Ann Arbor officials looking to adopt 'the best design guidelines in the country' for downtown
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Developers hoping to build projects in downtown Ann Arbor in the near future may have to go through a mandatory design review process before a new city board. But compliance with the city's downtown design guidelines would be merely voluntary.
Those were among the highlights Monday night as city officials unveiled a revised version of the city's downtown design guidelines, a document several years in the making.
The report presented to the City Council during Monday's work session is the product of the Design Guidelines Task Force chaired by Council Member Marcia Higgins, D-4th Ward.
The seven-member body was established by the City Council in January 2010 to simplify and clarify a previous draft of the design guidelines unveiled in August 2009. The group has been meeting regularly for the past year and is now almost finished with its work.
The work of the task force builds off of previous efforts of paid consultants, the A2D2 Design Guidelines Advisory Committee and city staff.
The proposed guidelines spell out a broad vision for future development in downtown Ann Arbor and have details about various "character districts," including South University, State Street, Liberty/Division, East Huron, Midtown, Main Street, Kerrytown and First Street.
In addition to Higgins, the task force has included architects Tamara Burns and Dick Mitchell, developer Bill Kinley, the late landscape architect Peter Pollack, planning professor Norm Tyler and planning consultant Kirk Westphal. They have been assisted by city planners Alexis DiLeo and Jill Thacher, planning manager Wendy Rampson and consultant Winter & Co.
Tyler did most of the talking Monday night. He said the task force met regularly during the past year and made several revisions to the previous draft of the design guidelines.
For instance, the task force removed guidelines for individual character districts, instead deeming general guidelines sufficient. References to zoning also were removed.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the addition of a proposal for a Design Review Board made up of design professionals that would look over projects.
"The success of the design guidelines rests with a well-functioning Design Review Board whose members have design expertise," Tyler said. "The Design Review Board should be people who understand good design and whose advice will be respected."
Higgins said the task force plans to meet Wednesday to put final touches on its report. The final version will be included in the council's meeting packet on Jan. 18, she said, and the design guidelines should come before council for final approval on Feb. 7.
Mayor John Hieftje asked about the design review process and where it would fit in with the city's existing process for approving project site plans.
"That's what we're finalizing on Wednesday night," Higgins said, adding it has to be "at that very early stage" when a development is being proposed.
"And we've agreed that while the review process is mandatory, compliance is voluntary — which is why we really stress the dialogue happen very early on," she said.
Council Member Christopher Taylor, D-3rd Ward, wondered about the rationale behind making the review process mandatory but the design guidelines voluntary.
Higgins said if the city wants to make anything mandatory, it should be done through the city's zoning code. She added the city hasn't always given clear guidance to developers about what it expects, and the design review process will help with that.
One intended consequence of adopting the design guidelines and appointing a Design Review Board is to remove the need for City Council and Planning Commission members to make design decisions. City officials hope that will further streamline the review process.
Taylor wondered whether there are other jurisdictions with mandatory design review processes that have voluntary compliance.
"Seattle is like that and it's very successful," Tyler answered. "Boulder, I think, is like that. I mean, if we go down through the list, there's quite a few."
Tyler said the fact that the design review will be a public process should put enough pressure on developers to "do the right thing" and comply with the design guidelines.
He said the task force reviewed guidelines from other cities.
"We were especially impressed with Seattle," he said. "We referred to Seattle's guidelines quite often, and I think it made ours better. We hope ultimately ours will be better than Seattle's. We want to have the best design guidelines in the country."
Council Member Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward, wondered whether there will be a process by which the guidelines will be reviewed over time. Higgins said an annual review would occur.
Image courtesy of Neumann Smith Architecture
The design guidelines are intended to be used by developers and architects when planning projects for downtown Ann Arbor. They describe the city's design expectations in detail, giving developers a clearer path for approval of their projects.
The guidelines would be applicable to all areas of the downtown except historic districts, where other guidelines already are in place.
Tyler said the design guidelines take into account larger issues of context and site planning, because the design issues the city faces cover more than just a single site.
"So as we're looking down Liberty, and when we see the State Theater or Burton Tower — all of those kinds of things," he said. "Those are part of the design solution as well, or they should be referenced in the design of new buildings."
Burns said whether a development is traditional or more contemporary, it still needs to reflect the community's values. She said the Design Review Board would serve as an advocate for the city's beautification and make sure those values stay reflected in the downtown.
"Design guidelines are a tool to make sure that our built environment continues to reflect our community values while the community grows and develops," she said.
Held up in the guidelines as an example of good design is the approved Zaragon Place 2 project, a 14-story student housing structure being built at East William and Thompson streets. Tyler said the task force tried to find images that "represent Ann Arbor at its best."
Particular attention is given in the design guidelines to the street-level pedestrian experience and the perceived scale and massing of buildings.
The guidelines encourage pedestrian walkways that are well connected within and outside the areas of the proposed project. A photo of Nickels Arcade is shown as an example.
When a new building will be larger than surrounding structures, the guidelines state it should be visually divided into smaller building "modules" that provide a sense of scale. They also suggest that new buildings have clearly defined entrances oriented toward the street.
The description for the South University character district notes the urban landscape includes sidewalk extensions with circular tree-sized planters, a well-developed tree canopy over some sidewalks, and outdoor dining spaces at sidewalk and rooftop levels.
"We're asking developers and architects who are coming for a proposal: Recognize that when you're building in this district, it's a very diverse district," Tyler said.
The description for the Midtown character district points to Fifth Avenue as "Ann Arbor's civic corridor," anchored to the south by the Ann Arbor District Library, the Blake Transit Center and the Federal Building, and to the north by city hall and the new police-courts building.
"A lot of what we should do in Midtown is to build on that corridor," Tyler said, not mentioning the pending proposal for a hotel and conference center the city is considering there.
Hieftje said he appreciated the amount of work and outreach that the task force did to refine the guidelines. He gave special thanks to Pollack, who died last month.
"We can almost feel him in the room," Hieftje said during the meeting.
"He was a huge contributor to this document," Higgins agreed.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529.