As most people on this campus can attest, student housing is a problem. But every time an attempt is made to correct it, City Hall becomes abuzz with protest.
The scene some Ann Arbor residents made in front of city officials and real-estate developers at the Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 22 was hard to watch. They painted Ann Arbor as an old-fashioned town that’s not afraid to tell ruthless big city contractors who want to renovate its beloved cityscape to pack their bags. While this fairly conservative view in what I once thought was a progressive college town may be common only among the city’s senior population, it carries a lot of weight in City Hall.
The issue that drove several developers and concerned residents to City Hall two weeks ago was the future of 619 E. University. This lot – currently home to an apartment complex officially known as “Anberay” but more commonly known in the campus community as Melrose Place – was sold earlier this year to Chicago-based Zaragon, Inc.
Architects and engineers from that firm have drafted extensive plans to maximize the space’s potential by building a 10-story mixed-use facility named Zaragon Place. But some Ann Arborites are not ready to allow the demolition of Anberay, and even though the firm’s construction plans adhere to local zoning and development laws, these residents assembled at the meeting with a laundry list of arguments against the reconstruction.
The major complaint was that by demolishing Anberay, Ann Arbor will lose a “wonderful piece of history.” Several residents stressed that Anberay was once protected under Individual Historical Property guidelines until they were overturned in a 2001 court ruling. They argued that by replacing the complex with a “monolithic and charmless” building, Zaragon is disrespecting the history of a city it knows nothing about.
The complex dates back to the 1920s, so there is some history to the building. Elderly residents at the meeting reflected on the thrill of moving into the “lovely” complex in the 1960s or walking past it as a student admiring the beauty of the courtyard. However, it is clear that sometime in the past 85 years, the building underwent a personality change.
It was once home to faculty and families but now is almost strictly inhibited by students who litter the courtyard with trash and beer-pong tables. As a current resident of the complex, I can say that the basis for the nostalgia past residents feel for the complex doesn’t really exist in 2007.
This is not to say the defiant residents didn’t put on a charming and bold show at City Hall. And I don’t want to make Zaragon Inc. out to be the victim. But in terms of practicality, their arguments have no merit. In recent years, City Council members and residents alike have pushed for more density in the downtown area to delay the spread of urban sprawl and reduce traffic. Zaragon Place – while it may be a mammoth and out-of-character for the South/East University neighborhood – promises to increase urban density by more than quadrupling the number of occupants of the lot, in addition to adding retail space. And given the environmentally-conscious details of the proposed building, including a green roof, this is the type of development Ann Arbor has been waiting for.
Zaragon Place will allow more students to live near campus and increase the number of leasable homes – something the student population is in desperate need of. But because they haven’t had to sign a lease in the student housing districts in more than 20 years, the naysayers at the meeting conveniently overlooked all these benefits of the proposed complex.
Yet their rants did not fall on deaf ears. Many council members took their complaints to heart and ruled to delay giving the go-ahead to the developers, probably until the Chicago contractors are able to develop a plan to quell the emotional residents. This uncalled for delay comes as no surprise; City Council rarely rules on the side of students and often neglects the practical needs of the city.
Call me disrespectful of the historical architecture of Ann Arbor. Call me irreverent to its permanent resident stewards. With the needs of the student population consistently being overlooked, I’m willing to deal with these labels. We need more quality student housing in Ann Arbor and I’m willing to make a few elderly residents in the city angry and step on a little history to make this happen.
Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.