The Varsity: Ann Arbor's new Design Review Board offers its first critique on 13-story student high-rise
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"I think today is sort of a historic day," said Tamara Burns, a local architect and chairwoman of the city's seven-member Design Review Board.
The 173-unit, 418-bed project proposed for 425 E. Washington St. by Potomac Holdings of Bethesda, Md., was met with mostly praise. Board members met for about 90 minutes to provide suggestions, relying on the city's new downtown design guidelines.
Board members said they thought the project would blend well with its surroundings downtown, including a church that sits next door to the east. A pedestrian walkway — referred to as a "mews" in plans — would serve as a buffer between The Varsity and the church, while a pedestrian plaza fronting Washington provides for additional open space.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Architect Robert Keane of WDG Architecture based in Washington, D.C., served as a spokesman for the design team. He said he appreciated the board's feedback.
"I guess the direction is to continue studying the base of the building, think about the massing a little bit more," he said. "And I think the mews is obviously well received — we knew that was a good urban design gesture, and it's interesting."
Under the city's new design review process, developers are required to submit preliminary design plans to the Design Review Board prior to applying for site plan approval. City ordinance requires a meeting with the board, but implementation of its suggestions is voluntary.
Wendy Rampson, the city's planning manager, said city staff will condense a summary of the comments made today and provide that to the Design Review Board for confirmation. After that, the comments will be sent to the developer and released publicly.
Rampson expects the developer to file for site plan approval by the end of July, which would put the project on track to come before the Planning Commission possibly in September.
The Varsity, catering to University of Michigan students, would stand next to the Sterling 411 Lofts, another upscale student high-rise built in recent years on Washington Street. The plans for the 0.75-acre site call for a 178,380-square-foot building rising 132 feet tall.
By right, the maximum building height is 180 feet.
A two-story office building known as the Ann Arbor Professional Building has stood on the site in the block between State and Division streets for the past five decades.
The Varsity would rise from a Z-shaped footprint extending north to Huron Street. Keane said the juxtaposition of the two simple "brick boxes" with metal planes separated by glass slots and a glowing "sky lounge" at the building's top is "meant to be dramatic."
"So that's sort of the big gesture in the building and that element comes right down to the plaza," Keane said.
Keane said the top-floor lounge is expected to be a social area for tenants with billiards and Foosball tables. He said it'd be a story-and-a-half high with a substantial amount of glass, offering an enjoyable view of U-M's Central Campus and beyond.
Asked how he'd describe the building, Keane said it's predominantly a masonry building with treatments at the street level that look like limestone.
"It's a nice quality architectural block meeting the street in an elegant way, a lot of glass, a lot of transparency at the street level," he said.
Keane added the way the brick building — shown in a golden color in drawings — meets the sky is important, and that's something spelled out in the design guidelines. He said it has the potential to be a "pretty dramatic and pretty nice addition to the Ann Arbor skyline."
"I like the idea of getting students into proper student housing so that someday maybe we can clean up some of the student ghetto along Packard and so forth," board member Geoffrey Perkins, owner of Perkins Construction, said of the project today.
Perkins said he was concerned from a safety standpoint about the lighting along the mews, as well as the narrowness of it, but overall he liked the project.
"And I will echo what other people say about the Huron Street facade," he added. "The whole massing of those windows and the garage door, I think that needs to be worked on. That's a prominent part of the downtown streetscape."
Board member Richard Mitchell, a local architect, also said he's concerned about the building massing and wants the developer to find ways to liven the pedestrian experience.
"And we're suggesting ways to do that — maybe lowering the parking elements," he said. "The parking takes up the first two levels — not entirely, but right in the core of the building. So they had to put their leasing office and security and maintenance right up on the street."
He said that's "kind of boring" for a passerby.
"So if you could sink the parking and then move those service elements to the core of the building, that'd free up the streetscape on both sides for retail potentially," he said.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"It's pretty efficient actually," Keane said. "We think it's more cost-effective to build that story above grade than it is to build another story below grade."
There also would be a two-story street wall at both Washington and Huron streets, set 5 feet forward of the main building mass, according to plans.
Mitchell said one of the goals of the design review process is to provide feedback to project designers early on so they can make changes before too much time and money have been invested. He said it'd be helpful in the future if the actual developers — not just the design team — attend the Design Review Board meetings.
"I thought the comments were very good," Keane said of today's process. "They were spot on. They were consistent with the Ann Arbor design guidelines."
He noted the project is located in the Old Fourth Ward historic district, and so being mindful of adjacent properties and talking to nearby property owners is important.
"When you build in a city, you're building a small piece of a large fabric, and we get that," he said. "So we know you have to engage the stakeholders that surround the site."
About 15 members of the public were in attendance.
Burns said she thought the first meeting went well. She said the board will be talking about ways it can improve the process in the future, but already she thinks the board could do more to reference the design guidelines in its comments.
"One of the main threads that runs through the design guidelines is the pedestrian experience and the livability and walkability of downtown Ann Arbor, and so I think a lot of the comments were coming from that," she said of the advice offered today.
"Overall, I think there are some pretty interesting things about the building," she added. "And I like the slender towers and how they've broken the mass up to create those."
Ray Detter, chairman of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, said there is hope for a better product. He relayed a document via e-mail containing several points of concern in the design guidelines as they relate to the proposed project (Download the document).
"Some of them were dealt with by the board, but not in any systematic way," he said, adding he and others will raise their concerns at a public participation meeting on July 7.