Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

"Smart Growth Ann Arbor" calls for strong design guidelines

3. September 2009 • Murph
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I received the following this afternoon from ““. SGA2 urges attendance at tonight’s community open house for the A2D2 design guidelines draft, 7-9pm at the Kerrytown Concert House (415 N. Fourth), as well as the Sept. 14 joint working session of Council, Planning Commission, and the DDA. The design guidelines draft is available from the City’s A2D2 webpages.

SGA2 pitches its take into this site’s ever popular discussion topic of downtown development and design – the message appears to be very open to new development, including large/tall development, “but again, only if there is at least some basic level of protection against future buildings that will hurt the downtown experience further,” and expresses alarm that the current draft would make design review voluntary for developers.

City planning staff and consultants will be presenting the current draft of the proposed downtown design guidelines. It is an “open house” style of meeting, with a formal presentation from 7:30pm-8:30pm. This is probably the best forum to get to know this document, but we do not know if there will be Q&A. (If there is, staff is always diligent about noting comments and passing them along to the relevant bodies.)

A citizen committee of design and historic experts worked with the public, city staff, and consultants over the course of hundreds of person-hours to come up with an excellent document. The “steering committee” working with this process (3 people) has told the consultants to both 1) “streamline” the document, and 2) make developer compliance with these guidelines completely voluntary. This is in contrast with what the Calthorpe process led the public to believe and with what the committee, staff, and consultants had originally proposed: all downtown development would be required to undergo a fast, efficient, fair review process to make sure new construction met very basic design criteria as well as “fit in” to the character of their surrounding neighborhood.

It was apparent from the Calthorpe process as well as the numerous subsequent design workshops that the public wanted greater density downtown, but only if the new buildings didn’t detract from downtown’s appeal. That is, there is a recognition that quality design costs developers more, but the public is willing to “pay” for that via giving permission to build taller buildings.

City Council has already voted to strip away some protections from “blocky” buildings (a diagonal requirement), and now it appears there is an effort to remove all requirements for good design. We do not know what forces are pushing the decision process in this direction, but it is widely believed that more buildings in the style of Corner House Lofts (State and Washington) will only serve to fan the flames of anti-density further. There are many people who are willing to increase the allowable densities downtown even further than is currently proposed, but again, only if there is at least some basic level of protection against future buildings that will hurt the downtown experience further.

The following document, particularly from pg 8-10, gives you a summary of what the original design process was supposed to look like:

An outline of the process this far can be found here:
and you can find the current draft of the guidelines by clicking on the first item under “News” on the upper right.

I would encourage you to attend tonight if you think quality building design is important to downtown. If questions/comments are allowed, please voice your opinion!

These guidelines will be discussed/deliberated at an upcoming joint meeting among City Council, the Planning Commission, and the DDA on Monday, September 14, 7pm at the CTN Studios on South Industrial (more info to come).

Thanks for supporting a smarter, more vibrant Ann Arbor!

  1. Okay, just back from the community meeting, here are my thoughts:

    1. Teeth: There was a strong sense that these guidelines should have teeth, more so than in the current proposal (which is purely voluntary and only require a statement from the developer). I agree. I suspect the next round will give them teeth, but the big question is to what extent. There is a range of options from being completely voluntary at one end to completely mandatory at the other, with some sort of 3rd party review and advisory opinion in the middle.

    I don’t know where on the spectrum things should be, and I don’t know the legal ins-and-outs, but I would like design guidelines that: * recognizes that there is more discretion in evaluating design guidelines than zoning guidelines, and has some wiggle room built in for that; * lets planning commission or city council reject a proposal based on non-compliance with the guidelines; * allows a good project that isn’t 100% in line with the design guidelines to go forward without putting it through a lot of red tape in the PUD process.

    2. timeline: There are two tensions here, both of which came up at the meeting. On the one hand, we want these guidelines soon, before any out-of-guidelines buildings get launched. On the other hand, we want enough public comment to give reasonable feedback on the guidelines (especially if they are to be more than voluntary).

    I do not think the current timeline gives enough space for informed public comment. I would suggest making a commitment to giving the proposals more teeth to get that issue off the table, and then adding a public comment period before the consultant takes the report back for revisions. Still, I do think we want this finished before the end of the year.

    3. content: One participant said something along the lines of, “I’m pushing for more teeth because I think the guidelines are pretty good.” I do think these guidelines are on the right track. They promote sustainability, human scale, pedestrian friendlyness, and respect for the historic forms of the downtown areas. Overall, I do think this is representative of what most Ann Arborites want for the design of downtown buildings (not counting debates about scale, which are covered in zoning regulations).

    4. consensus: I actually see the design guidelines as a point of common ground between the preservationist crowd and the smart-growth crowd. Even if there are disagreements about the size and scale of new developments, I think there is agreement that new development in the downtown should be quality development, and that’s what these guidelines promote. I’m hopeful for that collaboration.

    5. mistrust: I’ve seen this too in the AHP process, a lot of people have lost faith in the process. Some of that is due to timeline questions as raised above. Some of that is due to surprises at developments that are not considered appropriate for the neighborhood. And some of that is due to developments that break their promises (such as the green roof that isn’t on the Flagstar bank building and the balconies that aren’t on the Buffalo Wild Wings building).

    I support downtown density, and I see where this mistrust comes from. I think we should deal with some of the sources of this distrust. In particular, extend the timeline for the design guidelines (but not too much) and launch a process to ensure that what is promised is what is built.

    6. it’s complicated: One participant tonight talked about sustainability and historic preservation and implied that maintaining existing structures was more sustainable.

    Sometimes that’s true.

    Sometimes it’s not.

    A new structure will generally be more efficient, more accessible to people with mobility impairments, and safer in case of fire than a historic building. On the other hand, it will take a lot of resources to build that new building. How that tradeoff works depends on the old building and the new building. Blanket generalizations about new or old construction being more sustainable miss the nuance of particular situations.

    7. incentive for good projects? As I sat in the meeting, my overwhelming thought is that we want to make it easy for good projects to be built in Ann Arbor and to put roadblocks in front of bad projects. These guidelines might do both.

    By making some sort of review of them mandatory, we could impede or block bad projects.

    Can we also use them to incentivize good projects? Could projects that meet and exceed these guidelines get put to the front of the line for permits, for reviews and approvals, and for adoption?

    Hey, I don’t want ugly buildings downtown either. These seem like a great way to offer a carrot to good projects that help keep our downtown vibrant.

    8. they did a good job: Overall, I think these are good recommendations. I think they did a good job of listening to Ann Arborites and reflecting what people like about our city and want in a new development.

    Yes, I have concerns about the plan for public engagement over the next month. But I think these proposed guidelines do reflect what most people want to see in a new building. I do think that shows a public process that has (mostly) regarding design guidelines.

    I look forward to a bit more time for public input to put the final polishes on these, giving them teeth, and putting them in place so that whatever new buildings come in meet these guidelines and reflect this common vision for Ann Arbor.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Sep. 3 '09 - 06:58AM    #
  2. Chuck,

    Thanks for the honest analysis of this – I wasn’t able to attend, but I think I got a clear picture of what went on.

       —Jeremy Peters    Sep. 4 '09 - 12:55AM    #
  3. “Smart Growth”. A euphemism often used by political conservatives, often extremely pro-development, in the last 3 decades to connote that anything other than their proposals are dumb growth.

       —Rick C    Sep. 4 '09 - 05:31PM    #
  4. You mean political conservatives like the national Sierra Club ?

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Sep. 4 '09 - 09:17PM    #
  5. @Rick C

    Not sure where the anger is coming from, it seems like people want to put teeth into the plan and see it as a consensus based on the recommendations from the Calthorpe study. I see no evil in that.

       —Jeremy Peters    Sep. 5 '09 - 02:03AM    #
  6. I have no idea why the Sierra club would opt for such terminology, but I can understand why supporters of New Urbanism are trying to effect a name change. And please don’t patronize me with your armchair psychoanalysis.

       —Rick C    Sep. 6 '09 - 07:49AM    #
  7. When the Sierra Club and others started an anti-sprawl campaign locally in the late 1990s, they did use the term smart growth. But there was a homebuilders group who co-opted the term.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 6 '09 - 04:16PM    #
  8. Why must it always be an us vs them mentality?

    Smart Growth ( is a much larger movement than something created by the Sierra club and stolen or “co-opted” by the local home buliders.

    Self described: “The Smart Growth Network (SGN) is a network
    of private, public, and non-governmental partner
    organizations seeking to improve development
    practices in neighborhoods, communities, and
    regions across the United States. The network
    was formed in response to increasing community
    concerns about the need for new ways to grow
    that boost the economy, protect the environment
    and public health, and enhance community vitality.
    SGN partners include environmental groups,
    historic preservation organizations, professional
    organizations, developers, real estate interests,
    and local and state government entities.”

    Sounds like something we should embrace.

       —CDBF    Sep. 6 '09 - 05:22PM    #
  9. Yes, I looked at the website and it appears to have many good resources. I was intending to describe something that happened locally, but the term smart growth is, as you indicate, still legitimate. Unfortunately, as with words like “sustainability”, the label is often used by groups who have a particular viewpoint that many of the original adherents don’t agree with.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 6 '09 - 07:06PM    #
  10. Great summary, Chuck (post #1). I completely agree on all counts: it’s a good start, it needs some ‘teeth’, we need to have at least one more public meeting to get constructive comments (this meeting was held just 2 days after the draft was posted!), and above all, the guidelines should be adopted by the end of the year. I was surprised that they made the design review completely optional.

    As for Smart Growth & the Sierra Club, I have always been disappointed that our local Sierra club chapter only comes out against development, never for it. Seems like the club leadership isn’t very pro-growth at all, smart or otherwise, and I think that is short-sighted.

       —KGS    Sep. 8 '09 - 09:00PM    #
  11. is reporting that the city has added 2 more public engagement opportunities.

    The first meeting will be held Tuesday Sept. 29 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm, 2781 Packard Road. The format will be roundtable discussions with opportunity to discuss topics in small groups.

    The second meeting, in the format large group discussion, will be held Wednesday, Oct. 7 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm, 2781 Packard Road.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Sep. 15 '09 - 07:08PM    #
  12. The info on is misleading. Those dates are to review the Area, Height, and Placement changes for areas outside of the downtown, and have nothing to do with the design guidelines. More info on AHP here.

       —KGS    Sep. 15 '09 - 07:46PM    #