Birmingham neighbors up in arms over plans for ‘extreme’ home

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Mike Wilkinson, Detroit News staff writer

Linda Dresner is a purveyor of style well-known in the fashion centers of Europe and Manhattan. Her eponymous Birmingham boutique commands attention — and sometimes a small fortune — for its clothes from world-famous designers.

But Dresner, who can count socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, actress Scarlett Johansson and the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among her customers, is facing questions about her taste. Not about her store's wares, but on the multimillion-dollar concrete cube home she wants to build in Birmingham.

It is stark.

Minimalist.

Modern.

"Silent," the home's architect, Steven Sivak, calls it.

And controversial.

"It's so extreme that we could not approve it," said James Mirro, a neighbor who has tried, unsuccessfully, to block the 7,200-square-foot home with poured concrete walls, calling it incompatible with a neighborhood filled with more traditional homes made of wood, brick and stone.

In a not-so-neighborly battle over sensibilities and aesthetics, a famous fashion maven was pitted against a collection of the well-to-do worried about the future of their neighborhood. It was a battle waged over e-mails, neighborhood chats and, ultimately, in the courts.

But beauty, in this case, will be in the eye of the building permit holder. That would be Dresner, renowned in the fashion world for — not surprisingly — embracing a minimalist vibe in her approach to high-fashion retail at her store on Maple Road in Birmingham. She was doing it long before it became de rigueur in Manhattan.

"I cannot tell you how groundbreaking it was in the fashion world," said Cathy Horyn, fashion critic for the New York Times. She met Dresner in the late 1980s when Horyn was the fashion writer for The Detroit News. "She's been a trailblazer in fashion and in the way fashion is sold."

Soon, Dresner Properties LLC, the official owner of the land, is expected to get the necessary approval to demolish the last home standing on the two lots on Shirley Road in the Birmingham neighborhood of Coryell Park. It paid more than $1.5 million for two existing homes. A city official said he expects to issue a building permit for the new construction shortly. By summer's end, Dresner and her husband Ed Levy, president of a private construction materials company, will likely have their home.

"Where I am, at this point, is: 'I can get used to it,'" next-door-neighbor Bruce Van Voorhis, a retired Ford product development manager said last week. He admits it will take time, though: the wall of the Dresner home facing his property will run roughly 100 feet and have just four windows. "It's starkly different than the rest of the neighborhood."

'Big, white, giant ice cube'

Several weeks ago, neighbors in the area of million-dollar-plus homes were less willing to accept.

Upset that their property values may be lowered by a home with more cube than curb appeal, neighbors hoped a 75-year-old deed restriction gave them the power to reject the Dresner plans. The neighborhood association formed a planning committee and sought plans for the building. Ultimately, they had to pay $16 to get a copy of plans from the city.

The committee held a meeting and decided in a 9-0 vote that the home didn't fit in Coryell Park. The group then sent a letter to Dresner Properties, saying its decision is "final and not subject to appeal." It suggested a new plan "of a more traditional nature."

"To have a big, white, giant ice cube at one end of the street," said neighbor Laura Smith, a resident for more than 50 years, "it is just going to be jarring."

'This is a witch hunt'

Dresner Properties reacted last month not with a new plan but a lawsuit: How dare the committee judge the home, its attorneys wrote. The company challenged the legitimacy of the committee, pointing out, correctly, that other homes were built in the neighborhood without any similar review. And the committee had no specific design standards to judge it against, company lawyers wrote.

"This is a witch hunt," said Sivak, the architect who said he has worked on the home with Dresner and Levy for six years. Linda Dresner, through an e-mail, declined to comment, saying the issue has been resolved "satisfactorily."

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed against the Coryell Park planning committee, the entire Coryell Park Association held a meeting. This time, the group voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Dresner home.

Mirro, 67, who ran a marketing company until last week, said he knows he has lost this battle, though it's opened eyes in the neighborhood. The association may adopt more specific regulations, may even establish a legal defense fund.

He called the lawsuit heavy-handed, a "terrorist" attempt to shock the committee members into caving under pressure.

"It worked, I'll give them that," he said.

All along, Sivak said his goal was to help Dresner and Levy design a "piece of great architecture." He said it will be finely crafted; a showpiece and museum-like. "A piece of art," he said.

"Yes, it's different. But you know, this is America, that's how I see it," Sivak said. "It's a property owner's right."

Birmingham building official Bruce Johnson said the use of poured concrete facade is unique for the city. But it is a city where Victorians sit next to Georgians, where a bungalow can share the same street with the more modern.

"In Birmingham, there's a variety of architecture," he said. "Nothing seems to be the same."

Indeed, Mirro is resigned to having lost this fight, and acknowledges the Dresner home will likely be top notch.

Still, he believes the home, iconic or not, would be a better fit elsewhere.

"It's going to be an amazing place," he said. "All we're saying it it's not compatible with the other houses."

Photo captions: Top: A rendering of the home, which architect Steven Sivak says will be finely crafted, a showpiece and museum-like. "A piece of art," he says. (Steven Sivak Architects of Ann Arbor) Middle: A rendering of the house, which will be built on two lots. Compare it to more traditional homes in the Shirley Road neighborhood, inset, made of wood, brick and stone. (Rendering: Steven Sivak Architects of Ann Arbor). Bottom: "It's so extreme that we could not approve it," said James Mirro, a Birmingham neighbor who has tried, unsuccessfully, to block the home. He says the battle has opened eyes in the neighborhood. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)