A History of the North Burns Park Association

By Andrea Van Houweling & Peter Nagourney

 

The focus of the North Burns Park Association has always been to preserve the features that make North Burns Park a pleasant place for everyone to live.  The association engages residents in neighborhood planning, zoning, and quality of life discussions, while maintaining communication and positive relationships between all the various family and student groups that make our neighborhood such a vibrant community.

Zoning change rallies neighbors

How did it all begin? In 1985, a one-word change in an Ann Arbor zoning ordinance regarding sorority and fraternity houses sparked the formation of the NBPA. It happened when Collegiate Sorosis, a sorority that had been a part of University of Michigan campus life since 1886, wanted to purchase a private home at 903 Lincoln Avenue for their residence. At the time, the zoning required an existing building to be 5,000 or more square feet before it could become a sorority or fraternity house. The home in question was 3,100 square feet.

Collegiate Sorosis petitioned the city for approval to convert the Lincoln Avenue home into a sorority, with the intention of expanding it to meet the 5,000 square feet requirement later.

A group of nearby Burns Park neighbors joined together to oppose the conversion, first with the Planning Commission, and then with the City Council. In the meantime the city had removed the word “existing” from the ordinance, clearing the way for Collegiate Sorosis to purchase the home.

NBPA is formed

The neighbors’ protests ultimately failed. Letty Wycliff, a member of the Planning Commission, told the group that if they wanted to have any influence with the city they needed to become a neighborhood organization. So, starting with the names of neighbors who had signed a petition opposing the sorority conversion, the North Burns Park Association was formed with 240 members.

The new association hired a local attorney who took its case to court. But the neighborhood lost its appeal and Collegiate Sorosis bought the property, expanded it and moved in.

Association takes legal action against fraternity

City Council couldn’t understand why anyone would want to prevent members of an organization with such a long history with the university from moving in.  They argued that sororities were not like fraternities. However, two years later, the Collegiate Sorosis organization dissolved and planned to sell the house to a fraternity. This time the North Burns Park Association convinced both Planning Commission and City Council to deny the request. But when the fraternity protested in court, the neighborhood lost, after spending more than $40,000 in attorney and court fees, as well as countless hours of volunteer time and expertise. These fees were supported by donations, large and small, from residents concerned about the character of their neighborhood.

NBPA succeeds with rezoning

In March 1986 the association investigated rezoning, because following the “one-word” change, any size house could become a residence for a large number of students living as an organized group. At a rezoning hearing in February 1987, 38 of 44 houses were rezoned from R2B to R2A, effectively preventing them from being converted to a fraternity or sorority house.

Building expertise to help other groups

All these activities enabled the NBPA activists to become quite familiar with city ordinances, zoning, and politics. They applied their knowledge to help the Oxbridge neighborhood in forming an association and rezoning, supported the Jewish Resource Center on Hill in their PUD application, and worked with the city on R2B zoning concerns. When the R2B committee report didn’t represent the views of the committee members, NBPA members submitted a majority report that better represented the issues.

Residents remain active in civic issues

The North Burns Park Association has continued as a fairly informal group, focusing on issues threatening the integrity of the neighborhood, one of the most densely populated in Ann Arbor with a nice balance between single and two-family homes and fraternities, sororities, co-ops, and several large apartment buildings on its border.

One important outcome of the organization has been the ongoing interest and activism of many residents in Ann Arbor planning, zoning, and quality of life discussions. Many neighbors have professional training or personal research expertise that put them among the most knowledgeable on many issues that affect the future of the city. Their active involvement in both formal and informal forums helps preserve the quality of life that attracts so many people to Ann Arbor.