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Posted on Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 5 a.m.

Heritage Row Apartments a better option for South Fifth Avenue area

By Tony Dearing

Whatever gets built at the spot where seven century-old homes now stand on South Fifth Avenue, it won’t be the vapid City Place project. For that we are thankful. We thought developer Alex de Parry should propose something much better for that site, and now he has.

The Ann Arbor Planning Commission has had its first look at de Parry’s latest concept, called Heritage Row Apartments. This new proposal has gotten a more enthusiastic response from city planners and we see much to like in it, too. We trust it will get fair and timely consideration.

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A look at the Heritage Row proposal by Alex de Perry.

The new concept is strikingly different from City Place, the 144-bedroom apartment complex that Ann Arbor City Council gave site-plan approval for last fall, with extreme reluctance. But even then, de Parry told the city that he was reworking the project to address the concerns of neighbors.

One of our main objections to City Place was that it would have resulted in the demolition of seven homes that have stood in the Germantown neighborhood for a century or more. The oldest was built in 1838 and the “newest’’ in 1902.

For more information

To read the city planning staff report on Heritage Row, click here to download a PDF.

To read the position of the Germantown Neighborhood Association on the project, click here to download a PDF.

The new Heritage Row project would preserve these seven houses and tuck behind them three new apartment buildings with a total of 99 bedrooms. The project would include 15 units that are designated as affordable housing. Equally important is de Parry’s stated willingness to renovate the existing homes according to federal guidelines for historic buildings.

The debate over the future development of the 400 block of South Fifth is the same one that has played out repeatedly in Ann Arbor in recent years. People who live in the areas that immediately surround downtown see the character of their neighborhoods being threatened by high-density housing projects that they think should be concentrated instead in the city center.

We consider it essential that neighbors have a real voice in the development process, and that neighborhood preservation remain a priority. At the same time, we continue to believe that neighbors should not have a veto over projects that meet the city’s master plan, and that Ann Arbor cannot be hermetically sealed in its current state.

Although residents of Germantown insist that Heritage Row project should not be viewed as a downtown project, it’s a stretch to claim that. That block falls within what’s defined as the Central Area in the city’s master plan, and Heritage Row is consistent with the multiple-family housing envisioned for that area. What more, it looks to meet or exceed most city requirements for a project sitting on the very border of downtown.

The Germantown Neighborhood Association has said it “recognizes and appreciates’’ the improvements de Parry has made in his new plan, though it still has some concerns, particularly over the height of the new buildings and the total occupancy of the project. City planners are more receptive, calling Heritage Row an “innovative’’ design that preserves a historic streetscape while “increasing density to contribute to downtown liveliness.’’

Given that we panned City Place in a previous editorial, we feel it’s only fair to recognize the responsiveness of de Parry in producing this much more appealing alternative. We still have some doubts about whether there’s a demand for this type of housing right now and about the ability to finance it, but those are market considerations that will take care of themselves.

What de Parry has now put on the table is worthy of the city’s consideration. It represents what appears to be a sincere effort to meet the city’s requirements and answer the neighbors’ concerns. That being the case, he deserves good faith in return.

Ann Arbor has a reputation for putting developers through a frustrating and tortuous approval process, when approval comes at all. The much-improved Heritage Row plan offers the city a chance to show it can consider a project in a timely and straight-forward way based on the project’s merit and its conformance to the city’s vision for future growth.

(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board of

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Alex de Parry

Sun, Feb 28, 2010 : 1:35 p.m.

Thank you for your positive comments about Heritage Row. Whether one likes a project or not, existing zoning laws and plan submital regulations dictate the approval process and what can be built. In the case of City Place, its clear that it was stopped because it wasnt liked. It did, however, meet all the Citys zoning requirements under R4C zoning which allowed us to build 24 six-bedroom units in two buildings, i.e., City Place. From the beginning, we believed that the site was worthy of a project superior to that which could be built under R4C zoning and so we submitted a PUD application for a brownstone style development. When PUD applications are made, developers are also required to submit plans that show what could be built under existing zoning laws, which we did. When our brownstone PUD proposal was turned down by City Council on January 5, 2009, we then submitted the plan for City Place. Whether one likes or dislikes the project, it meets all the citys zoning requirements for the R4C district. These are the rules as established by the City of Ann Arbor that we must all follow. Abiding by those rules, Planning Commission recommended approval on April 18, 2009. Again per the Citys rules, City Council must vote on a planning commission recommendation within 30 days. However, City Place was not put on Councils agenda until June 1, 2009 at which time it was sent back to the Planning Commission because incorrect information was placed in Councils packet. Clearly, we could not possibly have foreseen or corrected this, but it further postponed Councils vote. By the time City Place was back on Councils agenda, it had created a study committee to establish a two block historic district, which included our site, and placed a moratorium on any demolition and construction. It was made very clear that the study committee was established to stop City Place, which again, met all the Citys zoning laws. In other words, Council approved City Place based on zoning laws, but then tried to establish a mechanism whereby the approved plan could perhaps be delayed. Even before the historic district study committee was formed, the City was aware that we were working on a plan to rehabilitate the existing houses and that we were continuing discussions with our neighbors who had proposed a concept site plan very similar to the current Heritage Row site plan. In fact, it was the basis for our current proposal. While no plan for any project will ever please everyone, the Heritage Row proposal accomplishes what the City and neighbors wanted all along, which is saving and rehabilitating the existing houses. And as you state, we hope that Heritage Row offers the City a chance to show it can consider a project in a timely and straightforward way based on the projects merit and its conformance to the citys vision for future growth.