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Posted on Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 2:48 p.m.

Historic District Commission takes stand against student high-rise proposed on East Huron

By Ryan J. Stanton


A rendering of the East Huron Street development shows the building, across the street from The Varsity and 411 Lofts, and next to homes on the north side.

Humphreys & Partners Architects

The city of Ann Arbor's Historic District Commission is taking a rare stand against a project proposed outside one of the city's historic districts.

The seven-member commission passed a resolution at its meeting last week objecting to the proposed student high-rise development at 413 E. Huron St., calling it "incompatible in scale and massing" with the adjacent Old Fourth Ward Historic District.

The HDC believes the project would "severely and adversely impact" the district, and it's asking city leaders to keep historic preservation in mind when the project comes up for consideration.

"The viability of our historic districts is affected by changes on the edges of a district as well as within the district," the HDC's resolution states.

"We thereby remind the Planning Commission and City Council of our joint obligation to preserve and protect historic districts and recommend that they take all reasonable measures to ensure that this new development will enhance and improve the Old Fourth Ward Historic District, rather than diminish or weaken the viability of this important district."


A rendering of the proposed development for East Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor.

Humphreys & Partners Architects

Mayor John Hieftje said he's not sure how council will react, but he noted it's rare for the HDC to take a stand on a property that is not in a historic district.

The HDC's resolution is the latest development in the controversy over the proposed 14-story student high-rise on East Huron Street. The developers behind the project have been taking heat from neighboring residents and community leaders for several weeks.

After acquiring several properties on Huron Street near Division, the development team — a mix of out-of-state companies — submitted preliminary design plans to the city in late September.

The 213-unit, 14-story high-rise would replace a vacant 10,300-square-foot building, a former Papa John's pizza store and a house.

Representatives with the team, who did not respond to requests for comment, told the city's Design Review Board in October they're excited about the project.

The goal, which they called philosophic in nature, is to integrate the project into the thread of the community by taking a holistic approach to development. They called the design “brave” and “different,” and said the building will hopefully act as a draw to help liven up East Huron Street.

The building materials, black-glazed brick and wood, were chosen because the team tries to use sustainable and organic building materials.

Members of the development team include the property owner, Connecticut-based Greenfield Partners; the developer, Georgia-based Carter; Oregon-based Ace Hotel acting as a design consultant; and Texas-based architect Humphreys & Partners.


The developers behind the East Huron Street project want to liven up the corridor with ground-floor retail, including a coffee shop and rotating food kiosk.

Humphreys & Associates Architects

Chris Crockett, president of the Old Fourth Ward Association, said she whole-heartedly supports the HDC's resolution, which was drafted by Commissioner Ellen Ramsburgh.

Crockett said context is of paramount importance when designing and constructing a building, and the proposed building at 413 E. Huron jeopardizes the well-being and property values of residents on Ann Street and threatens to diminish their quality of life with a 140-foot, 14-story wall facing north that will create, in her words, "almost permanent shade for much of the year."

"Its sheer scale and massiveness, along with the underground parking going clear to the lot line, also endanger landmark trees on Ann Street and Division by crowding their roots and cutting off sunlight," Crockett said, adding she is concerned the building's size would create such dense shade and occupy so much soil that it would make it nearly impossible for new trees to root and grow where a landscape buffer is required between the building and the Ann Street historic block.

The site is adjacent to Sloan Plaza Condominiums, abuts historic residential homes to the north and is located in the city's East Huron Street character district.


The Old Fourth Ward Historic District

City of Ann Arbor

Crockett said it seems the developers disregarded the city's plans and decided their own idea of a character district is the city hall and its new addition, as well as the new student high-rise buildings on Washington Street, but she argued that's not how the community defines it.

"The character area includes Harris Hall, the Silas Douglass house, the two Victorian houses on Huron, and the church on the corner of Huron and State," she said, pointing out all of those properties are in the Old Fourth Ward Historic District.

Crockett is referring to the First United Methodist Church at 120 South State St., which dates back to the 1930s. Harris Hall, at 617 E. Huron St., was constructed in 1886 for St Andrew's Episcopal Church to serve as a parish house and student center and remodeled in 1980 for office space.

The Silas Douglass house Crockett referenced was the home of the dean of the University of Michigan's medical school in the 1850s and 1860s. Douglass served as mayor from 1871-1873. He lived in the home at 502 East Huron St. from 1848 until 1902.

Ray Detter, chairman of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, called the HDC's resolution a "very important and courageous statement."

"On behalf of the Downtown Area CAC, I would simply say that we are very pleased to see the Historic District Commission give support to the stated positions of the DDA's Connecting William Street initiative as well as the Downtown Design Guidelines Review Board," Detter said.

"Consideration of context and impact upon downtown character areas and nearby historical and residential neighborhoods should be an important part of the Historic District Commission, Planning Commission and City Council public approval process."

Wendy Rampson, the city's planning manager, said the project is tentatively scheduled to go before the city's Planning Commission for review on Jan. 15.


A sketch by Norman Tyler shows an interpretation of how the 14-story East Huron Street development could look from the historic neighborhood on North Division.

Norman Tyler

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 4:33 p.m.

I think that the design is absolutely hideous and will look outdated within a mere 5-10 years. If they should happen to build on that site, which I'm opposed to as a Preservationist, the design should encompass a more Historic feel to fit in with the surrounding Historic District, not to stick out like a sore thumb. I agree with the HDC taking a stand on this issue even though the property is not technically in the Historic District itself. Many HDC ordinances take into account the negative impact that surrounding buildings and new developments could have on an established Historic District, and development could be challenged, as in this case, as not complying with the ordinance. I think we need to preserve our architectural history and keep the historic neighborhood nostalgia in tact - without the construction of this monstrosity!


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 5:14 a.m.

I am afraid that this may turn into another City Place. Starting with some ill-conceived zoning, the developer suggests something that is out of style and proportion with the neighborhood. The city fights it all the way, and the developer comes up with an even worse solution that he has the right to do, the city and its people be damned. I hope they learned their lesson and work with the developer to improve this, and not get stuck with something even worse after a losing battle.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 1:43 p.m.

I know! Do you want black brick or ASHLEY TERRACE?!!!! I say keep it modern(ish) and leave the Hampton Inn looking things for Livonia.

pooh bear

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 5:14 a.m.

The church referred to by Crockett is not First Methodist but First Baptist which is next to the Douglas house. People have opinions about what is historic but there are legal definitions and historic districts are legal entities approved by the City Council. Whether Jane and Joe Public think nothing historical happened there just shows an ignorance of local history and what amounts to a lot of uninformed opinion, not fact.

Stephen Landes

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 3:44 a.m.

At least it isn't 14 stories of brick (again).


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 3:29 a.m.

The time to have brought up these concerns were at the time of zoning. The developers will be approved if they meet zoning regulations, otherwise the City risks a lawsuit that they will lose. I must admit that I'm surprised the University didn't buy this land at some point as it is close enough to campus for them to want to develop. With that said, I'm glad they didn't.


Wed, Dec 19, 2012 : 11:35 a.m.

Maybe so, but the zoning is the zoning. What does it matter if the high rise is student housing or office space? In either event it would be a sunblocker. I don't blame the developers for wanting to maximize the value of their property. They seem to be following the rules. The only blame lies with those who made the zoning and that is our problem.

Tom Whitaker

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 3:52 a.m.

I recall the concerns WERE raised and rather forcefully, but the majority on council did not support historic districts and wanted to see maximum heights everywhere downtown. I don't think they anticipated that all the high rises would turn out to be private student dorms.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 3:18 a.m.

How many times a week do you drive by the Campus Inn and scream "what an outrage! It's totally out of scale with Harris Hall"? Relax. You'll get over it!


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 2:56 a.m.

NO MORE STUDENT HIGH-RISES! Enough already! More housing for actual tax-paying Ann Arborites is great, but the massing of student creep into downtown has to stop.


Wed, Dec 19, 2012 : 5:38 p.m.

There is more than enough room for the students. There is even plenty of luxury room for them. The University is not growing the student population. I am pro-UM, but the student high-rises are over the top, and ENOUGH.

Frank Martin-Buck

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 8:41 p.m.

The university employs half the town and it will have a hard time existing if they can't house their students.

Angry Moderate

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 4:52 a.m.

Privately-owned buildings pay property taxes whether they're full of students or not. It's U of M buying up the whole town that hurts the tax rolls.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 2:15 a.m.

The whole rest of the city is incompatible in scale and massing with the adjacent Old Fourth Ward Historic District. That's why historic districts have boundaries.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 1:07 a.m.

These districts don't exist in a vacuum, just because he demarcation line is drawn at one street doesn't relieve the developer or the city of considering the impact of any project, anywhere in the city. Many people on these boards speak as though they are experts in planning, and in as much as they are presumed to be city residents, their opinions are welcome. By if city planning and development is your profession, your opinion counts for a little more. I know that Mr. Detter is very knowledgable about planning and history, and the HDC folks know quite a bit, too. So I welcome their input in this case, even if it is " out of their district of concern". My two cents? This thing is too big, too ugly, and too unnecessary to be allowed.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 12:11 a.m.

I really wish this developer would take his ideas down to where the lower town project was supposed to materialize. That's a great location for Hospital and University folks, and they could squash plenty of retail space in there. Maybe the residents on Broadway wouldn't like it, but they wouldn't have the sun blocked out all day either. It could work beautifully there.

mike gatti

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 12:11 a.m.

Isn't this a bit like the Strawberry Statement? Nobody involved should care what the Historic commission does or wants. Shouldn't they be stopping Zingerman's from expanding?


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 11:40 p.m.

What's wrong with the project? Didn't the people of Ann Arbor vote to buy green space around town & force higher density development in the downtown? What, don't you want it now?

Tom Whitaker

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 1 a.m.

Student housing has no impact on sprawl. Those living in sprawl developments are typically families or young working couples. They are not going to give up their lawn, their 2-car garage, and their lower taxes to live in a high rise with a bunch of students. They might, however, want to live in an older home next to the downtown, provided that home is not in the shadow of a giant dorm.

mike gatti

Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 12:08 a.m.

yeah, good point. What do people want? They don't want sprawl and they don't want development.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:54 p.m.

The map showing the Old Fourth Ward Historic District should also show the smaller Division Street Historic District and the Ann Street Historic District. They will be the most affected by the new development, and a number of quite historic residences will be severely impacted.

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:53 p.m.

Thanks for chiming in, everyone. There have been questions raised in the last week about whether development team ever met with the city's planning department before submitting the plans. I received this clarification today from City Planner Alexis DiLeo: "In addition to a few phone calls to clarify/confirm zoning regulations, I had at least one in-person meeting with the development team to again answer zoning questions – setbacks, height, conflicting land use buffers, etc. Staff also met with the developers at the required pre-submittal meeting. The developers did not, however, provide building elevations at these meetings for us to preview or comment upon."


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:49 p.m.

If ugly buildings are made illegal in Ann Arbor they'll have to tear down half of downtown, starting with City Hall. That said, we live in the United States, where Henry Ford famously famously testified in his libel suit against the Chicago Tribune -- "History is the bunk". He won the suit, sort of. He got one dollar.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:42 p.m.

Something of note most certainly did happen here. Neil Young made his solo performance debut in 1968, sharing "Sugar Mountian" for the first time just a few blocks east. I've also heard that the song may have been written while he was at a house on the NE corner ofCatherine and Division, which would be in those northern shadows the HDC is concerned about. I'm also guessing the Campus Inn was built before the HDC.

Elaine F. Owsley

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 11:46 p.m.

Who is Neil Young?

Tom Whitaker

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:32 p.m.

Before the historic district haters get too fired up, I would like to point out that, just like other recent projects that have threatened the integrity of the cherished historical neighborhoods surrounding downtown, the neighbors of this project simply want the developers to make reasonable modifications to make the project less jarring and instrusive. These modifications would make for a better project that caused less harm to the neighboring properties, yet the developers are not willing to make any changes--pretty much ignoring the design review board comments entirely. I'd also like to point out that this is the only downtown edge not abutting UM property that was not given the lower-scale D2 designation. D2 was created precisely for this reason--to buffer the neighborhoods from high rises and create a transition from towers to houses. It's too bad the City can't do a better job of proactively zoning to avoid these kinds of conflicts.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 3:15 a.m.

Cherished is the word You use to descri-ibe La la la la laaaa....

WW II Veteran

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:25 p.m.

Why did not the Historic Commission or the city osAnn Arborobject to the 7 beautiful old houses that were torn down on 5th ave for those ugly student housing buildings.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 10:02 p.m.

Good question!!!!


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:22 p.m.

It looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film where all of the people are soulless automatons who live in sanitized cubes. Can't imagine it will improve anyone's quality of life or make E. Huron more lively.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 12:05 a.m.

I agree. Buildings that tall, and that's not even very tall except it will appear huge because it's on a high spot, remind me of Towering Inferno.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:05 p.m.

Good for them. There's nothing "brave" or "different" about this proposed building--it looks like all the other new apartment/condo high rises in Ann Arbor And it would be way out of place in the neighborhood.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:01 p.m.

This is a bit of imperialism on the part of the Commission, muscling in beyond the limits of its territory. The members of the Commission, as individual citizens, have the right to express their opinion. As an entity whose jurisdiction has well-defined boundaries, the Commission is out of order in trying to legislate outside its purview.

Tom Whitaker

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:17 p.m.

The resolution was advisory in nature so there is no need regurgitate your legal dictionary. As the guardians of our legally-enacted historic districts, the HDC should speak up when these districts are threatened from whatever angle.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:58 p.m.

Development: Build whatever you want wherever you want regardless of the existing character of the area. I wonder if the current residents whose view will be ruined by this behemoth will be able to sue because it will diminish their property values. Seems the Fifth Amendment might apply here...something about the taking of property without just compensation...


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:56 p.m.

I think we should teardown the current structures and have spot for a community garden. Maybe a pot farm.


Mon, Mar 18, 2013 : 2:41 p.m.

Buy the property.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:19 p.m.

The best idea yet! What could be better in the character district? It will definitely liven things up.

Paul Wiener

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:51 p.m.

Nauseating, and perfectly in line with how A2 is developing. Bad for traffic, bad for Kerrytown, bad for the skyline, bad for parking, bad for whatever ambience remains for locals and visitors coming downtown. One more reason for ousting the Mayor and everyone who works for him, when and if anyone ever votes. Hey A2, the dream died a long time ago.

Frank Martin-Buck

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

This is really just a silly argument. There is already a fairly tall office/condo building right next door and then there is the very tall Campus Inn right down the street. The buildings it's replacing are old, decrepit, and deserted. That part of town really needs something to give it a bit of life. The auto repair shop across the street, Ahmo's and the old Ann Arbor News building really don't do it. I think the people who are really trying to stop this are the ones in that multi-story office/condo building who don't want to have their view of downtown obstructed. That is no reason to leave that corner with a couple boring, vacant buildings.

Gene Alloway

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:16 p.m.

I agree with you that the area needs livening up, but yet another huge mega tower is far and away not the only answer to that. Developers smell chum in the water because of the other big projects, and will push and push until city and residents push back. Ann Arbor has been and continues to be a great lively space with out huge towers. These are choices, not needs.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:45 p.m.

There is a reason historic districts have boundaries.

Elaine F. Owsley

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 11:42 p.m.

And, the HDC is wanting to govern outside those boundaries.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:39 p.m.

Yes, lets go ahead and continue to stifly development and watch dollars go elsewhere....and "historic district" here is a bit misleading -- they might be older houses but they are mostly duplexes and subdivided apartments that are mostly student housing. Nothing "historical" has happened there.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

Right, they can build their student housing for U of M in... um, Chelsea? No, Jackson. How abut Belleville. These developed paid millions just to acquire and demolish the exisiting properties on these parcels. The demand is to BE in Ann Arbor. We only get the chance to regulate their construction once, so let's do it right.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:34 p.m.

Finally some sanity in A2 re: these monster projects.


Mon, Mar 18, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

I would say "does nothing" is a little strong and not very optimistic. As the kids move in to these luxury digs the lovely old homes that were converted to student housing may revert to single family homes once again. It seems this would do something to fight suburban sprawl. It is great that there are some lucky folks that can purchase a house close to downtown. Let's hope more folks are given the chance to do the same.

Tom Whitaker

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 10:11 p.m.

Gene is right. Student housing does nothing to curb suburban sprawl. It might, however, if the City were to actively pursue policies and programs that incentivized families, retirees, and working adults to move in and fix up the older houses in neighborhoods that have been dominated by students. In this case, and also with Landmark on South U., houses that might be desirable urban alternatives to families considering living in the townships, are being made less desirable due to their proximity to these high rise dorms.

Gene Alloway

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 9:09 p.m.

This is not to combat sprawl - this is to grab student dollars. Those apartments are not for families to own, and the retail in the lower floor will not stop one sprawl project. Fighting sprawl is a different kind of approach. There are numerous sites to find out more.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:48 p.m.

We have been fighting against urban sprawl for decades Now that the City of A2 is going UP to alleviate the sprawl issue, we have faux historians waging battle against the very thing that helps.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:33 p.m.

It over powers the area and I would hate to be in its shadow but if it meets the code requirements there is little the city can do to stop it.

Elaine F. Owsley

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:20 p.m.

Oh dear! Here we have the tail wanting to wag the dog again. Historic District is a group of old houses. Being "historic" implies something of note happened there.


Mon, Mar 18, 2013 : 2:35 p.m.

What "Historic" home is being wiped out Ross?


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:48 p.m.

Well, the people that FOUNDED THIS TOWN lived there. That seems pretty cool to me. Wipe out all our oldest homes/buildings and it's too easy to forget where we came from.


Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 8:15 p.m.

While I think it is in the D1 area so the developer is not in violation, I think it could be made to look more historic in nature and not so 60's esk. The historic commission should suggest design cues to the developer to compromise, as they probably will get further than just trying to fight, as it's outside their jurisdiction.


Tue, Dec 18, 2012 : 1:10 a.m.

I don't want any more new stuff made to "look more historic". Let new stuff look new.