City Council makes quick decision on new student apartment building

Tuesday, August 16, 2016 - 12:24am

Facing opposition from only one member of the public during public commentary at Monday’s meeting, City Council voted unanimously to approve a plan to construct a 13-story student housing high-rise at 611 E. University Ave. The building will result in the demolition of Lucky Kitchen, Mia Za’s Italian Cafe, Pita Pit and three residential homes.

Plans for the student apartment building were originally released in April and unanimously approved in July by the City Planning Commission.

Councilmembers did not debate the motion and quickly voted to approve it Monday. But in an April interview, Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) said he thought overall, the construction of student high rises downtown could be positive for the city.

“From my standpoint, I’d sure rather folks be able to live near where they need to go rather than drive there,” Westphal said. “If there still is in fact a healthy market for this type of housing, most people I speak with agree that close to campus is the best place for it.”

However, one city resident in attendance at the Monday meeting expressed opposition to the project before the vote, reflecting a broad anti-development sentiment that has been persistent among many city residents as construction has increased downtown. In his testimony before the council Monday, Jeff Hayner decried the project as a “pre-fab student hive” and criticized it for driving out smaller businesses on the busy street.

“Not everyone loves these monstrosities that are going up along our so-called ‘D1 corridor,’ ” Hayner said. “In Ann Arbor, urban renewal means small business removal, and City Council is an accomplice with the DDA with this fact. Week after week, Council approves projects that replace small businesses with expensive housing. It’s not sustainable planning, it’s not a wanted building and it’s not good for our city.”

In an interview following the vote, Westphal responded to Hayner’s aesthetic concerns, noting that debates about architectural aesthetics date from “the beginning of time.”

Along with aesthetics, anti-development sentiment in Ann Arbor in recent years has also stemmed from another growing trend: the rising cost of living in the city, especially when it comes to the rent in high-rise apartments, which can be more than $1200 per person per month. In a 2014 Washtenaw County Housing Needs Assessment, 31 percent of County residents reported that they are unable to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor with their current income.

Westphal acknowledged that increased downtown development drives up rent costs for small businesses —  particularly non-chain vendors. However, he noted that a significant segment of the city population has been in favor of dense downtown student housing developments as a way to prevent the student population from spilling into Ann Arbor’s outlying neighborhoods.

“The community has said consistently for years that downtown is the place for dense development,” Westphal said. “It’s better for the environment, it’s better for traffic and it’s better for the local economy.”