A 4,600-square-foot single-family house is going up at 215 Beakes, where a collision shop–built before Ann Arbor had a zoning ordinance–long stood. The adjacent houses are modest: 946 square feet at 213 Beakes and 1,962 square feet at 601 N. Fifth. Current zoning would allow a mere fifty-two square feet of buildable area on the small triangular lot. How did this happen?
I stumbled on this puzzling situation back in March, when, I noticed a fifty-foot-high caisson boring rig, two concrete haulers, a backhoe, seventeen-foot-long steel I-beams piled high, and a dozen construction workers, all crammed in and around the 4,200-square-foot lot. The single-story former collision shop had disappeared, leaving a muddy mess. I used to work at the U-M law library, and the boring rig was similar to those used to build the library’s underground addition in the late 1970s. Whatever was happening at 215 Beakes was no ordinary project.
I confess a connection to the Beakes St. site. When I served on Ann Arbor’s planning commission twenty years ago, we undertook an exercise to learn a bit about urban planning and a lot about city processes. Each commissioner was asked to identify a city building detrimental to its neighborhood. I chose 215 Beakes and have kept an eye on it ever since. In 2008 U-M law professor David Santacroce bought it, removed graffiti, and fixed up the wall along Beakes. In 2011 he got the zoning changed from “non-conforming industrial” to “non-conforming office,” a use more compatible with the residential neighborhood. Santacroce then sold the building to Michael Potter, CEO of Eden Foods, who demolished it early this year. As the commercial-grade construction equipment sprawled on the small lot, my curiosity ran amok. What was going on?
I snooped around, talking to neighbors, viewing videos of Zoning Board of Appeals meetings, searching the city assessor’s website, and reading pertinent documents on a2gov.org’s eTRAKiT service.
What I found was that the house will be even bigger than the official square footage indicated. Potter, who has lived at 101 North Main for the last twenty years, will have a 3,000-square-foot basement, in addition to the 4,600 feet above ground. The basement is surrounded by steel I-beams anchored in cement (hence the boring rig). The first-floor garage will hold five or six cars and a turntable to ease the exit onto busy Beakes; the steel-framed structure will be precast concrete; and the look, judging from images that architect David Esau of Cornerstone Design filed with the city, will recall the old collision shop: concrete and glass block, with brick facing along Beakes, and a flat roof. There will be roof decks, but no yard. Most neighboring houses are early-twentieth-century wood structures set on well-kept yards.
So how did so large a structure win city approval? Because, I learned, at a February 2014 Zoning Board of Appeals meeting Santacroce and other neighbors supported the variances needed to build it–and no one else objected.
The reasons were clear in the video of the meeting: Santacroce said that when he put the property up for sale in 2013, all the offers but Potter’s called for building four to six condos, which he felt was inconsistent with the nearby single-family houses. At the hearing Potter was vague about how much of the existing structure he could preserve, but he asked for variances that would allow him to build a house on the same footprint. The ZBA granted Potter’s request.
But soon Potter wanted more. He returned to the ZBA in November 2014 and April 2015, asking first to double the size of the second story, from the approved 1,546 square feet to 3,185 square feet, and then for an increase of 40 percent, to 2,186 square feet. Originally, he explained, he had just wanted a man cave for cars, woodworking, and a mechanical shop. Now he wanted a real home–one with room for his six kids and grandchildren to visit–and park their cars inside.
Neighbors successfully objected both times. Mike Appel defended the public’s right to have open space at the second-story level. Santacroce, who owns the house immediately north of Potter’s site, objected to his loss of fresh air and sunlight and to the looming “wall” that a bigger second story would create. Eleanor Pollack spoke of the need to protect fragile in-town residential neighborhoods. Ethel Potts pointed out that the hardship claimed by Potter was self-imposed–he just wanted more space. Steve Kaplan appealed to the ZBA not to accommodate Potter’s desire for “a master suite that went from generous to opulent” and a garage that was “bigger than most houses.” Ray Detter thought the ZBA “gave [at the first hearing] more than enough, but I kept my mouth shut.” Now, he said, what Potter wants is “detrimental to the neighborhood, exactly what we should not do.”
His appeals for still more variances rejected, Potter went ahead with the 4,600-square-foot building already approved–plus the 3,000-square-foot basement.
Ann Arbor prides itself on diversity, including in the architecture of its neighborhoods. Tolerance for architectural diversity may be tested at 215 Beakes. Some might find the evocation of the old building’s concrete block and flat roof a fitting nod to the parcel’s past. Others might wish for a modest 1,200-2,000-square-foot place, with a front porch and small yards, like the surrounding houses. But the trend in the area is definitely to fill up undersized lots–and Potter is packing his just as full as his neighbors, and the ZBA, would let him.