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Posted on Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 11:04 a.m.

Moravian project passes first reading at Ann Arbor City Council

By Ryan J. Stanton

The developer of the proposed Moravian apartment project appeared before the Ann Arbor City Council Monday night and said it's been a long two years trying to get his project approved.

Council members gave the project a ceremonial passing at first reading Monday but acknowledged they look forward to hearing more from both sides of the debate at second reading.

Thumbnail image for Moravian_Jan_2010_b.jpg

The revised plan for the Moravian is shown here in the latest drawing submitted to the city by the developer.

The city's Planning Commission, after much debate, gave the project its blessing in a 7-1 vote last month. The project also has a letter of recommendation from the city's planning staff and support from more than 100 residents, businesses and community leaders who say it'll boost the local economy and increase the vitality of downtown.

The site plan calls for for construction of a 74,370-square foot, four-story building over one level of parking - for a total of five stories containing 62 apartment units, with 150 bedrooms and 90 off-street parking spaces. Twelve of the 62 units - or 19 percent - would be affordable to lower-income households.

"I recognize the challenge that all of you face on digesting a tremendous amount of information in a relatively short period of time for what's a very complex project," developer Jeff Helminski told council members.

"I would encourage you to look to the city's staff, its professional hired experts in areas of planning and zoning," he said. "And in particular, look to their report. That report contains a tremendous amount of accurate information that I think will dispel some inaccurate information that's been floated around."

Council Member Tony Derezinski, D-2nd Ward, said first readings usually are reserved for introducing a project. Having a first reading for the Moravian, he said, was "kind of like introducing Methuselah."

"It's been around for a long time," he said. "This process has gone on a substantial length of time, and the staff has put in a lot of time on it."

Helminski said city staff reports confirm the Moravian - though it is a Planned Unit Development that deviates from the city's existing zoning - is consistent with the city's master plan.

An approved PUD zoning district and site plan would allow the developer to move forward with a five-story apartment complex on 0.85 acres at 201 E. Madison St., just south of downtown Ann Arbor.


Developer Jeff Helminski chats with Council Member Tony Derezinski before the start of Monday's meeting, where the Moravian project was approved at first reading.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Helminski is asking the city to allow him to rezone the property from R4C (multiple-family residential) and M1 (limited industrial) and combine eight existing parcels into one PUD zoning district that calls for multiple-family residential use and so-called "live/work spaces."

Helminski said Monday night he and the city's staff are confident the project meets the city's standards for granting a PUD, which requires a developer to demonstrate a certain level of public benefit from a project.

"We're also very confident in our ability to bring this project to fruition from a financial standpoint, even in these economic times, in this current lending environment," Helminski said. "We look forward to doing that as soon as we're permitted to do so."

As he has done for the last two years, Helminski continued to fend off criticisms from Germantown neighborhood residents who don't want the Moravian project developed near their houses, some of them century-old.

Beverly Strassmann, a member of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, spoke against the project. She reminded council members several apartment complex projects have been approved by the City Council in the last decade that aren't yet built.

She also said reports of a high percentage of vacancies in student-oriented apartment complexes around the downtown suggests there is no need for the kind of project being proposed.

Kyle Mazurek, vice president of government affairs for the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the project - both as a young professional and on behalf of the chamber.

Mazurek said the project increases density near downtown, remediates a contaminated brownfield site, allows for removal of blighted buildings, contributes critical property tax revenue, enhances housing opportunities for young professionals and benefits downtown area businesses.

Ann Arbor resident Kim Kachadoorian, a long-time critic of the project, said the revised plan still is out of scale with the neighborhood.

"This project is huge," she said. "Walk by the outside of the city hall and imagine this in your neighborhood, right up to the sidewalk."

Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, said he walked through the neighborhood prior to Monday's meeting to get a sense of some of the concerns residents have, including those about affordability.


Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, prepares for Monday's council meeting. Anglin expressed concerns about the Moravian.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Anglin said he found existing studio apartments in some parts of the neighborhood going for $760 a month, including utilities. He concluded the existing housing stock already was affordable, and building a new structure could end up changing that.

Helminski countered by pointing out the project offers a significant affordable housing component.

"We have efficiency units in ours that will be restricted as affordable," he said. "The maximum possible rent that could be charged for those would be $690 a month, inclusive of utilities. So the comment that Council Member Anglin brought up highlights the additional affordability that our project would present for a new product, much more energy efficient than the one that might be on the market today. And our project will have those units guaranteed in perpetuity - they can never be lost."

Council Member Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward, said arguments that the project fits the city's vision for downtown don't carry much weight with him because it's not downtown.

"From my point of view, it's a pretty clear line for me," he said. "I think we have a downtown boundary that runs along William Street and therefore does not include the neighborhood that's under discussion."

Hohnke also questioned whether the public benefits being proposed by the project meet the city's standards for a PUD. He said he had "very significant concerns" about the project moving forward.

Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, said the city already is littered with approved site plans for projects not yet constructed. He said the Moravian won't be getting his support at second reading.

"For a project to take this long, there has to be something wrong with it," he said, adding it's out of character with the neighborhood and makes him fearful of what could be "built up the hill" in the years ahead.

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



Tue, Mar 23, 2010 : 6:48 p.m.

This development plan looks horrendous- no character whatsoever. It looks like some cheap strip-mall layered in stucco and various mix'n-match slabs of faux-stone/brick. Is this from some 1st-year architecture student playing with autocad? Maybe Applebee's will rent out the retail space on the 1st floor.


Wed, Mar 3, 2010 : 9:16 a.m.

"Don't forget that 50% of all architects graduated in the bottom half of their class. So did half the doctors, lawyers, engineers, biologists, teachers etc. Do you have a stronger argument than 1/2 of all people are the bottom half of any group?


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 10 p.m.

I'm sorry, but the council is a political group and its job is to consider the planing commission's recommendation and then make its own decision, based on many factors, and not simply to accept each recommendation. In this case there is a request for a PUD to exempt the developers from zoning rules, and there are many who believe that the Moravian does not fulfill the requirements for such a change, and this has many parameters. Name calling and invectives will not change the facts.


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 2:40 p.m.

Okay, by definition, development will always mean change in someone's neighborhood. Hence, there will always be NIMBYs. Depending on the project and the neighborhood, some NIMBY groups will be influential, others will be less so. So we taxpayers hire a top-notch, trained planning staff -- all of whom have been in the job longer than any council member except the mayor -- to give council their professional, apolitical recommendations so that projects get approved in a fair manner according to agreed-upon criteria. And what are we getting for it? Politicians looking to score points with the NIMBYs and -- here's the kicker -- a shrinking tax base. Huzzah! By all means, let's have spirited debate, let's have projects come back so they get better (which it has, because staff kept sending it back), let's have cool heads periodically reexamine our criteria for approving these projects. But once staff has made a recommendation, council members, I'd like you to please state your urban planning credentials and years practice overseeing Ann Arbor's plans and ordinances before you vote against it. Otherwise, what the heck do we pay staff for? To moderate a political peeing contest? Let's replace the people on council who don't have the courage to relinquish control when appropriate, do what's right by the taxpayers, and keep the city moving forward. (Well, maybe we'll let the project's two ward reps off the hook.)

Ryan J. Stanton

Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 2:29 p.m.

@Tom Whitaker Newcombe Clark resigned from the chamber board at the end of last year.


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 2:18 p.m.

Old as "Methuselah" = NIMBY a2


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 2:09 p.m.

"Ann Arbor politicians need to stop opposing development just for the sake of opposing it. They are slowly killing the town." Agreed.


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 1:44 p.m.

Opposition to this plan is ridiculous, even on opponents own terms. So height restrictions take effect south of William (at least in Hohnke's world)? Apparently he has never seen 414 S Main, or the multistory apartment building at Main and packard? All the residents of "Germantown" (a concoction made up by idiotic NIMBYs) are fine with a huge lumber complex and one of the largest stadiums in the world, but not an apartment building? Folks, I know you care about nothing but your property values, but an expensive apartment building with affluent residents, which in turn will stimulate more commerce, will INCREASE the value of your single family homes right next to main st. And it will provide renters with options other than a SFH chopped into 6 miniscule apartments. I know change is scary, but take a deep breath and realize it's just an apartment building. Ann Arbor politicians need to stop opposing development just for the sake of opposing it. They are slowly killing the town.


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 1:29 p.m.

It looks like a warehouse with a fake "homey" facade. The reason for the "mish-mash" is an attempt to make it seem less like a blocky warehouse and more residential. That kind of design is terribly dated and will look worse in 10-20 years. Don't forget that 50% of all architects graduated in the bottom half of their class. Mr Whitaker is onto something by suggesting that this building would be more appropriate on the old Y lot. If council is serious about residential in the real downtown they should be bargaining with Mr Helminski. And Mr Whitaker is right again. We are really tired of back room handshake deals between developers and "leaders".

thomas siterlet

Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 1:07 p.m.

Why do all the buildings -proposed & under construction- have to be this "mishmash style" of looking like several different types of buildings all pressed together? The City Hall addition is a perfect example -they couldn't decide on one type of facade so they have several!!


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 12:59 p.m.

They need more parking. It needs at least two parking spots per apartment and three per business. Friends and customers can walk. it's already hard enough to find parking around downtown ann arbor. do not let someone build without having enough parking.


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 12:51 p.m.

That is one ugly building. It looks like a shopping mall in disguise.

Tom Whitaker

Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 12:40 p.m.

"Kyle Mazurek, vice president of government affairs for the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the project - both as a young professional and on behalf of the chamber." The article fails to point out the Helminski's partner in the Moravian is Newcombe Clark, a member of the Chamber's board (also on the DDA board and the Citizen's Advisory Council). I've talked with numerous members of the Chamber and they have no idea what the Moravian is or where it is. When they find out that some of their best customers--residents of the near downtown neighborhoods--oppose the project and will be detrimentally affected by it, they are incensed that the Chamber board would take this unilateral position. Since the behind-the-scenes conference center meetings between developers and City and Chamber officials were revealed, I think the citizens of this community are fed up with insider plays. In terms of boundaries, the Downtown boundary is not an arbitrary one and it is not only based on the DDA boundary (although the purpose of the DDA is to promote downtown development, so it would logically follow that the DDA boundary would encompass just Downtown and no more). This boundary has held through the DDA renewal a few years ago and a new Downtown Plan adopted last year. It has long been the basis of differentiation between Downtown and the Central Area, as described in the Central Area Plan AND the Downtown Plan. The recently adopted A2D2 rezoning also left the boundary alone after many years of community effort and input. The new R4C/R2A study is revealing wide-spread community support for the language in the Central Area Plan that supports this boundary and protection of the residential character of the older near-downtown neighborhoods. Finally, there is already an existing historic district on William Street (and proposed district between William and Packard) that further enforces this boundary. There are clearly folks out there who have ambitions to expand the Downtown, but this is not what the community desires, nor is it what the economy in Ann Arbor and Michigan will support--not for decades, as evidenced by all these approved, but unfinanced projects around town. Those who claim a link between the Greenbelt initiative and Downtown density should not support density sprawling into neighborhoods, but rather support it in the proper Downtown where we all have agreed it belongs. Councilmembers who want this project built should work with the developer to try and sell him the YMCA lot. There, this project could be built as a "matter-of-right" as opposed to trying to force it into a neighborhood, overturning decades of established zoning and planning policy that has the support of the neighborhood and the Ann Arbor citizens as a whole. Increased density NEAR downtown will weaken any efforts at density in the actual Downtown.


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 11:56 a.m.

The Germantown neighborhood is certainly an interesting area. It is a conglomeration of single family and multi unit buildings. There are some homes that are in nice condition and well-maintained. Others are chopped up, run-down and not well kept. A well-planned project like this, on it's fringe, would help to increase the value of the remaining Germantown homes. I'm astounded by Carsten Hohnke's comment about this not being downtown. I'm sure that Fingerle Lumber, Laky's Salon, DTE Energy and Whitney's Collision would be surprised to find that Hohnke doesn't consider them to be Downtown businesses, because they are south of E. William St.


Tue, Mar 2, 2010 : 11:32 a.m.

misspell = dispel?