A photo of the exterior of Larcom City Hall in downtown Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor Larcom City Hall. Dominick Sokotoff/Daily. Buy this photo.

Ann Arbor’s City Planning Commission met at Larcom City Hall Tuesday evening to vote on a petition calling for the rezoning of the city-owned 415 W. Washington site from Public Land to Planned Unit Development.

The rezoning would allow for the possibility of new housing developments on the site. The Planning Commission also discussed revising the current incentives offered to developers who provide affordable housing and use sustainable practices in downtown developments.

The 415 W. Washington property, which is located across from the Ann Arbor YMCA, is one of the six city-owned sites that are being considered for affordable housing development — all of which are current parking lots. The West Washington site is currently occupied by a 90-year-old blighted building, and a parking lot. The majority of the site also sits on a floodplain adjacent to the Allen Creek stream, branching off the Huron River. 

Michael Johnson, vice president of SmithGroup, an urban planning and architecture firm based in Ann Arbor that was hired by the city to advise city development projects, spoke to the Planning Commission on Tuesday about what future development on the Washington site might look like. Johnson said the design would aim to provide affordable housing units while also leaving space for Chimney Swift preservation and The Treeline Trail, a non-motorized urban trail currently being developed by the city.

“These recommendations for the area plan will require a minimum of 15 affordable housing units or 15% of the total (units of development), whichever is greater,” Johnson said. “There is also special consideration to preserve the Chimney Swift habitat and a minimum 30-foot wide easement for trail access, including 15 feet for non-motorized treeline trail.”

In a presentation to the Planning Commission during their Tuesday session, Derek Delacourt, Ann Arbor Service Area administrator, said the city would look into issuing permits that would allow building development on the site after ensuring that any future housing development on the site would be financially feasible for the city. Delacourt said though a development with entirely affordable housing would be ideal, it would not be financially viable for this particular lot.

“We know that the primary goal for use of these properties would have been to do a 100% affordable housing project,” Delacourt said. “That doesn’t work on the financing standpoint for this site. … Due to what we’re able to do, allowing for the inclusion of 15% affordable units is what is possible.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, several Ann Arbor residents expressed their concerns about the rezoning plan. Ann Arbor resident Kitty Kahn said she thought the floodplain would make the site unsuitable for housing development. Kahn said she became concerned about the floodplain after reading a letter that was submitted to the Planning Commission Monday by Jerry Hancock, Ann Arbor Stormwater and Floodplain Programs manager.

“(Floodplains) increase responsibility of emergency services and creates risk for accidental injury,” Kahn said.

Planning Commission Chair Shannan Gibb-Randall said the plan already addresses Kahn’s concern by elevating the building one-foot above the floodplain. Delacourt added that elevating the building was necessary to comply with Michigan Building Code.

Jennifer Hall, Ann Arbor Housing Commission executive director, also noted that the new units could be made available under tenant-based voucher programs

The Planning Commission unanimously voted to approve the rezoning plan, which will now be forwarded to the Ann Arbor City Council for final approval.

Planning Commissioners went on to discuss a report from consulting firm Carlisle & Wortman Associates, which asks the city to reconsider the incentives for developers to provide affordable and sustainable housing downtown. The downtown zoning rules were introduced in 2009, which designate zoning categories by floor area and height. Incentives for affordable housing are currently available for any development projects that are affordable for people earning less than 60% of Ann Arbor’s Area Median Income, down from the previous 80%. The report suggests that the current incentive plan is adversely encouraging the development of luxury condominiums downtown, rather than affordable housing options.

Phil Santer, senior vice president of Ann Arbor SPARK — an economic development agency in the city — told The Michigan Daily in an interview prior to the Planning Commission meeting that he believes downtown Ann Arbor needs more low-priced housing options to accommodate both workers and students.

“Housing is one (need in Ann Arbor), that I think is pretty clear,” Santer said. “A variety of all types of housing are really, really important. I think it’s always exciting to be able to see offices being able to be converted into a different kind of housing.”

During the meeting, multiple commissioners said they wanted to see more housing being built downtown that would support a variety of income-levels. Planning Commission Chair Shannan Gibb-Randall said she is disappointed by the absence of affordable housing and unit development in Ann Arbor.

“I think we have all seen this trend toward 5- to 6-bedroom units or low-rise, million-dollar condos,” Gibb-Randall said. “I would like to incentivize anything in between, like units for teachers who wish to live downtown.” 

Planning Commissioner Sadira Clarke said downtown Ann Arbor currently lacks accessible housing units for new families to settle in.

“One of the hardest types of housing to find, from my experience with non-profit housing, was multi-family units,” Clarke said. “Not necessarily six-bedroom units, but units for women with children.”

Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at lyuch@umich.edu.