Failed historic district designation revives Heritage Row project

The Ann Arbor City Council last week voted down a proposed Fourth and Fifth Avenue Historic District, clearing the way for new high-density housing in the downtown residential area.

So what does that mean? It could mean that plans for a proposed development for that area, which historic district proponents recently labeled as Germantown, could move forward. Once a demolition ban expires in August, developer Alex de Parry will be able to raze a handful of existing homes and build the previously approved City Place apartment buildings, a project that fits the area's zoning but is more suburban in style and out of character with the neighborhood. The threat of that could create a compromise in the form of approval of the Heritage Row project, plans for which have failed twice this summer. Developer de Parry remains optimistic for the latter.

"We hope to build Heritage Row and continue to work towards achieving that goal," de Parry says in an e-mail.

The proposed historic district would have encompassed three blocks that include both sides of Fourth and Fifth avenues between William Street and Packard Road, along with both sides of Packard between Fourth and Fifth. It had been used as a political tool by local preservationists to stop development in the area, such as the City Place and Heritage Row projects.

Before the Heritage Row proposal, de Parry pushed for City Place. That project originally called for a row of Beacon Hill-style brownstones with 90 apartments over underground parking. The development would have come with geothermal heat and cooling, along with other green features. Those plans morphed over a couple of years to City Place's current version that calls for dozens of apartments in a couple of nondescript buildings that are separated by surface parking lots. City Council approved those plans because it was within what the zoning called for and it wanted to avoid a potential lawsuit from the developer.

Earlier this year, de Parry reached a compromise with local residents that was called Heritage Row. Those plans called for renovating the seven historic homes and building dozens of apartments behind them, creating a dense housing complex reminiscent of the C-style apartment buildings common in the early 20th Century. Those plans seemed to be destined for approval before local residents collected enough signatures to force a super majority of City Council members to approve it. The project fell one vote short of approval, and proponents of it are starting to be optimistic again.

"I think it's possible," says Tony Derezinski, a city councilman for Ann Arbor who has voted for new dense housing developments like Heritage Row. "There were four votes against Heritage Row and we only need one to see the light. A 'No' vote on Heritage Row means a 'Yes' vote on City Place."

The proposed historic district, which de Parry and a large number of local residents oppose, would have made developing more housing units there much more difficult and could have killed the City Place plans. Historic district advocates called it Germantown because German immigrant families began moving into the neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, these immigrants didn't originally settle the neighborhood, which was converted to off-campus student housing by World War II when U-M underwent a rapid expansion. Today the neighborhood is a mix of a few local families and mostly university student renters.

"Single-family housing doesn't belong there and it doesn't really exist there," says Stephen Rapundalo, another Ann Arbor City Councilman who has voted in favor of dense developments like Heritage Row. "A lot of the houses there are chopped up into apartments."

Historic district proponents and opponents to projects like Heritage Row have argued that the area is a single-family home neighborhood and not downtown, thus not suitable for dense housing projects. They often cite the nearby Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority boundary as the
dividing line that downtown density is not allowed to cross. However, Heritage Row would be half a block from the city's Blake Transit Center, Downtown Library Branch, and one of the city's largest parking decks.

"The argument that this (Heritage Row) is overly dense doesn't wash with me,"
Rapundalo says. "It just isn't there."

Source: City of Ann Arbor; Alex de Parry, developer of Heritage Row and City Place;
Stephen Rapundalo and Tony Derezinski, city councilmen for Ann Arbor
Writer: Jon Zemke and Kristin Lukowski
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