Michigan fraternity wins approval to convert church into house, despite sorority's privacy concerns
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The brothers of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Michigan are one step closer toward their dream of having a permanent house near campus.
The Ann Arbor Planning Commission voted 6-0 Tuesday night to approve a special exception use to allow the fraternity to convert the Memorial Christian Church at 730 Tappan Ave. to a fraternity house. The chapter will be allowed to have up to 44 of its members living there.
"The back story here is that the chapter has been searching for a permanent home for the past three years, and this property was negotiated under an option-to-purchase contract in September of 2010," said Jon Kucera, an architect and Sigma Phi Epsilon alumnus from Virginia who has been working with the fraternity on the project in recent months.
Kucera also is an executive for Sigma Phi Epsilon's National Housing Corp., a subsidiary of the national fraternity that works to provide housing for its chapters.
The only concerns with the fraternity's proposal Tuesday night seemed to stem from the fact that the house will be located next to the Delta Delta Delta sorority at 718 Tappan Ave.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Jane Cooper, president of the House Corp. that owns the sorority, said Tri Delta has had a presence at that location since 1916 and is concerned about privacy issues with a fraternity moving in next door.
Cooper told commissioners the sorority house is situated so that girls sleep in multi-bed dormitories. Two such dorms on the second and third floors are on the south side of the building, directly overlooking what has been, until now, a church parking lot.
"The sleeping areas are on the side where the fraternity will be and we're concerned about particularly light and noise, and visual access," Cooper said. "But otherwise, I'm probably more in support than opposed."
Cooper acknowledged "the girls are quite pleased" about having a fraternity so close, and they don't object. She just wants to make sure that privacy concerns are addressed.
"Privacy could be addressed both through screening of the parking lot along the property line to prevent direct sight lines and vehicle lights from shining directly into our living space and window arrangements at 730 Tappan that prevent a direct view into 718 Tappan," Cooper wrote in a letter to the city. "With more people and night time traffic going into the parking area, there will be a need for adequate lighting, but the lighting should not intrude on neighboring property especially shining into the windows of the dormers."
Kucera assured commissioners at Tuesday's meeting that the fraternity intends to be mindful of its neighbor's concerns.
The building is located on the northwest corner of Tappan and Hill, east of State Street. The existing 15,560-square-foot structure, resting on 0.68 acres, is currently used as a church.
The site is within a multiple-family dwelling zoning district, in which fraternities are permitted with special exception use approval.
City Planner Jeff Kahan said no site plan is required because there are no major changes being proposed to the site. No expansion of the current floor area is proposed, either.
Jerry Mangona, a professional financial advisor and president of the fraternity's alumni association, said the chapter intends to undertake a $3 million interior renovation. He said that's going to take a large investment on the part of alumni dating back as far as the 1950s, and the chapter is in the process of raising money.
The Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter at U-M relinquished its charter after a hazing incident in 1994 in which a pledge was taken to the hospital with alcohol poisoning after being forced to consume alcohol. The chapter was resurrected by Mangona and a new group of students in 1997.
"I've been involved with this chapter since our recolonization in 1997," Mangona told commissioners Tuesday night. "Our accomplishments are many, but I think the biggest accomplishment is that we have demonstrated to the Greek community that a chapter can be both successful and popular socially while still maintaining a high grade-point average and a no-pledging and no-hazing program."
Under the city's zoning ordinance, fraternity houses are allowed a maximum number of occupants based on square footage. Planning officials said the parcel is big enough that it could support up to 64 occupants, but the fraternity only asked for 44.
One of the occupants must be a resident manager.
The site is accessible by Tappan and Hill streets. Parking for 17 vehicles is provided. The fraternity plans to add 22 bicycle spaces.
The main sanctuary of the church was constructed in 1891 and moved to the current site in 1923, according to a city staff report. An educational wing along Tappan was constructed in 1973, and a small elevator room was added in 1991.
Kucera said the educational wing will be converted to bedrooms, and the sanctuary space will be converted to a study and meeting area. The lower level kitchen and dining area will serve as meeting and dining space for brothers of the chapter.
"The reality of this property is that the church is moving," Kucera said. "It's no longer going to operate at this location as a church, and it's highly unlikely that any other church would acquire the property for many reasons. We feel that the conversion, the adaptive reuse of this property, to a fraternity occupancy is an ideal adaptable reuse for this building and this site."
Commissioners Tony Derezinski, Bonnie Bona and Wendy Woods were absent from Tuesday's meeting. Commissioners present for the 6-0 vote included Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Erica Briggs, Evan Pratt, Jean Carlberg and Kirk Westphal.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529.