Showdown at City Place
Ugly or not, here it comes
Local developer Alex de Parry has been seeking permission to build a big new apartment complex on Fifth Avenue south of the library for five years. First he proposed tearing down the seven houses there now, all more than a century old, and building a row of brownstones. Then he proposed renovating the houses and putting two new buildings behind them, a project he called Heritage Row. But both designs would have required rezoning, and both were opposed by neighboring property owners--which meant that they'd need a supermajority of eight votes to pass city council. De Parry's last chance to win that support failed in December.
But that's not the end of it--because in addition to the two rezonings, de Parry also proposed simply tearing down the existing buildings and putting up the biggest possible new ones permitted by the existing zoning. And city council has already approved it--after reluctantly concluding they had no legal basis to reject it.
Now de Parry says he's prepared to go ahead with that plan, which he calls City Place. A man of few words, he confirms he's got financing, that the budget's in the millions, and that he'll break ground sometime in 2011 or 2012.
De Parry says City Place will be "an attractive building [because] an attractive building attracts more rent." But Carsten Hohnke, one of December's no votes, calls the design "a bad alternative intentionally designed to be as unattractive as possible." Another opponent, Steve Kunselman, calls it "horrendous." Kunselman admits de Parry has the legal right to build City Place--but adds that "if he builds something that offends the community, he should carry that cross."
De Parry dismisses those criticisms, saying the designs for City Place shown on the city's website are "works in progress." At this point, he says, only the elevation has been determined, and facades, detailing, and interiors have yet to be decided.
The question of City Place's attractiveness involves more than consideration
of the rental market because, in opponent Sabra Briere's opinion, de Parry "definitely used that project as leverage to get council members to see how bad things might be." Kunselman concurs, saying that de Parry's statement that he'd build City Place if Heritage Row wasn't approved "comes off as a threat."
Betsy de Parry, Alex's wife and partner, denies that charge. "How is giving people options a threat? That's exactly what we've done. We've given the city a choice: a project that meets all zoning codes or one that saves and rehabilitates part of Ann Arbor's history and adds new housing behind it--how is that a threat?"
She also denies that they deliberately made City Place as unattractive as possible. "Why would we do that?" she asks rhetorically. "That would be shooting ourselves in our own feet. We don't want it to be deliberately ugly because it's our investment."
At this point, whether City Place is built--and what it looks like-- is entirely in the de Parrys' hands. And that's likely to come down to a judgment call on whether City Place can earn enough in rent to repay the millions they'll have to borrow to build it.
[Originally published in January, 2011.]