413 E. Huron: how we got here, looking forward

Last Monday was a difficult night as Council voted on site plan approval for the proposed high-rise at 413 East Huron.

Council faced a choice between what I believe were two bad options. If we voted against the site plan, the City would face a lawsuit.  I believe the City’s chance of success in a potential suit was low and our potential damages were high. A loss in court could have cost us tens of millions of dollars in monetary damages and the loss of the concessions the developer had previously made to the site plan.

If Council voted for the development, as we did, we faced the certainty of a building that is too large for the site, potential damage to one of the last remaining oak trees of the original Ann’s Arbor, and the traffic, construction noise, and other issues resulting from the building.

It was an ugly choice.

Given that ugly choice, I made the decision that I believe is in the best interests of the City: approve the proposed site plan and avoid the potential large-scale losses if we were to lose a lawsuit.

To be clear, I did not vote yes because I think this proposal is good for our community. One of the first things I did upon being elected was to meet with staff to see what could be done about this proposed building. As with many community members, I found the proposed building to be out-of-scale for the site and I found the initial design to be a visually heavy and imposing monolith.

Nor was my vote based simply on the threat of a lawsuit itself. I do believe that it would be worth the time, energy, and cost to face down a lawsuit – if I was confident that the chances of winning were decent or the potential damages low. After gathering all of the information available about the legal arguments, I did not have that confidence.

We as a community do have the ability to set objective requirements for what gets built here. When City Council revised the zoning for this area in 2009, they had the chance to set clear rules relating to the scale of development on that site. If we wanted a smaller building on this site, that was our chance to put them in place. And in fact, Council did institute new height limits, put in more stringent rear setbacks than are required for other downtown buildings, and required buildings north of Huron to be lower than those on the south side of Huron. The new requirements for this area were more restrictive than both the rules they replaced and those that cover other parts of our downtown.

Clearly, these revisions did not go far enough.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the 413 East Huron situation:

  • Rules matter. I believe this project complies with all the enforceable, regulatory aspects of our code, and that the City did not have solid legal ground to deny it. Yet I and many others feel that this building is inappropriately large and undesirable for the site. If these regulations are not providing what we as a community want, it is up to us to change them.
  • Getting the rules right is hard. While I am not satisfied with what the rules left us with for this site, I do respect the effort that went into trying to get them right. This is a complicated area to zone, as historic residential uses abut with other high-rise buildings and our urban core. The long-standing zoning decision to call for very high density development here was inherently problematic. During the A2D2 review, there was a good-faith effort to improve the previous zoning by imposing height limits, allowing first-floor retail, creating design guidelines, etc. Setting the rules involves balancing different values, perspectives, and goals. It isn’t easy, and no zoning will satisfy everyone.
  • We can do better. We have already begun a review of our downtown core zoning to better bring it in line with our community values as well as our design guidelines process. I look forward to the results of those efforts. One change I would like to see is to make our premiums more expensive. Developers are able to build larger buildings if they meet certain conditions (offer residential use, meet LEED green building standards, provide affordable housing, etc.). I believe the City should ask for more and/or offer less for these premiums. In addition, I am looking into ensuring that construction noise does not exceed OSHA volume and duration limits at the property line.