The City Council agenda for June 7, 2021 includes second reading for a rezoning request and site plan for the “Valhalla” development.
Valhalla Conditional R4E Rezoning
In December 2019, MLive wrote about a proposal for development on 15 parcels (13 of them township islands) on the east side of South Main Street near the intersection of Scio Church Road (immediately adjacent to University of Michigan’s golf course). The planned project of “Valhalla” required future zoning of conditional R4E, to permit the development of 454 dwelling units. The developers of Valhalla offered sustainability and affordability conditions: solar panels, 24 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and nine affordable units.
In 2020, the Valhalla development plan was presented to City staff with additional sustainability and affordability conditions: more solar panels, ten more EV charging stations (34 total) and and six more affordable housing units (15 total). City staff recommended that our appointed Planning Commission deny the proposal (see below). In its presentation to the City Planning Commission, the Valhalla developer added one more sustainability condition: the whole of the project would be electrified.
This development first appeared on a City Council agenda in September 2020 when most of the property (township islands) were annexed into the City. On April 19, 2021, the rezoning (Conditional R4E) for the Valhalla properties was approved at first reading. This week, the rezoning and site plan return for approval at second reading, as well as public hearing.
DENIED BY CITY STAFF
On June 2, 2020, the City’s planning staff offered the following report regarding the Valhalla development:
Staff recommends that the R4E Conditional Zoning District be denied because it is not consistent with the Master Plan Land Use Element and does not demonstrate how it would be advantageous to the City.
Also from that report:
Planning Staff Comments: The site plan and rezoning of this parcel from R1C/R1A and Township to R4E zoning is not supported by City Planning Staff. The rezoning application lacks adequate justification for the requested zoning district and subsequent deviation from the Master Plan. The proposed project includes 454 units, a significant increase from the Master Plan Future Land Use recommendation of single-family. At an R1D zoning based on lot area only (not removing land area for roads, drives, and utilities), a maximum of 84 units could be constructed.
City staff looked at our master plan and surrounding uses, recommended a zoning density for Valhalla that would represent significant growth and density: 84 units instead of the handful of single family homes that currently exist there. The proposal on our agenda is five times larger than anything that our city staff believed was appropriate when offering their professional opinion of how to redevelop and make better use of it. A former chair of the planning commission and current city staff did not identify this parcel as the appropriate place for such a high concentration of housing.
As presented in June, the Valhalla project requested zoning with “conditions” to justify the expansion: the project would have solar panel installation expected to provide 12-13% of needed power and would offer 15 affordable housing units (3% of total units). City Staff’s response to those conditions:
Staff recommends that the Valhalla Ann Arbor Development Site Plan be denied because the development is not consistent with the Master Plan Land Use Element and does not adequately address other elements of the Master Plan including sustainability and Affordable housing.
In July 2020 – contrary to the recommendations of City Staff – the appointed members of the Planning Commission approved the Valhalla development. They were persuaded by promises that the development will not hook up to natural gas (except for “emergency back-up electrical generator”). The commitment to make this development ‘electric-only’ persuaded the Planning Commissioners to approve the 454 units. In answer to questions to the agenda this week, City staff noted: for customers of DTE, only 10% of purchased electricity is generated with clean energy (e.g. solar, wind).
I first heard about this project two years ago, when I met with the developer. At the time, my biggest concern was the fact that it did not align with any traffic signal and that remains my biggest concern. Two drives for entry/exit are planned on Main Street and South Main Street. At the north end, a driveway would be immediately south of (but not aligned with) Scio Church Road. This north drive would be designated “RIGHT TURN ONLY.” At the south end, a driveway would be immediately east of (but not aligned with) the intersection at South Main and Ann Arbor Saline Road. Any traffic going south (to reach I-94) would use this driveway . The functionality of this south driveway is based on traffic studies that measure relatively light traffic coming from the direction of Briarwood Mall.
We have several properties in this immediate area that are likely to see redevelopment in the near future. A few of these are — like Valhalla– township islands that will be be a ‘blank slate’ for zoning decisions relatively soon. Additionally, the huge area currently occupied by Briarwood Mall is likely to see redevelopment in the near future, presumably with significant residential and increased traffic. Now is an opportunity to look ahead and think strategically. A decision about the Valhalla development cannot and should not happen in isolation, without any consideration of the surrounding area.
On April 16, 2021 the University of Michigan sent Council a letter, expressing concerns about specific aspects of the Valhalla development: proposed retaining walls and grading, stormwater management, sanitary sewer systems, and safety fencing (to prevent damage from golf balls). In response to these concerns. Valhalla developers responded on June 1 with a letter that referenced City Code, Washtenaw Council Water Resources Commission rules, diagrams of retaining wall design, a commitment to take legal responsibility for any damage from golf balls, and testimony from golf course designers that safety netting won’t be required. The University of Michigan has not had an opportunity to respond to those reassurances.
FRAMING THE ISSUE
I have gotten dozens of emails and phone calls from Ward 4 residents, expressing alarm that this development is extremely large for this particular location. I have also gotten a handful of emails from residents of different parts of the city, calling those Ward 4 neighbors “NIMBY’s” and urging me to ignore them. I appreciate that decisions would be a lot easier to make if I simply ignored people with concerns. However, I was elected to serve the residents of Ward 4.
At recent meetings, Valhalla has been framed by some Council members as a decision that will prove the City’s commitment to housing and to responsible budgeting. Before voting in favor of loopholes to allow investor-owned short-term-rental properties in residential neighborhoods, one Council Member expressed enthusiasm for Valhalla because “Supply matters. We need every housing unit that we can get” (4/5/21). In initial discussion at first reading, Valhalla was held up as “good” because “Without new developments and associated property tax revenue, we will continue to have a structural budget deficit” (5/17/21).
These kinds of generalizations are unhelpful, of course, if we aim to have any standards for land use. Our city processes include near-neighbor notifications and public hearings because we acknowledge that these developments have an impact and residents should have an opportunity to express concerns (and should be heard). If we aspire to “every housing unit we can get,” every development would be approved without any questions or consideration. Every development brings added tax revenue, so by one Council Member’s logic, every development is undeniably ‘good.’
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Valhalla is happening in a part of Ward 4 that we know is headed for quite a lot more growth and density very soon. Other properties nearby will soon be redeveloped. The current use of that property is clearly not the best use of land so close to downtown and I support the staff recommendation of density. I support redevelopment. However, the current conversation about 454 units (instead of 84) is a significant deviation from staff recommendation. I cannot support it.
Renderings by the developer of the proposed Valhalla project.
Current map view of the proposed development area.