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Posted on Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 8 a.m.

14-story high-rise proposed for East Huron Street would cause too much damage to historic districts

By Guest Column

The proposal for a 14-story student high-rise at 413 E. Huron St. downtown has had overwhelming public opposition. It is a 14-story massive black box built right to the zoning boundaries and imposing itself on residents of Sloan Plaza and three low-scale residential historic districts. The proposal had almost universal opposition at the first public input session, and had dozens of speakers in opposition at the first hearing by the planning commission, and even more during four hours of public input and deliberation at the Feb. 5 planning commission meeting.


The proposed high-rise for 413 E. Huron St., in downtown Ann Arbor.

Humphreys & Partners Architects

This opposition is not simply local neighbors expressing NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard). Continuing opposition has been voiced by representatives of eight downtown or near-downtown associations, including the Old Fourth Ward Historic District, the North Burns Park Association, the Old West Side Association, the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Committee, the North Main Property Owners Association, the Oxbridge Neighborhood Association, the South University Neighborhood Association, and the Germantown Neighborhood Association.

Opposition to this "student warehouse" also has come from citizens, committee members of the A2D2 Committee, and professionals in the fields of architecture, city planning, and landscape architecture. Members of the city's Design Review Board questioned its massive scale, which is 100,000 square feet larger than The Varsity project now under construction across the street. Even the city's Historic District Commission and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network testified that this project will cause irreparable damage to the character of the city's oldest historic districts.

The city's summary of the comments made by the Design Review Board was revealing: "In conclusion, the design as presented does not meet the intent of the design guidelines in responding to the context of the site, responding to a unique corner opportunity, respecting adjacent properties, or enhancing the pedestrian experience."

While some in this city say there is nothing we can do, the fact is the city CAN do something if it takes action. Council must recognize that D1 zoning for the downtown district north of Huron Street is not in conformance with the city's master plan, its Downtown Plan, its Central Area Plan, its Design Guidelines, and its Historic District guidelines.

The city has the legal power to change the zoning in two key blocks along Huron Street from D1 to the less dense D2, the category originally proposed in a 2007 planning document. This is legally possible, and necessary, because according to Michigan law the zoning ordinance as applied to this area is not in compliance with the city's planning documents. A change in zoning could be instituted by city council at this time, since the developer for 413 E. Huron St. currently has no vested rights in the project; legally their work and costs thus far would be considered speculative on their part. Such a change in zoning would not stop development on these parcels, it would only bring any developments into conformance with the city's planning documents.

If this development at 413 E. Huron St., which goes against all of the city's relevant plans and guidelines regarding scale and residential interface and ignores overwhelming community opposition, is approved by council, then it must bring into legal question the purpose of the city's planning process. We are not opposed to development on this site, but hope for a development that is in keeping with guidelines previously established after much community input.

This is not a "by right" project as argued by the developer, it is a "by wrong" project. It is the wrong building, the wrong location, the wrong developer, and the wrong zoning. A devastating precedent would be set, allowing other developers to snub their noses at the city's planning process, and would be devastating to the downtown. The proposed massive black box currently proposed to be built at the corner of Division and Huron would haunt the city for decades to come.

Norman Tyler is an Ann Arbor resident.


Bill Wilson

Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 5:12 a.m.

@ johhnya2, I had to chuckle while reading your post. And you're so right. I think back on just the things that I've seen. Just look at the DeBoer debacle. A large number of Ann Arbor's citizens sanctioned an act that was basically the kidnapping of a child from another state. And when all was said and done, we found out that the husband, Jan Deboer, lied on his adoption application: he had a criminal record that included domestic abuse. And now many of these same people are against student housing? This city never learns.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 7:36 p.m.

I drove through the neighborhood and saw so many houses with multiple mailboxes and fire escapes going up to the attic. Are the folks in overwhelming opposition the landlords that own these historic gems?

Bill Wilson

Sun, Feb 24, 2013 : 3:03 a.m.

Tom, Your reasoning seems a bit "off" to me. I'm not sure whether your house is east or west of the proposed student housing buildings, but I'm pretty sure that the sun will continue to rise in the east, and set in the west, giving you at least a half-day, every day, of sunshine on your house. And you're inside the house for most of the day, are you not? One wonders why your house needs to be exposed to the sun so much. As a proponent of the status quo, I'm sure you'd be against extensive solar panels, and your home certainly doesn't need a sun tan. You seem to enjoy making yourself out to be an "old urbanist" champion of the people. It's odd then, that you would oppose this project. More student housing = more homes that can be converted to your "old urbanist" theme. And conversely, If this "old urbanist" (a.k.a. get closer to the city) movement is something you champion, shouldn't students also be able to take advantage of it? That would seem to mean more people would be added to your cause. And adding younger "old urbanists" means adding diversity to your cause. Unless're really nothing more than a champion of your own interests.


Fri, Feb 22, 2013 : 3:11 a.m.

It is a lovely house. I have admired it and many others in my hometown for the nearly five decades I have lived here. I raise a glass of Dom and toast the folks with the funds and determination to take on such projects. Unfortunately, it seems it is a little late to change the zoning on the East Huron property. Personally, I welcome change and have seen plenty of it. Some good, some bad. There used to be a beautiful Masonic Temple where the oh so dated Federal Building stands today. My guess is the Federal Building will be replaced by something else someday. The Z-Brick monstrosity that is 1 North Main replaced my favorite music venue ever and will someday face the wrecking ball of this I am sure. If the current zoning is not acceptable to a group of people they should run a candidate or two or just put the thumb screws to the current batch, though it seems these folks are the ones that put current zoning in place. PS. My southern exposure blows. If there is a candlelit vigil, light one for the home team!

Tom Whitaker

Fri, Feb 22, 2013 : 12:50 a.m.

Try getting out of your car and walking up North Division, starting at Huron. Take special note of the house on the southeast corner of Ann and Division which is not only in a local historic district, but is on the National Register of Historic Places. Note the fresh paint, window restorations and custom storm windows. Notice the single mailbox, because like many houses in the neighborhoods around downtown, these owners made a conscious choice to move close to downtown, restore an old house, and enjoy what I like to call the "old urbanist" lifestyle. The City has done nothing to encourage those who have made this effort. In fact, the City has done the opposite at every opportunity. Now imagine this lovingly restored house in complete shadow for most of the day, every day, throughout the winter. It will be if the proposed project were built. What if this were your house? Would you just smile and thank the City for increasing the density of downtown or would you fight for balance and fairness?


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 6:49 p.m.

Ann Arbor is a palimsest with respect to property rights, expectations and enforcement. Despite what was recommended by A2D2 committees and staff, the areas north of Huron received a special D1 designation in 2009. Various authorities that might apply make no mention of such a designation. At the time of passage, Council and the Planning Commission required a review "in a year." Historic Districts are covered at Chapter 103 of the City Code while zoning is at Chapter 55. Various provisions such as land use at Chapter 57 require the two to be evaluated with some equality. Michigan and thirty other states have adopted "bright line rules" saying a that permit begins a landowner's vested interest in a project. Now that we know that we might re-examine the issues, the better question is what do we want? For my part, knowing that there are few buildable sites downtown, I would like to see evidence of planning and integration.

Kent Jocque

Fri, Feb 22, 2013 : 9:58 p.m.

Well said. -Kent


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 6:37 p.m.

can someone add up all the student unit apartments thatbhave been built since the 411 lofts? we arereaching saturation


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 5:20 p.m.

I agree heartily with Norman Tyler. Once again out of state developers, who care nothing about the character of our city, want to put up a huge student warehouse. All they care about is how much money they can make. A student development on S. University was flipped to another owner before it was even completed. Greed is what this is all about. Please let's stop and take a careful look at our zoning guidelines before it is too late to turn back.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 5:16 p.m.

If these buildings are truly meeting the need for student housing then I guess we should count our blessings that the UM isn't the one buying the land and erecting these structures. At least the private developers have to pay taxes.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 5:08 p.m.

I don't live anywhere near the site, but I think that building is absurd. We do NOT need MORE student high rises downtown! And the size if it is just ridiculous. It would be a major eyesore.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 5:01 p.m.

We need to get rid of all the zoning in AA. Just zone it all with question mark, then tell developers to submit their plans for the project. Next, we need to hold an election twice a year to let all residents vote on the projects. LOL... If I was the developer of this project I would head to court the day after the council passes the moratorium. The leaders of this city have no honor, what-so-ever. We make rules and then rescind them at the drop of a hat. I am amazed that anyone would want to invest in this city.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 7:32 p.m.

Why bother with an election when we can just post the projects on and let people vote in the comments.

Richard Lindsay

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 4:56 p.m.

Historic district with cobbled up old homes as apartments that are in poor repair and certainly fit the name of the "STtudent Ghetto" This will be cleaner and nicer to look at IMHO

Boo Radley

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 4:56 p.m.

The fact that the six month moratorium on development the council proposed has been set aside after getting legal opinions does not bode well for Mr. Tyler's assertion that the city could legally stop this development.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 4:41 p.m.

When I saw the headline, I imagined someone building a 14-story building in the middle of Burns Park or the Old West Side. We're talking Huron four blocks east of Main? Are you kidding me? It's the perfect place for the type of high-density building we need so that there's incentive to renovate and improve the student housing rentals. People complain about sprawl, which is sometimes an inevitable and positive sign of growth. Now, here's a project that will actually do something that will reduce the need to sprawl, and there's "overwhelming opposition?" This really is just NIMBY. The writer lives on this block. I appreciate his willingness to go out there with his real name and voice his opinion, and I feel for someone basically having a 14-story building go up in his back yard, but this is just yards from North Quad, and having lived right here myself when I was a student (I lived in a student apartment near the corner of Thayer and Ann because it was so close to many of my classes) it seems like an appropriate use of the space. If this fits the zoning, I think the city would be irresponsible to try and block development. Focus instead on how the plan addresses the need for those residents who have cars to find space to park - the planning process includes a thorough review. Be tough on the developer, but fair and positive.

Tom Whitaker

Fri, Feb 22, 2013 : 12:38 a.m.

Glad you appreciate the author's "willingness to go out there with his real name and voice his opinion...." You might want to give it a try sometime.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 4:26 p.m.

Ross, from above: "The city screwed up here, but the rest of Ann Arbor's taxpayer's certainly don't want to foot a multi-million dollar lawsuit payment. This will be interesting to observe going forward." I would much rather pay for a lawsuit to save a treasured neighborhood than to fund unending Hieftje art and train folly.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 5:26 p.m.

I, too, would rather pay for a lawsuit if it will preserve the character of our city.

Boo Radley

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 4:53 p.m.

But if the lawsuit ultimately is resolved in favor of the developer, nothing has been saved, and a lot of money has been spent (on both sides).


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 4:10 p.m.

Is this "overwhelming community opposition" quantified anywhere? Or is that just something you are saying for impact. Please refrain from unfounded qualifiers.

Chip Reed

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 4:03 p.m.

Not to be too picky, but if opposition is truly "overwhelming", why hasn't the developer been overwhelmed and withdrawn his plan that offends your robust sensibilities?


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 3:59 p.m.

I think it looks much better than the dumpy buildings we have had there for the last couple of decades. Urban progress. Ann Arbor is not a farm town anymore. This building will enhance prop values in the area and takes the place of nothing historic or of value. I don't see the problem.


Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 3:15 p.m.

The real problem will come in the student ghetto.The more student warehouses that are built the less students will live in the current student areas.These former "student ghetto "landlords will be leasing their properties to whoever they can.Watch and see what happens .


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 3:56 p.m.

Pittsfield had the same dust-up when Walmart went in at Michigan/State. The zoning was clear and the residents who'd moved in did not get involved until Walmart bought the site. After months of yelling the Walmart went in. I would have preferred to not have a Wally-world there, but the world didn't end despite some of the protesters' claims.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 3:31 p.m.

I'm not sure why the claim is being made that the D1 zoning is not in conformance with the current Master Plan and Downtown Plan. I reviewed both at the website and find that the proposed Downtown plan as amended and as adopted showed the D1 area extending to Division and E. Huron. Maybe I'm missing something but the plan and the subsequent zoning seem to conform. Perhaps the plan, as amended, didn't meet with some of the information that was considered in establishing the original plan but I don't know that a plan has to be founded on unanimity of opinion. See pg 55 at: The fact that the City issued recommended (but not mandatory) design guidelines that advise developers to better integrate their designs into the surrounding community including those with variations in height shows the City expected these kinds of interface issue and chose to approve the plan and ordinance anyway. The problem here is that the law is in place. Now, the city wants to suspend the law and suspend approvals for conforming projects on private property it is otherwise bound to issue. In effect it is saying you meet our current laws but we don't like your particular proposal so you'll have to wait until we can come up with a way to change the law that contradicts the plan we approved in 2009 and that will prohibit you from doing what you would otherwise be able to do because we didn't really think this thing would happen. This is now a bigger issue of property rights and the City risks losing a big lawsuit. I can sympathize with you. Maybe the D1 line approved in 2009 wasn't the best decision, but it isn't necessarily the worst decision either. That's what elected officials do and your options are at the ballot box.

Tom Whitaker

Fri, Feb 22, 2013 : 12:34 a.m.

The zoning map is a separate, one page document contained within a large and detailed plan. In this case, the map may have been changed at the last minute to show D1 on the north side of E. Huron, but there is no text in the plan to support it. Zoning must be based on a master plan per State law. As long as we're looking at maps, take a look at the map in the report of the zoning advisory committee that was approved by council in October 2007: The map was only changed for political reasons by planning commission and council members who were sympathetic to property owners demanding the highest and densest use for their property and nothing less. The zoning map should have been determined by what was in the community's best interests as supported by substantial and material evidence--not the ideologies of politicians or the financial ambitions of a few select property owners. It is perfectly within the City's legal authority to correct deficiencies in its zoning--especially when the zoning is not consistent with the master plan. The City has a duty to protect ALL property owners, not just developers. It must act when its own zoning deficiencies could result in permanent harm to property owners impacted by developments based on those deficiencies. There is plenty of recent Michigan legal precedent to support the City in this matter.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 3:26 p.m.

I am sure that City Council intended to restrict D1 zoning to the "south" side of Huron Street since the north side borders neighborhood development. Similarly, the D1 boundary on William Street should involve only the north side for the same reason. City Council should acknowledge this mistake or error and act to correct it. The city should consider purchasing the property from the present developer at market rate if the cost will be less than that from a lawsuit.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 2:20 p.m.

" has had overwhelming public opposition." - Nobody comes to meetings to speak in FAVOR of any project other than the developer. In fact, it is the negative people who are always the most vocal and loudest. The silent majority hopes the project continues, while those that see the world as falling will scream and scream. I also love how people like you decide what OTHERS should be able to do with their property because YOU deem it a "student warehouse". I wonder if I drive by your home and say I do not like the color, if I should be able to tell you to change it because it "offends" my sensibilities and taste. Maybe if I go to the mall and see somebody wearing yoga pants and crocs I should have htem removed a s an annoyance as well. And if you driver a gas guzzling car I should be able to slit your tires in the name of saving fuel. The zoning on this is clear. Changing rules midstream is like saying well the game is 60 minutes, but because we do not like the outcome, we will make this one 65 minutes. The developer followed the LETTER OF THE LAW. If they want to change the law for future development, that is fine, but otherwise., get over it.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:43 p.m.

If taxpayer dollars go to a lawsuit I'm going to finally open that Ann Arbor torch and pitchfork store. I think business will be booming.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 2:17 p.m.

I hope you carry a line of faux torches lite by solar powered LED bulbs .

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 2:08 p.m.

torches on the first floor, pitchforks on the second floor.....assuming they let you go up 2 stories.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:41 p.m.

Mr Tyler, a well articulated argument. Ultimately the blame for this fiasco should fall upon city council and their approval of D-1 zoning for this site. They (and you, frankly) have known for years that this zoning was in place, allowing such a monstrosity of a building to be proposed. To strip the zoning back to D2 now would seem unfair to the developers, but perhaps the right decision for the parcel in question given its proximity to your beautiful, historic home, among others. The real issue is now whether such an 11th hour change would in fact expose the city to possible immense legal liability form the developer. The city screwed up here, but the rest of Ann Arbor's taxpayer's certainly don't want to foot a multi-million dollar lawsuit payment. This will be interesting to observe going forward.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 2:12 p.m.

Nicely put comment.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

Not fair to us taxpayers who do not want to fund defense when a lawsuit comes. The city let the former owner of this property sell it for millions. Of course the buyer will expect things to go as planned with the zoning being the reason they bought the property for millions in the first place. Really ridiculous that the zoning issue seemed to fall on deaf or uninterested council ears in the past, and NOW they are listening to the public after the fact.


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:30 p.m.

The sky is falling. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!!!


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.

"The city has the legal power to change the zoning in two key blocks along Huron Street from D1 to the less dense D2, the category originally proposed in a 2007 planning document. This is legally possible, and necessary, because according to Michigan law the zoning ordinance as applied to this area is not in compliance with the city's planning documents." I hope this is true. I also hope that planning documents beyond 2007 do not approve greater density for this area, offering contradiction that might be viewed as favorable to the developer's claim of by-right development.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:27 p.m.

In 1626 "the white man" bought Manhattan Island from the locals for 26 bucks. I wonder what it might look like today if .....


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:18 p.m.

Prepare the fainting couch ...


Thu, Feb 21, 2013 : 1:07 p.m.