A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

Ann Arbor’s oldest neighborhood and its newest are both fighting incursions at tonight’s Planning Commission meeting.  Actually, both neighborhoods have been around for a long time, but the North Central Property Owners’ Association was founded before any other neighborhood organizations, and the Germantown Neighborhood Association is surely the newest. The NCPOA was founded in 1958 by largely black “property owners” (a point of pride) to combat urban renewal in the then-majority black neighborhood.  The Germantown Neighborhood Association was formalized  in January of this year to combat an absentee landlord’s plan to raze many of the significant buildings in the area to build high-density rental properties.

What these two neighborhoods have in common is that they are both in the area covered by the Central Area Plan (1992).  As the Plan says,

The Central Area plan area encompasses approximately 1,995 acres, or 3.12 square miles, and contains the downtown commercial districts; the University of Michigan Central, Medical and south Campuses; and the surrounding established residential neighborhoods.  The area generally represents the boundaries of the City at the turn of the century. (1900) The Central Area is bounded by Seventh Street on the west, Stadium Boulevard on the south, Ferdon on the east, and Summit Street and the Huron River on the north.

The Central Area contains the downtown, of course, but the areas outside the downtown core are to receive careful treatment. According to the Central Area Plan, an important objective is “To protect, preserve and enhance the character, scale and integrity of existing housing in established residential areas, recognizing the distinctive qualities of each neighborhood.” This was recognized in the Calthorpe report (February 2006), which called for a plan that “Respects the different adjacent single family neighborhoods by decreasing new development intensity away from the Downtown Core”.

Unfortunately, the proximity to the downtown (within walking distance!) has made these neighborhoods an attractive target for more intensive development, upsetting the very intent of the Central Area Plan.

City Place, 407-437 South Fifth Avenue (see p. 31 in the packet), is a proposed apartment building with 144 bedrooms in 24 units.  It would require the demolishment of 7 historic buildings (see photos here).   The first two versions of this project were as a PUD (planned unit development). A PUD is a negotiated rezoning for which the developer (Alex de Parry) must show a real public benefit.  Twice, this project failed the test, most recently in January.  Now he has brought back a project in “by right” zoning, meaning that he proposes a site plan for a project that fits within the current R4C zoning.  But aside from general ugliness, its poor fit with the other residences in the neighborhood, and its lack of concurrence with the Central Area Plan, its configuration as a student-only residence (6 bedrooms per unit) means that it will forever be limited to that type of use, even if it becomes inappropriate in future years.  Tom Whittaker of the Germantown group makes a good argument for the need to revise the R4C zoning to prevent this type of use being applied in such areas.  But meanwhile the planning staff, perhaps through pure exhaustion, have recommended approval, despite their many negative comments about it.

The Near North PUD, 626-724 North Main Street (see p. 51 in the packet) would  require demolishment of 5 buildings, evidently none of them designated as historic, but of an age and style consistent with the surrounding neighborhood.  John Hilton of NCPOA has a moving account of how the North Central neighborhood has evolved into a  family community over the last decades that has accepted new development in a true inclusionary spirit.  But the “supersized” Near North project would overshadow this neighborhood and destroy much housing that is already affordable in the name of building other affordable housing.  I am sorry to see that Avalon Housing is lending its name and high moral standing in our town to this project.  In spite of the political assist, the planning staff has recommended against the PUD for a number of flaws, including the inconsistency with the Central Area Plan.

These two proposed developments are emblematic of an ongoing struggle for the nature of the city’s near-downtown neighborhoods.  The Central Area Plan resulted from a consensus that these neighborhoods should remain integral, while diverse.  They often contain some of the most interesting and valuable historic structures (being part of the old city), are within walking distance of downtown and many amenities, and by their very diversity both in architecture and population represent a source of vitality for this town.  Because of these characteristics, they are revitalizing and gaining residents who will invest in their success as living communities. With our new focus on alternative transportation, these relatively dense and compact neighborhoods are a real asset to the future of our city.  It would be tragic if we allowed the desire for development dollars to abrogate the Central Area Plan by driving new construction that is out of scale and character with them.

Update: The Planning Commission adjourned without taking action on the Near North project.  The next discussion is on May 5.  The City Place project was approved by a 6-3 vote after chair Bonnie Bona declared that Master Plan considerations could not be taken into account.  Bona did not offer any legal justification for this opinion, but offered it in an authoritative fashion as the Chair of the body.

Second Update: See a good discussion in the Ann Arbor Chronicle of the question regarding validity of master plans in making site plan decisions.

Third Update: The Germantown Neighborhood Association blog has been taken down on a temporary basis.

Explore posts in the same categories: Neighborhoods

2 Comments on “A Tale of Two Neighborhoods”

  1. John Floyd Says:


    Thanks for this well-researched and articulate piece. The history of the neighborhoods and of the zoning is important. Your article is now an important reference work for the rest of us.

    – John

  2. Tom Whitaker Says:

    Thank you for helping to spread the word about the City’s arbitrary and capricious use of the Central Area Plan. It is cited in many site reviews and otehr City documents (like the RFP for 415 W. Washington), yet is ignored for approvals, even though the State enabling legislation (MZEA 2006) specifically says that planning documents are to be considered when approving site plans.

    The CAP was adopted in 1992, but City Council has never moved to codify it in the zoning. Further, there are many loopholes and inconsistencies in the zoning that need correcting. It was interesting to hear the commissioners state for the public record that they have seen these inconsistencies and loopholes come into play repeatedly in front of them, yet they have never moved to correct them. This has put neighboring property owners in harms way of hideous projects like City Place.

    The only answer for the City to avoid liability is to call a moratorium on developments in R4C until such time that the zoning review is complete, errors corrected, and the code brought into compliance with the Central Area Plan.

    I hope anyone reading this will contact their councilmember and demand a moratorium be adopted at the next City Council meeting.

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