A2 development:
Feeling boxed in?

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Photo illustration by Benjamin Weatherston

Photo illustration by Benjamin Weatherston

Has mediocre architecture taken over downtown?

By Lynn Monson

Lee Bollinger was only a couple of months into his tenure as president of the University of Michigan when one day in April 1997 he abruptly became the most high-profile architecture critic in Ann Arbor.

At the end of a long and lofty speech about “First Principles” of the university and higher education, he digressed, rather oddly, into a rant about the look of the building where his office was located. He called the Fleming Building “a bunker-like, repelling structure” that symbolically contradicted his efforts to engage the campus community.

He repeated a campus myth that the fortress-like design, completed in 1968, was created to protect U-M administrators and the Board of Regents meeting room from “attack” by student protesters. True, the ground floor has no windows and only two small public entrances, and most of the windows on the upper levels are better described as slits. But that’s because architect Alden Dow’s exterior design unabashedly mimics the works of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Where Dow saw a tribute to a world-class artist and energy efficiency, Bollinger saw a “Mondrian-esque skin (that) masks a psychology of fear and withdrawal.”

Bollinger said he was moving out of Fleming as soon as he could find another place for an office. He never did, probably because of the cost, inconvenience and more pressing matters. In 2002, Bollinger moved on to a presumably less offensive presidential office building at Columbia University. Meanwhile, his U-M successors have continued to work out of Fleming, their views of the same building evoking no public outburst — testimony to the power of architecture to create vastly different reactions.

I’ve thought a lot about Bollinger’s Fleming critique in recent weeks as I’ve gathered opinions about the designs of the new crop of high-rise apartment buildings that are currently redefining the look and feel of Ann Arbor.

The first, Corner House Apartments, was built 10 years ago. Five were built in the past six years: Sterling 411 Lofts, Zaragon Place, Zaragon West, Landmark and The Varsity. Two more, ArborBLU and The Foundry, will be finished by this fall. The eight will be forever known in city history as “the group of student apartment high-rises that were built about 10 years after the turn of the century.”

The question is: Are they good or bad architecture? More to the point, how do they contribute to Ann Arbor’s sense of place?

On the one hand, assessing the aesthetics of buildings is subjective folly, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On the other, architects are trained and licensed to understand success and failure; city staff and elected officials establish and enforce building codes and design reviews; and average citizens feel some degree of ownership for public aspects of their city, particularly the major buildings that make up the core.

Most of the high-rise projects have sailed through the approval process, tweaking their designs in minimal ways and earning more compliments than complaints.

The exception is The Foundry at 413 W. Huron, which has taken the most heat of the new apartment towers — and it’s not even a building yet. Under construction on the northeast corner of Huron and Division streets, it’s on its way to becoming, by some measures, the largest building in downtown Ann Arbor.

Here’s a sampling of the negative reviews it has received, culled from public meeting minutes, city reports and media coverage of the site plan, zoning and design review process:

• The massive size of the building and its dark palette of black and gray bricks on early artist renderings earned it a Star Wars analogy from architect Ken Clein, who sits on the city’s Planning Commission. He called the look “Death Star Moderne.” Ouch.

  “Monstrosity,” “ugly,” “dark,” “dominant” and “dangerous” were among the words used by Don Duquette, a resident of Sloan Plaza next to the project, at public meetings and in a letter he wrote urging the City Council to reject the project.

• The building is a behemoth that looks like it’s constructed out of Legos, said Christine Crockett, president of the Old Fourth Ward Association, at one public meeting.

• Joan French, also a Sloan Plaza resident, said the building “looks like it belongs in a prison setting,” The Ann Arbor Chronicle reported.

• Citizen Alice Ralph, also cited in the Chronicle, called the building “a bully at the skyline and at curbside” and she said it creates “bleakness instead of benefit.”

• Planning Commission member Diane Giannola said she has a high tolerance for various types of architecture, but this building “rubs me the wrong way.”

• First Ward City Councilwoman and Planning Commission member Sabra Briere, in summarizing her disappointment in the way the developer and architect disregarded the city’s downtown plan and design guidelines, told them: “Your inspiration is lacking.”

And that’s just a few.  If you’re an architect who designs big public buildings, you’d better have a thick skin. And that sometimes goes for municipal officials as well; many of the people who despise The Foundry have questioned why the city allowed it to be built. Here’s why.

The city has the power, through its zoning laws, to control what sorts of buildings get built where, and certain technical criteria that ensure orderly growth in an urban setting. Zoning requirements include varying combinations of commercial vs. residential land use; square footage; the building’s footprint and height; setbacks from adjacent property and streets; and the floor-to-area ratio, or FAR, which gives architects options, for example, of building either a low, wide building or a narrower, tall building on a particular site.

Once the developer meets those criteria, however, the city has no control over the more artistic elements of how a building turns out. That’s up to the owner, developer, architect and their budget. Ann Arbor addresses this artistic aspect in its downtown plan, which says, for example: “New downtown development will be encouraged; but at the same time, existing assets and valued downtown characteristics will be conserved and strengthened.” OK, but how do you do that?

Four years ago, the city created a Design Review Board that put together guidelines it shares with developers when projects are proposed in the downtown. The guidelines worry a lot about how a new building fits with other buildings near it. “New development should be sensitive to Ann Arbor’s downtown design context,” one guideline says. Others discuss open space, building massing, and the “character” of certain sections of the downtown.

Ultimately it boils down to this: The review process is mandatory, but compliance with the review board’s recommendations is voluntary.

The Foundry’s development illustrates the process.

The majority of the complaints about The Foundry were less about the design of the building — i.e. the color of the bricks — and more about the building’s hulking size. Its 14 stories will loom over and cast a huge shadow over a neighborhood of old houses immediately to its north. But that’s not the fault of the developer. The building conformed to the D1 zoning the city had stamped on that parcel several years ago during its A2D2 zoning review that opened the door for bigger buildings downtown. In hindsight, nearly everyone agrees the city should have made that parcel D2, which has lower maximum height limits. Then 413 could have been a “step-down” buffer zone between the other new towers a block south (The Varsity and Sterling 411 Lofts) and the houses to its north.

Too late now. Zoning requirements met, all that was left was for locals to complain about its design and hope the developers listened. They didn’t get high marks for that, as evidenced by the public hearing comments listed earlier. Some have surmised that the Connecticut ownership and its Georgia development group made the least effort of the recent apartment tower groups to involve local architects or other intermediaries, which in turn left them tone deaf — or worse, unconcerned — about Ann Arbor’s design sensitivities.

The Ann reached out to Carter, the Foundry’s development group in Atlanta, to give it a chance to respond, but officials there chose not to.

Carter’s own description of its project, taken from its Design Review Board application, says it “brings a distinctly organic and human scaled composition of materiality and spaces to the pedestrian experience along East Huron Street and North Division Street” and references the towers’ “Industrial Modernist style, while allowing the use of efficient, contemporary building techniques.”

Tamara Burns, chair of the Design Review Board, said its members liked portions of the project, particularly the high quality of construction materials and the fact that it looks markedly different than the other student apartment buildings, which tend to be narrower towers with variations of red brick and limestone, significant expanses of glass and silver metal elements.

“We liked the design,” said Burns, a principal with Hopkins Burns Design Studio. “It was a little fresher, maybe, than some of the other towers that have gone up. A little more modern and that seemed appropriate. Dark color — a nice change.”

In the end, though, the DRB concluded the project did not meet the intent of the design guidelines for meshing with the neighborhood. Nevertheless, the building went through the city process to approval. Burns notes that a couple of significant changes cited by the DRB were made, including the move of the building’s entrance from mid-block to the corner. Improvements have been made with other projects the DRB has reviewed, she said, so the voluntary nature of the board’s recommendations is working.

“We are trying to encourage good design downtown — great design, better design — through informal discussions.  … We try to help the applicant interpret the design guidelines, especially if it’s (a developer) from out of town, (in) how they reflect what’s important in our community.   … Through that process of having to talk about it and go through the guidelines and talk with us about it, it helps them make sure that they are thinking about things that are important to us as a city.”

Though the DRB can’t mandate design changes, the city for 30 years has used development agreements to insist on certain key promises from developers. For example, on The Foundry project, the agreement said the developer must use the same high-quality materials listed in its site plan rather than sub in cheaper materials as construction progresses, as is often the case when costs go over budget.

Later this spring the DRB and city staff will discuss ways the review process can be improved and perhaps strengthened. They’ll analyze the best time to meet with the developers and designers, perhaps sooner than current practice, and they’ll consider whether they should meet with the developer more than once.

At City Hall, Planning Manager Wendy Rampson and City Planner Alexis DiLeo say the design review process seems to be working, but it’s been in place long enough that it’s time to consider ways to make it more effective. That could include giving developers “premiums” they want, such as concessions in the floor-to-area ratio for, say, changes the city prefers in how they’ve designed the streetscape in front of their building.

DiLeo says the challenge is how to mandate subjective standards of design. “How do you write guidelines that get to the look that you are hoping for, without being a formula and having everything be uniform? So how do you allow for creativity and ‘outside the box’ or funkiness, while still having good design?

“Almost everyone universally said, we don’t want to be so rigid, we want to allow for the iconic buildings, for the next landmark. We don’t know what that will be but we want to allow for it.”

Rampson said the cities of Grand Rapids and Birmingham have found ways to strengthen design standards. The danger is that if the guidelines are too specific or formulaic then architects will design to please the Design Review Board as a path of least resistance rather than advance into cutting-edge design.

That sort of variety is important to a historic and thriving place like Ann Arbor, Rampson said. “A city that is as old as Ann Arbor has that richness because you do have different eras of architectural insight. To see the (various styles from the different eras), it adds distinctiveness and it gives you a sense that this place has been around a long time. As opposed to the suburbs where everything looks the same.”

Briere, the Ward 1 councilmember, also promotes diversity of design as adding to the fabric and feel of a place. She says that how a project fits in with its neighboring buildings and streetscape is the most important aspect of design, rather than whether a building is judged beautiful or ugly.

“I don’t relish the changes,” she said. “I’m not somebody who believes that Ann Arbor needs 14-story buildings or 18 or 24 (stories). But I also recognize that the city has the appropriate level of respect for private property. So once we acknowledge that our zoning allows for tall buildings, we have to build into the zoning safeguards to get the best projects we can. I don’t think we succeeded in doing that. … I also do not think the best solution is to return to an approval process that provides no guidance for the developer and says essentially, ‘Give us your best design and give us your best use and we will decide whether to approve it.’ That’s where we were before we changed the downtown zoning and that did not get better architecture or better projects.”

Local architect Brad Moore is a frequent visitor to City Council, Planning Commission and the DRB meetings because he’s involved in lots of local projects, sometimes as lead architect, sometimes as an associate for out-of-town firms building a project here, including The Varsity high-rise tower. His J. Bradley Moore and Associates firm works frequently with Bill Meier of Meier Group Architects, most recently on the ArborBLU building going up next to and above Pizza House in collaboration with the Osler Group out of Minneapolis. Moore has served on various city panels, including involvement in the A2D2 rezoning initiative several years ago that led to creation of the Design Review Board.

“The finished product was a compromise between constituencies who wanted to have the guidelines be mandatory — ‘You must do this’ — and the people who appreciated the idea that that stifles creativity,” Moore said. “The way it was settled in Ann Arbor was: We are going to have design guidelines, not mandatory. We’re going to create a peer review process, is what it really boils down to. And the City Council is charged with appointing the people who are going to be the peers to review the design. (An architect) can still tell them I respectfully disagree, my idea is better than yours. I don’t think very many people who have gone through the process have taken that approach.  Besides 413 (Huron), nothing comes to mind …”

Moore likes the way the system is set up and cautions against moving closer to mandatory rules for design. “Yes, there is some weakness in the system. …  But in life you are always going to have people who thumb their nose at conventionality or what the average man wants, I just don’t think it’s the norm.”

Ken Clein says his “Death Star Moderne” reference to The Foundry at a Planning Commission meeting was a way to make his point with the developers that he didn’t think the design fit either the parcel or Ann Arbor. He knows Ann Arbor well; he was a senior associate at Hobbs and Black and spent 14 years as a principal at Quinn Evans, both in the city, before joining Harley Ellis Devereaux in Southfield last year.

“The building as it was being presented at the time, the materials on the exterior were very dark … so in my mind … they were creating a very dark kind of obelisk-feeling building in Ann Arbor,” he recalls. “It was my way of trying to suggest that maybe they should try to lighten it up a little. I didn’t think they needed to go and make the whole thing blah beige or anything like that, but give some more consideration to the community and how it might fit in here.”

That’s a mantra Clein follows for his own work, which has included such high-profile projects as the renovation of Hill Auditorium at U-M, the Justice Center addition to City Hall and renovations to Zingerman’s Deli.

“Those were three very different clients. (We had) a lot of discussion about how they would fit into the context of the community. The city (Justice Center) in particular, it being a public project, the ultimate client is the community. On that one we went around and around several times. … I wasn’t personally the designer who actually came up with the ideas, but I helped guide the design and mold it on that project. The designer originally came up with some ideas that were more ‘out there.’ They were very interesting and intriguing, but after a lot of discussion with the team and the owner, the feeling was that they might not have been as well-received by the community or fit as well into the community as what we came up with.”

Therein lies the dilemma for all architects. They must satisfy themselves, their clients and sometimes the entire community.

“We want our designs to be accepted and to be appreciated. And, of course, we think that whatever we do is going to be great, right? But it’s not always the case. And for some (projects) it’s not that the building is not beautiful, but it’s that it’s too big in the wrong location, as in the case of (The Foundry). It’s not that that’s a terrible building. I don’t think the architect there started off trying to design a bad building or anywhere along the way thought that they didn’t care about. It looks like they spent a good deal of time trying to work out the design. It’s just a very difficult assignment that the owner gave them in terms of: ‘Here’s how much (profit) I want to get out of this piece of property. So you make it that big.’ And in their minds it might be fine.”

Whether it’s fine with the jury of public opinion in Ann Arbor remains to be seen, at least until the building is finished this summer.

Briere remembers when construction of the condominium projects at One North Main and Sloan Plaza in the 1980s caused a negative buzz around town for their large scale and “modern” architecture. “Both of those buildings were hated, reviled, made fun of when they were built,” she said. “Now people have grown used to them. I’ve had people write to me and say, 413 (Huron) is really awful because there’s that really nice Sloan Plaza next door, and why don’t you build more like Sloan Plaza?”


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1 Comment

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    Peter Baker

    May 31, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    Great article. I’ve been increasingly bored – architecturally – with Ann Arbor’s recent construction projects. The DRB may not be looking for uniformity, but maybe it unconsciously convinced every developer that brick and tan ziggurats was the only way to go. 413 Huron at least seems striking.

    Not to mention U of M’s total infatuation with brick on everything but science/medicine-related building.