Heritage City Place Row

It’s about values.

These pictures, from a city staff report, are of the seven historic structures (houses) that occupy the land where a development, called City Place or Heritage Row, has been under discussion over the last (almost) four years.  Click on each for a larger image. For a more comprehensive photographic overview of the area and a description of the history of the area, see the report from Fourth and Fifth Avenue Historic District Study Committee.

It seems it has been going on forever.  Now the fate of those seven houses on South Fifth is once again in the balance and things are moving faster than the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s story schedule can quite accommodate.   In its recent story, Council Moves on Future of Fifth Avenue, the Chronicle reported on a Council action that was already superseded by the course of events.  After extracting some special favors from Council for the City Place “by right” project, developer Jeff Helminski announced that the generous offer from Council made the same night (parking in city structures, yet) would not revive Heritage Row (see our  history from two years ago). This has led 5th Ward CM Mike Anglin to a try for a last-minute save at tonight’s Council meeting.  Amid a confusing welter of resolutions on tonight’s agenda  (some of them relate to the actions of Council at the last meeting, that have been superceded by recent events) are two new ones:  a proposal to appoint a new historic district study committee  (it would build on the results of the previous Fourth and Fifth Avenue Historic District study, and evidently consider a larger area, the South Central Historic District ) and a building and demolition moratorium to keep the structures intact while the historic district is revisited.  This is an echo of the action taken by Council two years ago (see our post, Legislative Legerdemain [and City Place]).

There have probably been a number of mistakes made on all sides through this saga, but the battle for these houses is still worth fighting.  Why should Council be willing to take more steps (in opposition, I gather, to advice from the City Attorney’s office, always litigation-shy)?  It’s a question of competing values, partly of how we balance private property rights against community interest.

Here is a thought experiment.  Suppose that you, as an enormously wealthy individual, purchase a classic work of art, beloved by the world as part of our common cultural heritage.   Are you entitled to destroy it?  Or maybe it is a business decision and you sell it at a nice profit to someone who has announced plans to destroy it.  This is, of course, one of those stupid hypothetical ethical dilemmas that people often pose to make a rhetorical point.  Artwork that has achieved that status is usually too valuable to be destroyed deliberately, though it has happened.  Yet it is true that most people of any cultural sensitivity are horrified at the idea because we have a communal sense of ownership of such artwork.

In a real sense, the same phenomenon is happening when historic structures (especially those that have retained their physical beauty) are razed or seriously altered.  We are all a little impoverished.  But is it reasonable to ask a private property owner who hopes to make some real cash from the property to acknowledge our sense of communal ownership? Yes, for several reasons.

1. Loss of a large swath of buildings alters the future course of an entire area.

Although neighborhoods and neighborhood interests have been derided by those who oppose them, they anchor our city and they are where we live.  The South Central area is one of the neighborhoods within the Central Area that has been under attack by those who would expand downtown uses into it. This is a real conflict of values, as those who would like to make money by expanding Downtown and also those who believe there are issues of equity and access would welcome a transition from a neighborhood to a denser urban fabric.  But replacing a whole swath of architecturally attractive houses with what amounts to a cell block would be a devastating blow to the future integrity of the entire neighborhood.

2. The communal interest in limiting rights of property owners is well established in law and practice.

The whole point of zoning and community standards regulations is to limit the rights of property owners where they threaten the common good and the rights of adjacent or nearby property owners.  For example, the city just recently announced that it will enforce the graffiti ordinance more stringently.

3. The historic buildings are a real economic asset to the entire city.

Perhaps most telling in these difficult times is the argument that all of Ann Arbor stands to lose economic benefit from the destruction of this attractive area.  Donovan Rypkema, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and many other places on the economic benefits of historic preservation, makes the point that over time the most successful urban areas (i.e. those that attract people who will lift the economic climate) are those that maintain historic and architecturally significant structures.  They are part of the “quality of life” indicators that attract innovators, young entrepreneurial and creative people who will help the region be successful.  Ask yourself: what do you see first in pictures of “lovely Ann Arbor” that seek to entice visitors and investors?  You’ll see pictures of our historic Main Street with maybe the Law Quad thrown in.

Let’s not lose our common heritage and future asset by mowing down those houses.

UPDATE: In what was not a particularly surprising outcome, the Council failed to pass CM Anglin’s “Hail Mary” maneuver.  We’ll just have to hope that a miraculous recovery of some other kind saves the seven houses, and the past and future, and everything.

SECOND UPDATEOn request, here is a visualization of City Place.  I don’t know that it represents the current plans, since the developer successfully requested amendments to the site plan that include a greater building height.

City Place front elevation, from the site plan. Click for larger.

There will be two of these buildings, with a parking lot in between.

City Place site plan. Note adjacent dwellings. Click for larger.

Again, the landscaping plan has been altered. Look at the mass of the buildings in comparison to the other dwellings behind it.

THIRD UPDATE:  Paula Gardner writes in today’s AnnArbor.com with an interesting and thought-provoking set of “lessons learned” about this project and its history.  
FOURTH UPDATE:  AnnArbor.com reports on the dismantling of the residences for architectural salvage.  (November 7, 2011)

Explore posts in the same categories: Historic preservation, Neighborhoods, politics

7 Comments on “Heritage City Place Row”


  1. Vivienne, would it be possible for you to put up a sketch of the proposed new building? You have called it a “cell block”, but perhaps we could each make our own judgements about its merits or lack thereof?

    In your thought experiment, you compared the destruction of the existing houses to burning a work of art. To complete the experiment, we would have to add that the owner intended to replace the original with a different, larger work of art. Now, the true dilemma emerges: is the new better or worse than the old one? Would it please or distress more people than the old one? Is old art always more valuable than new?

    • varmentrout Says:

      I’ll look for an elevation – they have been displayed in a number of venues but I’m not sure of the exact appearance of the current proposal.

      I don’t think that your thought experiment extension works. Would the Mona Lisa be replaceable with a larger painting that has more landscape and an updated wardrobe? And who would judge that it was replaceable by anything? Art has its own ineffable quality. Of course new art is also good and becomes its own irreplaceable self but to replace an earlier version – no. Often people discover early sketches of a finished piece and delight in those as they show the development of the artist’s concept. In any event, my thought experiment was meant to be a metaphor, not an exact analogy.

      • Tom Teague Says:

        Vivienne – Your thought experiment is thought provoking. I’m going to extend it a bit and hope I don’t get too meta with it: How many works of art are currently on display and unprotected in Ann Arbor? Shouldn’t we push Council to complete its review and refinement of the downtown residential zoning to prevent someone else from doing this? I really hate to see those homes go under the wrecking ball, but feel as if the Hail Mary options were half measures that would have resulted in law suits that the city couldn’t win.


  2. Here is a link to a small-ish elevation that was submitted for City Place two years ago: http://www.annarbor.com/assets_c/2009/09/City_Place2-thumb-590×92-9054.png

    • varmentrout Says:

      Thanks for providing this, Ben. It inspired me to take care of the updating. Note that the drawing you reference shows the relationship of the two buildings with a parking lot in between.

  3. varmentrout Says:

    Tom,

    I agree. I’m afraid that City Place will turn out to be the awful example that should push us into re-examining a historic district study for that South Central area. The effort needs to be put together carefully (Mike Anglin’s resolution was obviously a last-minute improvisation) but I think it worthwhile.

    Fortunately many of our near-downtown areas are already protected with a historic district. Also, these districts can be drawn carefully so that parcels that are in obvious transition can be excluded. It is not a non-controversial idea, but well worth pursuing. (Paula made a general point that is in support of this.)


  4. [...] Not about city parcels, but still important to the face of Ann Arbor: the R4C/R2A report (here is a good summary by the Ann Arbor Chronicle) and whatever ordinance changes may result.  This could have major effects on the scale of new developments in the near-downtown neighborhoods and elsewhere.  Certainly we want to avoid another travesty like City Place.  (I commented on the history and meaning of this project several times: here was the last one.) [...]


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