The Tipping Point
The Nixons held onto their northside farm for a century. Its sale turned local politics upside down.
From the October, 2018 issue
Not long ago, deer grazed and soybeans grew on 154 acres of fields on either side of Nixon Rd.--and neighbors enjoyed peace, quiet, and a lovely view. Though all the surrounding farmland had long since been developed, the three parcels owned by the Nixon family had scarcely changed.
And then, all at once, they did. Before his death in 2013, Don Nixon sold the land east of Nixon to Adam Bleznak, whose family owns Woodbury Gardens apartments behind Lucky's Market. The next year, Nixon's sister, Betty Nixon Spurway, sold the western parcels on either side of Dhu Varren Rd. to Toll Brothers.
At the time, mayor Christopher Taylor and his allies held an eight-to-three supermajority on city council. They voted to annex the property from Ann Arbor Township. They zoned it multifamily, allowing up to ten dwelling units per acre. And they approved the developers' plans to put up 731 homes, townhouses, and apartments.
Site work started in 2016. The Bleznaks hope to complete the apartments next year, but the Toll Brothers condos will be built in phases that could take five or more years to complete. The neighbors aren't happy about trading bucolic views for constant construction.
"It's like living in a rock quarry," says Sheila Jensen, who lives directly south of the Toll Brothers site. A founder of the Ann Arbor Northeast Alliance which opposed the project, Jensen says she's "not against development, but this looks like panicked, frantic development."
"I'm not trying to stop progress and growth," echoes Kathy Stroud, the Alliance's vice president who lives half a mile away and can't actually hear the work from her home. But in this case the former county commissioner thinks the council majority "brushed aside" neighbors' concerns about the projects' impact on the area and the environment.
In the August primary Jensen, Stroud, and their neighbors tipped the balance of power on city council. Nixon Rd. is a border between Wards One and Two, and
the precincts of both sides went big for critics of the current majority. The races were extremely tight, and the margins challengers Jeff Hayner and Kathy Griswold rolled up there made the difference.
Mayor Taylor easily won reelection over Ward Four councilmember (and opposition leader) Jack Eaton. But to Jensen's satisfaction, come November, his one-time supermajority will shrink to a four-vote minority. "I'm super happy the council gets rebalanced," she says.
Stroud is too. She voted for Eaton, she says, because she believes he and his allies will "slow down" future development.
Hayner sounds sympathetic. "We cannot continue with development that stretches or exceeds the carrying capacity of the roads, infrastructure and neighborhoods," he emails.
Not every neighbor is against development. Retired physicist Clark Charnetski lives just south of the Toll Brothers site. "People say 'I got my place. I don't want anything else developed,'" he says. "But they forget that where they live now was controversial when it was built. We all have to share our responsibility for the good of the community."
City planner Alexis DiLeo gets why folks are unhappy. "We have not had a project of that magnitude in a generation, and we are just not used to that. The last big subdivision was Foxfire, which is next door."
Like most new developments, Foxfire was opposed by neighbors who stood to lose their view. Now the folks in Foxfire are losing their view--and because of that, two council incumbents are losing their seats.
Weeks after the election there are still lots of "Jack Eaton for Mayor" and "Jeff Hayner for Council" signs on Traver Rd. In her home surrounded by gardens, Stroud sits in a room she calls a shrine to her husband, the late Detroit Free Press editor Joe Stroud. As we talk, she often bangs his rolltop desk with her right hand for emphasis.
The Strouds bought their home in 1986. "We were so lucky for so long," she says wistfully. "We knew Mr. Nixon was asking too much for it. It was always his intention not to sell. That's why he had the price up so high!"
The Nixon family first bought land in the area in the 1860s, and the property reached its full form fifty years later. "My father, Lewis Nixon, assembled it in 1909," Don Nixon told me in an interview before his death in 2013. "He didn't do it all at once, and I filled it in a little bit after he died."
Even after Nixon and his sister sold the properties to the Bleznaks and Toll Brothers, Stroud thought city council would block its development. "I blame it all on [former Ward One rep] Sabra Briere. She led us to believe that she was not going to vote for that. And then she voted for it."
"If I could do anything I wanted with the properties, I would do nothing," Briere said at the time. "But the only legitimate way to oppose the developments is [if] it did not meet the master plan." These did--while the master plan envisioned up to ten dwelling units per acre, they have about half that many.
Don Nixon kept the property zoned as farmland because it kept the property taxes low. But he was no farmer--a U-M grad, he lived in Grosse Pointe and worked in real estate.
In an interview at Glacier Hills not long before his death at age ninety-five, he expressed no doubts about seeing the land developed. "I've talked about [selling] it for many years," he said. "Some people say I ought to put higher prices on it. But I'll be satisfied to get an ethical developer who wants to put up something nice."
Since he chose Bleznak to build the apartments, Nixon presumably felt he'd found that. But Stroud has other objections.
"We must always question how tax dollars are being used to support, subsidize, expedite, and help the developers make money," she says. "The water lines all had to be made larger for the people who are going to be living there. We paid for that."
That's true--but according to city planner DiLeo, it was paid for already. "Our infrastructure plans have taken that into account for decades," she says. "We have the storm sewer system, the [water] main capacity, the sanitary sewer capacity."
Stroud questions both the planners' expertise and their vision. "They've been brainwashed," she says. "They think they are planning for a hundred years from now, [and] therefore they don't have to take into consideration what's happening now.
"Historians are going to say a hundred years from now that the robber barons of 2018 were the developers."
For Jensen, the problems are right here, right now. "It's been three summers of terrible noise," she says. "Now that they have residents there they moved the start times to seven-thirty, but before that it was from six a.m. until six p.m. six days a week!"
DiLeo agrees that "when they were mass grading, they had enormous vehicles out there. They went from acceptable start to acceptable finish, and you're allowed six days a week." The earthmovers were done in six months, but the project goes on--and on.
Citing figures from Toll Brothers assistant project manager Andy Brown, Jensen emails later that "there are 467 homes planned on both plots and only eighty of the units are completed. He was ambiguous as to how long the project will take, but clearly it is much further behind than they planned. What I can tell you now is that I am sitting on my screened porch and I can barely hear myself thinking."
The city deliberately capped the rate of completion last year to allow time to build a roundabout at the congested intersection of Nixon, Green, and Dhu Varren. Toll Brothers contributed $1 million toward that project, which Jensen finds "very helpful" in easing congestion.
She's not so enamored of Toll Brothers' decision to build the condos in phases. Company representatives did not return repeated interview requests, but developers routinely do that to limit their financial risk and balance supply and demand.
Jensen knew the properties wouldn't always be open fields. But she blames "the city for allowing a development that will last this long. I asked for a tax refund. Why should I have to pay for this?"
Neighbors are also worried about the projects' environmental impact. So does Hayner. "I questioned the wisdom of developing farmland and natural areas," he emails, "and especially those containing critical wetlands."
City planner Jeff Kahan confirms by email that "770 square feet of low quality wetland was removed" during site work at Bleznak's apartments. However, the developers offset that by creating 1,724 square feet of new wetlands. They also donated more than six acres for a city park and sold the city an additional twenty-five acres for $277,000. Kahan emails that the city picked that particular part of the property because "it has high quality natural features (large wetland, woodland) and is connected to an existing City park."
West of Nixon, Toll Brothers' North Oak condos "had some natural feature impacts, but the woodlands and wetlands were mitigated," DiLeo emails. North of Dhu Varren, where the company is building "Villa" condos that resemble attached single-family homes, it "carved out something like sixteen acres that ultimately is coming to the city. About six acres was donated and about ten acres is being purchased. But the high quality natural features on the site were donated." At the "Townhouse" site south of Dhu Varren, "no parkland was dedicated but they did not disturb the bulk of the woodlands."
Overall, DiLeo says, developing the property "has not had negative [environmental] impacts. The impact was neutral. We as staff plan for these impacts."
"I do not find that staff analysis credible," Stroud responds by email. "When one tears down trees and puts up a parking lot, that is detrimental to the environment."
"Some people are against any reasonable development," says Charnetski in a phone interview from his home in the Traver Lakes subdivision just south of the Toll Brothers townhouses.
The retired physicist spoke in favor of developing the property at a December 2015 public hearing, and still sees it as eminently reasonable. "That property was being farmed when we moved out here in 1973, but it's in the city of Ann Arbor, so it can't realistically be farmed forever," he says. "Being on two major roads and a couple bus routes, it should be developed, and I'd rather have Ann Arbor increase its population to reduce sprawl."
So who's choosing the live there? A midday walk through the Toll Brothers townhouses finds plenty of workers and one resident: Nancy Young, who is just getting back from a fitness class.
Young says she and her husband moved from elsewhere in Ann Arbor. They chose their condo because they like the north side and heard "Toll Brothers has a really good reputation for their building [quality]--which has proven to be true."
Ironically, given the neighbors' complaints about construction noise, she says "the biggest attraction was how quiet it is over here. And everything is right down the street or the highway; downtown is nearby. I just took a barre class down the road."
Adam Bleznak, chief operating officer of Bleznak Real Estate Investment Group, is familiar with the ebbs and flows of neighbors' concerns. When the family built Woodbury Gardens nearly fifty years ago, "people didn't like it at the time," he says. "But twenty years on, people didn't remember it had never been there."
They're calling their newest apartment complex the Annex because "we had to annex land from Ann Arbor Township." Promising a "high-level custom lifestyle with totally stress free-living," Bleznak says the Annex will open next May and that all 264 apartments will be finished by the end of 2019. Units are listed online at rents ranging from $1,210 for a studio to $2,800 for a three-bedroom.
What the Annex won't be, Bleznak says, is "traditional student housing. We're thinking about the research community and the U-M hospital nearby. We're also close to Toyota and Domino's Farms, and Google is a quarter mile south" at Traverwood Business Park.
With residents already moving in, it's far too late for the new council majority to stop the development of the Nixon farm. But Pontiac Trail is the next frontier: the biggest remaining undeveloped parcel in town is a fifty-nine acre property near the southeast corner of Pontiac Trail and Dhu Varren. While it's still in Ann Arbor Township with no roads or utilities, it's already in the city's master plan with a recommended maximum density of ten dwelling units per acre--single-family, two-family, townhome, multiple family, and assisted living.
It's owned by Denny Brewer of Brewer's Towing, and so far, no one's come forward with a plan to develop it. But inevitably someone will. This time, though, they'll be facing a much less accommodating city council--one shaped by the loss of the Nixon farm.
This article has been edited since it was published in the October 2018 Ann Arbor Observer. A reference to Jeff Hayner as the "incoming Ward 1 rep" has been deleted - Hayner still faces independent Ryan Hughes in the November general election.
[Originally published in October, 2018.]
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