The City of Ann Arbor Planning Commission convened Tuesday night to discuss several zoning projects for the city. 

The first proposal brought to the table was the Hideaway Lane Planned Project, which asks the commission members to amend a previous site plan. Originally, the plan was to build an additional 17 single-family homes, but the designers of the complex want to convert them to two-family homes in order to make them more affordable for first-time owners. This would increase the number of homes on this site from 29 to 45. 

Community member Mike Gustafson asked the commission to reject the proposal. He cited safety hazards regarding narrow streets, traffic and a lack of sufficient room for fire trucks in the case of an emergency. 

“As members of the community, as citizens of Ann Arbor, as your constituents, we urge you to reject this petition,” Gustafson said. “Traffic per day is substantial given the very tight quarters there… Many of us are concerned about fire engines getting in there in the event of an emergency. We feel that, given those dimensions, this could be very irresponsible and very dangerous.”

After a discussion about potential water erosion from the creek nearby, traffic analysis, concerns about mushy land and fire safety hazards, the commission amended two aspects of the motion by changing the bike parking location and adding traffic calming mechanisms, and then approved the motion to council.

The commission then moved on to discuss two new companion projects: a multi-family residential six-story building next to the Michigan Theatre and a 19-story high rise next door on East Washington that will feature 240 residential units. 

Ann Arbor resident Ethel Potts attended the meeting and spoke out against the projects due to the fact they won’t have parking. Potts said she already struggles to find parking in the State Street area, and adding large housing complexes will only make it more difficult. 

“We have before us all the State Street character overlay zoning district with a 6-story building and no parking,” Potts said. “Major problems will result since the adjacent public parking structure is full with very limited hours open to the public. I try to use it regularly and can’t.”

However, seven community members spoke in favor of the State Street building. Doug Kelbaugh, professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, addressed the environmental benefits of Ann Arbor residents living further downtown.

“The more people that live downtown, the more that walk and bike, and the less that commute by car,” Kelbaugh said. “They also live in smaller spaces which take less energy to heat and to cool, and there are just lots of advantages for urban living.”

According to the presenters, the East Washington high rise requires the demolition of five current buildings, it will meet LEED silver standards and it will have onsite parking. 

Commission members voiced concerns regarding room for Amazon deliveries, rideshares and food delivery services, solar energy and the amount of affordable housing, but ultimately the commission voted to approve both buildings.

The last item of business on the agenda was an amendment to create a new zoning designation called a T1 Transit Support district. The designation will allow for more mixed-use development further outside of downtown Ann Arbor, creating space for a transit corridor. 

City planner Alexis DiLeo said the T1 district will be the first Ann Arbor district to require both residential and commercial areas. It is designed to lower energy costs and needs for residents. She said there is a mixed-use requirement, and half of the floor area in all buildings, but no more than 66 percent of it must be used for household living. DiLeo added the current target area for the district is between Washtenaw Avenue, South State Street and East/West Eisenhower Boulevard. 

Meeting attendee Joan Lowenstein spoke for the board of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance. She said she is strongly in favor of the T1 district because it could help the environment and, in turn, create affordable housing options.

“I think we have two primary crises that are going on right now that affect local government: the first is climate change and the other is affordable housing,” Lowenstein said. “If we can reduce the need to use cars, that will go a long way towards helping us with climate change… I think this T1 district has great potential to increase affordability, not the least of which is making sure someone doesn’t need to have a car.”

Community member Adam Goodman said he “enthusiastically supports” the new zoning district. He echoed what Lowenstein said and discussed how allowing people to live close to where they work eliminates the need for driving everywhere .

“Simply put, we have to find ways to get people to be able to live closer to where they work, where they go to school and so on,” Goodman said. “What I see here is the beginning of a recognition that we need to work on housing for people and not for cars. This has more of an effect than you might think because if you remove the requirement for developers to build space for cars, that makes their costs go down, which means that the cost of the housing also goes down.”

Audience member Julie Ritter was not as enthusiastic about the T1 district. Ritter is on the committee for the Master Plan project, which sets Ann Arbor’s long term goals for growth and development, and has consulted nationally recognized groups for this work. She said if a T1 zone was a good idea, these groups would have suggested it. 

“Every single consultant group that we have interviewed has been a nationally recognized group,” Ritter said.“They are professionals, they have wide experience. Do you think they have not heard of T1 transit support districts? Do you think they would not recommend them? My other concern is the transit piece. Ann Arbor has no transit. We have a bus system that struggles mightily to provide service… to get into Ann Arbor you have to drive a car. Where are those cars going to go? The University is proposing a new hospital and a college of pharmacy with no new parking spaces. Where are these cars going to go? Until we get transit, why have a transit corridor?”

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