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A2 Other Voices

This opinion piece was submitted to and published by the former Ann Arbor News:

Student apartments far from campus will create problems

Friday, December 21, 2007

The city of Ann Arbor is considering an extreme and inappropriate development on South Maple Road that, if approved, will demonstrate an incomprehensible deviation from the city's master plan, zoning rules and the overall vision of concentrating dense, tall development in the central city rather than in neighborhoods. The developer's proposal was approved by the Planning Commission on Nov. 20, and will come before the City Council on Jan. 7. Residents of the west side oppose this proposal and will ask the City Council to reject the developer's plan.

A developer has proposed building a huge University of Michigan student housing complex on 15 acres near Maple Road and Pauline Boulevard. The project will have five 49-foot-tall apartment buildings with 160 four-bedroom apartments and a community center. The project includes 640 parking spaces that fill the area from the buildings to the property lines on the north and south.

Opponents of the development are a broad coalition of groups and individuals, including the Friends of Dicken Woods, the Allen Creek Watershed Group, Mushroom Park Neighborhood Group, and residents of Walden Hills I and Walden Hills II condominiums, Walden Village condominiums, Morningside condominiums, Surrey Park apartments and many individuals throughout the city. Significantly, our coalition includes most of the individual residents who live closest to the proposed project.

Neighborhoods are the fundamental building blocks of a healthy city. The city should not dismiss the legitimate concerns of a neighborhood in reviewing development plans, especially when the residents' views are supported by the city's own master plan. Our coalition does not oppose development of this property, but only seeks an appropriate use of the land that is consistent with our diverse neighborhood.

The proposed development is too extreme for the site. The developer's plan will allegedly be limited to 640 residents who are intended to be students, living in 640 bedrooms, using 640 bathrooms and parking in 640 parking spaces. The 49-foot-tall buildings require the city to grant a deviation from the current R-4B zoning that allows building of a maximum height of 30 feet.

The project is too far from campus to make practical planning sense. It makes no sense to locate student housing with this many tenants this far from campus. This is not sustainable development or smart growth. The traffic, parking and environmental impacts are avoidable, simply by following the city's own goal of creating a vibrant 24/7 lifestyle downtown. Students should be housed near campus. 

The city is considering approval of this remote student housing project even as there are current student housing vacancies and hundreds of new student housing beds in the planning and building stages in numerous projects by campus. The city has consistently maintained that it plans to locate high-density, high-rise housing in the downtown area and keep that kind of development out of residential neighborhoods. Why does the city bother having a plan, if it does not follow the spirit of that plan?

The proposed student housing development will have a significant adverse impact on the west side of town. Most residents outside our area don't know about our water pressure problems on this side of town. Because there is no water tower, our pressure is provided by pumps, and many households suffer from inadequate and fluctuating pressure. Adding this many residents will harm our record-low water pressure.

We are concerned about the impact of the development on Allen Creek and Malletts Creek. Both creeks already suffer from extremely poor quality and flooding problems due to development in their creeksheds. The developer's proposal admits that the development will increase surface water flow through Allen Creek by 50 percent. Allen Creek is at full capacity now, without this additional burden. Any new development here, at the highest point in the city, will inevitably increase the burden on these creeks and all the residents who live downstream.

Members of the Allen Creek Watershed Group have told us that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has concluded that manmade wetlands are a poor alternative to the real thing, and that they fail 80 percent of the time. They don't work for the ecosystem like the real thing. This site has 12 wooded wetland areas, 11 of which would be filled in and built upon.

We are especially concerned about the impact that 640 new residents will have on traffic in our area. The developer's traffic study minimized concerns, but is based on unrealistic assumptions. The traffic study estimates 90 percent of the students' trips from the site will use mass transit. That is simply unrealistic. There are no direct bus routes between this project and Meijer, Briarwood Mall and other common student destinations. Having this remote development will send this traffic from our area through many other neighborhoods on the way to campus and other student destinations.

The proposed student housing would include too much parking for the size of the property but would also provide too little parking for the number of residents. The proposal calls for 640 spaces! For comparison, the Lowe's superstore on Jackson Avenue has 550 spaces. This much parking will cause storm water to drain away from the property onto neighboring properties. Neighbors and Dicken Elementary School, downhill from this development, already suffer from serious problems with water in yards. The schoolyard is already a sloppy mess much of the year.

While the project involves an extreme amount of parking, it is an insufficient amount for the number of residents planned. Assuming that the developer will be successful in limiting the units to one resident per bedroom, there is only one parking place per resident. Every visitor will need to park somewhere other than a parking place. The neighboring condominium and apartment complexes and nearby streets will have to suffer some of this overflow.

We ask that anyone who shares our concerns write the City Council and remind them of the importance of healthy neighborhoods for the city in general. Please attend the Jan. 7 City Council meeting. If you would like more information, please contact us at southmaplegroup@gmail.com.

About the writer: John E. Eaton is an Ann Arbor resident and vice president of the Friends of Dicken Woods. To contribute essays to Other Voices, contact Mary Morgan, opinion editor, at 734-994-6605 or mmorgan@annarbornews.com.