When I worked as a canvasser for a non-profit two summers ago, I was assigned a neighborhood in Ann Arbor’s historic Old West Side. Traversing on foot to make cold calls at strangers’ doors was often a trying task. I was thankful, however, that I wasn’t stuck in typical suburbia — I was consistently amazed at the variety of the houses and the creativity of their owners.
In September 2009, the Ann Arbor City Council approved City Place, a project that would demolish seven century-old houses on S. Fifth Street to make way for a set of two-block apartment buildings containing 24 units, complete with a 36 space surface parking lot. The proposal was in line with city regulations and a refusal from City Council could’ve resulted in a lawsuit.
Knowing the unpopularity of his project, developer Alex de Parry tried to compromise later in that same year by bringing forward a new venture for the same area called Heritage Row. Heritage Row not only kept the seven houses intact by building the apartments behind them, it also created a sub-surface parking garage with a public art display. When the choice was presented before the council, the Germantown Neighborhood Association ― Germantown is an area south of Main Street and includes the row of houses in question ― brought forth a petition that forced the need for a super-majority to approve the project. The project was subsequently turned down ― blocked by four City Council members. In July 2010, in a last-ditch attempt to stop all construction on the strip of houses along Fifth Street, City Council voted to designate the area as historic and therefore protected. The vote failed.
Now that City Place is apparently moving forward, the tenants of the seven houses along Fifth Street were told on July 15 that they had until the end of September to vacate the premises. Many of these residents are University students. While some tenants had a clause in their housing contracts stating their leases may unexpectedly expire, others did not. While some students have complied, others insist that they were not informed — either verbally or in their lease contract — they must vacate. One student told me that though her landlord told her to be out as soon as possible, there was no way she was leaving without proper compensation.
It’s hard to look at this situation and refrain from playing the blame game. The inimical relationship between a developer and Ann Arbor city officials has put a century-old streetscape under serious threat of being destroyed. Ann Arbor residents, University students included, are being displaced unfairly, and in the first quarter of the school year to make matters worse. This is a serious situation, and it clearly didn’t happen overnight. I could point a finger at Alex de Parry and Jeff Helminski, owner of Campus Village LLC of Rochester and a partner in the project, for attempting to build City Place. But developers have always been destroying history to turn a profit, and de Parry spent years trying to move forward with Heritage Row. He even complied with city council members’ and Germantown Neighborhood Association members’ requests to modify his building plans.
In the end, something very unfortunate occurred amid the swirl of politics and procedure. Certain council members decided to call de Parry’s bluff ― Mike Anglin (D–Ward 5), one of the four who blocked the Heritage Row proposal, stated in September to AnnArbor.com that developers “had that option to build City Place, but I don’t think that’s their intent.” Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), another council member who voted down Heritage Row, placed the blame on the council: “The council chose not to create a historic district to protect those houses and they have said basically that those houses aren’t worth protecting.” Kunselman continues, saying, “the burden is on the property owner” to “do what’s right.” I attempted to contact the president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, who simply gave me the name of another member. An attempt to reach this member yielded a full voice mailbox.
One of the things that I love most about Ann Arbor is its character. This city is not your typical college town, and that’s something you can see by taking a walk in any direction. Is there a need for more student housing? From looking at this year’s freshman class, I’d say probably. But are the Zaragon Twos and the City Places necessarily the right answer? Probably not. And definitely not if they come at the expense of residents or the culture of this city.
Vanessa Rychlinski is an LSA junior.