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Posted on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Proposal to stop City Place fails in council vote against another historic district study

By Ryan J. Stanton


These seven houses on South Fifth Avenue near downtown Ann Arbor are expected to be knocked down soon to make way for boxy apartment buildings and surface parking.

A last-ditch effort by Mike Anglin to stop the controversial City Place apartments project died a slow death Monday night at a special meeting of the Ann Arbor City Council.

Following a 25-minute closed session where council members were advised by the city's attorneys, the council engaged in a lengthy debate about whether to go along with Anglin's proposal to create a new committee to study a potential historic district.

The council already went through the process of creating a historic district study committee two years ago for the Germantown neighborhood and then voted 6-4 in July 2010 against granting historic district status, which could have helped save the homes on South Fifth Avenue.

"I just don't think we need to go down this road again," Mayor John Hieftje said Monday night, arguing against another historic district study.

Hieftje voted in favor of the historic district last year.


Ann Arbor City Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, put up a fight Monday night for the preservation of seven homes on Fifth Avenue but he lost.

File photo |

The vote to appoint a new study committee Monday night fell 7-4 with only Council Members Stephen Kunselman, Sabra Briere and Christopher Taylor supporting Anglin's proposal.

Council Member Tony Derezinski, D-2nd Ward, was among the most vocal in speaking out against another historic district study.

"What is the tone that we're sending out by reconsidering and reconsidering and reconsidering something that we've already given apparent finality to?" he said. "What tone does that send out in those that are interested in coming to Ann Arbor and to help it develop and grow into the future? I think it sends out the wrong tone."

Derezinski added that the council needs to be careful about when to reconsider a particular issue "because we don't want to become a joke."

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."

If the historic district study proposal had passed, Anglin planned to bring forward another resolution calling for an emergency six-month moratorium on all construction and demolition in the area, but he ended up withdrawing that resolution.

Developer Jeff Helminski is leading City Place, a by-right project begrudgingly approved by the council two years ago despite concerns about aesthetics and whether the project fits the character of the neighborhood. The approved plans include constructing two box-like apartment buildings containing 24 units with 144 beds and a 36-space surface parking lot.

Until now, it's been uncertain whether the project would go forward, but Helminski has made it clear in recent weeks his team is anxious to get started. He briefly engaged in talks with city officials about the possibility of going forward with Heritage Row — an alternate development proposal for the site that would include preserving the seven homes and building new apartments behind them — but he told city officials last week that wasn't viable.

Helminski has not returned phone calls from seeking comment, but he offered a written statement via e-mail Sunday night.

"I am tremendously disappointed we aren’t able to move forward with Heritage Row," he said. "Changing direction from City Place at the last minute was going to be an enormous challenge, as we all knew when we started this evaluation, and in the end it turned out to be one we couldn’t overcome, particularly in such a short time frame after so much having already been invested in City Place."


Alex de Parry

Ann Arbor developer Alex de Parry spent more than a year trying to reach a compromise with the city to build Heritage Row instead of City Place, but after failing to win over a super majority of council, he sold his interests recently and turned the project over to Helminski.

Helminski did not attend Monday's meeting, but de Parry and his wife Betsy did. Asked whether he had any regrets about how things turned out, de Parry said he has mixed emotions.

He recalled his original proposal four years ago to build brownstone-style condos, an iteration of City Place that council rejected before the by-right project came along.

"Since the brownstone didn't go through, we put a lot of time and energy and effort into a compromise, which was Heritage Row," de Parry said, agreeing with a statement made by Council Member Taylor Monday night: "This is a failure of reasonable compromise."

Betsy de Parry said the blame rests with the council members who originally blocked Heritage Row's approval — namely Briere, Anglin and Carsten Hohnke. She didn't mention Kunselman, who also was one of the four who kept Heritage Row from achieving eight votes.

"One thing I think people don't really think through is, once we had City Place approved, we could have stopped," Betsy de Parry said. "We could have built it. We spent countless thousands of dollars trying to make Heritage Row happen.

"I did everything I could to try to let them know this wasn't a game, and I think Sabra, Mike, and Carsten played a game with the city's valuable assets, and they lost, and nobody could be happy about that. We're not. They can't be. This is a lose-lose for everybody."

A historic fight

Several residents addressed council at the start of Monday's meeting, speaking passionately about what the seven homes mean to Ann Arbor. They urged council members to pass both the historic district study committee and the moratorium proposed by Anglin.

"The Fifth Avenue houses have stood as witnesses to change in our city," said resident Rita Mitchell. "If you allow them to be removed and replaced with a boxy, out-of-place structure, you will have contributed to the erosion of our sense of time, place and community."

Mitchell said she feared City Place will transform a "unique neighborhood near downtown" into a "bland landscape that is indistinguishable from suburban shopping malls."

"What a shame it will be if our mayor and City Council allow a developer — motivated only by profit — to dismantle a block that is a wonderful place to live," said resident Kathy Boris. "The seven big, beautiful, historical houses sit on big lots with big trees on South Fifth Avenue. They embody Ann Arbor's heritage."

Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, asked Monday night for reconsideration of recent amendments to the City Place site plan that were approved by the City Council last week.

Council Members Stephen Rapundalo, Sandi Smith and Derezinski tried to block discussion of the reconsideration from taking place, but a majority of council members agreed to let Kunselman bring the site plan changes — including revised elevations and flexibility on landscaping and screening requirements — back up for discussion.

After Kunselman had asked several questions of staff, he joined the rest of council in unanimously approving the site plan changes for a second time.


A look at the City Place project as approved by the Ann Arbor City Council two years ago.

A majority of council members opposed a historic district proposal last year for three reasons. Some didn't think it met the criteria and that it was a stretch to call the neighborhood historic just because it's old. Some thought the city could be sued by the developer for what appeared to be an obvious attempt to block his otherwise lawful right to develop the property. And some thought it was too permanent a restriction on development rights for the area.

Anglin said there's been much indecision from council and he was hoping some of those who voted against the historic district last year would have a change of heart.

"Keep in mind this is intended for a specific area of the town that some people have even said to me they just assumed it was a historic district," he said.

He recalled how the city's Old West Side historic district was created years ago at a time when development was threatening the area's charm.

"It was established in a crisis situation," he said. "Buildings were starting to be torn down and people started to realize that their neighborhood was changing pretty radically."

Anglin argued the same concern should be shown for the Germantown neighborhood, which is just south of East William Street and downtown Ann Arbor.

"This area, because of its adjacent position to the downtown, plays a unique role in our town," he said. "There's an affinity, for some reason, to this area, and people will write about. Out-of-towners will send us messages about how beautiful that block looks."

Hohnke, D-5th Ward, said he appreciated Anglin's comments, but it seemed clear from advice offered by the city attorney's office that it wouldn't be in the city's best interest to go forward with a historic district study and a moratorium to stop City Place.


Ann Arbor City Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, said he's considering bringing forward a resolution to put maximum lot sizes into near-downtown neighborhoods like the R4C area where City Place is planned to be built.

File photo |

Kunselman said he's been waiting for a report from a council-appointed advisory committee that was formed two years ago to study the R4C and R2A residential zoning districts.

If there are no recommendations from the committee soon, Kunselman said he'll bring forward a resolution to put maximum lot sizes into near-downtown neighborhoods like the R4C area where City Place is planned to be built. He said that could help prevent future aggregations of parcels to make what he called "mega projects."

He acknowledged that would still allow houses that don't have historic protections to be torn down and rebuilt, but he said that's OK.

"That's how you keep your neighborhoods vibrant and maintained over the centuries, so to speak," he said. "We have to allow for rebuilding. There's no doubt about that."

Derezinski, who has led the charge on the R4C and R2A zoning district study, said the committee has met consistently over the past two years and will hold its final meeting Nov. 9.

"It's been a long and hard process, because it's a very controversial area, but we hope to have a report from the committee in November and then that will be brought to City Council for its action and what it wants to do," he said. "We look forward to coming to some conclusion."

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 e-mail newsletters.



Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 3:08 p.m.

There is no historic value to these homes. If you read Grace Shackman's book, Images of America Ann Arbor In the 19th Century, she writes the majority of Germans resided in the old west side (Pg 22). If someone has some documentation that the area where these house are was "Germantown" lets hear it.

Shirley Zempel

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:18 p.m.

In the paper edition you stated that "some members of the city council didn't think it met the criteria and that it was a stretch to call the neighborhood historic just because it's old". Those homes are more than just old, they were built I believe in the 1800's by the original founders of Ann Arbor and they remain very much untouched in the row where they now stand. If that doesn't make it a historic district, I don't know what one is. Could you please tell us who made that remark? Could a member of our City Council made such a statement? I shudder! Those buildings, although aged, remain beautiful architecture and the row of trees lining the street will no doubt also go. I feel that much of Ann Arbor is falling under the brick and mortar buildings constructed largely for the student population, crammed into the space allotted. So sad!

Lets Get Real

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 8:24 p.m.

Where are those council people who voted down the brownstones in the original proposal? Too long to come to a conclusion, changes in representation, getting up to speed on the history of an issue, new issues to address instead - all bring the result we now have. An ugly, boxy, rooming house bringing noise, unattended trash cans, and red cups to people attending church and funerals right across the street. Nice . . . . I'm so disallusioned with the demise of Ann Arbor. I think 35 years might just be enough when I see my tax dollars being spent on ugly and stupidity.

Widow Wadman

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:48 a.m.

Thank goodness that the City Council did not vote to follow Councilman Mike Anglin's suggestions to establish a historic district and declare a moratorium on demolition in order to block construction of City Place, an approved project. I wouldn't have wanted my tax dollars being used trying to defend such actions in a courtroom. Councilwoman Briere's support for Anglin's ideas is disturbing. To me her support shows a lack of judgement and willingness to waste my hard-earned tax money on a lawsuit that the City would be unlikely to win. I agree with the mayor and Councilwoman Teall that the Council seriously considered some time ago whether a historic district should be established on that block of Fifth, that there wasn't enough support for it, and that now the Council has other work to consider. I believe that the Council made the correct decision not to establish a historic district on that block. There is not enough of historic value there to warrant the designation and burdening property owners with having to deal with the historic preservation committee every time they wanted to make even minor changes to their quasi-historic property would be unreasonable. It was a suprise for me to read in this article that Mr. De Parry's original development plan was for brownstown condominiums. I might actually have been interested in buying one of those.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 6:07 p.m.

"Derezinski added that the council needs to be careful about when to reconsider a particular issue "because we don't want to become a joke." "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." City Council has become a "joke" on most topics that it has taken on the last few years. i.e. Art, The Big Dig, Sidewalk replacement, grafitti, Police and Fire Service, need I go on...


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 5:46 p.m.

Funny how folks want a "democratic" form of government except when "they" want to dicate and control the outcome. This city council process is a joke and has lost all credibility to govern effectively and fairly.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 2:56 p.m.

Mr. Anglin and others, please try to think ahead to possible worse consequences, next time you vote against something like Heritage Row.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 2:51 p.m.

Nicely done everyone. Because of city council's action, or inaction, we're going to get what no one except the developer seems to want. Perhaps this would not have ended this way if the wrecking ball was swinging at one of council's homes.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 2:28 p.m.

"You don't want to become a joke"? This city council is a joke and has been a joke. Please vote no to all incumbents. Be engaged next month for Ann Arbors future!


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 12:31 p.m.

Re several residents addressing council on what the homes mean to Ann Arbor, where were they when DeParry was trying so hard to get Heritage Row passed? Fighting against him. Talk about a day late..... Taylor has it right - this is a total failure of reasonable compromise.

Wolf's Bane

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 12:57 p.m.

Councilman Taylor may have called, but it would have been nice if people had stuck to their positions and not flipped so easily. You can only reach a solution if two opposing parties have their own positions. This is truly a shame and a sham. Also, I'd also like to know what did transpire between DeParry and Jeff regarding this project? Why is it that one day the numbers good and the next day an entire project is scrapped for this catastrophe?


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 12:26 p.m.

"Betsy de Parry said the blame rests with the council members who originally blocked Heritage Row's approval — namely Briere, Anglin and Carsten Hohnke." No Betsy. You and your husband are to blame for starting the process of demolishing these homes. You bought the property, you are tearing them down. But you got your money. Just a business decision, I guess. You exercised your "property rights" in your proposal, so quit trying to paint yourselves as victims. If you loved Ann Arbor as much as you say, you wouldn't be destroying the very things that make our city a desirable and charming place to live. The rest of the blame lies on the the citizens of Ann Arbor. We elected the council members that let this farce continue. Mike Anglin, where have you been your whole term? Is this a last ditch effort to get your name out there? The only time your name ever comes up is when it's attached to this never ending story.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 2:16 p.m.

No, these houses would have been bought by one of the big rental companies in town, had a large ugly rent me sign put up on the front of the house by the company, turned into student rentals and not cared for like most individually owned houses in town. We are probably better off with new apartment house, it will take a few years before it gets run down from lack of maintenance.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 1:36 p.m.

If the houses were offered individually for sale, they absolutely would have been rehabbed and would have retained their historic character. But that's not how "developers" work, you know that. It's all behind the scenes dealmaking and leveraging. In this case leveraging city council. Sometimes it doesn't work out as planned and the developers have to cut and run to maximize their investment. Just the way it is. BTW, I noticed at least one of the houses involved in the Moravian debacle has been rehabbed and is rented out. Just sayin'.

rusty shackelford

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 12:33 p.m.

If my eyes were rolling any harder they'd be falling out. Only in a town like Ann Arbor could the owners of large, expensive homes in the center of town (and their supporters) manage to paint themselves as tragic victims and maintain a straight face. And yes, the de Parrys are developers. They develop property; they tried for a long time to do so while keeping the homes but COUNCIL forbade it for years. I didn't see you or anyone else buying the parcels from them, fixing them up, and maintaining their "historic" character.

Wolf's Bane

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 12:17 p.m.

Too bad. Ann Arbor City Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, is probably the only Council Person who has been consistent in his position.

rusty shackelford

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 12:10 p.m.

Ryan, thanks for a great article--thorough rundown of this whole debacle. It seems that a large minority on council is incapable of critical thought, and will do whatever a small group of gadflies tells them to do despite the town's best interests. This is hardly the only issue where this is the case, but it is the most obvious and perhaps the saddest. Life-sized Ken doll Carsten Hohnke is indisputably the chief offender here, but far from the only one. That some on council still think they can essentially stomp their feet and convince someone who has literally millions of dollars on the line to not to do what he has the legal right to do after council spent YEARS blocking his more agreeable plan shows how out of touch and incompetent this group is. Twits! To the "Germantown" "neighborhood,"--there are already several multiunit buildings within eyesight of virtually anywhere on that block. If a single building is going to "ruin the neighborhood" it just demonstrates what is obvious to literally everyone: that it hardly qualifies as such. Old things are not inherently historic, and historic districts were never meant to be created just to protect homeowners' property values--which is transparently the only reason some keep pushing for it here. (Though it's up for debate the effect CP will have on property values anyway.) Hohnke, Anglin, et al are an embarrassment and a disgrace to the city and need to apologize to the citizens for their hubris on this project. And they should remember that they're at a part-time gig they gained through being popular in the Kiwanis Club. Most people they deal with (de Parry, Helminski, et al) are professionals at what they do--this stuff isn't a game for them like it is for council.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 3:14 p.m.

yes, nice work Ryan, and you even included the word "begrudgingly"


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 1:54 p.m.

Hard for to do, but I do agree with you.


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 11:54 a.m.

How very sad to see these buildings torn down just for more ugly apartment buildings!! Ann Arbor sure is no longer a caring town where they relish the history that built Ann Arbor and cherish the older historic homes and buildings around town.

Alan Goldsmith

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 10:43 a.m.

"Council Members Stephen Rapundalo, Sandi Smith and Derezinski tried to block discussion of the reconsideration from taking place..." Maybe Rapundalo's replacement won't be such a hater of the democratic process and be a bit more supportive of open and transparent government. Yet ANOTHER reason to vote against the good Council Member in November.

Alan Goldsmith

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 10:41 a.m.

"Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward, argued the council already has become a joke..." You think?


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 2:33 p.m.

Vote her out, she acknowledges being part of a joke, she is a joke. Vote Eric!


Tue, Oct 25, 2011 : 2:32 p.m.

At least she showed up or this, huh?