A New Valhalla?
A subdivision that time forgot is the latest battlefield over the city's growth.
by Julie Halpert
From the March, 2021 issue
Sean Westergaard remembers the first time he explored Valhalla Dr. On one side, all he could see was the U-M golf course. To the west was just trees and the Pioneer prairie. "It's such a special place," he says of the tiny subdivision off S. Main St. He bought a home there in 1992, when he was twenty-seven, and enjoyed taking his dogs on long walks around the neighborhood.
In 2010, he says, he was approached by a Realtor who was trying to get the neighborhood's seven property owners together so she could shop the properties as a unit. He told her he wasn't selling. "I said 'I love this house. I want to stay here forever.'"
He says several possible buyers courted the owners over the years--and eventually, he reconsidered his position. Traffic on S. Main had significantly increased, along with the noise levels, and "it was starting to drive me crazy. I wanted space and some peace and quiet."
In 2018, the homeowners reached an agreement with PEFT Development LLC. The next year, the company unveiled its new vision for Valhalla Dr.: a 454-unit, $100 million apartment complex, with fifteen units designated as affordable housing.
The proposal didn't attract much comment as it moved through the city's planning process, probably because the site is so isolated. As required, planners notified all property owners within 1,000 feet--but there are so few of those that according to a presentation by project opponents, only thirteen people showed up for a public hearing in 2019.
The presentation was developed by two condo associations on Scio Church. Like other more distant neighbors, they were alerted by Ward 4 councilmember Elizabeth Nelson last September, when the site was annexed to the city.
The legal step was needed, because as Ann Arbor spread southward into Pittsfield Township after WWII, it had bypassed Valhalla Dr. Most of parcels in the proposed site are still "township islands," governed by and paying taxes to Pittsfield.
Council voted to annex them, and Pittsfield agreed to release them. Local architect Brad Moore, who collaborated with Texas-based HLR on the project, says that once the state approves the annexation, they'll be combined to create a single large parcel. Then the project will go back to city council.
But as it grew closer to reality, it also stirred more controversy. Valhalla Dr. is emerging as the latest battlefield in an age-old dispute over growth. Supporters say it will add much-needed new housing in an ideal location. Opponents say it will cause traffic problems that will make their homes less livable, and set a bad precedent for future development.
Council's first decision will be how to zone the property. The city's master plan proposes R1A, a classic low-density single-family neighborhood, or R1D, which would allow more homes on smaller lots. The developer is requesting R4E, a new multifamily category created specifically to encourage much denser development along transit corridors.
In a June 2020 report, the city's planning staff recommended R1D, which would allow a maximum of eighty-four dwelling units. Planner Matt Kowalski, who authored the report, says that was just a placeholder, so the property would be zoned after annexation if the developer's site plan and conditional R4E zoning are not approved.
While he feels the location is ideal for increased density, Kowalski says he didn't recommend the R4E zoning because it would deviate from the master plan. While changes can be justified if development supports other goals in the plan, such as affordability and sustainability, he didn't see enough of those in the initial proposal to persuade him.
The developer reworked the plans to include more affordable housing and extensive sustainability features, and in July, planning commission voted to recommend the project to council. "I still have reservations about it," Kowalski says. "I think they got a lot closer to our goals as a city than they were when they initially applied, but I feel they could go further," especially in the area of affordable housing.
Council will have the last word. Once the state approves the annexation, council will hold its own public hearing, then cast preliminary and final votes on the zoning and site plan. Kowalski says the earliest that's likely to happen is late spring or early summer.
The complexities of greenlighting a project like this can be seen in the differing perspectives among the two Ward 4 councilmembers. Nelson, who often aligns with the council faction blogger Sam Firke calls the "Protectors," says she's extremely concerned about the ramifications of the proposal. Jen Eyer, who's part of the pro-change group Firke calls the "Strivers," says it's a great spot for creating much-needed housing.
Nelson's biggest concern is that, like Valhalla Dr. now, the northern access to the new development won't align with Scio Church. That means exiting traffic will probably be required to turn right, toward town.
She says "it's a lot to anticipate" that residents heading the other way will use the southern outlet opposite the Busch's shopping center. She's worried that drivers will turn right from the north entrance, then loop around in the Pioneer parking lot.
That concern was shared by former planning commissioner Alex Milshteyn, the sole member to vote against the project. In a July meeting, he cited density and traffic as significant issues and was particularly worried about Pioneer being used as a turn-around, given all the new drivers at the school.
Nelson says the planning process highlighted a gap in the city's public engagement process. She argues that the development will impact people well beyond the 1,000-foot notification zone by increasing congestion in an area that's already highly trafficked, especially during rush hour and on football Saturdays. "It's a huge jump to add density to 454 [units]," she says. "I feel like it's a little bit wild to dump this many units in that particular location."
Former U-M dean Dan Atkins is one of the neighbors alerted by Nelson's emails--he lives in the Meadows, a site condo off Scio Church that's about 1,200 feet from Valhalla Dr. "The notification process has not really enabled what we consider robust community engagement," he says in a Zoom interview with three other neighbors who oppose the project. The roughly forty residents at the Meadows joined with the twenty-five residents at another nearby site condo, Country Place, to prepare a detailed presentation of their objections.
Julie Fritz, another neighbor participating in the call, echoes Nelson's concerns about traffic. "The egress and ingress to the development is quite awkward and very, very dangerous," she says. And the neighbors' presentation argues that approving R4E zoning on Valhalla Dr. would set a precedent for other township islands closer to their homes.
That's a concern that Nelson shares. "We're going to have explosive growth there if we're going to supersize the density at this one at Valhalla," the councilmember says. "This could be a new recipe to justify it everywhere."
Kowalski disagrees: "This is really a unique parcel," he says, because it's located right on Main St. with no single-family homes nearby. If other property owners request R4E zoning, he says, each will be reviewed based on its own site conditions.
Jen Eyer sees merit in the project. "While I haven't completely decided on how I'm going to vote as yet," she says, "I can say that I have not heard anything that hasn't been addressed that would cause me to vote against it." Eyer is particularly impressed that the entire project is going to be served by electricity, with no fossil fuels burned onsite. She points to such features as 500,000 kilowatt hours of on-site solar energy, thirty-four electric vehicle charging stations, and 544 bicycle parking spaces--all consistent with the city's A2Zero carbon neutrality plan.
"We have a housing shortage, and now the developer has brought us a proposal for a parcel that is incredibly underused for its location," she says. "Increasing supply within city limits will begin to address the issue of housing costs continuing to skyrocket."
Eyer says the location, close to public transportation and in walking distance of grocery stores, is perfect for more housing. And she doesn't worry about drivers cutting through the Pioneer lot, since that will be much more cumbersome than simply using the south egress.
"It is not a congested area," she says. "There has not been a concern raised by city staff about congestion or safety." She acknowledges that the road alignment is "tricky" and that the city's traffic engineer felt future alterations would need to be made in the area. But she emphasizes that the developer would need to initiate an extensive community engagement process and then bear the costs for those changes.
Atkins, however, is concerned that the traffic issues won't be addressed until after the project is approved. "We find that worrisome. There's a lot of financial pressures on this development, so it's not clear how much they'll be happy about spending on the traffic mitigation."
"We want to know more about traffic mitigation," Kowalski agrees, "because those are reasonable questions from the neighbors." He adds that councilmembers could postpone or deny approval until traffic issues are addressed.
The developers could not be reached for comment. An attorney for the company refers questions to Moore, who says that having homes within walking distances to so many destinations should result in less automobile use, especially since the site is accessible by foot, bike, and public transportation. And he's proud that the site plan would save the highest-quality natural features of the site, including mature trees.
Since the project aligns with the city's sustainability goals, Moore is optimistic that city council will approve it. But Dan Atkins is concerned that the enthusiasm over sustainability aspects is causing some of the potential negative impacts of the project to be overlooked.
Karen Hart, who served as the city's planning director from 1992 to 2004, says the project nicely balances preservation and nature with the need to house people. She explains that the supply of diverse housing in the city is so low because so much land has been zoned for single-family homes; there's not enough housing for the demand, which causes costs to increase. "So it's important to build more housing, and this particular group of properties is in a great location for residential," Hart says. "It hits all the boxes." As for the concerns about congestion, she says the existing roads "can absolutely handle traffic."
She's not surprised that there's opposition. "It's human nature to resist change in one's personal environment," she says. "When everything is changing around you, it takes a while to adjust to that. But you can't just pull up the bridge and say nobody else can come here ... It doesn't mean the quality of your life is worse. In fact, if you do it right, it means it's better for everybody."
Nelson said she's not opposed to development, but Valhalla "doesn't feel like good planning to me." She points to other potential sites for housing that she thinks are more suitable, including the area around Briarwood mall, whose owners have floated plans for replacing the closed Sears store with offices and housing (Inside Ann Arbor, January). "I just think we need to take a step back and think about what's on the horizon," Nelson says. "Progress can happen. We can just be more thoughtful about it."
Eyer counters that council members have an obligation to review the proposals that are set before them and that it's not appropriate to tell developers where they should build, especially if the area isn't even for sale. Hart says that approving this development shouldn't preclude consideration of other sites. When it comes to new housing in Ann Arbor, "the more, the merrier," she says.
That's not how Sean Westergaard sees it. After selling his home on Valhalla Dr., he moved to a remote rural area. And he shares some of the neighbors' concerns. "I just think the traffic issues right there are going to be disastrous unless it's thought out better," he says.
With seven wooded acres, he's once again enjoying a peaceful existence. If the redevelopment in his old neighborhood proceeds, he says, for him one thing is clear: "It will be very strange going by there."
[Originally published in March, 2021.]
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