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SG-W:/ The Bluffs


The group of people involved in the campaign to save open space through
Proposal 1 last fall have recently seen some email debate on the proposal
to build 200 luxury condos on the Bluffs.  This is the 18 acre forest
overlooking the Huron River on North Main Street in Ann Arbor.

In the message below I reply to real estate consultant and developer Peter
Allen's advocacy of this development.  I also suggest that this debate be
moved here, to the smartgrowth-washtenaw listserv group.  I'm copying this
message here to provide a starting point for the continuation of this
discussion, if people care to do this.  I apologize for the repetition for
those who already saw this email.

Doug Cowherd
Co-chair, Sierra Club-Huron Valley Group



I am grateful for your efforts to pass Proposal 1 last fall.  I also think
some of your real estate developments (e.g., the William Street project)
are appropriate infill developments.

However, I'd like to contest some of the claims you made about the
proposed development on the Bluffs in your message to the SOLSOF email
list. I'd also like to put forth two simple criteria for judging projects
from a sprawl point of view.  I'll do both below in reply to sections of
your message, below.

Both sides have had their say here on the Bluffs issue. Not everyone on
the SOLSOF list may care to receive a continuing stream of messages on
this topic. I'll refrain from further dialogue to this list due to this

However, the "smartgrowth-washtenaw" listserv was recently set up to
facilitate exactly the kind of discussion about sprawl and infill that has
lately been cc:'d to the SOLSOF email list. I suggest that further
discussion of the Bluffs move to the "smartgrowth-washtenaw" listserv.
Contact Jeff Surfus at jeffsurfus@email.msn.com if you need sign-on
information for the listserv.

My comments below.

Doug Cowherd

On Fri, 28 May 1999, Peter Allen wrote:

> Dear All:
>  I admire Doug and served with him on the Save Our Land PDR initiative, but 
> I disagree with your facts and conclusions on this North Main proposed 
> condo for the following reasons:


> 2) We need infill high density residential housing  within the city limits 
> of Ann Arbor, particularly if we want to be true to our goals of curbing 
> sprawl.

With no regional agreement in place to restrain rural building, no amount
of building in Ann Arbor will reduce sprawl.  This is because building in
the city cannot even begin to satisfy demand for subsidized (through
infrastructure paid for by existing residents) subdivision houses.
Further, not every project within city limits meets reasonable criteria
for judging it to be desirable infill.  The suggestion that a concern for
reducing sprawl should justify all proposed city projects is a clever
rhetorical device that seems to be gaining currency among local
developers; it is not a reasoned judgement.

I suggest two simple criteria to judge potential projects:

1. How much harm does it do to the natural environment?
   - We shouldn't destroy nature in one place in order to (maybe) save it

2. How much strain does it put on infrastructure?
   - We shouldn't overload the infrastructure in one place in order to
     (maybe) prevent overloading it elsewhere.

I think that the proposed "Autumn Ridge" development of 200 luxury condos
fares badly by these criteria.

1. The development would devastate an 18 acre forest overlooking the Huron
River.  It would destroy wetlands, cut down 534 trees (including 26 trees
with "landmark" status), dump considerable silt and toxics into the Huron
River, and mar the vista from the Huron River valley for miles.

2. The development would devastate a critical part of the Ann Arbor
infrastructure.  It would increase traffic by almost 10% where North Main,
Huron River Drive, an M14 entrance and an M14 exit all coincide.  In the
near term, this will increase accidents and traffic congestion and make
bicycling and walking even more hazardous at what is already one of the
worst traffic spots in the County.  In the medium term, this project would
increase pressure to expand these roads and highway exits and entrances.
This would be enormously expensive and no doubt cause considerable damage
to nature and neighborhoods.

> 3) This is by no stretch of the term, a forest. This is a former gravel 
> mine with new growth trees. I walk through it often and used to own the 
> adjacent office park.

You are the first person that I've heard - including the Autumn Ridge
developer - claim that the Bluffs is not a forest. The developer states
that the site contains over 1000 trees with diameters over 6 inches, and
over 50 trees that meet the criteria (species, size, condition) to be
designated "landmark trees".  There is a highland spot which is sparsely
treed, providing a nice view of the Huron River Valley. The balance of the
steeply-sloped property is primarily covered with mature and maturing
trees. Your reference to a "former gravel mine" is accurate with respect
to the *adjacent* property, the City-owned Bluffs Nature Area.  A small
part of this property was mined for gravel many years ago.

> 4) The city parks department has clearly decided that the property is not 
> worthy of public funds for purchase as a park. In fact, this is an area of 
> town with one of the highest ratios of nearby parkland to residents.

The Bluffs is a "keyhole property" sitting in between 6 existing Ann Arbor
city parks.  If it is purchased as a park it would connect these parks
and complete a greenbelt along both sides of the Huron River.  Plants,
animals, and humans all benefit from an unfragmented greenbelt.

This is indeed a considerable concentration of parks.  However, these are
not "neighborhood parks", used primarily by people who live nearby.  It is
widely recognized that it is in the interests of the City as a whole to
create a Huron River greenbelt.  This is reflected in the fact that half
of the active members of Friends of the Bluffs do not live in the Bluffs
area.  The over 2000 people who have signed the Save The Bluffs petition
live all over town.

My numerous discussions with City officials and members of the Parks
Commission suggest that they are quite interested in the Bluffs. However,
the property is not for sale as the Autumn Ridge developer currently has
an option to purchase the property. So for now they can only stand by to
see how the developer's request for substantial exemptions (e.g., building
height, lack of mitigation for wetland and tree destruction) from the
City's planning regulations turns out.

My conclusion is that Autumn Ridge is a bad development proposal on a
totally unsuitable site.  It is not in the community's interest to give
this kind of project exemptions from planning regulations.

Ann Arbor has recently seen far better proposals for genuine infill
development (e.g., Ashley Mews, The Armory, William Steet).  The North
Main area has many sites that are far more suitable than the Bluffs for
intense development.  These sites have few valuable natural features, and
are appropriate for many types of development that would suit the existing
infrastructure. Reasonable development proposals for these North Main
sites will get my whole-hearted endorsement as legitimate contributions to
our community and to the effort to reduce sprawl.

Doug Cowherd