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its recent story, Council Moves on Future of Fifth Avenue, the Chronicle reported on a Council action that was already superseded by the course of events.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of resolutions on tonight’s agenda (some of them relate to the actions of Council at the last meeting, that have been superceded by recent events) are two new ones: a proposal to appoint a new historic district study committee (it would build on the results of the previous Fourth and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 UPDATE: On 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.
There will be two of these buildings, with a parking lot in between.
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)