Newcombe Clark has one of the more dynamic points of view on downtown Ann Arbor's changing skyline, and he'll gladly talk your ear off about it.
Ask Clark why everyone wants to build a student apartment tower or million-dollar condos downtown and he'll serenade with you a soliloquy of big-business buzzwords.
"People need to find something that returns more than zero or negative two," Clark says. "So the deals that didn't make sense in 2008 make sense now."
He follows that up by describing an "insatiable demand on the capital side" to make the new conservative bet in real estate by investing in housing in a college town. After all, most students pay for their housing with their parents' credit card or a government-backed student loan. Clark concludes that this beats the measly returns on things like treasury bonds, so it's enticing to big money looking for a safe bet.
"It's all interest rates," Clark says.
But Clark's perspective on downtown development isn't just rooted in economic practicalities. A Tree Town native, Clark grew up a block from downtown. He worked in local commercial real estate and was one of the leads for developing a downtown apartment building that didn't come to fruition. Clark went back to school and got his MBA from the University of Michigan (U-M). That led to a new career as a jet-setting consultant.
Today Clark's family still lives in the same house he grew up in. So the man working as a behavior economist for a large financial services firm somewhere in Europe can tell you all about what's driving the multi-million-dollar deals from the boardroom, as well as what they mean to the everyday folks living in the thick of it.
"I look at the house I grew up in, which I will eventually own, and know it shouldn't be there," Clark says. "The Army Corps of Engineers says it shouldn't be there because it blocks the flood path, but it's still my home."
Edge of downtown
That house still stands on the northern edge of downtown. The old Sears kit home
has been around, largely unchanged, for about a century. It's one of those little, cute houses that makes people think of the charm of old Ann Arbor.
It's also a stone's throw from the growing density of 21st-century Ann Arbor. About a block away luxury condos in mid-rise structures four stories or taller, with first-floor garages to accommodate the floodplain, are going up. Prices start in the mid-six figures and easily cross into million-dollar-plus price tags when the buildout is finished. They all are going up on lots that were once home to small Victorian houses like the one Clark grew up in.
"These were crack houses in the '80s," Clark says. "Now they're going to be luxury condos built on stilts."
These aren't the tallest buildings in downtown Ann Arbor's development pipeline, but they're having some of the biggest impact, adding more residents to the city's core by building out downtown's edge. Mid-rise developments along the edge of downtown have become the target-rich environment for developers. Among the ones to keep an eye on include:
- Kingsley Condominiums
, a five-story residential building that will rise on the former home of JC Beal Construction Inc. at 221 Felch St. The property will become a 51-unit condo development when ground breaks this spring. The first residents should move in 18 months after shovels go into the ground.
- 121 Kingsley West
, a six-story condo development at the corner of Kingsley and Ashley streets. The 21-unit project is crossing the finish line this winter.
- The Glen Hotel
, a nine-story mixed-use structure that will feature a boutique hotel with 162 rooms, 24 top-floor apartments, and four floors of underground parking on Glen Street between Ann and Catherine streets. The penthouse apartments come with terraces giving them a broad view of Ann Arbor's downtown skyline and beyond. It's set to start construction next year.
- The Residences at 615 South Main
, a six-story apartment building going up across the street from the newly built 618 South Main apartment building. The developers are already clearing the land for what will be a mixed-use building with ground-floor commercial space and 245 apartments. The apartments will range from 400-square-foot micro units to townhomes.
- The Calvin
, a 12-story structure planned for a parking lot between Sloan Plaza condominiums and the Graduate Ann Arbor hotel at 603 E. Huron. The apartment building is slated to have 124 units.
The densification of South U
Most students who attend U-M and live on or near campus call the housing to the south or east of the university home. For decades that meant living in ivy-covered brick dorms on campus or old clapboard houses adjacent to campus. Everyone went shopping along South University.
"It's the Main Street for a lot of our students that come to U-M," says Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
Pollay lived in the area while she was in grad school in the 1980s, when South U featured more boutique shops surrounded by single-family homes. That dynamic has changed significantly in the last few years.
High-rise apartment buildings have risen along the South U commercial corridor, which represents the eastern edge of Ann Arbor's DDA. Hundreds of apartments geared toward serving the student community became available when buildings like Zaragon Place (10 stories), ArborBLU (13 stories), and Landmark (14 stories) came online. The concentration of residents has amped up foot traffic and brightened business prospects.
"It makes it more interesting to be here," Pollay says. "I can feel it when I go there for lunch."
It's about to become much more interesting. Another couple of high-rises are in the pipeline and promise to make that area the densest corner of Ann Arbor. Those projects include:
- 611 E. University
, a 14-story building that will front 611 E. University St. and reach all the way to Church Street at the other side of the block. Plans call for 343 beds in 90 apartments.
- The Collegian North
, an 11-story building that promises to redefine the southern gateway to the U-M campus. It will redevelop the block of South University between East University and Church streets on the north side of the block, which is currently made up of two-story buildings. Those will be replaced with two floors of ground-floor retail and 203 bedrooms in 43 apartments above them.
The biggest recent headlines for new development in the core of downtown Ann Arbor have been dominated by the battles over what to do with the Library Lot and Y Lot. But the headlines that have the best chances to become reality are those that promise to remake privately held buildings with dense developments.
"Someone who wants to keep their brain cells will buy a private piece of property and develop it close to what it's zoned for rather than buy a public piece of property," says Fred J. Beal, president of JC Beal Construction.
Beal's Ann Arbor-based company has been working on the city's built environment since its founding in 1962. To say Beal's institutional knowledge can lead him down the path of least resistance to finishing a project in the city would be an understatement. It's why he believes the city will see more dense redevelopments of small structures in the downtown than anything else.
"It's a lot easier to buy from an owner and do a by-right project," Beal says. "You need to negotiate every detail with something like the Y Lot or the Library Lot."
Among those projects currently working their way forward are:
- Montgomery Houze
, a redevelopment of the building at 210 S. Fourth Ave. The project will turn a two-story commercial building into a six-story structure with 30 condos on top of the ground-floor retail. The redevelopment will refurbish the building's original exterior on the first and second floors.
- 315 S. Main
, a project that will turn a nondescript one-story retail building into six stories with ground-floor retail and office space above. The current building is known as the M Den's
downtown retail spot, with a lot of sky above it.
Going home again
Downtown Ann Arbor is not the same place it was when Clark was growing up on its outskirts in the late 20th century. It's not the same place it was when he moved out of the city a few years ago. That doesn't mean he wants it to change.
Clark knows people have big plans for the area around his childhood home, plans that call for everything from expensive condos to a public greenway. He has different ideas for his childhood home the day he becomes responsible for it.
"It could easily stand another 100 years," Clark says.
Clark doesn't want his vision of downtown Ann Arbor to remain frozen in amber. He knows the city's center will continue to evolve, and he believes that's a good thing. At one point in his life he badly wanted to bring about that change. And he knows that developers and the big-money investors that back them will capitalize on any opportunity they can find to make the next conservative real-estate bet on building up Ann Arbor.
But that doesn't mean he's going to sacrifice his childhood home for it.
"I hope that someone will continue to live in it until the day it burns down," Clark says. "To put it simply, I won't be selling it to the city to tear down for the greenway."
Jon Zemke is a Detroit-based reporter who grew up in and around Ann Arbor. His family is still heavily invested in the city. He also redevelops distressed housing in Detroit near Wayne State University.
Photos by Doug Coombe.