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Posted on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 1:48 p.m.

5 lessons for Ann Arbor from Heritage Row/City Place

By Paula Gardner

I’ll admit a sense of relief that Ann Arbor can stop engaging in the faux-debate of Heritage Row versus City Place.

With City Council’s vote on Monday night, hopes evaporate for a new historic district and a moratorium on building on the block of South Fifth - and now the developer says he’ll proceed with City Place.

heritage row.jpg

A look at the Heritage Row proposal by Alex de Perry.

Residents nearby are disappointed by the outcome, and rightly so: They’d been given hope that the 7 houses on the street could survive this entire process.

But was that hope really viable? In my opinion, no more so than the Heritage Row plans that have been shelved.

Whether City Place actually happens or not, Ann Arbor can take some lessons out of the multi-year approval process. Here are my top 5 lessons from Heritage Row/City Place:

1. Projects as proposed aren’t necessarily viable.

Yes, the average person - and council member - could assume that part of the application process would assume that what’s proposed could actually be built.

But what I see from this entire City Place v. Heritage Row situation is wish-list development that could never be brought to market. The recent letter to council from Jeff Helminski detailing what kinds of changes the city needed to approve to get Heritage Row makes that clear.

The red flag for me on this project all along was the underground parking. There’s a reason it hasn’t been a major part of other developments over the years: The cost. Limited numbers of spaces have been added to high-rises and they become premiums offered for extra cost.

Sure enough, the parking comes out of the equation when someone wants to sign a construction contract. The unit count goes up. The homes no longer are guaranteed to survive.

This point alone makes it unfortunate that so much time and energy were spent on a City Place v. Heritage Row debate, because Helminski’s letter confirms that Heritage Row simply wasn’t going to be built. That’s why I call it a faux debate. It never was an either/or.

2. If there are other buildings in Ann Arbor that deserve historic designation, now’s the time to make it happen.

Say what you will about the restrictions and limitations of a historic district - in certain neighborhoods of Ann Arbor, particularly close to campus, it will be the only way to preserve buildings for the future. And the time to consider that is not after someone submits building plans.

Pursuing historic district status didn’t work for the City Place block. But all sides of development forces will benefit from better defining what the city wants to consider historic. This economic downturn offers the city opportunity to define what it wants to preserve around the city amid what’s still a relative cool-down of building efforts.

3. Five bedroom floorplans really do signal student housing.

That was contested when the Moravian went through approvals, but it seems closed to debate now: Student housing construction can get financing in Ann Arbor, and that’s what’s happening on South Fifth Avenue. Find me a group of professionals who plan on living in a five-bedroom apartment, and … well, just find me one. We are talking student housing.

4. It’s OK to step out of a losing battle.

From today’s story: “Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward, argued the council already has become a joke for how it's handled the City Place saga over the last few years.

"’I, too, feel disappointed about losing these houses," she said. "I don't like the idea of those houses being destroyed, but I do think that was a decision that we made a year and a half ago, and I don't want to try to rehash all of this over and over and over again." ’ The mistakes were already made. Bringing it back seemed desperate - and underscored that council and residents need to understand the impact of a vote because it’s not that easy to change course.

5. That ‘losing battle’ lesson fits the developer, too.

What is the city supposed to think when it hears the essence of “We don’t really want to build City Place, but we will if we have to” over and over?

It may have been said to manipulate council or influence staff, but the message to residents resonates in a different way. We realize that there’s a race to build more student housing in town, but the pace is such that anything coming online from here forward raises questions about just how much the market can bear.

Maybe you did get caught in an unfair battle. Maybe the city did send mixed signals. But building something you don’t want to build isn’t confidence-inspiring. And it raises even more questions about what will happen on that property - and whether anyone will end up well-served (including investors) if the result is City Place.

Paula Gardner, news editor of, covered real estate and development in Ann Arbor for many years. She can be reached by email. Follow her on Twitter.


John Alan

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 6:16 p.m.

Simple. the $850/month rent that the developer is considering will not work in that area. They are lucky if they can get $700/month/room. Now based on what the paper said they paid for the houses and the projected construction cost, all I can say is GOOD LUCK. The math in NOT working unless the developer knows something that others do not know. The good side is that the assessor can use the developer's $850/month/room projection and use the market rate gross rent multiplier and calucuate the value of the building and TAX THE HELL OUT THEM!!!! --- nothing new there either. So over all it is not a bad thing for Ann Arbor...... it is just too bad that they do not have an exit plan so if the students did not move there, then they can rent it to professionals (i.e., mixture of 1, 2, 3, 4 bedroom....). Again it is good to see someone stood and got what he is entitled to and did not let the city council push them around......

Wolf's Bane

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:02 p.m.

As to point two: "2. If there are other buildings in Ann Arbor that deserve historic designation, now's the time to make it happen." Go to the intersection of Glenn and Ann streets and look the street signs. You'll note a placard proudly proclaiming the area a Historic District, yet any vestiges of what would actually make the immediate area an actual historic district have vanished long ago, including 4 hundred plus+ year old homes, 1 gorgeous 1920s Rocco –inspired Apartment building, and, (to be totally frank) a Native American graveyard. Or, how about venturing down to the Kellogg eye center on Wall street? Note, this used to Ann Arbor's historic African American neighborhood!!! Now, it is mostly surface parking lots. Not even as much as a plague or anything denoting the rich cultural history of that neighborhood. The only lesson learned here today is that the Historic District Commission (committee?) has no teeth and any house, institution, building is fair game provided the price is high enough. Who on earth are we trying to kid!!!


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 2:43 p.m.

Paula, nicely done. What has me utterly flumuxed is this: there is a ton of real-estate (residential and commercial) expertise in that room along with some urban planning. Why is it that the voices resonating with common sense aren't those people!!

Ron Granger

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 2:33 p.m.

Change the laws to prevent this in the future.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 2:01 a.m.

Re: This story, WHAT???? I don't see a cohesive introduction, the body of the story is scattered and there is no real conclusion. This appears to be random words on a paper. Please re-write the story with a clear point.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 1:28 p.m.

If you read the headline, you might notice its an opinion piece, not a news story. The headline promised five lessons and delivered. I am not an architect, developer, realtor or other interested party, but I was unable to understand the points made.

Vince Caruso

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 11:59 p.m.

"Buy Rights"! Who said Ann Arbor was so expansive? I wish residents could "buy some rights" in this city. We're just left holding the bag for these mindless developments. 5 and 6 bedroom with bedroom leases is a disaster waiting to happen. This is not like the U with a dorm and a dorm infrastructure to maintain safety and order. How many of these council members or Mayor would let their daughters live in one of these? Or for that matter the city attorney or city planning commission or city planners or the bubble heads. To a person not one. Public safety for everyone not just the elites. That alone is grounds for denial of this kind of 'Planning Disaster'. Not to mention the loss of an historic area. Who's going to come to Ann Arbor to visit when our historic blocks are replaced with with so many City Places.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 11 p.m.

I suspect we will see a return to something more like the original PUD proposal, i.e. the "neo-eclectic" design with five stories. I don't know if the by-right allows for that many stories, though I suspect the current request for more height has something to do with that. They might be able to get four stories in. Ah well--as long as it looks better than the drawings for the by-right plan as approved. Those would not be very attractive. Something resembling the Moravian might even be tolerable, i.e. a more modern design, though again without as many stories, perhaps three or four. Council has at least offered parking in the new structure, so hopefully that means we won't be seeing historical homes and trees razed for a parking lot. At any rate, here's hoping the developer does their best to replace the homes with something relatively tasteful.

Vivienne Armentrout

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 8:32 p.m.

Thank you for writing this. You make a number of useful and thought-provoking points. I've cited this article as an update in my blog post <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> (which is where the rest of my comments are).


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 8:13 p.m.

One disturbing element in this fiasco, in particular, has been the tendency by some Council members and others to try to trivialize the historic designation process. A historic district has to be a substantial area to be viable (that word again), not spot zoning. The major burdens it imposes on the householder can only be justified if it results in upgrading an entire neighborhood. Otherwise, the owner is likely to give up on the hassle and expense of making repairs under those rules, and the deterioration will be accelerated. And, of course, he will sue -- and win if the grounds for the designation were dubious. Proclaiming a historic district to disallow an existing conforming project after the fact is bad faith and is certain to lose in court. As Paula points out, the historic district designation process needs to take place deliberately and as planning when no active development is in process. Slapping it on inappropriately ensures a slum. If your concern is changing how development is controlled, change the zoning.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 7:37 p.m.

Just another example of how a private individual or company can't get anything done in Ann Arbor. This would have created temporary construction jobs, permanent maintenace jobs and an increase tax base for the area. But these things are not as important as historic preservation. I guess the retro-styled city hall was not historic...either is the multi million dollar replacement.

Rod Johnson

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 12:21 a.m.

The existence of Zaragon Place (I and II) and other recent developments of its type would suggest that you're wrong on that. I hear this claim made all the time, but you can only make it stick by ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. The Police and Courts Building, by the way, is not a &quot;replacement&quot; for City Hall, which is still there in all its leaky, misshapen, dysfunctional glory.

Tom Teague

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 7:29 p.m.

Good run down, Paula. I'd add another lesson for everyone involved: If the success of your project depends on public acceptance, you can't add it at the back end of the process as you were adding salt to a meal. Securing civic sponsors, supporters, and general public goodwill have to be embedded in the project from day one; these generally won't evolve on their own after the first showing of the architectural drawings or the publication of a study.

Tom Teague

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 8:02 p.m.

meant &quot;as if you were adding salt . . .&quot;

Linda Peck

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 6:56 p.m.

This fiasco is only one of many the City Council has treated us residents to in recent years. I am really discouraged with decisions the city administration has been making. Is there hope of something better in our future?

rusty shackelford

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 6:52 p.m.

Paula, your 1st point is valid in general, but I'm genuinely baffled as to how it applies to this debate in your mind. What reason would the developers have for pushing for HP if they supposedly knew in advance it wasn't viable? What would their motive be for spending so much time and money? Just because it is not viable NOW does not mean this was the case when it was first proposed. I'd imagine part of the reason it is no longer viable is all the money lost while council dithered. If you were saying that City Place, the &quot;worse&quot; option, was not actually viable and was just used as a bargaining chip to try to gain approval for HR, I might see your point. However, you seem to be arguing exactly the opposite. Can you please explain your reasoning here? b/c I truly can't see it. I think the main lesson the city should learn here is not to try hardball negotiating tactics when they have nothing to offer and no leverage. It's something most people learn by adolescence, no?

rusty shackelford

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 6:53 p.m.

&quot;HP&quot; should be &quot;HR,&quot; sorry.