Residents at last Tuesday’s meeting of the Ann Arbor Planning Commission made it clear that after six months of planning and design revision they’re still just as upset about University Village, the proposed student housing high-rise.
In front of a very full and vocal audience at the City Council chambers, the Planning Commission voted 8-1 to approve new plans for the building, recently re-named “601 Forest.” It would stand on the corner of South University Avenue and Forest Street as the second-tallest building in Ann Arbor, measuring one story shorter than Tower Plaza.
The new plan is a revised version of the proposal introduced in January, which included two 15-story towers and a 22-story tower. Developers had to redesign one of the towers from the old plan because it was too close to nearby homes.
The new design, in the shape of an “L,” includes a 25-story tower flanked by two 20-story towers. The design has many residents up in arms over its potential effect on the aesthetics of the area, traffic patterns, pedestrian friendliness and the possibility of creating a wind-tunnel effect.
The structure is still legal within its zoning, said Ann Arbor Planning Commission Chair Evan Pratt.
The City Council will evaluate the proposal and it will likely vote on it in the fall. City officials, including Mayor John Hieftje, predict it will pass.
“A lot of people think we have more power than we do,” Hieftje said of the City Council. “When a building meets the zoning (requirements), there’s not much we can do to affect it.”
The $150 million complex will house 1,142 people, and completion is expected in 2011.
City planner Ethel Potts, the only member of the Planning Commission who voted against the project, echoed the feelings of residents who oppose the building when she said it was too large for the South University area.
Hieftje, who said he is opposed to the project because of its scale, said the City Council is considering adding a 15-18 story height limitation to Ann Arbor buildings this fall. The limitations would not come in time to prevent 601 Forest’s construction.
“I’m very worried about ever-escalating tall buildings,” Hieftje said. “I think Ann Arbor has a certain character, and I’d like to preserve that.”
Maggie Ladd, president of the South University Area Association, a group of area business owners, said she supports the project because the development could save the South University area, which has struggled financially since the late 90s. Some South University business owners agreed.
“It seems to me that for this area to survive we need more density, and without it this area is just going to continue to deteriorate,” said Cynthia Shevel, the owner of Middle Earth on South University Avenue.
Bob Snyder, president of the South University Neighborhood Association, said he was concerned the building would generate too much traffic for the area. He passed out traffic congestion fact sheets to City Council members on Monday and to Planning Commission members on Tuesday.
According to a SUNA report, 450-600 students in the South University area own cars. The parking for 601 Forest, which is mostly underground, has 250 parking spots – which accounts for less than 25 percent of its occupants.
Residents at Tuesday’s meeting questioned the demand for upscale student housing, while others feared that 601 Forest could drain students from surrounding neighborhoods and cause real estate prices to plummet.
Rental rates at 601 Forest are estimated at $1,000 per bed per month, a figure $300 more than the current average in the area.
Though the planning commission proposed more dense zoning for the South University area in April, demand for its development has been well underway since 2003, when a University study found that local businesses could benefit from the density and foot traffic that the building would provide.
“I think this building is exactly what we need. It follows exactly the advice we were given from the neighborhood in 2003,” Ladd said in an interview. “All of the questions that the members of the community have raised, we had already raised with developers.”