Rising fourteen stories above the corner of E. Huron and Division, the Foundry Lofts swarm with cranes, trucks, and workers. Though tenants signed leases that were supposed to start this month, construction delays have pushed the opening back to January 2016. Despite the false start, management predicts the 210-unit luxury high-rise will be at full capacity by next August.

Its website, foundryloftsannarbor.com, bills the still-unfinished building as “Ann Arbor’s Most Exclusive Residence.” Alex O’Brien, president of Denver’s Cardinal Group Management, explains in an email that its owners base that claim on “the quality of construction, finishes and amenities. We feel Foundry Lofts offers a unique living experience in Ann Arbor.”

Whether or not Foundry Lofts actually becomes the town’s most exclusive residence remains to be seen. But there’s no question the high-rise at 413 E. Huron is Ann Arbor’s most controversial building. The controversy climaxed at a contentious May 2013 council debate. The building’s opponents said it would overshadow some of the grandest homes in the Old Fourth Ward Historic District. Its proponents agreed–but said denial of a plan that met the city’s zoning requirements would provoke a lawsuit the city couldn’t win. The 6-5 vote to approve it brought hisses and jeers from a packed council chamber.

Ilene Tyler, a preservation architect who lives in the historic Wilson-Wahr house at Division and Ann, was on the losing side that night. She calls Foundry Lofts “one big massive mass. The height exceeds what is appropriate for downtown and provides a wide swath of shade to the historic neighborhood. It’s a barrier, a wall, between the neighborhood and the downtown.”

Foundry Lofts shows how zoning works–or doesn’t. Folks started with the best of intentions–and ended up with something other than what they intended.

No one foresaw a building the size of Foundry Lofts. The high-rise stands on what had been two separate lots, one originally a supermarket, the other a gas station. “We thought those two properties would never be developed together, because the two property owners didn’t like each other and didn’t talk to each other,” recalls architect and planning commissioner Bonnie Bona. “Some third party didn’t make them talk to each other and bought them both!”

The site’s zoning grew out of the city’s “Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown” (A2D2) project, which started in 2006. “Zoning was a patchwork of five districts,” says Bona. “The [zoning laws] were written in the Sixties and allowed the same density that we have now [except that] in the old zoning, heights were unlimited, so you could get something like [twenty-six story] Tower Plaza.”

In practice, though, the zoning was so complicated that the planning commission was “getting a lot of PUDs [Planned Unit Developments], which makes the process 100 percent negotiation, because there’s no requirement for city council to approve any PUD.” The idea behind A2D2, Bona says, was to figure out what downtown needed–then “ask for it in the zoning.”

In years of public meetings, she says, the city learned that residents wanted downtown to maintain its character–but also “wanted a downtown that was vibrant twenty-four/seven so people are not just coming down for work or dinner and leaving.

“To get twenty-four/seven, you have to have people living downtown,” Bona says. “And to have people living downtown, you have to have a grocery store.”

Easier said than done. “All the chains have been asked what it would take to open a store in Liberty Lofts, but nobody thought there was enough [population] density. Ten thousand residents is what a Whole Foods or a Kroger would need.” At the time, Bona says, only about 1,300 people lived downtown. The city set out to increase that to 10,000.

Two new downtown districts were created. D1, the downtown core, permitted buildings up to 150 feet tall. D2, a transition zone to the surrounding neighborhoods, had a sixty-foot limit. Bona says the changes didn’t significantly change the density allowable under the older zoning, But by simplifying the rules, they helped launch a wave of high-rise apartments: Zaragon Place on East University, Zaragon West on Thompson, the Landmark on South University, the Varsity and Sterling 411 Lofts on E. Washington, and the Ann Arbor City Apartments on S. First Ave. Among them, they drove the city’s first significant population increase in forty years.

Bona figures they’ve also put the city halfway to its 10,000-resident goal for downtown–“we’re up over 5,000 now.” And more than 500 additional apartments are about to come online at the Foundry Lofts, Arbor BLU on Church, and 618 S. Main.

The decision to grow the downtown population wasn’t made in secret. “The A2D2 project had incredible public input,” says then-mayor John Hieftje. “There must have been sixty public meetings, big and small, and then there were major meetings and all those planning commission meetings and council meetings.”

“I was at all the workshops,” says current Ward Two rep and former planning commissioner Kirk Westphal. “I distinctly remember when asked where density should be, people said Huron. It’s our busiest thoroughfare and already has big buildings like the [fourteen-story] Campus Inn and [ten-story] Sloan Plaza.”

Bona chaired the zoning committee that was “charged with deciding where D1, the downtown core, would be and where D2, the transition zone, would be.” They arranged things so that the D2 zone “surrounds all of downtown–until you get to Huron.”

Bona says the committee also wanted the north side of Huron to be zoned D2. But when they handed in their recommendations, she says, “council started debating four issues. One was 413 East Huron.” Asked to characterize the debate, Bona replies, “When emotions get high, people stop listening–and people were entrenched and not listening.”

Council sent the recommendations back to the planning commission with four requests for changes–“one of them being that [the north side of] East Huron should be D1 not D2.” After a long debate, Bona says, the planners agreed. “And that’s how D2 became D1 on East Huron–the only place in town where [the city’s most intense zoning is] only one site away from a historic neighborhood.”

Hieftje describes the debate as “on the one side the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood and on the other side Huron St., the widest boulevard in the downtown and the state-owned US-23 business route. The planning commission and city council were in the end reluctant to say this site with big buildings on the same block [should be zoned] D2, which would have [limited new buildings to] six stories. Why shouldn’t Huron and Division be a major corner with a major building on it?”

Ilene Tyler can think of a few reasons. “It won’t be a good neighbor for an historic neighborhood. It doesn’t meet our plan for long-term residents in the historic district. It’s ungracious for walking. It narrows to a pinch point at that narrow corner. It constricts the view.”

She also disputes the argument that A2D2 merely reflected the public’s wishes. “They didn’t follow what they said they’d do. The zoning ordinances [adopted] in 2009 went against everything we wanted. We told them this could happen. People don’t have a lot of vision when they’re doing planning.”

“The new zoning did not create that project,” Bona insists. “A high rise on that property was available in the old zoning–a little less square footage and possibly taller. The new zoning impacted how it developed, that it came up to the street–because the whole idea was to push the building as far away from the residential neighborhood as possible.”

“It was allowed there because people were envisioning [Huron] as a super-wide street that could handle the height,” says First Ward councilmember Sabra Briere–“without paying any attention at all to the fact that it was no buffer and there’s a residential neighborhood right there.”

At the climactic May 2013 council meeting, Hieftje and current mayor Christopher Taylor were on the winning side; Briere, her First Ward colleague Sumi Kailasapthy, and three others voted against the plan that became the Foundry Lofts.

“I voted no because it didn’t follow the master plan,” says Briere. “I was not concerned about them suing because I thought we’d win.”

Bona was concerned. “I didn’t see a way to win,” she says. “We were getting what we asked for. It met the zoning.”

“I have absolutely no regrets,” says Hieftje. “I was completely positive the city would be sued by the developer. That was the advice we got from city attorney [Stephen Postema] and also from an outside attorney we hired, one of the authors of the zoning code in Michigan. She said you will be sued and you will lose. Look at what happened in Novi, where they had to sell parks to pay for the costs [of a similar lawsuit]. We could have been sued for fifteen, twenty million–and the building would have been built anyway.”

“That danger was definitely in my mind when the roll call vote was taken,” recalls Kirk Westphal, then on planning commission. “Judges do not look kindly on communities that contradict their own ordinances on buildings.”

Hieftje believes that when Foundry Lofts finally opens, its impact will be “very similar to Sloan Plaza. When Sloan Plaza was built, a lot of people were against it. Sloan Plaza became totally accepted.

“In architecture, everything is in the eye of the beholder. When I step back and look at it, that building has some nice things about it. If people will allow themselves to get beyond their emotion and look at it with clear eyes, it’s going to be a good-looking building.”

Tyler emphatically disagrees. “It’s not an attractive building, and it’s using four or five different brick colors, a jumble of red, off-white, and two shades of brown.”

Whatever the public’s final verdict, Foundry Lofts will be the last building of its size on that stretch of Huron. Council voted unanimously in July to lower the height limit on Huron from State St. to the alley midway between Fourth and Fifth avenues from 150 feet to 120 feet. That’ll affect three properties ripe for redevelopment: Ahmo’s, the parking lot next to city hall, and the Campus Inn parking lot.

Thirty feet doesn’t sound like much of a height reduction, but Bona says that “the neighborhood was very active in developing the alternative that council approved. It was enough for them.” Tyler agrees: “It will make a dramatic difference in shade in the winter.”

“The controversy did prompt further refinements to zoning,” says Westphal. “Downtown residential is certainly still a goal that the community favors–it’s the key to attracting a bigger variety of retail. And downtown living is far lighter on the environment than housing elsewhere.” But Westphal also believes that Foundry Lofts may finally fill the demand for luxury student housing. “At this point, I’m hearing more about a desire for rentals for young professionals.”

Though she voted against Foundry Lofts, Briere doesn’t want to stop all development. “I watched people in my small community in rural Indiana make terrible, foolish decisions, and my community changed–but not for the better,” she says. “It hasn’t grown. It’s deteriorated. I’ve seen what happens when there’s no further reinvestment in the community. When people just assume that it’ll take care of itself and stay stable, the tax base shrinks.” And so do services–and ultimately the town.

“Some folks on council seem to be pretty much against development in the city,” Hieftje says. “But I don’t think they’re seeing the big picture. Ann Arbor is one of the few cities in Michigan that made it through the Great Recession without a tax increase. And one of the reasons is that Ann Arbor continued to have new development, and that little percent or two of feed-in [to the tax base] is very, very important in a downturn.”

Lke Westphal, the former mayor thinks future buildings downtown are “all going to be for young working people. Student development’s been over for a while. The last is [Foundry Lofts]. And we’re seeing a reciprocating effect. Landlords would snap up every house that came on the market [near] campus and turn it into a student rental. That has stopped. In the neighborhoods along Packard and State, houses are going back to families.”

Hieftje also sees a possible end to growth–or at least this cycle of growth. “We had 100,000 people in 1970. We have 118,000 now. We may enter an era five or ten years from now where we don’t grow for another forty years.”

If the A2D2 plan works out, Ann Arbor will top out at about 125,000 resident–and have a vibrant downtown with a full-service grocery store. Will it feel like a different city then?

“I don’t see any of the more recent developments detracting from [its] charm,” replies Hieftje. “When you walk down State St. or Main St., you don’t even notice that there are any tall buildings around except for the ones that have always been there.”

That’s an important but often overlooked fact about downtown, the former mayor says: “Less than 50 percent can ever be redeveloped because it’s either a historic district or it’s U-M. There are huge districts that are going to be preserved forever: State St., Main St., big parts of William, Washington, Liberty, and Ashley.”

That’s small comfort to Tyler. “Right now I have sunshine coming into my office and I can see the sky and that means so much.” But come winter, when the sun hangs low in the sky, her home office will be in Foundry Lofts’ shadow.