Monday, September 19, 2011

City Place moving forward

Somewhere in here there is a great lesson about local politics, development, and bluff-calling. After years of back and forth bickering, local developer Alex de Parry is walking away from his planned City Place/Heritage Row development. The Com reports de Parry has sold his interest and site plans for City Place to an out-of-town developer.

To recap for those of you a little rusty on the whole Showdown in Germantown fiasco, de Parry wanted to turn 7 houses along Fifth near Williams into a low rise apartment. The first proposed apartments, the City Place development, was generally considered to be ugly as sin. de Parry came back with an alternate proposal, Heritage Row, which preserved some of the 7 original houses historic façades but also required designation as a planned unit development (PUD). Designation as a PUD would have allowed de Parry more flexibility with the development than the properties current designation as R4C (multi-family residential). Reactions to the Heritage Row proposal were mixed. Many in the neighborhood surrounding the proposed site still opposed the development. Some felt that de Parry was attempting to get the city to approve the PUD by threatening to build City Place, which if you recall, is hella ugly. Well, city council rejected the PUD designation for the properties. There was an invitation to resubmit revised plans, but it looks like de Parry is washing his hands of this whole situation. Can we blame him? On one hand some of the designs for City Place make it look like pretty terrible: 6 bedrooms with their own bathrooms off a central living room/kitchen with no windows for about $900/month per bed. On the other hand, sometimes when you are in a bad relationship, the best thing you can do is walk away. Maybe that's how de Parry felt.

Gentle readers, what's your take on this situation? Was city council right to reject the Heritage Row PUD? Should de Parry have resubmitted revised plans in hopes of building something less ugly than City Place?

Previously: Heritage Row


  1. I'm more interested as to whom the "out-of-town developer" might be. That sounds awful as well.

  2. Just FYI: This whole sad tale is far more complex than is being portrayed in the media. It was not just a simple choice between a big PUD project (rejected) that would have given the illusion of preserved houses, or a couple of big ugly boxes with no houses (approved).

    Also, please note that there was an original City Place PUD that would have been a block long and 5 stories high. That one was unanimously rejected by City Council in January 2008, before the City Place "by right" project or Heritage Row came along.

    Both Heritage Row and City Place would have detrimental effects on adjacent properties. PUDs have very specific requirements for being non-detrimental and in fact, should, by code, provide a significant benefit to the neighborhood. Council decided that the detriments out-weighed the benefits and turned Heritage Row down.

    City Place (the six-bedroom version), according to experts, does not conform to the City's zoning regulations in several dimensions and its approval can be appealed by those who are detrimentally affected.

    Mayor and Council have sat on this issue for two years. They turned down the historic district, refused to impose a moratorium on building while the R4C study was ongoing, and failed to amend several simple items in the zoning that would help staff in making better interpretations going forward.

    The Central Area Plan was adopted in 1991, yet the City has failed for 20 years to bring the zoning into consistency with the master plan, as required by State law. The master plan contains several passages calling for neighborhood preservation, as well as language discouraging the combining of lots for big new developments like City Place.

    And finally, not too long ago, the City had an individual sites historic district that was tossed on a technicality by an appeals court. A committee of volunteers was ready to go to work on studying the issue and recommending a new individual district or districts that complied with the court's order. The Mayor chose to let it die instead. At least one of the City Place houses was in the individual sites historic district and that designation would likely have stopped this whole thing before it ever got started.

  3. Sorry, the City Place PUD was rejected in January 2009, not 2008, as I stated above.

  4. @Tom, Thanks for the extensive information. As someone who was out of town when this whole thing started, it's been hard at times to get all the details about the history of this project.

  5. I have a friend in one of these houses, and from what he was saying, it seems to be of reasonable historic importance. Something about it being the home of one of the first mayors of Ann Arbor?

    In any event, the last thing Ann Arbor needs is another overpriced stack of boxes for UofM's many trust-fund babies to play in.

  6. @Anon, there is definitely a disappointing gap in the rental market between the overpriced rundown houses in the student neighborhoods and the really really overpriced high rise rentals.

  7. Clearly another sign that the city's Byzantine zoning doesn't even protect the NIMBYs it's written for. I'm starting to wonder if the city of Houston has the right idea by just having no zoning at all.

  8. @Ben, Yes, that is a more charitable way of putting it. Unfortunately, it's unclear how that gap can be foreseeably filled -- the University clearly will not, and given building constraints and an endless supply of gullible parents with money to burn, the market is just too favorable for Zaragon and 411 Loft type places.

  9. Re: the history of the proposal

    Tom, one reason you may have been thinking 2008 for the PUD proposal (instead of 2009) is that before that PUD, a project similar to it was pitched as a "conditional rezoning," but got a cool enough reception from planning commission that PUD was chosen as the mechanism.

    ArborUpdate description from August 2007: [link]

    One of the very early iterations of the project was known as "Beakes Place," which was a nod to Hiram Beakes, who was mayor back in the mid 1800s.

  10. City Place is such a disaster. The four immobile City Council members seem to have very badly misjudged the bluff they thought de Parry and his cronies were pushing. If this is a bluff they're taking it to the edge.

    The biggest irony of all to me is that had the Germantown neighborhood citizens not petitioned to require the supermajority City Council vote then Heritage Row would've been approved and we wouldn't be looking at the destruction of their own neighborhood.

    I really hope it's not too late for City Hall to unwind this horrendous debacle they've built for themselves.

    But also shame on Alex de Parry and all of the people who have worked on the City Place project. What a disgrace they're foisting on Ann Arbor's citizens. An enormous boo to Jeff Helminski (cough cough) on taking the helm on this project and pushing it through to actual completion. He should take his awful sprawling apartments back to the suburbs where his company is from.

  11. @MT2TT - I know you're being snarky, but, for the record. Houston does not have "no zoning", in effect. It has nothing called a "zoning ordinance", however it does have all of the same development standards that require auto-dependent, single-function, stand-alone uses by ordinance that we do when we refer to "zoning", as well as restrictive deed covenants written into much of the city that have the effect of archaic, un-amendable, privately and individually-determined piecemeal zoning. Not a great situation.

    @BCB - I don't follow A2 site plans like I used to, but to your description, "Heritage Row, which preserved some of the 7 original houses historic façades" wasn't my understanding. I had thought that the entire houses were going to be preserved and renovated, albeit some (all?) moved forward somewhat on their lots onto new foundations? (Still a significant issue from a preservation standpoint, in terms of preserving the street level massing and "fabric", but much different than the facadectomy your description suggests.)

    A 30-second google comes up with this Chronicle article, which looks like it's what I was remembering (which doesn't mean it remains the version of Heritage Place we're talking about). It suggests that de Parry was even interested in the potential for a historic district in order to access tax credits to do the project. For those of us follow along not closely enough at home, is this description of "heritage row" still the one at hand?

  12. RE:" For those of us follow along not closely enough at home, is this description of "heritage row" still the one at hand? [link]"

    It's the same one, I think, inasmuch as it shares the basic configuration of the most recent proposal: three separate buildings behind the row of houses; with each house rehabbed as Murph describes. In terms of configuration (as opposed to affordability mix and LEED certification and the like) the very most recent proposal differed with the one in that late 2009 article mainly with respect to the height of the southmost new construction behind the row of houses. That building was proposed to be reduced in height by one story – from 3 to 2, I think.

    There was, at some point, a version that involved a single unified structure behind the houses that connected the front part of the houses ... so it was a single mass with house-like objects bristling out of the Fifth Avenue side.

  13. Bottom line is that Alex de Parry has reportedly told a council member that he couldn't get financing for Heritage Row anyway, so its really a moot point.

    The real question is why the City, faced with the threat of City Place, has done nothing to expedite the R4C study in order to implement changes that would make certain that hideous monstrosities, like Brad Moore's City Place, can't be built in R4C neighborhoods.

    This would make the zoning consistent with the Central Area Plan from 1991. City Place was submitted AFTER the R4C study was commissioned by Council, so the developer knew the zoning might change (this is called the Pending Ordinance Doctrine in legal circles). He even attended some of the R4C meetings.