Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Mid-range housing "City Place" proposed for South Fifth Ave.

24. August 2007 • Murph
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At a Planning Commission working session last week, builder Alex de Parry discussed conceptual plans for a four-story, 84-unit redevelopment of six properties he owns on South Fifth Avenue. The properties (some pictured at right) are 407-433 S. Fifth, just south of William St., which are currently houses broken up into 22 rental apartments. (de Parry also owns 403 S. Fifth, on the corner of William, but that property is not included in the plans.) From the Ann Arbor News:

If built, City Place would likely be one of the first large-scale new construction rental developments targeted at the middle-income market – dubbed workforce housing – near downtown Ann Arbor in years.

“Right now everything happening in Ann Arbor is either upper end or lower end – no one is doing anything for the middle guys,’‘ said de Parry, who owns Ann Arbor Builders. De Parry plans to rent City Place units – ranging from one-bedroom to three-bedroom suites – at between 80 percent and 120 percent of the city’s average median income.
. . .
Parking at City Place is proposed to be provided in an underground garage. The building is planned to have a facade that looks like a series of Boston brownstones. De Parry said the project would cost between $20 million and $22 million.

The project would not be done as a PUD; de Parry instead suggests that a “conditional rezoning” could be used. This mechanism, a new addition to the State enabling legislation, allows a rezoning to be done while also placing limitations on the use and form of the property beyond those in the new zoning district.

de Parry intends to submit formal plans within 2 months.

  1. (Thanks to Tom Brandt for the photo of the site.)

       —Murph    Aug. 24 '07 - 09:50PM    #
  2. Murph, could you tell us more about this new “conditional zoning” concept and how it is supposed to work?

       —David Cahill    Aug. 24 '07 - 10:23PM    #
  3. David –

    Can’t tell you much; I’ve never watched it in use. It was added first to the State zoning enabling legislation in late 2004, currently MCL 125.3405. Quote, “An owner of land may voluntarily offer in writing, and the local unit of government may approve, certain use and development of the land as a condition to a rezoning of the land or an amendment to a zoning map.”

    Generally speaking, a rezoning request is (should be) considered on its own merits, even when the applicant also has a site plan in hand for what they want to do with the site after the rezoning. Even if the rezoning applicant wants to do something that everybody is happy with, the planners have to look at it and say, “Well, this rezoning would also allow the site to be used in x, y, and z other ways, if this plan falls through, or once this applicant is done with it,” meaning that the rezoning might be denied based on fears of what other uses might be enabled by it.

    Conditional rezoning allows the applicant to say, “I’d like you to rezone this, subject to these conditions,” and offer up some limitations that would eliminate those other, feared outcomes. In this case, it appears de Parry would need to rezone from an existing, residential zoning to an ostensibly “commercial” district – most likely to allow him the built form he wants. But he probably knows that asking for a residential block to be suddenly zoned “commercial” is asking for trouble, so he’d be offering up the condition that, “The actual use may only ever be residential.”

    As I understand it, this is not a negotiation process – the City can’t ask for certain conditions, but only decide yes or no on the request and the conditions offered. (If a negotiation was desired, it would have to be a PUD.)

       —Murph    Aug. 24 '07 - 11:50PM    #
  4. This sounds promising, Murph. But it could be a negotiating process: the parties could negotiate on what the owner would “voluntarily offer”.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 25 '07 - 12:43AM    #
  5. I’m curious, Dave….would you support this project?

       —todd    Aug. 25 '07 - 12:58AM    #
  6. Some amount of “meta-negotiating” on conditions may be possible, yes. The legislation states,

    “(5) A local unit of government shall not require a landowner to offer conditions as a requirement for rezoning.”

    If I were a local government, I’d want to be careful how I approached this topic – if a staffer were to say, “We don’t think we could support this application with that set of conditions, but if you were to add this other condition…” would that qualify as “requiring” a condition?

       —Murph.    Aug. 25 '07 - 01:31AM    #
  7. I don’t know, Murph. I’ll check out the legislative history of this new provision. Generally the House and Senate staffs each do analyses.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 25 '07 - 03:37AM    #
  8. I have maps of the location and links to all of the online commentary I could find up at the City Place post on my blog if the editor wants to work any of these into the story text.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Aug. 25 '07 - 09:13PM    #
  9. Stupid question, I’m sure: why is rezoning needed? It’s a residential project, right, not a project combining housing and shops? There are other apt buildings in that area (ie., not divided houses but buildings actually built as apts), tho I know they’re older and prob predate the current zoning. Just not clear on how this works, and yes I am asking you to explain it to me simply rather than making me do even a little research myself!

    My own sense as a walker thru in that area is that this would be a good addition, given decent design and nice space for the actual residents of the project, as well as good traffic management in the design, so I’m definitely not shopping for reasons to object. OTOH, maybe the req for rezoning helps ensure those conditions so I’m not necessarily objecting to that either.

       —Aki    Aug. 25 '07 - 09:44PM    #
  10. I’m just hoping it looks like the new lovely building on Huron and Ashley. That’s a model building if I ever saw one. Ahem.

       —OWSider    Aug. 25 '07 - 10:16PM    #
  11. Density may be an issue. The property is currently zoned R4C which allows 20 units/acre, no where near what is proposed. Plus, there’s probably no way to meet some of the other zoning provisions for this kind of project on these properties. Seems like a natural for a PUD but perhaps this is a way to get out of the negotiation process.

       —John Q.    Aug. 26 '07 - 02:20AM    #
  12. Aki –

    Zoning isn’t just use; it also includes a lot of rules on what those uses should look like. John Q. mentions density – how many residences in a certain “residential” area; zoning has a lot of built-in prejudices towards houses and against apartments, such that higher density residential uses are often considered “not residential”.

    Also setbacks – looks like R4C requires a 25 foot front setback (distance from lot line/sidewalk to front of building) and 12 foot side setbacks; I’m guessing the existing buildings don’t meet those requirements, and a block of “brownstone style” residences definitely wouldn’t. From the plat map that Ed V. has on his page, note that some of the lots are only 33 feet wide – requiring 12 feet of setback on each side leaves you with an awfully funny looking 9-foot wide house, if you want to try to build within the zoning.

    R4C also includes a maximum height of 30 feet; in historic home terms, that’s about 2 stories + a gabled roof with a partial 3rd floor in it. The proposal is for 4 stories, which I’m guessing would be 40-45 feet tall.

       —Murph.    Aug. 26 '07 - 06:44PM    #
  13. Thanks, that helps. It is a little confusing that the language earlier (and perhaps the language of the codes) is “residential” vs. “commercial,” when we’re really talking about different kinds of residential in this case—esp. since the current use (as I understand it) is not owner-occupied but already rental in many cases (ie., “commercial”). It seems like the owner/wouldbe developer has created this confusion by the language of his proposal.

    Another question (I’m away from home, if that’s any excuse, or I’d figure it out myself): isn’t this in the historic district? If it is, I would have a problem, no matter how nice the design, with destroying existing, habitable, maintainable houses that are part of the whole OWS streetscape’s historic character which is not reducible to any one house’s exact history. I also worry about any criticism of the current houses being used to justify knocking them down for this, as it creates an ugly incentive for owners (established or new) to let houses get in bad shape in order to justify plowing them under, or to quibble about whether any one house is fully, documentably, part of the historic streetscape in every particular or whether that 1950s porch cancels out the historic protection. But I am also operating from memory—have walked past there a zillion times but can’t do it right this moment to check my memory.

       —Aki    Aug. 26 '07 - 08:33PM    #
  14. Could we pretend I didn’t write that last paragraph? I was mindlessly and automatically thinking the other Fifth. There may be historic issues with the one in question, but the hist. district is clearly and wholly irrelevant. I did get muddled in part because the relevant bit of the 5th in the OWS is also kindof “South”—it’s two blocks over from South Seventh, after all— and it also has several houses which are subdivided into apts but, hey, I’m in a different timezone at the moment too. Ignore irrelevances above.

       —Aki    Aug. 26 '07 - 08:46PM    #
  15. destroying existing, habitable, maintainable houses that are part of the whole OWS streetscape’s historic character

    Aki, does this objection hinge on whether or not the particular block is a part of a formal historic district? It’s true that historic districts typically involve dense, walkable, urban neighborhoods, since that’s what we were building before the war, but there are plenty of such blocks that aren’t part of a district – I wouldn’t rely on inclusion in / exclusion from a district as a measure of whether or not something is worth keeping (in either direction); the district simply sets up another stage for discussing that question.

    I’m surprised Juliew hasn’t chipped in with a cautionary tale involving 828 Green St. yet – it does, after all, provide the perfect example of why tearing down existing “affordable” housing stock to put in more isn’t always the best idea in the world. I can see this going in that direction pretty easily – if the value of the property is going to be increased 7- or 8-fold ($3.25m current, adding $20-22m in construction cost), while the number of units is only to be increased 3- to 4-fold, the back of my envelope suggests the new units will cost more. (Though could very well be much more “liveable” space than the present houses.)

    On the other hand, this is the kind of four story development that’s been fetishized for years now. With the library and Y/AATA sites likely to be built up soon, just across William, and Meulig’s and the UCC church presenting through-block pavement on the other side of Fifth from these properties, “four-story brownstone style” housing could be done quite well here.

    I’ll wait for design details before leveling judgement.

       —Murph.    Aug. 26 '07 - 09:49PM    #
  16. Me: there may be historic issues with the one in question…

    You: does this objection hinge on whether or not the particular block is a part of a formal historic district? It’s true that historic districts typically involve dense, walkable, urban neighborhoods, since that’s what we were building before the war, but there are plenty of such blocks that aren’t part of a district – I wouldn’t rely on inclusion in / exclusion from a district as a measure of whether or not something is worth keeping…

    I think we definitely agree here and you put it much better—-and you’re right to reframe the issue of historicity as not just about the formally protected areas, esp. as it may be that this area is NOT formally protected because it’s been more vulnerable, not because it’s less valuable. But I also agree that that description of what’s proposed is the sort of thing that could be done in ways are appealing and have indeed appealed to some of us as good alternative use of other sites. I’m also going to wait, not least til I’m back in the right timezone.

       —Aki    Aug. 26 '07 - 10:09PM    #
  17. Four years ago, I proposed a way to fix the Fourth/Fourth and Fifth/Fifth street name confusion. No response yet …

       —Larry Kestenbaum    Aug. 27 '07 - 06:33AM    #
  18. Gee Larry – that isn’t so long! :-)

    One set is St., the other is Ave., and one set is E/W and the other is N/S – but none of us can remember which is which – what is your solution?
    Then let’s pass it on to Council.

       —Leah Gunn    Aug. 27 '07 - 03:08PM    #
  19. No, no, they’re both N/S.

    I propose Fourth Avenue become Wheeler Avenue, and Fifth Avenue become Wallenberg Avenue. Click here for details and justification.

       —Larry Kestenbaum    Aug. 27 '07 - 04:14PM    #
  20. Hey Leah, both 4th/5th st. & 4th/5th ave. run north & south. Neither runs east & west.

    It is easy to tell the two apart.

    For instance, if you have an address for 4th or 5th and it has N. or S. attached to it, then it is 4th/5th Ave. which is east of Main st.

    As you will notice, 4th/5th st. end at Liberty st., west of Main st. Liberty is two blocks South from Huron, which is the dividing line between the north side of town and the south side of town. So 4th & 5th st. do not have a N. or S. designation, which both 4th & 5th Ave. have, since they run both north and south of Huron.

    That should eliminate most any confusion with the issue.

       —James C. Crawford    Aug. 27 '07 - 04:15PM    #
  21. “That should eliminate most any confusion with the issue.” I assure you, it doesn’t. Out-of-towners, which includes people from as far away as Ypsi or Saline, routinely get it wrong, and the fact that 7th is heavily posted with signs saying South Seventh makes it very easy to do so; I’ve often found people circling the OWS looking for the public library. And quick verbal refs or directions may not include all the info; you’re not always dealing with fully written-down, absolutely complete addresses. I like Larry’s suggestions a lot, esp. as they recognize that the numbered streets downtown are somewhat anomalous. Not that that excuses my mistake earlier, of course.

       —Aki    Aug. 27 '07 - 05:43PM    #
  22. Obviously, James, I am still confused! Thanks for your explanation, and I like Larry’s solution very much. From Leah (who has lived here long enough to know better – I think I should get a compass!)

    To Aki – I’m with you – and it is not just out of towners!

       —Leah Gunn    Aug. 27 '07 - 09:47PM    #
  23. I love Larry Kestenbaum’s idea. It’s historical relevant, pleasing to me and helpful to others. Can we overcome the reluctance to name public resources after people? That reluctance has recently caused one notable naming disaster.

       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 27 '07 - 09:59PM    #
  24. Sorry I didn’t chime in earlier Murph. This project makes me really sad and I’m having a hard time thinking about it. This is one of my favorite streets to walk down for two reasons: beautiful houses and beautiful big trees. Guess I’ll be taking a different route once this project goes up.

    So yeah, tearing down interesting affordable housing in order to spend $22+ million (plus what he has already put into them) to create a few more cheesy (yes, a four-story faux Boston brownstone in the Midwest is cheesy), cookie-cutter residences rarely seems like a good idea to me. Here we have six beautiful, “multi-family” houses that have provided good and inexpensive housing for over 100 years. I couldn’t find too much on the rents because the units are not often listed, but what I saw was in the $810/month for a one or two-bedroom apartment. One of the houses was described in the following way: “Very rare find… live downtown in a beautifully restored and updated turn-of-the-century home. Extensive woodwork inside, pocket doors to parlor, stained glass, hardwood floors. Displays great craftsmanship of the era. A truly exceptional rental.” I know what these new ones will look like, and I’m thinking they may display craftsmanship of the era, but it sure won’t be “great.”

    As the New’s article states: “De Parry plans to rent City Place units – ranging from one-bedroom to three-bedroom suites – at between 80 percent and 120 percent of the city’s average median income. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines say such a range, including utilities, would equal between $1,193 and $1,879 a month for a two-person household, based on median annual household income ranging between $47,700 and $75,168.” So what does this mean for the average rents for “City Place”? The one-bedroom apartments are most likely going to be in the $1200 and up range and the three bedroom suites (what exactly is a three-bedroom suite apartment?) will be triple that. Affordable? Not so much.

    So who is going to rent these apartments? He claims he is aiming toward “the middle guy.” But who is the middle guy? I don’t think his market is what he hopes. He is competing against places like Nob Hill, Arbor Village, and Ann Arbor Woods, which are half the cost or less and more interesting. When an apartment gets into a certain price range, the “middle guys” start to look at buying a house or condo. This is that price range. People who want to live downtown (which isn’t for everyone, especially in this location) often specifically don’t want to live in a generic new building. Funky and interesting older apartments are the ones that rent first downtown.

    It just seems that with smart renovation and additions, you could keep the existing houses, double the capacity, spend far less money, charge a lower rent, and keep architecture and finishings that are of considerable value (monetarily and emotionally). Unfortunately, just like with 828 Greene, the developer/owner thinks he can make his fame and fortune on these properties and will write off any criticism as “stupid NIMBYism.” And frankly, the city probably has no way to stop him. The houses aren’t protected so he is free to demolish them and put up something that fits the code. I just hope someone gets there before they are destroyed to save the woodwork, light fixtures, hardwood floors, and stained glass …

       —Juliew    Aug. 27 '07 - 11:09PM    #
  25. Move them.

       —Dale    Aug. 27 '07 - 11:25PM    #
  26. These would be great to move. But where? That is always the kicker. They are big houses. I would love to see some co-housing project use moved houses rather than new buildings, but they always seem to like some sprawly situation in the exurbs. I see that there is land available for development next to Cobblestone Farms. That might be a possibility. Looks like the Blue Sky/Blue Hill project is defunct now so they won’t be taking anything.

       —Juliew    Aug. 27 '07 - 11:36PM    #
  27. Folks: change is good…

    In my forty-plus years in Ann Arbor, I have spent a great deal of time on Fifth Avenue and its neighborhood. The hundred-year-old houses on Alex DeParry’s block are not so fabulous that they should be preserved. Let the bulldozers roll.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 27 '07 - 11:51PM    #
  28. I lived in one of these houses for several years as a grad student. The houses are charming and very solid with great details. I’m not enamored of de Parry’s plan to raze them for yet another character-less apartment block. I’m also in agreement with those who question just who would be renting these at the increased rate de Parry proposes. The current units are affordable for grad students and beginning professionals. From the numbers I’ve seen on the salaries Google is paying in A2, they wouldn’t support living in these pricey cookie-cutter boxes.

       —Todd    Aug. 28 '07 - 05:32AM    #
  29. I lived in one of the houses this past year and I’m really not surprised abotu this plan. Alex pretty much acted as a slum lord, not doing any structural repairs to the buildings even though it looked the roofs, decks and stairs were about to collapse. These could be beautiful houses if someone actually took care of them instead of letting them fall apart. I could see why he’d want to do it though. The current apts are huge and aren’t too expensive.

       —Paul    Aug. 28 '07 - 09:34AM    #
  30. Now that I’m sure which houses I’m actually discussing… The people I’ve known who’ve lived there have been a grad student and a post-doc, ie. people who certainly couldn’t afford the proposed rents of the new development. It seems like the current houses have and could continue to provide a significant number (22 units!) of genuinely affordable housing for people who could be called young professionals without the ability, willingness, or desire to buy—-while the proposed apts don’t have a clear market, as Juliew says, and would be really expensive for grads, adjuncts and other contract workers at UM, Googlers, other young professionals working downtown. Really treasuring and maintaining the existing buildings might instead sustain higher rents than now—not that I’m encouraging gouging—while such high rents in a new place just don’t appeal by comparison to cheaper or funkier or posher alternatives. I’d rather see this kind of new build go on sites where existing useful and valued housing isn’t already present.

       —Aki    Aug. 28 '07 - 05:24PM    #
  31. Pardon me for coming at this from a perspective outside the “urban planning” context, but why does everyone feel the need to second-guess Parry’s business reasoning? In a free market economy isn’t it up to the owner to choose the most profitable use of his properties? He is, as they say, “the Decider.”

    I accept that zoning, planning, and so forth are necessary and beneficial, but consider this a voice for giving some weight to market principles.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Aug. 28 '07 - 05:41PM    #
  32. “Alex pretty much acted as a slum lord, not doing any structural repairs to the buildings”

    But apparently he has at least managed things in a way that electricity and gas were supplied—so that the dwellings were still habitable from the City’s point of view … unlike these properties

       —HD    Aug. 28 '07 - 05:49PM    #
  33. Oh, those students, what with their need for “locked doors and windows” and “electricity.” What a bunch of crybabies!

       —Dale    Aug. 28 '07 - 07:58PM    #
  34. Yeah, I agree w/ Murph that maybe it could be a good thing—but it depends on what we’re talking about by “brownstones”. I don’t think a building in the style of Ashley Mews, for example, would be an improvement over what’s there. Of course, the houses there are getting run-down, but that could be landlord neglect (which is why, Fred Zimmerman, many here are pro-market but also skeptical of letting that market have its way all the time—individuals and business can also manipulate markets, after all.) I’m slightly inclined to side with Juliew; it would be better if the current housing there were repaired.

    As for the 4th/5th confusion; the other piece of that is that Seventh is officially named “Seventh Avenue” which is totally baffling for out-of-towners. Residents don’t realize this, of course, because everyone just calls it “Seventh”!

       —Young Urban Amateur    Sep. 2 '07 - 08:57PM    #
  35. thanks for the comment, Young Urban Amateur. As a recent renter, I certainly agree, by all means let’s have good landlord laws and enforce them.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Sep. 3 '07 - 11:16PM    #
  36. Time to move on! I don’t know the specifics of these properties, but I imagine they are difficult to maintain, expensive to heat and operate. Seems to me the perfect building for a place like this is what the developer is proposing – 3 story walk ups, close to the street, higher density. Closer to the street. Perfect for the pedestrian scale. This higher density (double of what is there now) will facilitate downtown businesses – other than restaurants – and mass transit.

       —Andy Piper    Apr. 6 '08 - 01:22PM    #
  37. Defend the Ann Arbor 7,
    preserve architrectural resources,
    preserve Ann Arbor’s architectural history and character. This development is all wrong.

       —jeff    Aug. 26 '08 - 06:37AM    #
  38. Just to give jeff’s comment a little context: City Place was due to come back to PC two weeks after he left the comment. That was last night. It’s third time before PC did not prove to be a charm, although it did pick up 2 votes this time.

       —HD    Sep. 5 '08 - 08:04PM    #