Ann Arbor City Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday, June 16, calling for an evaluation of the city’s design review process for downtown developments. The resolution instructs the Planning Commission to appraise Ann Arbor’s protocol, comparing it to that of other cities, and to outline a plan for improving the review process before Oct. 15, 2018.

Drafted by Councilmember Kirk Westphal, D-Ward 2, the resolution is backed by Mayor Christopher Taylor and Councilmembers Chuck Warpehoski, D-Ward 5, Graydon Krapohl, D-Ward 4, and Julie Grand, D-Ward 3. Downtown development has been at the forefront of many recent City Council discussions, as in the Library Lot controversy, and has also inspired new legislation.

Currently, new downtown developments go through the Design Review Board, a seven-person commission established in 2011 that comments on the compliance of new proposals with Ann Arbor’s Downtown Design Guidelines. The Design Review Board’s recommendations are not legally binding.

Westphal said he thought it necessary to evaluate the Design Review Board because so many City Councilmembers receive comments from residents about new developments. He said City Council unanimously recognizes Ann Arbor’s review process is not fully serving the community, but clarified the resolution is not a criticism of the Design Review Board.

“I think if there’s one thing that every single Councilmember agrees with it is that we’ve heard different kinds of feedback about downtown buildings,” Westphal said. “This, I think, will always be an evolving process; I think it’s an evolving process for every growing city.”

City Planning Manager Brett Lenart agreed the resolution stems from a general awareness that Ann Arbor residents feel dissatisfied with new developments.

“We do hear, anecdotally mostly, from people that they don’t like the looks of buildings that are being proposed,” Lenart said. “Now that we have had some experience with this process for some time, let’s take a look at it.”

According to resolution co-sponsor Warpehoski, one reason downtown development has become an issue is the expansion of Ann Arbor’s student population, which creates a need for new, low-cost living spaces.

“The previous Central Student Government, they talked about the challenge of affordable housing for students, and part of the challenge there is U of M has added 6,000 students over the last decade,” Warpehoski said. “There’s a supply and demand problem that’s been created by the increased enrollment, and the housing affordability problem for students would be a lot worse if it weren’t for the added student housing that’s come in.”

One topic the Planning Commission might address as part of its investigation into the design review process is the environmental sustainability of new buildings, Warpehoski said. Currently, the Design Review Board makes suggestions after most decisions affecting sustainability — such as building materials and energy usage — have been made by the developer. Warpehoski could see the city pushing for earlier input in order to reduce the environmental footprint of downtown developments.

“Even though the Design Review Board is very early in the building design process, it’s late enough that a lot of the key decisions that affect things like energy use have already been made,” Warpehoski said. “Some people in the sustainability community have said that if we include some of this design review process, not just with an eye towards aesthetics but also with an eye towards sustainability, we include that earlier in the process, we might be able to have more impact on the final product.”

In addition, the Planning Commission will compare Ann Arbor’s methods to those used elsewhere, though Westphal has not yet identified specific cities for benchmarking.

“I’m hoping we will come out of this with a really good grasp of what’s been working well in other cities and, if we’re far apart from that, how we can get closer to it,” Westphal said.

Westphal said he would like to explore models in other cities where parts of the design review process are actually cemented in law. He explained one outcome of the resolution could be the codification of some aspects of Ann Arbor’s design review process, which is currently just advisory. 

“Some have felt that if only the Design Review Board decisions had the weight of law, builders might pay more attention to them,” Westphal said. “First we need to find out if this is a legal option in Michigan, we also need to determine if that’s something the Design Review Board is interested in or if they would prefer to be advisory, or if there are certain recommendations they’ve found that they’ve made repeatedly that don’t get implemented. Perhaps a mixture of the above is appropriate.”

Turning parts of the review process into Ann Arbor city ordinance would require a delicate balance of interests, according to Warpehoski. He said councilmembers and residents who oppose new development might push for stringent regulations to block developers from building in Ann Arbor. In writing legislature, Warpehoski said, City Council would need to be careful to discourage that from happening.

“For those who oppose creating more housing in our community, one tactic to achieve that goal is to create regulations that are so onerous that nobody will follow through with them,” Warpehoski said. “The challenge for council is to create, as I see it, is to create a design review process that is strong enough to improve building quality but not so onerous that it stops anything from getting built.”

Still, Warpehoski emphasized city government can play a role in deciding how buildings look.

“Aesthetics are extremely hard to legislate,” Warpehoski said. “Government doesn’t do a good job of writing rules for aesthetics but the private market doesn’t always generate aesthetic buildings without government intervention.”

City employees identify some potential pitfalls of codifying parts of the design review process. Legislating the appearance of buildings could be problematic, Lenart said, because it might hinder creativity. 

“My fear of any such approach is that then you are putting into place requirements for how buildings look,” Lenart said. “I think while there might be some initial positives seen by enacting such standards, you are really then codifying that a lot of buildings are going to have to follow a very predictable pattern.”

Lenart said he imagines some controversy will arise as the Planning Commission starts laying the groundwork for specific changes to the Design Review Board’s role and responsibilities. Agreeing with Lenart, Westphal said though the resolution passed unanimously, he foresees disagreement among city employees, developers and Ann Arbor residents going forward.

“The residents and the Design Review Board and the building community will absolutely have some mixed feelings about different possible approaches in the future,” Westphal.

Ultimately, Westphal said the resolution will shape Ann Arbor’s growing skyline, so he hopes the outcome will represent the needs and expectations of the community.

“We’re all lucky that our community had the foresight to establish historic districts and certain parts of the downtown will always be a joy to walk around,” Westphal said. “The buildings we’re talking about are forming more of a skyline and an identity that will be carrying for years to come, so we want to make sure it meets everybody’s aspirations.”

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