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Topic of downtown historic area stirs dissent

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Topic of downtown historic area stirs dissent



An argument over a grant to hire an attorney to draft a new historic district ordinance for Ann Arbor's downtown may have set the stage for an eventual fight over the law itself.

City Council members voted to approve a grant application by the Ann Arbor Historic Preservation Commission for the attorney, but only after a few heated exchanges about the effect that such a law might have on downtown building owners.

The area that would be included in the “Downtown Ann Arbor Historic Development Plan” would be what is inside the city’s Downtown Development Authority boundaries west of South Thayer Street, covering most of the city’s core.

The ordinance would be “probably the most important historic district this city will have,” said Louisa Pieper, director of the Preservation Commission. Others on the books include the Old Fourth Ward Historic District.

The grant application would allow the city to hire an outside attorney for 25 hours, at a cost of about 
$2,000, to draft a proposed ordinance. Staffers from the city attorney’s office would also sit in on the planning.

Pieper said the city is applying for the money because the city’s own attorney is overloaded and the state has such grant money available.

Several public hearings would be held on the ordinance before it went to the planning commission for a vote, and eventually it would arrive back at the council table if the planning commission recommends it.

The grant application costs the city no extra money, said Council-woman Liz Brater, D-Third Ward, who supported it. A second grant application would be for $30,000, to develop a handbook on how building owners can renovate their historic buildings.

Brater said its scale is what makes downtown attractive, and that renovating old buildings could be a way to market the downtown and draw more people to it.

Tom Richardson, R-Fifth Ward, took the opposite view: that a blanket historic district downtown, with requirements on window design and exterior brick colors, could hurt the downtown. “I’m too concerned that the downtown is too fragile to withstand a blanket historic district ordinance,” he said.

By authorizing the grant application, the city wouldn’t be bound to adopt an eventual historic district proposal, Brater said. “We’re not committing ourselves, just like we didn’t commit ourselves to a downtown convention center” by authorizing funds for a study of one, she said.

Republican council members argued that hiring an attorney to draft an ordinance, which they would then vote on, was more commitment than authorizing a downtown convention center study.

Last spring, the council passed an ordinance protecting a list of landmarks throughout the city, including a number of historic buildings downtown.

Some building owners objected to the way that law was handled, and said they hadn’t had enough notice to fight it.

Ingrid Sheldon, R-Second Ward, said that because the grant is for state funds, the money still comes out of taxpayers’ pockets and isn’t really “free.”

Brater said she was “disturbed” by Republicans’ reluctance. “Let’s be honest; there are big money interests involved in development and redevelopment downtown,” she said.

Mayor Jerry Jernigan, a Republican, bristled. “I resent the implication that a vote against this is a vote for big money,” he said. “That’s completely inaccurate. Nobody’s cashed in their chips; nobody has sold out to developers.”