggesting that might be something to look at. He also liked the strong emphasis on approval from the design review board. Noting that it “might be opening a can of worms,” Peters suggested looking at the makeup of the board, making sure that all voices in the city are represented.

Parekh noted that the design review board would become more important, with mandatory approval for premiums. The city could end up with designs that are boring and uniform. [From the audience, Marc Gerstein called out: "We already are!"] Clein observed that it’s not possible to make everyone happy regarding design. Giannola characterized it as “an art.”

Briere pointed out that the initial design guidelines were “vastly improved” after a group of citizens worked together to develop a stronger, more clear set of recommendations that eventually were approved by the council. In other communities, if there are strong voices on the design review board, then developers start proposing projects to please those voices, she said – and everything ends up looking alike. Ann Arbor’s design guidelines provide the tools to be “as non-arbitrary, as non-design police as possible,” she said.

If the board’s approval becomes mandatory, Briere agreed that the membership of that board will become even more important. But the composition of the board wasn’t what discouraged the city council from making approval mandatory when A2D2 was enacted, she said. Rather, it was the fear that making the design review mandatory would stifle opportunity, Briere reported.

Addressing Giannola’s concern about preventing creativity, Briere said that in her memory, that hasn’t been a problem because no creative proposals have come forward.

Peters said he was simply suggesting that in the report that the planning commission delivers to the council, it should include a recommendation to look at the makeup of the design review board, including possibly having a resident from each ward.

Rampson said that one option is to include membership on the board on a project-by-project basis, to include residents who live near a particular proposed development.

Clein likened the design review board to the historic district commission, where members have knowledge about the standards that they’re applying. He agreed that the board makeup was important, and it would help control the quality of projects.

Rampson said that when the city developed the design review process as part of A2D2, the design review process in Grand Rapids was examined as a possible model. Grand Rapids zoning includes elements like numerical standards for window transparency, step-backs and other features built into the ordinance. Ann Arbor officials decided to aim for greater flexibility, Rampson said.

Westphal described a balance between all the requirements, noting that the longer it takes a developer to move through the process, the more expensive the development becomes. He hoped it wouldn’t add too much time by making the design review mandatory. Briere thought it would require a minimum of one extra trip to the design review board, compared to the current process.

There was some discussion about whether the design review board could have discretion over building height, for developments that were seeking premiums. Peters weighed in on providing a maximum height cap, “just so that it’s not completely free form.”

Commission Discussion: Ann Street

Sabra Briere wanted to expand the recommendation for the Ann Street site, which focused on the surface parking lot next to city hall. The consultant’s recommendation called for rezoning that site from D1 to D2. Briere thought the recommendation should extend D2 zoning to the parcel at the northwest corner of Huron and Division, where Ahmo’s Gyros & Deli is now located.

Paras Parekh, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor planning commissioner Paras Parekh.

Briere also suggested rezoning the entire city hall site from D1 to D2. [Perdu's original recommendation had called for rezoning half of the city hall site – the half that faced Ann Street – as D2. She also suggested rezoning the site where the fire station is located to D2. The station is located south of Ann Street on North Fifth Avenue, across from the Justice Center.]

Bonnie Bona wanted the entire block where city hall and the Justice Center is located – bounded by East Huron, North Fifth Avenue, Ann Street and Division – to be rezoned D2, with the exception of lots along Division that are zoned residential. She noted that city hall is 300% FAR, and already meets D2 zoning standards.

Ken Clein said that if it weren’t already built up, he’d suggest rezoning everything north of Huron as D2.

Kirk Westphal expressed concern that commissioners were going beyond the charge given by city council. He wanted to be cautious about exceeding their purview. Planning manager Wendy Rampson noted that city staff hadn’t spoken to all the property owners in that area about the possibility of rezoning.

Clein suggested recommending rezoning the parcel on Ann Street to D2 – the parcel that the council had highlighted in its resolution – and then recommend that the city look at the entire block for possible rezoning as well. Westphal noted that it would require another process to rezone the entire block.

Commission Discussion: East Huron 1 District

For the north side of East Huron between Division and State, the consultant’s recommendation was to reduce the maximum height from 150 feet to 120 feet, and to add a diagonal requirement. Only one lot along that stretch is undeveloped – the lot between Sloan Plaza and Campus Inn.

This change would make the 413 E. Huron project a non-conforming development. Kirk Westphal noted that when a building is non-conforming, the owner would need to get approval from the zoning board of appeals, if any future alterations are desired.

Sabra Briere explained that the original rational for putting a 150-foot height in this area was that Campus Inn was already about 150 feet high. “Whether that was a good rationale or not, that was the rationale,” she said. Briere reported that she’d talked with Dennis Dahlmann about a year ago, and he was in favor of rezoning the entire block as D2. [Dahlmann's family owns Campus in and the undeveloped lot next to it.]

Bonnie Bona said she’d like to see the entire area zoned D2 along that stretch of East Huron, as was originally proposed in the A2D2 discussions.

Even though that block is mostly developed, Diane Giannola said, the city should be looking far into the future. If everything burned down, would they really only want it to be rebuilt based on D2 requirements, with no building taller than 60 feet?

Bona said there’s no area of greater concern for her regarding height than the block of East Huron between Division and State. That’s because it abuts a residential neighborhood to the north, over which tall buildings would cast shadows. She said she could compromise on other areas regarding D2 zoning, but not on this section of East Huron – it should be D2.

Commission Discussion: Main & William

Sabra Briere described some of the challenges to this site, which runs along Main Street between William and Packard. Currently, about half of the site is a parking lot, with an existing commercial building on the remainder of the site. It’s located across Main Street from Ashley Mews, and the public housing complex Baker Commons is across Packard Street to the south. The main concern is to the east, where the site is across an alley from a residential neighborhood. The lot is currently zoned D1.

Bonnie Bona, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor planning commissioner Bonnie Bona.

Jeremy Peters said he’d be comfortable rezoning this parcel to D2, especially considering the potential shading of residential properties to the east, if the site had a D1 development.

In response to a query from Ken Clein, planning manager Wendy Rampson said that requirements for D2 in the Main Street character district would need to be determined, because there is currently no D2 zoning in that district.

Clein said there’s a disincentive for developers to build multiple towers – because it gets very expensive to put in multiple elevators and other mechanicals, compared to a single tower. He’d like to zone the parking lot portion of the site, which fronts William, as D1 with perhaps some diagonal restrictions. The southern portion of the site – with the existing building that fronts Packard – could be D2.

Kirk Westphal noted that the main concern, similar to the East Huron area, is potential shading by development of residential property.

Bonnie Bona supported D2 on the site. Paras Parekh agreed, saying that D2 zoning would make it seem like a continuous flow from the north side of William, where Palio is located. Westphal clarified with Rampson that the surface parking lot next to Palio – at the northeast corner of Main and William – is zoned D1, so it could be developed with a much taller building than those that currently exist on that side of Main Street. That would change the character of the area, Westphal noted. It’s also possible that the gas station at the southwest corner of Main and William could be developed as D1. Westphal cautioned against trying to match the character of existing development, because that might change.

Next Steps

After nearly three hours, commissioners had not yet finished their discussion of all the recommendations. The group talked about whether they needed to schedule another working session, or if they should continue the discussion at their regular meeting on Oct. 15.

Kirk Westphal, who chairs the commission, expressed concern about deliberating during working sessions. Diane Giannola said it was difficult to know when you crossed the line in terms of stating your position. Sabra Briere, who also represents Ward 1 on the city council, indicated that Robert’s Rules of Order wasn’t clear on this issue “because you can go over that line the minute you start lining up on different sides.” What commissioners had been talking about up to that point is somewhat closer to deliberation than some people are comfortable with, she said.

Planning manager Wendy Rampson told commissioners that there was no problem with the kind of discussion that they were having, as long as they didn’t take a vote. [The legal issue of deliberations relates to Michigan's Open Meetings Act, not Robert's Rules of Order. Under the OMA, public bodies are free to deliberate as long as the meetings are properly noticed, open to the public and include the opportunity for public commentary.]

In that case, Westphal said, he’d prefer a working session’s less formal setting to continue the discussion.

But Giannola and Bonnie Bona supported having a discussion at the regular meeting. Bona noted that the regular meeting will be videotaped via Community Television Network (CTN), which makes it more accessible. [Working sessions aren't videotaped by CTN.]

Rampson reminded commissioners that a public hearing on this downtown zoning report had already been set for the Oct. 15 meeting.

Commissioners reached consensus to put the report on their Oct. 15 agenda for further discussion. In terms of how to handle the formal resolution on this issue, Rampson suggested separating out the recommendations, so that commissioners could discuss and revise each one.

The following 11 recommendations are listed in the resolution that’s now on the planning commission’s Oct. 15 agenda:

1) Rezone the parcel located at 336 E. Ann from D1 (Downtown Core) to D2 (Downtown Interface).

2) Rezone the Municipal Center parcel from PL to D2 (Downtown Interface).

3) Reduce the maximum height in the East Huron 1 Character District to 120 feet and add a tower diagonal maximum of 130 feet.

4) Rezone the D-zoned parcels on the block bounded by Huron, Division, Ann and Fifth Avenue from E. Huron 2 Character Overlay District to East Huron 1 Character Overlay District.

5) Change the maximum height in the Main Street Character District to 150 feet when within 20 feet of a residentially zoned area and add a tower diagonal requirement of 50% of the maximum parcel diagonal.

6) Rezone the south half of the parcel at 425 S. Main from D1 (Downtown Core) to D2 (Downtown Interface).

7) Require approval of the Design Review Board for a project to be eligible for any premium.

8) Revise the residential premium to be more specific about the types of units that will be eligible for premiums.

9) Revise the affordable housing premium so that the provision of affordable housing is mandatory for receiving any premiums.

10) Eliminate the affordable housing 900% FAR “super premium.”

11) Include other types of premiums in addition to the ones currently available.

It’s possible that planning commissioners would wrap up their discussion on Oct. 15 and vote on the recommendations at that meeting. But during the Oct. 8 working session, several commissioners indicated that they felt they’d need more time, and were prepared to postpone a vote until a later date.

[.pdf of revised downtown zoning report, as posted on the Oct. 15 planning commission agenda]

Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Bonnie Bona, Sabra Briere, Ken Clein, Diane Giannola, Kirk Westphal, Paras Parekh, Jeremy Peters. Also: City planning manager Wendy Rampson.

Absent: Wendy Woods.

Next regular meeting: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 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]

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  1. October 14, 2013 at 1:26 pm | permalink

    Regarding the affordable housing premium, I’m not sure whether the paragraph quoting Kirk Westphal actually relates his comments in paraphrase or whether part of it was intended as editorial explanation. It is not true that PUDs required affordable housing. Affordable housing was simply one of the “public benefits” that could be advanced to win approval. It became standard practice at a certain time for developers to offer an “in lieu” payment to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. (That was before most affordable housing came under the aegis of the Urban County.) However, this practice did not lead to more affordable housing downtown.

    There were suggestions made at the DDA in connection with the Connecting William Street process that perhaps the affordable housing premium could be awarded to developers for a similar in lieu payment. That is different in quality from simply offering a payment as part of a PUD packet. It would be a straightforward cash purchase of more FAR. I’m glad the commission took that possibility out of their recommendations.
    I believe that the premium was intended to help provide affordable housing downtown, not as a development assist.

  2. By Tom Whitaker
    October 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm | permalink

    Where a PUD has a residential component, and the number of units exceeds the underlying zoning or the master plan recommendations by up to 25%, then 10% of the units must be “affordable to lower income households.” If the proposed number of units exceeds the underlying zoning or master plan recommendations by OVER 25%, then 15% of the units must be affordable. If the math results in a fractional unit, then the developer has the option to make a cash payment or provide another unit to cover the fraction.

    PUD or premium, in my opinion, the current calculation for determining “lower income” is flawed and results in rents that are not much different that what the market will bear. Also, building new “affordable” units in areas close to campus does nothing to address the real need for affordable housing for working adults and families.

  3. By Tom Whitaker
    October 14, 2013 at 1:59 pm | permalink

    In regard to the composition of the design review board, it’s very important that the board be made up of individuals with some level of knowledge of architecture and planning to minimize decisions that are based on personal taste or politics, or that are arbitrary. This will not only result in better buildings, but also help the City withstand any challenges to the ordinance or the board’s decisions.

    In addition to some background and knowledge in the field, it is imperative that board members be well-versed in the design guidelines themselves, as well as relevant zoning ordinances and the master plan. That could come from some level of training for board members or a test, or both. This board cannot be made up of the usual political appointees with only a casual interest or worse, an agenda.

  4. By Steve Bean
    October 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm | permalink

    “However, this practice did not lead to more affordable housing downtown.”

    Not that anything could. Downtown housing—other than that of low quality—will always be more expensive than housing elsewhere in the city. The well-intended notion of defying that reality isn’t doing anyone any good at this point (if it ever did). Any evidence (or a cogent argument) to the contrary?

    Our urban core is surrounded by neighborhoods that hold a housing stock diverse in size, age, ownership, form, energy efficiency, occupancy, and lot size. All areas are walkable and bikeable to varying (mostly positive) degrees and are served by the bus system. If that’s somehow not sufficient, maybe we could clarify why not so that we don’t spin our wheels on downtown ‘affordable housing’.

    Maybe ‘affordable housing’ requirements (or premiums) are a psychological crutch that allow some people to justify development that they’re not totally comfortable with. On the flip side, maybe they’re hoped to serve as a barrier to such developments. I don’t know. Just guessing.

    I once posted a comment somewhere ( describing affordable housing as energy-efficient, small units (<1000 sq. ft.?) on small lots with solar access and sufficient land (0.1-0.2 acre?) to grow a significant portion of the occupants' food, etc., etc. The irrational feedback on that comment from other posters was interesting.

  5. By Steve Bean
    October 14, 2013 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    “Ray Detter reported that he was speaking for the downtown citizens advisory council,… Detter thought it should be D2 or some kind of hybrid zoning, because it would have an impact on the nearby residential and historic neighborhood.”

    “Detter thought” or ‘CAC recommended’? This isn’t the first time that Ray’s public words have been difficult to distinguish from CAC’s supposed consensus or majority opinion.

  6. October 14, 2013 at 2:41 pm | permalink

    I will always defer to Tom Whitaker on zoning issues, but I am startled to learn that there is an absolute requirement. Doesn’t that amount to inclusionary zoning?

    Reading Article VI, Supplementary Regulations Item 5.80, I find that the language cited by Tom is present. The language under Planned Projects is what I remember, a menu of possible public benefits.

    My point was not to address the practicability of affordable housing downtown (it must and will always be subsidized since the market can’t provide it) but to point out that the purpose of such premiums was presumably to encourage its provision. It should not be a way to purchase additional FAR, etc. by a simple cash payment.

    I thought that Westphal’s comments about the effects of such payments increasing the overall cost of housing were very perceptive. The PUD system leaned toward extortion in the old days, when developers were required to make various payments in order to build much of anything downtown. The revision in downtown zoning was intended, as I recall, partly to eliminate the need for PUDs under most circumstances.

  7. By Laurie Howland
    October 14, 2013 at 3:28 pm | permalink

    I’m with you @SteveBean. Trying to force affordable housing downtown is not workable or practical, and yet it keeps showing up on some people’s list of desired elements in any proposed project. People who develop property or own property downtown want to charge what the market will bear, not what people wish would happen because it sounds like a nice idea. People generally invest capital in order to make more of it, not as a nice donation to the area. It is entirely possible that the real goal is to once again make requirements so onerous and seemingly random that nobody will want to spend the time, money, and aggravation it takes to develop anything downtown.

  8. October 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm | permalink

    Re: “composition of the design review board”

    The city council’s Oct. 21, 2013 agenda will include council approval of the design review board’s bylaws, which were already adopted by the design review board earlier this year (in May). [.pdf of design review board bylaws]

    The bylaws to be considered by the council include the following description of membership:

    Appointments of members shall be made, insofar as a possible, from candidates who have an interest in the design of the built environment and its relationship to the downtown and the broader community. To support comprehensive design review, 2 members shall be landscape architects, 2 members shall be architects, 1 shall be an urban planner, 1 shall be a developer, and 1 shall be a construction contractor

  9. October 14, 2013 at 9:49 pm | permalink

    This is the report that’s illustrated with the “giant blocks of cheese” designs? I wonder how much the perception of how buildings are going to affect the landscape is affected by using this design concept (and not grey monoliths or brick towers).

  10. By Steve Bean
    October 15, 2013 at 1:43 pm | permalink

    Perhaps of interest relative to “affordable housing”, particularly if you conflate it with home ownership:


    It applies here as well as in the UK even though prices have rebounded. The bigger drop is ahead.