In the Zone
What happened on S. Fifth Ave.?
by Greg Dobrin
"How can they just tear down these old houses?"
The young woman, lips pursed, documented the spectacle with her phone as the last in a row of seven S. Fifth Ave. dowagers toppled into oblivion.
"It's really destructive," she said. Which is, I refrained from pointing out, the inescapable truth about destruction.
"Violent," she clarified.
Violent indeed. And curiouser and curiouser in a town with such a peaceful-sounding name as "Ann Arbor"--a name as charming and genteel as the city itself.
Except during these bouts of darkness, I thought, while the houses creaked and buckled--the bad days when Ann Arbor takes sharp objects to its renowned skin and turns ... self-abusive.
A cutter. A tweaker.
The Lindsay Lohan of redevelopment.
An elderly spectator hobbled from the scene, hands batting the air as he muttered something about the wrecking of nice things and the ugly ones going up.
Not that everything ever lost to new construction was "nice" to begin with, but the man did have a point.
There was, for instance, the "progress" frenzy of the 1950s and 1960s, when gingerbread bowed to Bauhaus and Ann Arbor's very own Main Street USA, its lacey needlepoint Victoriana entombed beneath layers of corrugated aluminum, dropped to its arthritic knees while gleaming new asphalt acreages with names like Westgate and Arborland beckoned an ever-expanding car culture.
From gilded age bustier to Le Corbusier ... talk about painting the Red Queen's roses red.
And much like Wonderland's croquet game, the run-up to the South Fifth blitz was a fractious match that banged around city council chambers and neighborhood meetings for five long years. The result--keepsake homes demolished for ho-hum student housing--left townies a little confused, if not mad as hatters.
The short explanation is that developer Alex de Parry, after much wrangling and expense, was given a third chance to submit a project--his twice-rejected Heritage Row--that he said would save the homes, but he didn't take it. Then a new developer, de Parry's former partner, declared Heritage Row too expensive to build
anyway, starting the dizzying plunge to vacant lots and--as if soaring upward after a bite of magic cake--the two massive blocks of student apartments called City Place that filled them.
It's a trail of tears that leads back to 2006, when de Parry, who owned five of the houses and had an interest in the other two, began discussions with neighbors and the city about redeveloping the property, which lies just south of downtown. His initial plan would've demolished the houses for brownstone-like buildings, a design that came to be known as "Beakes Place" (because the 1830s Gaskell-Beakes House would be among the tear-downs). He submitted a "conditional rezoning" application to the city in late 2007; in early 2008, the planning commission recommended against it, suggesting that the plan was better suited for a Planned Unit Development.
PUDs are basically their own special zoning districts. "You customize the zoning regulations for a PUD," says city planner Matt Kowalski, "and in exchange for the city giving you some flexibility in your design and your setback and your height and placement, you have to give a public benefit back to the city."
The evolving PUD plans de Parry submitted over the next couple of years ultimately became known as Heritage Row. In exchange for stretching the rules for its multi-family R4C neighborhood, the final version's promised public benefits included underground parking, prohibiting high-density six-bedroom floor plans, and, most important, preserving the historic houses, though moved onto new foundations and joined by three new apartment buildings in the rear of the property.
According to a meticulously detailed chronology on AnnArborChronicle.com, de Parry's PUD proposals were on the City Council agenda ten times between May 2010 and October 2011. But in Ann Arbor, zoning is destiny, and once it's in place, it's not easily changed. Because most neighboring property owners opposed the PUD, it required a supermajority--eight votes out of eleven--to pass. It never got more than seven.
Long before Heritage Row went down, however, de Parry won city council approval for another plan, the one that's now being built as City Place. It was a seed--an invasive species, if you will--that sprouted in the developer's back pocket while the more historically sensitive PUDs were sequentially denied.
Unlike Heritage Row, City Place is a "matter of right" project that required no zoning changes at all. It brushes up against, but doesn't cross, R4C limits on the maximum number of units (twenty per acre, or twenty-four in all), minimum number of parking spaces (1.5 per unit, regardless of the number of residents), and maximum height (thirty feet, averaged between roof peaks and eaves). Every unit has six bedrooms (and five or six baths), the parking is a surface lot, and, of course, the historic homes are gone, replaced by a pair of chunky three-story buildings.
The new buildings have about as many apartments as the seven houses, but City Place has many more bedrooms--144. And in today's market, says Mike Quinn of Quinn Evans Architects, it's the bedrooms, not the units, that count. "That's an unfortunate condition for the community," he says, "but it's probably a good condition for the students," who'll be able to rent a bed-bath suite for $1,050 to $1,200 a month (or $900 if they're willing to share a bathroom).
Alex de Parry says that city council "gambled and lost" in turning down Heritage Row. He thinks councilmembers believed "that City Place would never get built, mainly because financing was not available."
Was City Place a development the city council didn't want? "Absolutely," says First Ward councilmember Sabra Briere. That sentiment is echoed by Carsten Hohnke, councilmember for the Fifth Ward, the one in which the seven grandes dames once stood. "I'm no expert on design or architecture," says Hohnke, "but I'm not a big fan of the current version of City Place."
City Place, adds Briere, "was not a project that excited anyone aesthetically, not even the developer."
Almost all of the local architects I called about City Place demurred when I asked what they thought of its looks. Only Marc Rueter, who's designed dozens of small-scale residential and commercial projects around town, was willing to be quoted. After giving the developers credit for minimizing costs--wood-frame buildings are "about the cheapest way to build something"--Rueter calls the design "really bad. It's really too bad that it happened."
The regrets cut deeper than aesthetics. City Hall itself, that metonym of municipal best interest, wanted the houses saved and City Place stopped. Mayor John Hieftje, according to AnnArbor.com, encouraged staff to use all available tools to oppose it. And yet, says Briere, the ungainly project was fully legal. Nobody could find a way to reject it.
"The city council cannot use as an evaluative tool whether we 'like' a project. We use the criteria zoning provides," she says. In that sense, City Place is a testimonial to our culture's emphasis on private property.
"When we don't want to impose restrictions on properties over the objections of the property owners," Briere says, "it's because we respect those property owners' individual rights, and those individual rights outweigh the good of the community."
A rose, in other words, is only a rose, thorns and all, and our planning process never promised us a garden of them. As long as a proposal meets all codes and requirements, the city can't turn it down.
The thing is, Hohnke explains, "Unless there is an extreme exception in the health, safety, or welfare of the public, you really have to allow folks to do what they want with their property if it conforms with the zoning. Otherwise they will sue, we will lose, it will cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and they'll build it anyway."
The distress at seeing the houses come down and City Place go up was even more intense because there were so many might-have-beens. At first, it seemed that the block might be preserved by creating a new historic district, called "Germantown."
All the houses were nearly a hundred years old, or even older, depending on your perspective (they'd each been altered at one point or another). One in particular, the Gaskell-Beakes house, was home to two of our mayors, Hiram Beakes (mayor 1873-1875) and Samuel Beakes (1888-1890), for whom Beakes St. was named. Oddly enough, the men weren't related, although Sam did marry Hiram's daughter, Annie.
Given a fashionable Italianate primping in 1859 (Hiram's wife was something of a socialite) and again reconfigured when converted to apartments in the 1920s, the house encompassed an original Greek Revival structure dating from 1838.
In August 2009, council approved Carsten Hohnke's motion to create a historic district study committee. The yearlong moratorium on demolition and construction during that review buoyed the hope that the Beakes House, and others, might be spared.
Ann Arborites love their old buildings, Briere says. "They may not ever want to live in one, but they like the look and feel of the neighborhoods that surround the downtown. The old Ann Arbor community. That's why people come here to film movies. That's why people have given an award to Main Street, which wouldn't look anything like it does today if it weren't in an historic district."
At the end of the review, the study committee recommended making Germantown a historic district. But though Hohnke, Briere, and two others supported it, most of their colleagues concluded it was a district too far. Ann Arbor has so many historic districts already, they felt, that one more would complete a noose of preservation around downtown, effectively strangling growth and expansion.
Then what about Heritage Row? Did City Council, as de Parry says, gamble that they could preserve the status quo if they turned down the PUD, and then lose the bet?
"I think everybody blew it," says de Parry of the project's ping-pong scuttling.
An Illinois native and pre-med major who enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1965 and never left town, de Parry says he always wanted to save the houses, several of which had been his home and the homes of his children since he first began purchasing them in 1972. They'd have been razed for his Beakes Place plan, but if the city had approved Heritage Row, de Parry says, "we were willing to restore the houses and bring them up to twenty-first-century modern conveniences." The developer says he sold out to his partners because "I wasn't going to be the one to tear those houses down."
The city hoped the new owners, led by Jeff Helminski of Rochester-based Campus Village Communities, would reconsider Heritage Row. But in an October letter, Helminski said that in his group's opinion, the design de Parry proposed "is not economically viable or financeable."
The city's savviest business reporter, AnnArbor.com's Paula Gardner, seemed to come down on Helminski's side. In an opinion piece last October, Gardner called Heritage Row a "wish list" project that could never have been brought to market.
It's a notion that relegates the supposed "battle" to preserve the S. Fifth Ave. houses to mere hallucination.
Gardner's red flag in what she labeled a "faux debate" over Heritage Row was the costly underground parking. Another reality check, Gardner wrote, was the claim that Heritage Row's two- and three-bedroom units would be marketed to "professionals."
While a Wolverine huddle of high-rises has muscled into Ann Arbor's skyline lately, they're not geared toward greenhorn lawyers and stylish young Google execs. Virtually all of them cater to students.
So does City Place. Or, as Gardner put it, "Five bedroom floor plans" (and certainly those with six) "really do signal student housing."
Is there anything to learn from all this? For one thing, although the brow-raising new complex adheres to the legal limits of the R4C zone, that zoning itself is an eye-opener. Says city planner Kowalski, "A lot of people don't fully realize what the zoning allows when you combine the parcels ... We don't have any limitations on lot combinations currently."
That could change. Kowalski heads a citizen review committee charged with developing recommendations for updates to R4C and R2A (duplex) zoning, which date back to the 1960s.
But unlike in the nearby downtown, which recently implemented a design review process, architectural restrictions are unlikely in R4C and R2A. Design standards are difficult to enact, Kowalski says, and, because of the neighborhoods' architectural diversity, even harder to determine.
And so if a project falls outside a historic district and outside of downtown, there aren't--and possibly never will be--any design guidelines. "You could technically put up the ugliest project in the world if you wanted," Kowalski says.
The review committee's recommendations are expected in the coming months, but their codification and enactment could be another lengthy process. In the meantime, says Hohnke, "What you currently have is zoning that everybody agrees isn't good. It allows for things you don't want."
[Originally published in May, 2012.]
On May 28, 2012, John Hilton wrote:
The following Calls & letters item appeared in the June 2012 Ann Arbor Observer:
"Good article," developer Alex de Parry emailed in response to our May feature on his abortive Heritage Row project, "but you missed one important point. Had the property been rezoned to the Heritage Row PUD, then City Place would never have happened. And if you assume that Heritage Row was not feasible, then the existing houses would have had to remain since the site had been rezoned. [City Place was approved based on the existing R4C zoning]. As to tenant mix, we always had numerous Google residents, people that worked downtown, and grad students. They would have been the same target market that would have continued to live in Heritage Row."