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Posted on Thu, Sep 3, 2009 : 7:30 a.m.

A2D2 downtown design guidelines: Should they be mandatory?

By Paula Gardner

Ann Arbor residents still want a voice in the final draft of the A2D2 development guidelines heading to City Council this fall.

They also want more time to make themselves heard before the process ends.

And downtown-watchers shouldn't be surprised if the theme of the continuing conversation focuses on elevating the guidelines from voluntary to mandatory.

That was the message delivered Wednesday night at the Kerrytown Concert House, where about 30 people gathered to hear a presentation from the consultant who whittled about 50 design recommendations into 28 that form the Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown document.

"If you’re hearing frustration here, many of these people have been going from public hearing to public hearing," said Ethel Potts, a former Planning Commissioner. Her point: They haven't felt like their concerns were heard and incorporated into the document.

A2D2 has been a work in progress since 2006, as the city kept the momentum generated by the community while a core group of residents debated what downtown should look like as part of a consultant's study.

That also followed years of heated downtown property acquisition and development plans that pushed the city's limits on height and building mass.

What should Ann Arbor's downtown allow, development-wise? And how can the city end up with buildings that fit the community's standards?

Loaded questions, especially in a city where so many residents define themselves as stakeholders in the decision. In Ann Arbor, ownership of downtown goes far beyond the name on a property deed.

So now with A2D2, Ann Arbor is closer to defining the answers. The draft plan gives suggestions for building placement, shape and materials.

According to the initial plan, residents only had days to weigh in: The deadline for giving feedback on the 60-page document, available only online, was Sept. 14. The final draft was to be done by Sept. 23, with council approval possible just weeks later. Unclear right after the meeting Wednesday was whether that timeline - and the opportunities for public comment - will change.

One result of Wednesday's meeting is that the city will increase access to the plan by bringing copies of it to the libraries and making pages available for purchase at copy stores. More residents in the city should find it easier to find the plan, read it and react to it.

But the nature of that reaction, based on conversation from the crowd on Wednesday, may not focus on the design particulars.

Instead, officials and the steering committee should be bracing for feedback that, like one speaker, defines the A2D2 approach as "timid."

Because even after years of discussion, it's clear that some residents are not satisfied to hear voluntary guidelines - which would "encourage" compliance and not mandate it - will be defining downtown development goals for the city.

Now the public discussion, if it follows the themes of Wednesday's meeting, is likely to focus on the question of whether the guidelines need enforcement teeth.

The driving question may be: Does Ann Arbor need to mandate how developers design their projects in downtown?

Anyone with an opinion on how the city should answer that needs to read the plan - soon - and react. 

To comment on the A2D2 plan, contact Alexix DiLeo at (734) 794-6000 or by email

Paula Gardner is business director at, where she covers Ann Arbor real estate and development. 



Wed, Sep 16, 2009 : 9:58 a.m.

yes yes yes Im more concerned about the professional bums living downtown at the first baptist church Its simply untorerable and must end I will be pushing for changes there by mounting an email campaign Im paul jensen

Alice Ralph

Wed, Sep 9, 2009 : 6:49 p.m.

The question might not be so much whether we should tell designers how to design, but to give clear guidelines, or standards, that lead to excellent outcomes. As commented earlier, residents have a sense of ownership in downtown, no matter in what neighborhood we actually live. Downtown is the heart of our community and we should be supported, by ordinance and official decisions, in our desire to have high quality places for visitors and a great residential quality of life. The current rushed schedule makes a good outcome more difficult, to say the least. Rapid response and perseverance are required. Yes, a design review should be required and might be practically linked with the now-required public engagement meeting(s), in the conceptual stages. Stronger linkage and reference to guidelines in the amended zoning ordinance is another possibility. In any case, context is where many of the questions are based. A proposal statement of design compliance by the proposer is insufficient. We need some 'ordained' accountability. That's what the interested public expects. [Disclosure: I was an appointed member of the former design guidelines advisory committee dissolved December 2007.]

Chuck Warpehoski

Thu, Sep 3, 2009 : 2:26 p.m.

What I heard at the meeting was a general support for the principles of the guidelines and real concerns about giving them teeth and taking the time to get them right. I think the design guidelines are good and represent a common concern for both the smart grown and preservationist camps. The battle between those camps is mostly about the zoning behind the design guidelines. I place myself in the smart growth camp. I want a more dense, more vibrant downtown that supports people in living/working/shopping without depending on a car; that provides adequate student housing to free up other housing for workforce housing; that provides adequate foot traffic to make our downtown businesses vibrant; and that meets the growing demand for urban housing and thereby provides an alternative to suburban sprawl. What I hear from others in the smart growth camp is that they want buildings, yes, but they want GOOD buildings. What I hear in the preservationist camp is frustration that many of the new buildings have not been good buildings. This addresses both concerns. That's why both smart growth people and preservationist people want these guidelines to have teeth. There's a lot more I want to say about this, but I've already commented/ranted about it at ArborUpdate, and I don't think it would be polite to cut and paste that comment here :)


Thu, Sep 3, 2009 : 9:21 a.m.

Listen, these folks that sit in back offices and determine what a model city or downtown should look like have more failures than successes. I know that Mayor John would love to see high rises but if you talk to the folks on the street, I do not want the wind tunnel and look at cement siding. Why do we have to have a tear down philosophy and why is bigger better. We need a prohibition of buildings taller than 3-4 stories and gosh knows, we never need one 25 stories. Stand next to Huron and Main and imagine the entire street lined with such monsters. They will happen when the market is right and we will not have guidelines in place to prevent it. Not very good forward thinking. I know these folks are believing they are doing good but for the most part, they get so caught up in designing, they forget the real quality of life