413 East Huron fails to get approval from Ann Arbor Planning Commission
Editor's note: The Planning Commission vote and the number of votes required for approval have been corrected in this article.
The Ann Arbor Planning Commission failed to recommend to City Council the demolition of two single-story commercial buildings and a residential building in order to make way for a new 14-story apartment and retail building at 413 East Huron Street.
Humphreys & Partners
Planning Commission members voted 5 to 3 Tuesday night in favor of the project, but that's short of the necessary six votes to recommend the construction of the 216-apartment complex called 413 East Huron. Commissioners Wendy Woods, Kenneth Clein and Sabra Briere voted against the proposal. Commissioner Eric Mahler was absent.
The project next moves to council without the planning commission's endorsement.
The council chambers were unusually crowded during Tuesday’s meeting, with at least 60 residents, students and business owners in attendance — more than 30 of whom made their arguments for and against the new building. The proposal has been the subject of opposition since it was brought to the commission on Jan. 15.
Members of the development team were also in attendance, including Connor McNally, Chief Development Officer for the Georgia-based company Carter. Other companies invested in this proposal include the Connecticut-based property owner Greenfield Partners, the Oregon-based design consultant Ace Hotel, and Texas-based architect Humphreys & Partners.
While the public and the commission had varying objections, much of the debate surrounded the zoning of the property as D-1 rather than D-2, a decision that was made by city council in 2009 and allows a large building to be built on this specific lot at the northeast corner of North Division as long as it does not negatively impact the surrounding area.
Commissioner Tony Derezinski voted in favor of the proposal because he said he believed the development team created a plan that aligned with the commission’s expectations and guidelines.
“In a project like this you basically see if they’ve complied with the local ordinance, and, in this case, they have. So this was a simple one. While a lot of the discussion dealt with whether or not the zoning was proper for the area, that decision had been made by city council, they approved that decision some time ago,” he said. “So basically, the dispute as to whether or not it is properly zoned — this is not the forum for that.”
Derezinski added that the development team may choose to make changes to their site plan and reapproach the city council in the future. However, he added that unless there are major changes to their plan, they would not return to the planning commission. The planning commission has only approved five or six site plans under the city's new zoning ordinance, Derezinski said.
City Councilmember and Commission Sabra Briere voted against the proposal because she was concerned that the development team hadn’t thoroughly completed all the requirements required of them before submitting a plan, like complying with the citizens participation ordinance and fulfilling the site plan guidelines.
“The city guidelines express community values,” she said. “This (building) is also art, and the inspiration is lacking.”
Connor McNally, Carter’s Chief Development Officer, opened the public hearings period by defending the complex as an addition that would bring “vibrancy to an underutilized quarter of Ann Arbor.”
The developer has been very thoughtful in its design of the building, McNally said. Representatives of the company met with the city’s design board in October, months after purchasing the properties on the site, and they were able to use the feedback they received to make significant changes. These changes actually increased the cost of the project that was previously expected to cost approximately $45 million, he added.
Ann Arbor residents and the city’s planning staff provided the developer with suggestions for alternate configurations to better appease all members involved. However, the developer said the suggestions “would not fit thier development model,” according to a Jan. 16 AnnArbor.com article.
Opponents of the building’s approval said that the building would be too tall to complement Ann Arbor’s architecture, especially in the historical district. Additionally, some argued that there are already enough apartments downtown to accommodate students and this building in particular could harm the natural environment.
Chris Crockett, president of the Old Fourth Ward Association, said the building — that would be larger than The Varsity and Sterling 411 Lofts combined — would affect the historic district because would increase traffic in the area and detract from the historical beauty.
“The student warehouse ghettoizes the neighborhood and will decrease property values,” she said.
Barbara Hall, treasurer of the Old West Side Association, echoed those sentiments and said that she believes the structure offers “bleakness instead of benefit.”
“The Planning Commission can and should deny approval of this site plan,” Hall said. “(The site plan) demonstrates little regard for existing high-quality environments.”
Adam Lowenstein, a local bar and restaurant owner, said that as a business owner he would welcome an establishment like the proposed complex because of the money it brings to his businesses and the tax dollars is brings to parks, historic areas and schools in Ann Arbor.
“A project like this that brings this number of people downtown is welcomed,” he said. “Small businesses need this type of density.”
While the proposal was brought to the commission on Jan. 15, the planning commission postponed the vote until Tuesday because they were awaiting a complete traffic study from the Michigan Department of Transportation to ensure that building like this would increase traffic in the area.