A public forum on a 22-story high-rise proposed for the corner of South University and South Forest Avenues turned into a heated debate over the future of the area.
Last night’s meeting, attended by about 50 residents, most of whom lived near the development site, quickly erupted into a tense back-and-forth between neighbors and speakers.
Residents interrupted the presentation to question whether development would fit with Ann Arbor’s character.
Developers from the University-Ann Arbor LLC, the firm developing University Village – an upscale complex aimed at students – unveiled and presented their plans for the project at a conference center on State Street. The team invited Ann Arbor realtors, members of the city’s planning commission, architects and property owners to the public forum, but did not publicize the meeting to students.
Residents were skeptical about the project’s scale, fearing the high-rise would block out too much sunlight. The complex’s two towers would match the height of Tower Plaza, Ann Arbor’s tallest building.
According to the current plans, the complex would house 1,400 students and 260 cars and would replace Village Corner grocery store, Champions party store and laundromat, and homes on Forest and South University Avenues.
Managing Developer Ron Hughes said that the development would revitalize the South University neighborhood – which he said has recently experienced a downturn – by making the area more pedestrian-friendly and dense, like Chicago or New York.
“Growth is going to happen,” he said over the loud objections of many in the crowd. “It’s just a question of how.”
But property owners and residents at the meeting expressed distaste a building that they felt could weaken the city’s already threatened small-town dynamic.
“This isn’t Chicago,” said Tom Cavalier, who lives on South Forest Avenue.
Eleanor Linn, who lives on Forest Court, agreed.
“It’s a dynamic area, and it’s got a lot going on, but that’s why I’ve chosen to live in Ann Arbor and not Chicago.” Linn’s exclamation was followed by sharp applause.
Maggie Ladd, the executive chair of the South University neighborhood association, said the area needs to be revitalized, calling it “a sewer.” Her neighbors did not share her view.
“This is where we live!” said Linn, who was again met with applause.
Erik Majcher, a University alum who is consulting on the project, said if students knew more about the project they would back it.
“If you were to ask them, I think most students would be very positive about this development,” he said.
By the end of the month, the city’s planning commission is expected to recommend whether the City Council should approve the proposal.
City Council member Joan Lowenstein (D-Ward 2) said she thought the meeting was a pre-emptive response to a new city resolution still in its preliminary stages. As drafted, the resolution would require developers to inform and ask input from all residents within 1,000 feet of their projects before the plans are brought before City Council.
Sabra Briere (D-Ward 1), the council member who drafted the resolution, said that the planning commission and planning department are not “particularly thrilled” about the change because it will slow the process down.
Briere said she proposed the requirements because two large developments – a hotel on Washington Street and a housing complex on Maple Road – were voted down by city council due to strong public opposition. Lack of planning and public communication, she said, breeds “immediate hostility to change.”
Briere said University Village may have difficulty passing City Council because its developers are trying to obtain brownfield funding, a tax break from the county and city that is usually reserved for developing areas that have been devastated by pollution or chemical waste.
“I have no idea how development on South University qualifies as a brownfield,” she said. She said she plans to attend another public meeting with developers at Burns Park Elementary School tonight to discuss brownfield funding.