Washtenaw County clerk tells city: 'You are leaving a scar in the middle of Ann Arbor'
Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum has joined the ranks of those citizens lobbying the Ann Arbor City Council to save seven century-old homes from the wrecking ball.
Kestenbaum sent the mayor and council an open letter today, making a case for preserving the homes on the 400 block of South Fifth Avenue.
A majority of council members this week rejected a proposal to reexamine the historic significance of the Germantown neighborhood near downtown where the houses stand. Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, proposed a historic district study as a last-ditch effort to stop the controversial City Place apartments project, but it now looks likely the developer will tear down the homes to make way for student apartments and a parking lot.
A council-appointed committee that studied the significance of the Germantown neighborhood submitted a 28-page report to the city last year recommending historic district status. The council later decided against granting such status to the neighborhood.
The following is the full text of Kestenbaum's letter to council.
I write, not as County Clerk, but as a citizen of Ann Arbor.
My daughter is a student at Herbert M. Slauson Middle School.
Herbert M. Slauson (1853-1936), the namesake of that school, was Ann Arbor's superintendent of schools for many years. It was under his leadership that our schools moved into the 20th century, taking on an enormously larger and more discerning population along the way.Mr. Slauson lived for many years and died at 433 S. Fifth Avenue, one of the houses in the City Place/Heritage Row controversy. Samuel Beakes, the congressman for whom Beakes Street is named, also lived in one of those houses.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
I spoke with some of the staff, students, and teachers at Slauson Middle School. They were shocked to hear that the City Council had passed up the opportunity to preserve the Slauson house for future generations.
What has happened, as I wrote in a previous email, is that the council has, by default, chosen the worst possible alternative for this site. By your action and inaction, you are leaving a scar in the middle of Ann Arbor.
I know that each of you want to take me aside to say, "Larry, I voted ..." or "I did my best to ..." But that is not enough.
A city council is not judged by the good intentions of its members. It is judged by what it accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, as a body.
Each one of you is well qualified to sit where you do, and most of you are my friends.
But your group process has completely failed. All I hear is mutual blame, and no investment in the group's endeavor. Your total is much less than the sum of the parts.
I have been a defender and apologist for this council since long before any of you were members of it. I spoke up for you when your deliberations looked messy, or your priorities seemed odd. I spoke up for you when you were embarrassed about emails you exchanged. I have supported most of you in your individual campaigns.
But even I can see that difficulty with group process has gotten this body into trouble again and again. If you are worried about the council's image, you should think back on all those events and hang your heads in shame.
Now, I understand that at a recent meeting, a proposal was made to revive the Germantown historic district, in a last-ditch effort to undo the damage you have done. I read with incredulity that some of you were angry that this was brought forward, and attempted to stop it from even being discussed.
Given that the current developer chose to enter into this project which already had a long and contentious history, I don't see that he is owed "finality" on previous bad decisions. This is not someone who has owned the property for years and finds unexpected hurdles to development. It is entirely predictable that the city council would be interested in other development options.
Let me remind you that the city has vast powers to control development, and all kinds of tools that you're not using here.Here's a very modest suggestion.
First, set out a territory that includes only the front portion of the seven properties, where the houses themselves stand. Reappoint your Germantown study committee and charge them with studying only that limited area. Since studies of the neighborhood have already been completed, it should not take long to create a recommendation. Give them a very short deadline, like 30 or 45 days, and limit the demolition moratorium to that time.
Second, while that is pending, rezone those properties to the higher density that is justified by close proximity to the transit center and the new underground parking facility.
You have ample legal justification to support both of those actions.
Under these different constraints, any reasonably creative developer ought to be able to come up with a profitable project, closely similar to the Heritage Row project, perhaps even without a PUD. And this combination of action would limit historic district protection and restriction to a specific ensemble of well-documented historic and architectural resources.
It's time for the Ann Arbor City Council to redeem itself, to work together instead of separately, to show some creativity and compromise. Please don't be so dug in to your past mistakes that you disdain positive outcomes in favor of scorched earth.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's e-mail newsletters.