14-story high-rise above Pizza House headed to Ann Arbor City Council for approval
A proposal for a new 14-story apartment high-rise above Pizza House in the South University area is headed to the Ann Arbor City Council for final approval.
The city's Planning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night in favor of the $17 million project geared toward University of Michigan students.
Pizza House restaurant owner Dennis Tice and the Minnesota-based Opus Group are teaming up to bring forward the 83,807-square foot development at 624 Church St. It's expected to contain 76 apartments and between 175 and 185 bedrooms.
"Our project has been in the works for several years and we're excited to see it move forward," Tice told planning commissioners. "We have partnered with an extremely reputable and experienced developer in the Opus Group out of Minneapolis."
Rendering by J Bradley Moore & Associates
Laurence Deitch, an attorney representing Chicago-based Galileo Associates, which owns Zaragon Place, appeared before planning commissioners, objecting to the site plan approval.
Before the project can be approved, he argued, the city must ensure the development won't cause a nuisance or have a detrimental effect on public health, safety and welfare.
Deitch said Galileo has been advised by Neumann/Smith Architecture, which designed Zaragon Place, and O'Neal Construction that no crane system exists that can install heavy pre-cast concrete panels on a zero setback property line without swinging the panels over neighboring property.
"Zaragon is set back 15 to 23 feet from the property line. This has enabled the creation of outdoor spaces for its residents," he said. "We assert that this project, which we are not against in concept, should provide a setback of 10 feet in order to ensure the safety and security of Zaragon residents."
Deitch acknowledged the Church Street property is in a D1 zone, which provides for a zero setback, but he argued that can be allowed only when it can be done safely.
Jim Caesar, vice president at Opus Design Build LLC in Chicago, addressed the concerns about safety by saying Opus has one of the best safety ratings in the industry.
"I don't think our neighbors fully understand the detailing of our west elevation," he said, adding Opus plans to use a luffing crane to do the work and it's not a controversial construction.
"It's very complicated, but we had our insurance carrier's safety specialists at the site," he said. "We've had multiple crane erectors from the local area and multiple crane rental companies out to the area, and it's simply very feasible, very possible."
Wendy Rampson, the city's planning manager, said "constructability" is not a standard for site plan approval, so it wasn't a matter for the Planning Commission to address Tuesday night. Rather, that's something that will be handled through the building permit process.
Scott Bonney of Neumann/Smith Architecture said he still has concerns about safety in relation to the zero setback issue.
"When we designed our project, we were very careful to set back our building from the property line so we could in fact build it without endangering our neighbors," he said. "If we do have to build on the property line, we go to the neighbors and we obtain an easement. They have not done either of these things at this point in the project. Maybe that will happen in the future."
Ann Arbor real estate developer and consultant Peter Allen stood up before the Planning Commission to vouch for the development team Tuesday night. He helped put Tice in touch with Opus last summer and said he even went to Minneapolis to get a firsthand look at the firm's work.
"They're great professionals," he said. "Every one of the people they've brought to Ann Arbor have been above expectations in terms of experience and quality and following through on their representations. They will build a great product in Ann Arbor. We'll be proud of it."
Rendering by J Bradley Moore & Associates
"Opus prides itself on safety, honesty and professional expertise," he said. "The project that's proposed tonight, we're extremely proud of. We look forward to a successful project and something that the city of Ann Arbor can take great pride in."
A representative for the Opus Group told commissioners the original plan was to have more beds, but now it's likely to be closer to 175.
Whereas some of their competitors in the student housing market have chosen to offer five- and six-bedroom units, they're looking to offer fewer beds and more square footage. The plan is to have 70 percent of the units one or two bedrooms and 30 percent three or four bedrooms.
"There are a number of things to like about the project," said Commissioner Eric Mahler, mentioning the goals of improved student housing and a LEED Silver rating for environmental design.
Ann Arbor resident Eleanor Linn, who lives about a block and a half east of the proposed project on Forest Court, complained the building will block sunlight from reaching her property.
"The prefab exterior of this building will be unattractive, but I suppose I will need to look at it for the rest of my life," she said.
Linn also raised questions about the city letting the developer lease up to 42 parking spaces in the city's downtown parking system to meet parking requirements.
"If this building is approved, neighborhood residents and employees will continue to stretch their imaginations looking for parking," she said.
Because of the configuration of the apartments, Linn speculated the building is almost certain to be rented uniquely to students whose families can afford the rent. She said the city's regulations are permitting the segregation of affluent students and their less-affluent peers.
"As it is proposed, this building does not appear to break any planning ordinances, yet I feel it is taking Ann Arbor in the wrong direction," she said.
Ray Detter, chairman of the city's Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, voiced his group's support for the project put forward by Tice.
"I have to recognize the fact that he's putting his life into this project," Detter said. "It's being built on top of that very successful restaurant, and that's a major local commitment."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.