Friday, February 4, 2011

Heritage Row

At times it can be difficult to follow the long histories of many Ann Arbor development projects. I'm not entirely sure how long the back and forth over Heritage Row/City Place has been going on, but it looks like plans for the project are going to be submitted to the city a fourth time in the very near future. Here is what I understand:

1) de Parry [the developer] has the rights within the current zoning code to build "City Place."
2) Nobody--de Parry, the city, or current residents--likes "City Place."
3) de Parry needs to get eight council votes to get the property (properties?) zoned as a PUD, because a sufficient number of residents signed a petition against the rezoning.
4) Being zoned a PUD would allow a different development, "Heritage Row."
5) Some residents, including the neighborhood association, are opposed to "Heritage Row" for reasons including: looming structures being next to their property lines, loss of historical structures, and an adverse impact to adjoining properties.

Currently de Parry owns the properties that will be used for the project. One of the houses is among the oldest in Ann Arbor, but it is generally agreed that they are in a state of disrepair. There is a heated debate going on over the proposal. De Parry and a pro-density crowd are on one side; the Germantown Neighborhood association, their allies and historic preservationists are generally opposed to the current state of the plans.

An argument against the project is that Ann Arbor already has plenty of housing and plenty more is already going to be built: Zaragon II, The Village Green across First Street from the Pig. I don't think this is true, though, at least on the affordable end of things. Yes, we have seen construction of new apartments and condos downtown in recent years. But at the same time, Dexter and Saline have rapidly grown into commuter communities for local workers. Despite the new construction, there are still very few inexpensive rental options.

In general, I would like to see the density of Ann Arbor increase. It is a much better alternative to having the suburbs sprawl out. I also think medium density residential, like Heritage Row, is more attractive at the moment than larger apartment buildings.

It seems as though there is fierce debate over almost every development project. I think, in general, this is a good thing. Having a city of passionate and engaged citizens is important. Sometimes though, it's hard for me to figure out what grievances are specific to the plans for the project, and who just does not want anything to be built/change.

Further Reading:

Heritage Row developer making fourth attempt to sway Ann Arbor City Council on project
The De-Evolution Of Local Development


  1. Regarding #3 in that list, there's a bit of irony (to my eyes) to this history there. Since enough local residents signed a petition to require a supermajority in Council, the less disruptive project (Heritage Row) became significantly harder to be permitted. And actually, had this petition not been filed, Heritage Row would already have enough votes to have been allowed to go forward. By petitioning against the less damaging project, the residents took a huge gamble that might allow only the hugely unfortunate City Place project to be built. Amazingly high stakes in my opinion.

    And regarding #5, while Heritage Row does amount to a large building being built behind the standing buildings (including two homes of former mayors among other notable houses) it would at the very least preserve those buildings. City Place would raze them, and City Place could be built now if de Parry wanted.

    I love a dense downtown and I love the history of Ann Arbor (though admittedly those buildings on Fifth Street need loving, I've been in a few and they're at the low standard of many student houses around campus) but I adamantly feel that Heritage Row is a vastly preferable choice to City Place. Perhaps it's not perfect but to save some of the most beautiful remaining houses near downtown instead of the tasteless City Place (which can legally be built today!), I say Heritage Row should be given the nod.

  2. Can you explain what/where Heritage Row is?

  3. One thing I forgot to include is this excellent collection of photography from Jeff Lamb of the buildings in question. He took these back in 2008 before Heritage Row was even on the map and de Parry was only talking about the City Place plan.

  4. @GH Heritage Row would be located at S. 5th ave @ Jefferson. More or less.

    @Phil, as always, your comments and wealth of background information are appreciated.

  5. It is a straw man argument to state that this is a simple choice between Heritage Row or City Place. City Place could be stopped in any number of ways by Council if they had the will to unload this blackmail gun. They could do anything from some simple, retroactive, zoning loophole closures to establishing a full-blown historic district, as recommended by the study committee. Regardless of Council's impotence on this matter, and outright favoritism being shown this developer, I have no fear that City Place would ever be built. Six-bedroom units are simply not a marketable configuration as a recent survey of UM students shows. Other projects recently built by more sophisticated developers have recognized this fact and built nothing larger than 4 bedrooms, with only a couple small exceptions.

    Developers and their teams often comment anonymously online about how allegedly difficult it is to develop anything in Ann Arbor, but that simply is not true. The planning department developed a list of approved downtown projects last year, several pages long, that includes numerous projects approved for downtown in the last 10 years and how long they took to get through the full approval process. Some were not built due to the inability to obtain financing, but the approvals are there, and most show a fairly rapid process. The only proposals that face difficult, long battles are those that run counter to the community's vision for the future, as reflected in numerous plans and studies, or which seek PUD or other exception-based rezonings. Zaragon 2, only a couple of blocks away from the Heritage Row site literally FLEW through the approval process because they proposed the building for a site zoned to accommodate it, they adhered to zoning, and they followed the draft design guidelines. Lesson? Round pegs fit in round holes. Square pegs should expect resistance.

    By contrast to Zaragon 2, Heritage Row is looking for an extreme waiving of underlying zoning in nearly every dimension, with the only apparent benefit being the "saving" of the houses. But in fact, the only thing threatening the houses is the developer himself. The interiors of these houses are in good to very good shape. They contain 21 reasonably-priced units currently populated by grad students and downtown workers. Heritage Row would have rents that are significantly higher, except for 14 units—a net loss of 7 affordable units. (And if you want a shock—look at what the government considers affordable these days!) Current tenants would be displaced during construction and the surrounding houses, also full of reasonably-priced units, would be subject to noise, dirt and vibrations during the long construction period.

    Heritage Row would not be in the downtown D1, it would be in a separately zoned, residential (R4C) neighborhood that is actually buffered from downtown with a third zoning district, D2. If true downtown density is desired, it should not be allowed to leapfrog out into surrounding neighborhoods—at least not until all opportunities to build in the proper downtown have been exhausted. We are far from that point. To allow density to leak out into neighborhoods at this early stage, is simply enabling developers to take advantage of cheaper land CLOSE to downtown. This is the definition of sprawl and it needs to be nipped in the bud.

    There is a study underway of R4C that will actually improve the prospects for adding incremental density to individual properties while maintaining the traditional neighborhood feel that is so desirable to owners and renters alike. These traditional neighborhoods are being copied by developers all over the country because of their livability, diversity, and walkability. It would be foolish to for the City to allow the balance, the aesthetics, and the diversity of this model existing neighborhood to be destroyed for the short-term gain of one individual developer.

  6. Oh, and by the way, Alex de Parry only owns five of the seven houses involved in this proposal. He would still need to purchase the remaining two houses before proceeding.

  7. @Tom thanks for the input and information.

  8. One more thing: the animation you posted, produced by the developer, is set up with the sunlight coming from the north. In Michigan, the sun comes from the south in varying degrees, never from the north.

    This hides the fact that the building on the north end (the first one seen behind the houses in the video) would actually shade the existing houses along William, which are in the William Street Historic District.