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Posted on Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 6:03 a.m.

Heritage Row project vote delayed two more weeks by Ann Arbor City Council

By Ryan J. Stanton


Mayor John Hieftje listens during a public hearing on the Heritage Row project Monday night. Hieftje said he supports creating a historic district, which could prevent the project from happening.

Ryan J. Stanton |

A much-anticipated vote on the Heritage Row apartments project was delayed Monday night at the Ann Arbor City Council's first meeting of the month.

Due to a communication snafu between the city clerk's office and The Detroit News, the city failed to publish required notices of Monday's public hearings for Heritage Row in a newspaper of general circulation one week in advance.

Despite Mayor John Hieftje's assurances the vote would be postponed as a result, more than a dozen residents on both sides of the issue took to the podium and spoke for more than 30 minutes.

After the public hearings, the council unanimously postponed a final vote on the site plan and required rezoning until June 21.

Developer Alex de Parry, who sat quietly on the sidelines Monday, has spent three years revising plans for the project, formerly known as City Place. He has appeased city staff with his latest plans, but his attempts to strike a compromise with residents still aren't widely accepted among members of the surrounding Germantown neighborhood.

Thumbnail image for Heritage_Row_May_2010_streetscape.png

An artist rendition of the Heritage Row apartments streetscape with trees removed.

Several residents said Monday night they think the project is out of scale with the neighborhood and represents a leaking of dense housing outside of the downtown boundaries into a near-downtown residential neighborhood.

Click here to download an elevation drawing.

It appears based on interviews during a break in the meeting that de Parry could have a hard time convincing the council the project offers enough benefit to grant a deviation from existing zoning and allow a special Planned Unit Development zoning district.

"While I think this is an improvement over what was proposed before, I'm going to be supporting the historic district for this area, so I don't really believe this will fit in very well with that," Hieftje said. "It'll take some convincing for me to believe that this really is what's needed in that area, and that it meets the PUD standard."

The proposed site plan calls for 79 apartments with 154 bedrooms on a 1.23-acre site on South Fifth Avenue, just south of William Street.

De Parry points out that represents only 10 more bedrooms than allowed under the existing R4C zoning, which would let him have 24 six-bedroom apartments.

The project calls for historic renovations to seven houses on Fifth Avenue and construction of three new apartment buildings behind those houses.

The site plan shows 12 efficiency apartments, 9 one-bedroom, 43 two-bedroom, 14 three-bedroom and 1 five-bedroom.

In an earlier version of the project, de Parry proposed demolishing the seven homes on the site. But neighbors protested and the city pushed forward with an effort to create a historic district to consider saving the century-old homes. That effort is still in the works, despite de Parry's change in plans to save and restore the homes.

Approval of a historic district would force de Parry to take his project before the city's Historic District Commission, which he and his partners appear likely to challenge.

Newcombe Clark and Jeff Helminski, two other development partners behind the project, wrote in a recent e-mail that they think efforts to create a historic district are specifically targeted at preventing Heritage Row.

"The process to create a historic district has been hastily administered and flawed at its core and there is no fact-based justification for it, but nonetheless, it is still a possibility if council votes for it," they wrote in an e-mail to supporters.

Members of the Germantown Neighborhood Association expect the resolution to establish the historic district to come before the City Council for first reading on June 21. There would be a public hearing at the proposal's second reading in July.

The association claims Heritage Row doesn't meet the high standards of public benefit required for a PUD, is inconsistent with the city's master plan, and would be a detriment to neighboring properties — particularly those that would be shaded from the sun by the proposed four-story buildings.

Tom Petiet of Petiet Enterprises LLC, which owns a house at 432 S. Fourth Ave., spoke out against Heritage Row at Monday's meeting. He said the Germantown neighborhood has a century of history behind it that should be preserved.

"It is important enough that others who are alarmed at the destruction of the character of Ann Arbor have joined us in the call for an end to this constant menace," he said of Heritage Row. "Although the outward appearance of the Fifth Avenue houses will now apparently remain, the project will still change the character of the street completely. Nothing will be able to hide the huge buildings that loom up behind the houses."

Joan Lowenstein, a former City Council member, was one of multiple people who spoke in support of Heritage Row. She said leaving the properties along Fifth Avenue in the condition they're in today does nothing to improve Ann Arbor.

"When this project first came up in one of its iterations, I was on the Planning Commission and I voted against it because it would have torn down these houses," she said. "But the project as it now stands will actually restore these houses. It will make them better. It will take down some of the really ugly additions that have been made over the years, such as the rickety wooden fire escapes, and will actually make them better."

The developers are asking the City Council to approve rezoning 1.23 acres from R4C (multiple-family dwelling) for the property at 407-437 S. Fifth Ave. The rezoning would combine seven parcels into one PUD district.

The site plan shows the seven houses would contain a maximum of 38 units (an increase from 21) with 65 bedrooms. And the three new buildings would contain a maximum of 44 units with 98 bedrooms. Eighteen percent of the units would be affordable housing.

The project also would feature 60 parking spaces in one underground parking structure located behind the existing houses, as well as 152 bicycle parking spaces.

The developers say there would be a design competition to create a sculpture to be placed in the public plaza area of the site. Local artists would be encouraged to participate.

The city's planning staff and Planning Commission support the project, saying the city's master plan recommends multiple-family residential uses for the site.

But multiple council members say they likely won't be supporting it.

"It would be quite the exception," said Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, who cites a 2004 report from the city's Downtown Residential Task Force as one of her many reasons for being hesitant about approving the project.

"One of the deciding issues for Alex has been the half-mile perimeter around the DDA and how that's the area where dense development in residential areas could happen," Briere said. "He's been telling me that since City Place was originally designed, so I went back to the original documentation and it doesn't seem, in my view, to support that. It does have that half-mile perimeter on the maps, but it says all through the document that near-downtown residential neighborhoods have to be respected — that it's not appropriate to put dense development in near-downtown neighborhoods."

Outside of the core downtown, Briere said dense development belongs along North Main Street, in the South University district and in commercial zones like Packard and State Street — but not in residential areas like Germantown.

"I simply couldn't find anything that would support putting this kind of dense development anywhere in an R4 neighborhood," she said, again referring to the 2004 report. "Indeed where it talked about rezoning, it said leave R4 neighborhoods alone."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.



Wed, Jun 9, 2010 : 11:08 a.m.

Mike Martin, bruceae, useless, gamebuster: Apparently all of you fail to see or accept as fact that we are in a deep recession with an excess of available rental units. If allowed to be built the Heritage Row will add relatively more expensive rental units onto an already saturated market. Like a number of other recently completed residential projects Heritage Row will likely be a financial failure and end up in bankruptcy. The City gains no tax money from bankrupt property and the neighborhood gets a white elephant. The only winner in this scenario is the developer if he/she takes a fee from the loan funds prior to the money being spent on construction.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 6 p.m.

"This residential block is easily one of the nicest near downtown," Sorry i gotta disagree with you there


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 4:47 p.m.

I don't think that people are angry Todd. It sounds to me like most people posting disagree with the council's approach to development issues. And, there is probably an element of frustration with common eyesore of student neighborhoods (think south of the B-school). Alternate opinions, even when strongly stated, are not necessarily indications of anger.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 4:31 p.m.

It's interesting to read all the angry comments in here about the historic nature or value of these houses. It seems entirely likely that 100% of them were formed by people driving rapidly by them down 5th Avenue racing to beat the light at Packard. I lived in one of these houses for several years while in grad school. It was beautiful and classic and I felt fortunate to be able to call it home. They could certainly use more attention than they typically receive as student housing. I'm ambivalent about the proposed development. On the one hand, I'd be pleased to see the houses on the block renovated with attention to their historical significance and I do appreciate the effort that Alex has made to rework the plans to both preserve the houses and add value to the neighborhood. On the other hand, pulling the houses closer to the street would seem to change the character of the neighborhood and I don't have a good sense of how well the new buildings will blend in. I hope that City Council continues to take their time on this question and comes to a decision that both preserves the history of the city while continuing to help it grow in intelligent ways.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 4:23 p.m.

• "Let these run down structures continue to rot." • "This project will actually fix up those unsightly student ghetto houses." • "Please pass this and clean up this neighborhood. Without being rude this place needs a serious spruce up. It's an embaressing part of town." If would be willing to run a few photos of how Fifth Ave. currently looks just south of William (or a wide view shot covering the east side), that would be more than enough to call b.s. on these kinds of comments. This residential block is easily one of the nicest near downtown, despite Alex de Parry's program of intensive deferred maintenance on one end. The current condition of these homes on Fifth Ave. is only a red herring argument, no matter how determined the developer has been to let them rot during the last decade. Since de Parry has shown himself to be stubbornly unwilling to care for the houses, he should sell them right away to new owners capable of responsible stewardship on the properties. Maybe Avalon Housing could buy one or two, as long as this group isn't too tied up with launching Near North. These homes, I believe, were listed as historic a decade ago under a previous designation as part of a now-defunct Individual Properties Historic District. Soon, they'll likely once again become protected as historic properties, this time as part of a contiguous historic district defined by neighborhood boundaries.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 2:58 p.m.

Let me get this straight. The developer is willing to completely restore the existing old houses in exchange for putting some buildings in the back of them that you can't even see from William Street? And put in underground parking? People think he's going to make a pile of cash from this? The other options are: 1) Let these run down structures continue to rot. Blame whoever you want, but at some point, these (and most other student rentals) will not be salvageable because they are not proactively maintained. They will eventually be replaced by ugly, boxy student apartment buildings surrounded by parking. 2) Make them part of a historic district... and cause them -- and everything else around them -- to rot even faster. Have these people looked at the condition of the average rental building in the existing historic districts? The problem with these districts is that they don't allow improvements to be made in an economical fashion, so buildings just get crummier and crummier. If there was adequate demand for converting these structures back into single-family homes, I might be able to see the logic. But there ain't, nor will there ever be, in my opinion. I personally like the general look and feel of these neighborhoods (when the buildings are maintained) and think that they shouldn't be bulldozed. But I heard at one of the city meetings that there are other ways to "preserve" neighborhoods without resorting to the draconian historic district rules that perversely cause buildings to decay. For example, you can have laws that allow you to add on (to the rear) and do renovations that don't change the basic look of the house, but don't require you to hire a team of master craftsmen to replace a window. The study committee was NOT tasked with evaluating the best interest of the city regarding this neighborhood -- it was asked if it "qualified as a historic district." When you're a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. Why aren't council members asking questions about the interest of the city rather than a few noisy NIMBYs?


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 2:07 p.m.

Speechless- Your example of the Freeze building is the perfect example of an old building being replaced by a far more attractive, well built, and useful new one. The new development there is far better suited to current needs. The land is being used more efficiently and the architecture construction is outstanding. The historic designation is inappropriate for these houses not because they've been neglected. But because there is nothing historically outstanding about them. They are just more converted old houses that weren't special when they were built. If we are going to preserve a house because an Ann Arbor mayor lived there 150 years ago (if that is indeed the case), do we mark Jerry Jernigan's, Ingrid Sheldon's and John Hieftje's houses as "historic" now as well? Historic designation has a place in Ann Arbor surely. It helps to maintain the uniqueness of our city. But, it is way over-applied in Ann Arbor. And, it is clearly being used here by an anti-development city council.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 1:37 p.m.

Please pass this and clean up this neighborhood. Without being rude this place needs a serious spruce up. It's an embaressing part of town.

Stephen Landes

Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 12:52 p.m.

Historic? If these houses and the area were really historic they would already have been classified as such. I suspect they weren't so classified because that would have imposed costs and restrictions on the landlords who benefit from student rentals. Now that their cash cow houses are threatened by a brand new, quality living environment the buildings suddenly become "historic" -- it might cost the landlords some money but preserves their businesses. Looks to me like this is just using the historic designation as a tool to protect one group of business people from another. I suggest the city approve the project and then let the developer negotiate real, market-based prices in order to purchase the property -- no "taking" of the property to promote the new use.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 12:20 p.m.

The homes in question on Fifth Ave. just south of William, which currently exist as rentals, have become somewhat rundown specifically due to decisions made by the landlord. He obviously practices deferred maintenance, thereby manufacturing his own argument for tearing them down. (Doubtless he envies the situation of the guy who owned the vacant older home on N. Main St., which was allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that it literally collapsed under its own weight). The bad maintenance "strategy" is commonly played by aspiring developers after they purchase an older property. Even UM did this when let the Frieze bldg. fall apart during the years prior to tearing it down to build North Quad. The homes that Alex de Parry so badly wants to destroy are among the more historic homes one will find in this town. I believe a former mayor lived in one of these about 150 years ago. The city should have created a small, neighborhood historic district to protect these homes several years back. It's my understanding that at least a few of them were once protected under a citywide Individual Properties Historic District, before a judge ruled nearly a decade ago against provision of historic status to single homes in non-contiguous historic districts. Now &mdash very belatedly &mdash the city is finally getting around to creating a contiguous district in this neighborhood. As others have said, de Parry should construct his project somewhere nearby where a more appropriate zoning exists. Maybe very nearby. How about the parking lot kitty-corner from these homes, the one that's across Fifth Ave. from the public library? Anyone up for a land swap?


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 11:45 a.m.

@useless - Exactly. I am confused when the term "historic" is applied to something just because it is old. A lot of the homes in the Ann Arbor historic districts are run down, clapboard shacks that never had any design significance. In many cases they have outlived their usefulness and a thoughtful new project would be much better use of the space. But, at City Hall they keep corralling more neighborhoods with this "historic" label so that they can tell you how to use, maintain, and improve your property. It's shameful and it hurts all of us when it suppresses good development. I am not a developer by the way - just an AA homeowner.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 10:29 a.m.

We shout and yell "We don't have enough housing!!!!" It falls on deaf years. Please vote right people into the council in August and November.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 10:14 a.m.

This project will actually fix up those unsightly student ghetto houses. Making this area a historic district? Really? I truly do not understand why the city government is so against development. I hope that people will remember who votes against this project and cast their own vote for a new council member this election cycle.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 9:49 a.m.

@Mike: Exactly. I'm sure your post will be removed just as quickly as the one I had up. What I don't understand is why people will tolerate this tactic of stalling to creat a historical district that does exist just so they can block development. I for one am sick of this sort of thing, high taxes, budget deficits with no plan for new revenue and business as usual on the council. It's time to vote everyone out and get people in here that can manage the city.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 9:37 a.m.

The historic district moniker for this dumpy group of wood sided student rentals is a typical AA city council and John Hieftje response to development. Hieftje should be replaced. Our full time mayor is a lightweight with little practical experience and few accomplishments either as mayor or in his career before that. Many of the council members are severe lefty "anti-business at all costs" liberals. Newcombe Clark would be an interesting balance on council. Unfortunately he has to run in the most granola neighborhood in AA and is unlikely to win. Ann Arbor is in serious need of new leadership with at least a balanced view of development.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 8:42 a.m.

Why does AA city council have so many anti-business people in it? Then you have the "Locals" who want to make a bunch of dumpy houses an Historic District. Is this a comedy? Beam me up Mr. Scott!


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 7:52 a.m.

The Heritage Row Apartment proposal should not be approved by City Council. The R4C (multiple family) zoning was designated for a reason and obtaining a variance to build differently should not be easy to obtain. Furthermore, an investigative committee has already recommended that the homes effected by the development proposal should be designated as historic which restricts modifications to the structures and should prevent new construction as well. If the project were built the resulting appearance of the site will be congested with views above and between existing houses being blocked by the new construction. The sixty proposed under-ground parking spaces will not be sufficient since at least 145 adult drivers could live there. Where will the additional 85 or more cars be parked? The demand for renting the 79 units has not been established. The units should not compete well against the plentiful rental units already available. Also the rental costs for the newly constructed units can be expected to exceed the rental costs for existing units. In addition, many of the units will have views obstructed by the rears of existing houses making the units less desirable for renting. Finally, obtaining financing for new construction of this type is difficult due to the recessionary economy. Similar type projects in Ann Arbor have delayed construction after City Council approvals due to inability to obtain sufficient funding. Several recently built residential projects have entered bankruptcy and several more are facing receivership. Failure of another residential project will have adverse financial implications for the City and could potentially blight the local neighborhood. (IMHO)

Somewhat Concerned

Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 7:18 a.m.

The reason developers put up with the process is simple: they still expect to make a ton of money. Developers are not charitable foundations. If they make revisions and battle for three years, it is not out of the goodness of the heart or their concern for Ann Arbor. It's because they will make very good money after all the work and delay. These are smart people. They would have an easier time if they would just obey the zoning laws and the building code. It is because they don't want to obey the zoning laws that they run into delays. They want exceptions that will allow them to make more money. That is why it is so difficult for them. They make change after change - but they don't change to a project that obeys the laws. Even after their changes, they still want a special exception for them, so that they can make more money, and they meet with homeowners to try to convince them that the changes are good for someone other than the developer. The fact that a project that is outside the law would increase the tax base doesn't make it better for the neighbors. A nuclear plant, a commercial garbage dump and a gasoline refinery all would increase the tax base (and make more money for the developer than obeying the zoning law would make for them). Should an exception therefore be made for them? Should the neighbors cave in? Should anyone in Ann Arbor want that just because it increases the tax base?


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 7:14 a.m.

According to the logic espoused by DiAgenes, the city should just approve any development project immediately and forget about zoning. But the current zoning came about as a result of long and costly deliberations that included input from many citizens. The fact that this particular developer has come back time and again, trying to build an inappropriate project in the wrong place does not mean that it always "takes three years to put a project together and still not break ground." This is an exceptional situation; others have built projects that conform to zoning and more such developments, including Zaragon 2, are in the pipeline. Developers can build in Ann Arbor; they are not free to ruin residential neighborhoods -- that is why we have rules rather than a free-for-all, and this is why council has turned it down, and hopefully will do so again.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 6:43 a.m.

City Council continues to fiddle while our tax base burns. Another example of mismanagement. I do not know why any developer would want to build in Ann Arbor if it takes three years to put a project together and still not break ground.


Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 6:39 a.m.

Germantown? What a joke! To maintain it's "Historical" character, shouldn't these rundown rentals be converted to single family homes? Shouldn't the backyard parking lots be returned to a real backyard that would fit in with the "Historical" nature of these "Historic" structures? Please!

Sabra C Briere

Tue, Jun 8, 2010 : 6:37 a.m.

I just want to clarify -- my comments were based entirely on the Downtown Resdiential Task Force Report from 2004, not my personal conviction.