Revised Moravian site plan gets approval from Ann Arbor Planning Commission, despite residents' objections
More than a dozen Ann Arbor residents stepped up to the podium Tuesday night to voice their opposition to the controversial Moravian apartment project encroaching upon their neighborhood just outside the city's downtown.
But ultimately, after a long debate - one that has spanned two years and included numerous plan revisions - the Ann Arbor Planning Commission gave its blessing to the latest version of the 62-unit development.
By a 7-1 vote, the commission approved a revised plan submitted by developer Jeff Helminski of the Moravian Co. The approved Planned Unit Development zoning district and site plan - which now go to the Ann Arbor City Council for consideration - would allow the developer to move forward with a five-story apartment complex on 0.85 acres at 201 E. Madison St., just south of downtown Ann Arbor.
The action recommends the rezoning of the site from R4C (multiple-family dwelling district) and M1 (limited industrial district) to a PUD. The developer plans to construct a five-story, multiple-family residential building with 62 units and 150 bedrooms, according to the latest plans.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Several frustrated residents stormed the podium after the vote, shouting criticisms at the Planning Commission. Many of them live on South Fourth and South Fifth avenues.
"We know that your legal vulnerabilities are awesome and that you can't get away with a project like this that violates state law, that violates our zoning and that ... violates the central area plan, and so there's just absolutely no way that this can stand," she said. "It's all been a pack of lies. The public hasn't been listened to whatsoever."
Because the Moravian doesn't conform to the city's existing zoning code, the project required special PUD approval - for which the developer has offered various public benefits in exchange for the zoning exception. One of the public benefits offered is affordable housing since the recommended density is exceeded.
Helminski, who plans to market his building to young professionals, said he's glad he won a battle Tuesday night, but acknowledged the fight isn't over.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"We're certainly pleased with the recommendation of the Planning Commission and look forward to going onto the next steps, which is City Council for the first reading and then second reading probably in the March timeframe," he said. "At this point, we're probably into the spring of 2011 for start of construction, and this is probably a 16-month project."
Helminski said the project represents an overall investment of more than $10 million in Ann Arbor, which he used as a selling point before the commission Tuesday night.
"It's important to consider, especially in the times that we're in where we're being forced to eliminate important services and personnel in our community, that this project provides an opportunity to increase tax revenues by over $200,000 annually," he said. "That's a very significant number, especially in times when we're laying off firefighters, laying off police officers - we're underfunding our school districts, we're getting rid of teachers in the classroom."
When the project last came before the Planning Commission in October, it included a four-story building with 63 units and 164 bedrooms. Commissioners postponed action on the project at that meeting and asked Helminski to scale back the proposal and work out concerns regarding the number of bedrooms, the height of the building, lack of open space, and general concerns about density and whether the project fits its surroundings in the neighborhood.
The Moravian site plan still calls for 90 spaces of underground parking, which city officials cite as a benefit.
The city's planning staff issued a report prior to Tuesday's meeting that recommended approval of the project. It says the the uses, physical characteristics, design features, and amenities proposed are beneficial to the city, and the multiple-family use is consistent with the city's master plan.
Among the revisions highlighted by Helminski are further detailing of the exterior to meet the suggestions contained in the city's proposed A2D2 design guidelines. The revised design creates a base-middle-top appearance throughout the building and features outdoor terraces that have been added to the corners of the building on South Fourth Avenue to increase the amount of usable open space.
The new drawings also include additional architectural details such as cornices, sills and headers, banding and shutters. Helminski points out changes in color and material - along with slight plane changes - further articulate the facade, while the window area of the living rooms has been increased.
The mansard roof has been eliminated in all locations other than the corner of South Fifth Avenue and East Madison Street, which the developer noted reduces the height and scale of the building, particularly at the tallest locations. The maximum permitted height has been reduced from 70 feet to 60 feet.
The number of affordably restricted units has been increased to include three more one-bedroom units, making more than 19 percent of the project considered affordable housing. Also, a series of live-work commercial spaces has been elevated to alleviate floodplain concerns.
"Flex rooms" and laundry-storage rooms now are included in the larger apartments and have replaced a bedroom-bathroom pairing in all previous three- and four-bedroom units. That was done so units can be better used by a wider market segment.
Helminski says his new proposal calls for a lesser level of variance while achieving benefits not met by any previous market-rate PUD.
"This is definitely a better project than the one that we saw before," said Commissioner Jean Carlberg, who said the project fits well with the future vision for downtown and the surrounding area.
"It's not perfect, but I think I can imagine it being a good addition to the neighborhood over time," said Chairwoman Bonnie Bona.
Bona said she's encouraged the project offers a wide range of public benefits. The city has stipulated the development obtain LEED certification, and a renewable energy source - such as geothermal energy - must be used as the primary energy source for heating and cooling systems.
The only commissioner to vote against the project Tuesday night was Erica Briggs, who said she was swayed by the fact that such a large portion of the neighborhood came out to oppose the project.
"This has been a particularly difficult decision for me," she said. "I was reminded tonight that a lot of people could be looking at it from the other angle. There really are people there who are saying, 'This is out of character with our neighborhood,' and I don't think we should dismiss that."
Tom Whitaker, a resident on South Fifth Avenue, told commissioners he didn't think the development offered enough public benefit to justify granting a PUD.
"Make no mistake, PUDs are giveaways to developers because they provide windfall variances from stricter, underlying zoning requirements. In return, the city is supposed to receive a benefit that is very substantial," Whitaker said.
"The immediate surroundings, our neighborhood, will be harmed - not benefited - by the Moravian," he said, suggesting the city has better places for the type of project Helminski is proposing. "There is no need to force this square peg into a round hole when there are square holes available."
Kim Kachadoorian is another resident who voiced frustration over the Moravian at Tuesday's meeting.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"Germantown is the last intact near-downtown neighborhood," she argued. "Dismembering this neighborhood for more student housing is just really kind of disheartening to me."
Strassmann told commissioners prior to Tuesday's vote that most residents who have invested in property in the neighborhood have done so because they appreciate the historic streetscape.
"Those houses that are going to be torn down date to the mid-19th century," she said. "They are some of the oldest houses in the city. They do have historic qualities. And so the intrusion of this massive apartment building that is completely out of scale with the neighborhood is an offense."
Strassmann ran through a list of the reasons why her group thinks the project doesn't fit the neighborhood.
"Let me just say that it's 60 feet tall, whereas the surrounding zoning allows for 30- and 35-foot-tall buildings," she said. "It's 270 feet on the diagonal, whereas the surrounding homes are 30 feet on the diagonal. It is a massive, whopping 74,000 square feet, whereas the homes max out at 3,000 square feet, so it's 25 times the size of the largest houses in the area.
"This is just a complete rewriting of the zoning. It is just incredible that this could go forward," she said.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529.