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After wait, City approves extensive zoning proposal

By Matthew Jackonen, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 21, 2014

The city’s long-debated zoning changes may be turning into the final stretch.

After months of debate, the Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution Tuesday regarding recommended downtown zoning changes.

Last October, a city-hired consultant released a 27-page report advising the city to make certain changes to Ann Arbor’s downtown zoning.

The report contained proposed alternatives to the city’s present D1 and D2 zoning amendments that took effect in 2009. D1 zoning is for high-density developments that include a blend of residential, office and commercial buildings, while D2 zoning is for medium-density developments that are both residential and mixed-use.

The proposed changes will create more effective buffer zones between zoning districts and reduce the maximum height of buildings on the borders of different zones. The need for buffer zones is due to residential qualms that too many high-rises will be built directly adjacent to existing residential areas — as evidenced by the controversial 413 E. Huron issue, which permitted the construction of a 14-story-high building.

Certain areas, such as the properties at 336 E. Ann St. and 425 Main St., will be rezoned from D1 to D2. The northern boundary of East Huron Street between Division and Thayer Streets will see a reduction in its maximum building height to 120 feet as well as changes in the requirements for the structures of developments to reduce shading on the area.

These changes will also impose stricter policies for developers looking to increase the floor-to-area ratios of their buildings, which essentially permits them to build higher developments.

Premiums such as the 900-percent FAR premium — often called a “super premium” — for developing affordable housing will be eliminated under the proposed changes, and there will be a reduction in the residential premium. The changes also require that developers adhere to design guidelines to collect premiums in D1 and D2 zoning districts.

However, the council proposed two amendments to the eight proposals within the report Tuesday.

The first amendment resolves to extend the aforementioned Huron boundary to extend to 4th Avenue, which also includes parts of South University Avenue, Thayer and East Ann Street to be considered for the same changes.

Councilmember Christopher Taylor (D-Ward 3) said he believes the intent of the buffer zone in this area near Thayer should be used to protect the view of certain University landmarks, and not to prevent encroachment on surrounding residents.

“Residential at that location is not significant, so I’m not sure that D2 buffering is relevant with respect to residential at that location,” Taylor said. “However, I think the intent of it, in part, is to protect the site state for Hill Auditorium and Burton Tower.”

Taylor also offered an amendment that ensures the Design Review Board will work with the Planning Commission to come to a final conclusion on the board’s status in the issue of premiums.

Although many residents would prefer developers to be forced into accordance with design guidelines in order to receive premiums, the board does not want to be the final arbiter of premiums, which its position as the creator of design guidelines would ultimately put them in if developers were to be forced to abide by those guidelines.

Mayor John Hieftje (D) said the board has reason for concern when forcing developers to follow design guidelines, with worries the new rules would be too restrictive.

“One of their key concerns is they do not stifle creativity in design,” Hieftje said. “This may be part of their reluctance to make this mandatory.”

Taylor also said it is important for the council to respect the board’s wishes due to its importance to the city’s aesthetic value.

“The Design Review Board is one of our best tools to create momentum for a well-designed downtown,” Taylor said. “They (developers) need to be encouraged and pushed to work with the Design Review Board to improve their structures they bring to us.”

Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (D-Ward 5) said the council’s debates regarding the design guidelines alone show the complexity of the project and the improbability of meeting the deadline.

“We’re seeing it’s a complex thing,” Warpehoski said. “I am not expecting that everything be wrapped up with a bow by the deadline.”

The deadline for the Planning Commission to report back to the City Council on its progress is Oct. 20, 2014.


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