Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Residential Mid-Rises Approved on North Main

11. August 2006 • Brandon
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From today’s Ann Arbor News:

The council on a 9-2 vote approved the project’s planned unit development site plan and development agreement at its meeting Thursday night.

The proposal includes two multiple-story buildings that will have 123 residential units and a combination of commercial, retail and office uses on the site of the old Greek Orthodox Church, which will be torn down. The biggest building, on North Main Street, includes two towers of 11 and 9 stories that will include 105 condominium units. There is also an adjacent four-story building on Fourth Avenue that will have 18 lofts for rent and first-floor retail.

Mayor John Hieftje and Council Member Bob Johnson, D-1st Ward, voted against the project because of the building heights.

  1. I find it incredibly surprising that Hieftje was one of the “no” votes, however. The fact that he’s been embracing denser mixed-use development like this is one of the reasons I’ve come around to supporting him, and Main Street just a couple blocks north of the Downtown Core seems like an absolutely suitable locale for such a thing.

    Political move?

       —Brandon    Aug. 11 '06 - 10:16PM    #
  2. The first time around (about 6 weeks ago) he said he would oppose it, too. Too far from the downtown and too high for surrounding buildings. I don’t think it was a specific political move, but part of his ongoing strategy of promoting just a little bit more density (as long as it doesn’t really upset anyone).

       —Dale    Aug. 11 '06 - 10:55PM    #
  3. The Mayor’s been opposed to this project all along. Something about the “gateway to Ann Arbor” getting cluttered up. So he’s being consistent. Frankly I think he’s on crack here. Everyone knows that the “gateway to Ann Arbor” from the north is the Summit Party Store.

    And believe it or not, this is one of the few tall building plans I’m not feeling good about. Here we have a genuinely beautiful and historic structure that’s about to be torn down, while our local historic preservationists have been spending all their political capital on those two junky houses across from Angelo’s. And it’s especially unfortunate because it seems like this church could have been incorporated into a larger project with a little ingenuity from the developer.

    So don’t get me wrong, I still love tall buildings, and once the church is down and the steel starts going up, I’ll be as geeked as ever. But it could have been a tall building and a church.

       —Parking Structure Dude!    Aug. 11 '06 - 10:59PM    #
  4. If Hieftje really opposes this project, he’ll veto it and see if Council has the guts to override.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 12 '06 - 01:31AM    #
  5. After a 9-2 vote, a veto would be pretty silly.

       —Larry Kestenbaum    Aug. 12 '06 - 01:50AM    #
  6. Nope, not at all. I expect several Council members were just “going with the flow”. If John vetos the Gallery and makes it clear that people who vote to override will pay a political price, the developersymps might back down.

    John would lose nothing by trying, and he might snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 12 '06 - 04:28AM    #
  7. I expect several Council members were just “going with the flow”.

    Ah, I see. So according to you, the reason that yet another project you don’t like was voted through is now because Council Members can’t think for themselves.

    It’s good to see that you have so much faith in your fellow Democrats.

       —todd    Aug. 12 '06 - 04:59AM    #
  8. ...”developersymps”?

    I think the Mayor would lose something by vetoing a measure his Council so overwhelmingly approved.

    people who vote to override will pay a political price

    So, let’s see – the Mayor pays a political price by vetoing (there’s a definite difference between a “no” vote and a veto*) and the Council pays a political price by voting to override? (And, probably, by voting not to override…) Ah, those lovely lose-lose situations! I, for one, feel confident the Mayor won’t take David’s oh-so-well-intentioned advice.

    * As I see it, a “no” vote without a veto in a situation like this is like a consensus vote – the Mayor, by voting against without exercising a veto, points out problems with the issue, but essentially agrees to accept the will of the Council. Of course, I’ve often had the feeling that “no” votes on Council are consensus votes: the Councilmembers know each other pretty well, and know if something’s going to pass overwhelmingly, so the Councilmember or two who are the weakest “yes” votes get to vote “no” as a way of expressing imperfections.

    I’m sure some would find the above mechanism to be evidence of a scandalous conspiracy amongst the Councilmembers – I look at this as evidence of a healthy public body.

       —Murph.    Aug. 12 '06 - 05:08AM    #
  9. And, Brandon, I’m surprised you left out this part of the article from your quote:

    Council Member Leigh Greden, D-3rd Ward, said height wasn’t an issue because the zoning would have allowed for a similar sized building, but only if it was office space.

    I’m surprised David hasn’t shook his fist at Calthorpe over this project, but if zoning based on Calthorpe would have actually reduced the height on this site? Hmmm…Maybe that’s why David hasn’t cursed Calthorpe yet on this thread.

    And, PSD!, I agree with your point on those two houses on Glen – if we’re considering an either-or, losing the Greek Orthodox church is a clear loss. If I remember correctly, though, the previous proposal involved taking out a couple of houses next to the church on North Main – and saving those houses was part of the argument for rejecting that plan. As I said on YpsiDixit, I think it’s possible (and would have been nice) for the church to have been rehabbed into condos, but that’s completely economically unfeasible as a standalong project. That rehab would have to be subsidized by the other portion of a larger project. Maybe folks should have argued against the first project with “no, let’s save the church” rather than “no, let’s save those houses.”

    If we allow our development process to work adversarially, then, whoops, we’re going to lose some awesome landmarks. Squeeze development too hard, and it’ll find a way to pop out somewhere. I’ll be sad to see the church go, but I can’t help but think it was a casualty of no-growth attitudes. Given a hostile development climate, the developers had to figure out what they could do just on the site they already controlled. A site plan that saved and rehabbed the church as part of a larger project would have only been possible in a more collaborative public atmosphere.

       —Murph.    Aug. 12 '06 - 05:31AM    #
  10. The dome on the church was built in the late 1940’s or early 50’s? The rest was put on later, mostly cement block, as you can see from the back of it.

    Hieftje came out against this project months ago on the front page of the news so I don’t think it was a consensus vote. He always said that height was relative to the surroundings. As P.S. Dude said, he was being consistent.

    Veto? Political price to pay? What price would that be? That is not the way this council works and I am glad for it. They had an open debate on the issue, everybody spoke and then they voted. The mayor and Johnson voted against this at first reading and again last night, they sent a message that this was too tall for this location but the building had so much going for it, green elements, affordable housing money, public art, good design, LOTS OF PARKING, even for the public, the rest of council could not say no.
    But, that does not mean that the two no votes won’t have an effect on some other proposal that comes along sometime later. That is how legislative bodies work.

    The campaign talk about “transparency” and “back room” deals was groundless. It never had any basis in fact and with Easthope’s big win in the 5th ward, it was all blown away. Just 12 people sitting in an old building eating cold pizza and drinking warm water, not even knowing who won hours after the polls closed. Kind of sad and a big loss for Cowherd who ran Schmel’s campaign, and for the NIMBYs. But now, things can move forward more smoothly.

       —Dustin    Aug. 12 '06 - 07:43AM    #
  11. Since 2001, several historic preservationists have tried to designate this historic Greek Orthodox church, at the urging of several church members as well as others concerned about the building and the neighborhood. The church was built in 1930, using bricks from the old Presbyterian church demolished for the Ann Arbor News building.(a later addition for a school is not a concern for prservationists). The architect was R. S. Gerganoff, the architect of the present Washtenaw County Courthouse. Gerganoff is most well known for the many school buildings he designed in Ypsilanti. He also was the architect of the Kingsley Post Apartments at 809 E Kingsley, a lovely Art Deco apt. building which is in the Old Fourth Ward historic district. His papers are at the Bentley Library. On September 11, 2001, the means by which individual buildings could be protected in Ann Arbor was overturned by an appeals court. No longer could our standing committee, know to its members as the IHP (Individual HIstoric Properties) designate buildings in Ann Arbor, even if requested by the owner. We worked with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to try to create categories for the 178 buildings that lost their protection (historic churches, historic schools) but in the end nothing came of it. This was because the mayor did not reappoint any of the members of the committee and it essentially died. Given the political realities, those of us who care about historic buildings can only advocate for those which are already in historic districts. And perhaps this makes us fight more for those that are protected because we are helpless to protect the others. Some of the buildings that lost this protection include the Tuomy HIlls Gas Station (now selling coffee at Stadium and Washtenaw), the Orrin White cobblestone house on Fuller Road, the AA Railroad Depot on Ashley St , the old bus depot on West Huron, the Anson Brown building on Broadway (Ann Arbor’s oldest building), the Beckley houses on Pontiac Trail (safe houses on the Underground Railroad)—and over 100 more. We’ve already lost the Absalom Traver house on Broadway as a result. It was over 150 years old. Not only is the demolition of this church and its pretty gold dome a loss to Ann ARbor, but it will dramatically change the neighborhood in what I fear will be a negative way. I hope it will not kill the ambience of the Farmer’s Market and that the loss of parking for the market will be offset by new residents.

       —susan wineberg    Aug. 12 '06 - 08:27AM    #
  12. ‘If we allow our development process to work adversarially, then, whoops, we’re going to lose some awesome landmarks.’

    Absolutely! For a developer to reach out to a building, such as this church, and convert it into condos they would be taking a real risk. The construction costs are higher, the resulting spaces may be a little strange, all of the normal amenities may not be able to be included, so the units may be harder to market; even if there is a greater project to help to amortize the existing church space with. I would expect that if someone wanted to renovate the church they would have to approach the city to have some of the normal city requirements waived. And we know where this goes.

    A few years ago it may have been the Planning Commission or Council saying no; I think that has gotten better but still has room for improvement. Sometimes it is the city’s building department or engineering throwing out unreasonable obstacles. Or it could be a group like CARD screaming that the developer is getting special treatment. No matter the source the City of AA is not considered a magnanimous environment for developers and I think it is reflected in the kinds of projects that are proposed for the city. I was recently in Richmond, VA, a city with a lot of older buildings that have been idle for a while. There are all kinds of renovations going on inside of them that are very cool that clearly needed to be welcomed by the building bureaucracy and the local residents with open arms. There are also new buildings being built as in-fill buildings in hard to use spaces that also needed a break or two. Until the developers feel like they can take risks like these in Ann Arbor they are going to edit out these thoughts before any ideas become public and as Murph said, “… we will lose some landmarks.”

       —abc    Aug. 12 '06 - 04:05PM    #
  13. Murph, what you described in #8 above is called “playing the Council game.”

    It is bad for democracy because the “no” votes are phony “no” votes.

    On this project, it takes 8 votes to override a mayoral veto. If John puts his foot down, he could pull a couple of votes his way to sustain a veto.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 12 '06 - 04:12PM    #
  14. Dustin, check out the history of the St. Nick’s parish on their website:
    Solid 1930s.

    David, if your definition of “democracy” is based on what we see at the national level, where votes (and issues) can only be binary, polar, and adversarial, then, sure, maybe the behavior I’m describing can be considered “bad for democracy”. I like to think of democracy as a somewhat less black-and-white practice, though. (Too many years in the student co-ops, maybe…)

       —Murph.    Aug. 12 '06 - 06:32PM    #
  15. I ran into John Hieftje at this morning’s Democratic Unity Breakfast. I asked him how much he disliked the Gallery, and he made it clear that he really disliked it.

    I suggested that he consider vetoing the project. He was genuinely surprised, and said he hadn’t thought about it. I laid out what I felt were the advantages of a veto. He said he would consider it.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 12 '06 - 06:44PM    #
  16. ...and then patted you on the head and gave you a lollipop.

       —Dale    Aug. 12 '06 - 07:39PM    #
  17. {That’s cold, Dale.}

    David, would you share with us what you see as “the advantages of a veto”? I’m curious whether they would be solely political or if you see some value in it for the community. Do you think the building is worth saving or is it about getting a different development there that’s not so tall?

       —Steve Bean    Aug. 12 '06 - 09:35PM    #
  18. So here’s one reason I’m happy about this development—it makes people rethink what “downtown” means. I was speaking to a city employee the other day who was loathe to consider the Ann/Ashley lot a downtown parking lot. My jaw dropped.

       —Young OWSider    Aug. 12 '06 - 10:16PM    #
  19. I’m not lobbying for saving the present building. I don’t know whether it’s worth saving or not.

    I have never liked the idea of ignoring the present zoning, and the city’s master plan, by using a planned unit development. A PUD is “spot zoning”, which is bad in concept.

    Even if the zoning permitted this project (which it doesn’t), I think the Gallery is too big for this location.

    Bob Johnson is quoted in yesterday’s AA News of giving “a dire warning to his colleagues” that “the council is doing ad-hoc zoning and it’s probably going to come back to haunt us.” Johnson said that he is afraid developers will use the Gallery’s approval as reasoning to put up more 10-story or taller buildings in a neighborhood of mostly two-story houses.

    The mayor questioned “whether approving this project would eventually extend downtown with 10-story or higher buildings to the Huron River.”

    These are serious enough concerns that a veto would be justified on policy and planning grounds.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 12 '06 - 10:26PM    #
  20. Susan—I have an idea for bringing preservation appreciation to the web in a low-cost and low-effort fashion. Basically it involves linking a couple popular web tools and filling them with preservation content. Email me at lwinlingATumichDOTedu if you’re interested.

       —Dale    Aug. 13 '06 - 01:15AM    #
  21. Susan: I recall the mayor stopped appointing members to the Individual Historic District after the courts said it was illegal. What was the point?

       —Dustin    Aug. 13 '06 - 02:02AM    #
  22. Dale,thanks for the suggestions. I’ll get back to you. Dustin, the state of Michigan allows individual buildings to be designated as “single resource districts.” Ann Arbor has two such “districts”—Cobblestone Farm and the Northern Brewery on Jones. The IHP Committee could have functioned as a standing committee to review and recommend buildings that could qualify as single resource districts. The awkward task of having a study committee appointed for each property could be avoided this way. People now wishing to protect their property (and there are a few!) have to get listed on the National Register of Historic Places and THEN donate their property as a historic easement to a non-profit capable of accepting it. This can take years.

       —susan wineberg    Aug. 13 '06 - 08:34AM    #
  23. Dustin, individual historic properties were declared invalid by the courts the way Ann Arbor was doing them, but, since then(?), the State rules for historic districts have been changed or clarified to allow single resource districts, as Susan mentions. I believe the process for creating a single-resource district is the same as for creating a 1000-resource district, though, which is the chokepoint Susan is referring to. Ypsilanti created the single resource “Starkweather Historic District” about a year ago for the Starkweather House on Huron River Drive; I believe the process started in July or August, and wasn’t completed until around May the next year.

       —Murph.    Aug. 13 '06 - 06:10PM    #
  24. Bummer. I share the mayor’s dislike of this particular building. I’m not opposed to the project, I’m just opposed to the 9-story building. 9 stories is too high to build right next to a 2-story Kerrytown home. (The architecture is generally horrendous for the project overall, but I’m willing to allow for some compromises…though I become less willing when they don’t seem pay off, naturally.)

    It is very sad to see the church going, yes, but churches have gotten torn down throughout the city’s history, and a lot of them nobody misses anymore (or even remembers—I’m talking stuff from the 19th century). PSD’s idea would have been nice—rehabbed church plus tower—but maybe the economics couldn’t work in this situation.

    The mayor can make up his own mind, but I would lean towards a veto. It could have some good consequences.

       —Young Urban Amateur    Aug. 14 '06 - 06:02AM    #
  25. Would you share your thoughts on those possible “good consequences”, YUA?

    David, as Murph noted, Leigh Greden pointed out that a commercial building could be as tall, within current zoning, as the Gallery buildings. Your response that it’s “too big” doesn’t address the possibility that a similarly sized building(s) could end up there anyway, PUD or not.

    Johnson’s and Heiftje’s concerns are understandable and worth reflecting on, even acting on (as in adopting something along the lines of the Calthorpe zoning overlay recommendations), but are just speculation at this point. I don’t think they measure up to veto justification.

    As for the church, I worked for ten years a block from there and only occasionally noticed how attractive it is, and then only from across the street, or even better, from the alley, looking through the opposite driveway and across Main. Maybe it’s the plantings in front that hide it a bit. In any case, I think it may also be ‘the right building in the wrong place’ (as Heiftje reportedly stated about the Gallery.)

       —Steve Bean    Aug. 14 '06 - 06:34AM    #
  26. This is on the same block as two other multi-story buildings—the Dobson McComber building at Miller and Main and the McKinley building is right next door. How could this possibly be too big or be starting us on the slippery slope to paving the river? If infill isn’t appropriate for a downtown site (within DDA boundaries), I don’t know what is.

       —Dale    Aug. 14 '06 - 07:25AM    #
  27. “If infill isn’t appropriate for a downtown site (within DDA boundaries), I don’t know what is.”

    Well, we could just keep the same square footage, drop the heights down to four stories, and put all the 214 underground spaces into a nice asphalt surface lot that eats up a couple of acres of open space.

    I mean, wouldn’t that be better?

       —todd    Aug. 14 '06 - 07:36AM    #
  28. Oh, I guess I just mean that it would send a signal that while a project might get approved, that doesn’t mean the city likes everything about it. Could also be a caution flag for future developments—i.e. get the architecture right and respect the streetscape, or face the consequences.

    I realize there are four-story buildings nearby. Four stories on the north side of it would be fine—maybe up to six, but four would be best. It’s nine stories that I object to. It encroaches on the neighborhood, and encourages further encroachment (i.e. the kind of encroachement that results in tearing down old houses, which should not be the point of infill, IMO).

    Yes, infill is a good idea, and this is an appropriate place for it. I just object to bad architecture, that’s all.

       —Young Urban Amateur    Aug. 15 '06 - 05:40AM    #
  29. I’m surprised David hasn’t shook his fist at Calthorpe over this project, but if zoning based on Calthorpe would have actually reduced the height on this site? Hmmm…Maybe that’s why David hasn’t cursed Calthorpe yet on this thread.

    Would zoning based on Calthorpe have reduced the height on this site?

    I watched this city council meeting and as you might expect the Calthorpe report did come up. Kent Burkhart, who owns a building which will be in a near permanent shadow, read the passage from the Vision Plan section devoted to the Kerrytown/North Main Street Area: “Promote small, residential infill projects…that relate well to the surrounding neighbors and topographic environment.”

    And Ray Detter referred to it along with the Downtown Plan, the Central Area Plan and the Downtown Residential Task Force Report to make his point that, “According to all our city plans the community wants Kerrytown to be a three to five story section.”

    The developer of the Gallery Luxury Flats + Penthouses, Michael Concannon, who describes himself as an avid reader’, gave his own interpretation of the Calthorpe Report in a rebuttal. I thought it was worth transcribing because it sheds light on the way developers think when they read these planning documents. He said,

    We continue to hear about only part of Calthorpe. Calthorpe starts with a five story base. If you add all the premiums in that are available to this project you can build a twenty five story building on this site. We are not proposing that but when we talk about Calthorpe, in for a dime, in for a dollar.

       —David F    Aug. 15 '06 - 06:35PM    #
  30. I walked past the old church today. This is what I saw.

    A sign above about the new development, which is “The Gallery”, Luxury Flats + Penthouses,

    Developers, architects:

    The Concannon Company
    Michael Concannon

    Hobbs + Black Architects

    Project Lean, developers
    Sophia Fisher, president
    Maumee, OH
    +1 419 482 0797

    The front door glass was partially smashed, and on the glass there was a “stop work” order, ordering the property to be secured. There was debris on the front steps and in the stairwell to the basement entrance, and a piece of warning tape on the front door warning of asbestos. There’s a tarp over the old dome, and bits of the front brickwork have been removed.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Jul. 10 '07 - 09:58PM    #