Ann Arbor Planning Commission sends Moravian developer back to the drawing board
A profusion of yard signs sprouted in lawns along South Fourth and South Fifth avenues in Ann Arbor in the last week, reading: "No Moravian PUD."
The voices of opposition behind those signs were heard at a public hearing tonight.
"If this is such a nifty project, every reason why the planning staff has recommended that it be approved should have led to the approval of the City Place PUD," said Fifth Avenue resident Tom Luczak. "What's the difference? It's out of scale with the neighborhood."
A majority of residents who addressed the Planning Commission tonight were against the five-story apartment complex slated for construction on East Madison Avenue between Fourth and Fifth. They claim the project will open the flood gates for huge apartment buildings in near downtown neighborhoods.
As expected, the Planning Commission postponed approval of the Planned Unit Development rezoning and site plan for The Moravian at the request of city staff. Prior to tonight's meeting, city planner Alexis DiLeo issued a report recommending the delay to allow the petitioner time to incorporate input.
The Moravian is proposed for construction on a 0.85-acre lot at 201 E. Madison St. The Planning Commission is being asked to rezone the site - two blocks south of downtown Ann Arbor - from R4C (a multiple-family dwelling district) and M1 (a limited industrial district) to a PUD district.
During the course of a four-hour discussion, planning commissioners laid out concerns with the project, including the number of bedrooms, the height of the building and a lack of open space - as well as general concerns about density and whether the project fits the neighborhood. Some said they'd prefer to see the developer scale back the project.
"It's a neighborhood and it's really hard for me to see this scale of building next to the homes that are currently there," said Commissioner Erica Briggs.
Chairwoman Bonnie Bona said she struggled with many aspects of the project.
"I want your team to come up with a great project that you can really sell us on, and right now it's just not there," she told the developer.
Some commissioners pointed out The Moravian would provide a transition between the homes to the north and the industrial area to the south.
"There's an old saying about not letting your desire for the perfect obstruct the good," said Commissioner Tony Derezinski. "I see a lot of good in this project."
The developer pointed out tonight that current zoning would allow a gas station to be built on the site, which he called a bigger threat than housing.
Jeff Helminski of the Moravian Co. said he plans to market his building to young professionals. He proposes constructing a 63-unit, four-story, multiple-family residential building with 164 bedrooms, 90 parking spaces underground, and three work units at the ground level.
"It's been alleged that this is a student housing dorm in disguise," he said. "We've maintained throughout that we believe this will be very appealing to a broad array of people."
Helmenski was joined tonight by Scott Betzoldt of Midwestern Consulting, Dick Carlisle of Carlisle/Wortman Associates Inc., and Newcombe Clark of Bluestone Realty Advisors. Helmenski said after leaving the meeting that he's taking the concerns and recommendations of commissioners to heart.
"I'm certainly pleased with staff's analysis, stating the consistency with the Master Plan, the appropriateness of this within the neighborhood, and the community benefits that will be realized as a result of this, and we're hopeful that we can come up with some form of compromise to, as they said, tip the scales in favor of the project and maintain the economic viability," he said. "They've asked us to consider (scaling back the project) and it's something we'll take a look at."
The Germantown Neighborhood Association argued the development is too big for the area.
Beverly Strassmann, the association's president, launched a Web site calling the project a "gigantic apartment building" and a "monstrosity" that represents the latest attempt by a developer to circumvent the city's zoning ordinances.
"The location is wrong. We don't need to say any more. The location is simply wrong," she said tonight.
A small number of residents voiced support for The Moravian during the hearing.
"This is a very important project for the future of Ann Arbor," said Jesse Bernstein, former president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce. "This is the type of project that the type of people we want to attract and retain want to live in."
South Main Street resident Kiff Hamp characterized himself as a 23-year-old working professional and part of the demographic The Moravian aims to attract.
"We have this great university here, but everyone graduates and goes to Chicago or goes to New York. One of the big reasons is because, in Ann Arbor, it's hard to get that sort of urban, young, exciting experience," he said. "This is exactly the type of building that we need to retain that kind of young talent and keep young people here after they graduate."
When discussing the positives of the project, commissioners said they were happy to see The Moravian plan features an eco-friendly building, dedication of a public sidewalk park, affordable housing and cleanup of some environmental contamination on the site. But some agreed with neighbors' concerns and said they'd prefer to see a project on a much smaller scale.
The Moravian is taking shape after Helminski’s partnership was unsuccessful in getting approval to build a 14-story tower called The Madison on the same site last year. He came back to the city with new plans in December, and has been fine-tuning the proposal with planning staff since.
City staff said improvements made to the site plan are enough to justify granting a PUD zoning. Limits placed on the site include a maximum height of 70 feet and say the building must be eco-friendly and include 15 percent affordable housing units.
Strassmann and other residents who oppose the project argued properly zoned land is available elsewhere in the city where the project could go, including the old Y site two blocks away.
Commissioners said they hope to see additional public benefits outlined when The Moravian comes back to the Planning Commission at a future date.
Only commissioner Kirk Westphal opposed the postponement tonight. Commissioner Wendy Woods was absent.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.