Ann Arbor City Council Revisits Heritage Row Project

By Bryan K. Alfaro
October 3rd, 2011

Council Members Stephen Kunselman (left), D-3rd Ward, and Carsten Hohnke (right), D-5th Ward, talking before the Oct. 3 meeting. (Dave Askins / The Ann Arbor Chronicle / Oct. 7, 2011)

Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously Monday night to revisit the twice-defeated Heritage Row apartments development proposal, in a last ditch effort to preserve seven houses along Fifth Avenue near downtown Ann Arbor, that would be demolished if the City Place apartment proposal moves forward instead of Heritage Row.

The contentious City Place project was reluctantly given the green light by City Council in September 2009, because the project was in compliance with city zoning codes and voting it down could have posed a legal risk to the city.

The Heritage Row project, which has been a sore spot between the city and developers for four years, was defeated in June 2010 regardless of a 7-4 majority vote in favor; petitions submitted by the Germantown Neighborhood Association against the project forced a super-majority requirement of eight votes in favor of the project for it to pass.

The four council members, who voted against the Heritage Row project last year, reasoned that the Planned Unit Development (PUD) didn’t offer enough public benefit to warrant deviating from city zoning ordinances.

Council Member Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward, who previously voted against the Heritage Row project, moved that a revised version of the proposal be reviewed at council’s Oct. 17 meeting. The proposal, if approved on the 17th, would be given final consideration during an additional “regular meeting,” which was scheduled for Oct. 24 to comply with City Council rules, that require all ordinance changes receive two readings by council.

Numerous council members including the mayor expressed doubts and concerns, after voting in favor of brining the proposal back for further consideration, over changes to the original proposal the developer deemed necessary.

The City Place project developer Jeff Helminski addressed City Council in a letter that said, “The formerly proposed Heritage Row project is not economically viable or financeable.”

Helminski proposed changes to the Heritage Row project that included: not giving a firm commitment to the historical preservation of the seven houses, relaxing the energy-conservation standards and eliminating on-site parking.

“The existing houses will be renovated whenever economically viable and reconstruction of certain elements and possible entire buildings, depending on the condition they are determined to be in once construction and relocation begins,” Helminski said in the letter.

Hohnke said he got the impression from talking with Helminski that the city has a short period of time to reach a compromise with the developer, to supplant City Place with Heritage Row.

Stephen Rapundalo, D-2nd Ward, said he remains “somewhat skeptical,” especially considering the short time frame available for the city to reach an agreement with the developer.

Tony Derezinski, D-2nd Ward, said it’s worth the effort to see if a better project can materialize, but is concerned about the suggested changes.

“What is being proposed is less of a public benefit and that’s going to have to be weighed in the balance,” Derezinski said.

Marcia Higgins, D-4th Ward, and Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, also agreed that the new proposal severely cut the public benefits of the original project outline.

Kunselman added that for a project to comply with PUD ordinances it must provide a public benefit to justify the non-conformance to zoning.

The council approved altering the construction sequence for the City Place project to keep the option of Heritage Row open. Changing the construction schedule will enable construction to continue, while still allowing negotiations for the Heritage Row project to move forward simultaneously.

Mayor John Hieftje said he appreciated Hohnke’s efforts to try and pull the project out of the fire at the last moment, but that he sides with those who remain cautious about the project’s outlook for success.

“My expectations are that it’s going to be a bumpy road. And understanding the constraints that the developer says that they are under in order to get financing, and getting that to mesh with what does provide some sort of public benefit to qualify for a PUD is going to be difficult,” Hieftje said.

The mayor reminded Hohnke that numerous council members have voiced concerns about the public benefits of the proposal, and that it will ultimately require a two-thirds vote to pass.

“Certainly this whole development saga, I suspect, is going to show up in a planning text book at some point, and it will probably not reflect brightly on us,” Hieftje said.

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