13-story downtown high-rise draws criticism at Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting
Image courtesy of developer
The general concept of The Varsity — a dense housing development catering to University of Michigan students — appears to have support, but a few details remain to be worked out.
Following a nearly two-hour discussion during which residents and planning commissioners alike expressed hesitations about aspects of the project — some related to parking, others related to appearance — the commission voted 6-0 to postpone approval of the site plan.
That followed the recommendation of the city's planning staff, which intends to work through various issues with the developer before bringing the project back on Oct. 4
Image courtesy of developer
Some of the other concerns expressed about The Varsity at Tuesday's meeting had to do with the appearance of the north facade on Huron Street and the fact cars would be coming and going from the new building from both Huron and Washington streets.
This site is located at 425 E. Washington St. in the block between Washington and Huron, directly east of Division — tucked between another student high-rise called 411 Lofts and the First Baptist Church. The northern portion of the site is bordered by properties in the Old Fourth Ward Historic District, which also became a point of contention Tuesday night.
The site, located in the D1 downtown core zoning district, currently contains a two-story office building that would be demolished to make way for The Varsity. The developer, Potomac Holdings of Bethesda, Md., intends to market the apartments to college students.
The proposal calls for a 177,180-square foot building containing 181 apartments with 415 bedrooms and 70 underground parking spaces. The building also would contain a fitness center and management office.
A driveway on the north side of the building, off Huron Street, would lead to the lower of two underground parking levels containing 45 vehicle parking spaces. A driveway on the south side of the building, off Washington Street, would lead to a separate parking level — essentially the ground level of the building — containing 25 vehicle parking spaces.
Additionally, a total of 121 bicycle parking spaces are proposed, including six open hoops at the entry plaza on the south side, six open hoops on the north side, 37 covered hoops within the vehicle parking levels, and 72 spaces in a secure storage room.
The primary resident entrance to the building would be on the south side along Washington. Entry to the building also would be possible from several side doors on the east side of the building and through the parking garage on the north side of the building.
Image courtesy of developer
According to the latest plans, the second through 12th floors would have 17 apartments each, while 11 apartments are proposed on the 13th floor. Most apartments would have one or two bedrooms, though a few studios and some four-bedroom apartments are proposed.
Chris Crockett, president of the Old Fourth Ward Association and a member of the committee that helped write the city's new design guidelines, told planning commissioners on Tuesday she doesn't object to the project. In fact, she thinks it's appropriate for where it's located.
"But my chief objection has to do with the Huron facade," she said. "For years now, we've been talking about making the Huron corridor a more attractive corridor. And because this particular building on the Huron side is really pretty much surrounded by Old Fourth Ward historic structures, it needs to incorporate in the design that character overlay."
As it stands now, Crockett said the north facade "pretty much looks like somebody's backdoor garage," and that's not appropriate for Huron. She said it should be mandatory that the north facade be made more attractive and treated the same as the south facade.
"This is not the back door to anything," she said. "It is a building that has two facades on two principal streets and they need to be treated with the same respect."
Crockett added that she'd like to see the parking layout changed so that only one entrance is necessary — the one on the Washington Street side. She said that would go a long way to alleviate any potential parking problems and traffic problems.
Commissioners also heard from Hugh Sonk, a representative of Sloan Plaza condominiums, which is located on Huron Street across from the proposed development.
Sonk said Sloan Plaza residents aren't opposed to seeing the site redeveloped, but there are a number of reasons why they're concerned, including the potential for increased traffic on Huron. He also agreed with Crockett that the north facade could be improved.
Ray Detter, chairman of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, also told commissioners he thinks the project could be improved. He encouraged them to take a look at the design guidelines and the recommendations of the city's new Design Review Board.
The project's design team presented The Varsity to the city's newly created Design Review Board on June 22. The board liked the project but offered some suggestions for improvement.
City Planner Alexis DiLeo said the project since has been revised to address some of the board’s comments. She said additional amenities are now proposed within the plaza and walk link, and the north street wall has been redesigned.
"It is not as bland as it was before," Detter agreed. "But it still is 13 stories going pretty much straight up in an area where it's adjacent to historic buildings."
Architect Robert Keane of WDG Architecture based in Washington, D.C., conceded that the original design for the north street wall was relatively industrial and lacked windows before. He said several revisions were made to make it a more welcoming place for pedestrians.
"And so what's evolved is we've got a very nice garage door which looks more like a storefront than it does a garage door," he said. "It's integrated with a pedestrian entrance that has a fair amount of glazing. It's all integrated with a large metal canopy."
Keene acknowledged the towering building will be sitting next to two Victorian houses and The Varsity "obviously isn't a Victorian building." He said the best thing that can be done there is to create a two-story mass that corresponds with the adjacent homes.
"The quality and the treatment of this face is exactly the same quality of treatment that's on the other side," he said. "The difference is we have a plaza on the other side, but the paving materials, the quality of the wall, and all the metal and glass is articulated exactly the same."
The latest plans show the building would rise 151 feet into Ann Arbor's skyline, towering just above the lofts next door. That's still under the 180-foot zoning limit.
Image courtesy of developer
City officials are considering a modification to allow the larger plaza since they agree it creates a more compatible transition between the project site and the church next door.
Ann Arbor-based architect Brad Moore, a member of the design team for The Varsity, said it's preferred that the larger plaza area be allowed, but the developer is willing to move forward with a revised plan that reduces the plaza area if it comes to that.
"The church is clearly in support of having a larger plaza, but the developer is equally suited to proceeding with the project that takes the front edge of the building, pushes it up to within 10 feet of the sidewalk — what the zoning calls for — and proceeding," Moore said.
Moore said even the city's staff agrees that the zoning code limiting the plaza size was written mainly to address streets like Main Street, not the site of The Varsity.
"The code was written for a different context than our site," he said. "We are a transitional site, which goes from buildings that are up close to the road to buildings which are significantly set back, so we were trying to create a more natural transition, stepping back gradually."
Commissioner Kirk Westphal agreed with speakers who said they'd prefer to see only one entrance and exit for vehicles. He said it's inexcusable that the project proposes two curb cuts on busy streets where the city is trying to foster a pedestrian-oriented environment.
"We have the exact same configuration that exists now," Moore said after the meeting. "So I don't think we're asking for anything that isn't an existing condition and we're not asking for anything that isn't already permitted by the city ordinances. They permit two curb cuts."
Moore also said having a single entry to a parking garage would be difficult because the site is about twice as wide on Washington as it is on Huron. Given that panhandle configuration, he said, trying to circulate internally between floors becomes nearly impossible.
"If you look at other developments, like Zaragon 2, they have a very large footprint where you can get the rotational circulation between parking levels," he said. "Or you have a very long building like 601 Forest where you have gradual slopes. We just don't have the geometry."
Commissioners wondered why ground-level retail wasn't included in the plans. Moore said it just didn't seem viable, but if there was demand in the future, the space could be converted.
"In talking to the other landlords and doing the market study, we just felt that this isn't the time for retail on the ground level," he said, noting 411 Lofts next door is converting its upper-level leasing office into apartment space and moving down into "un-leasable" retail space.
Others wondered if the developer could put all of the parking underground instead of having a portion at ground level. The response was that it would be less economical.
Commissioners Evan Pratt, Wendy Woods and Bonnie Bona were absent.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's e-mail newsletters.