It's often said that when one door closes another one opens. So, it's no surprise that the coming closure of The Ann Arbor News presents several new opportunities for downtown Ann Arbor.
The 3-story structure at the corner of Division and Huron streets is the only Ann Arbor commercial building designed by famed architect Albert Kahn. The 90,000-square-foot building opened as the new home to The Ann Arbor News in 1936, and for the first time in three quarters of a century, will need a new occupant when the 174-year-old institution closes in July.
The art deco building is a combination of office space on the front half and a printing facility on the back half. It stands like a fortress on one of downtown's least-lively intersections, to put it nicely. But could its possible redevelopment play a key part in reinventing downtown's northern border while adding another unique asset to Ann Arbor's funky character?
"I think it's a very interesting opportunity for the town, but I am sorry The Ann Arbor News isn't printing anymore," says Roy Strickland, the director of the University of Michigan Taubman College's Masters of Urban Design program.
Building upon the past
The building and adjacent parking lot for a couple dozen cars take up nearly an acre of land. While the historic structure is the first thing that catches most people's eye, the parking lot could prove to be the property's most important asset.
"The parking lot is not as valuable as the air rights to build on it," says Peter Allen, a prominent local developer and founder of Peter Allen & Associates. "The land is more valuable to build on as opposed to parking more cars on it. That doesn't mean they would have to eliminate the parking, but possibly build above it on stilts."
Allen thinks whatever is built could go as high as 10 stories and serve as a catalyst to reinvigorating that corner. Think of the way the McKinley Towne Center turned the fortress-like TCF regional headquarters, at Division and Liberty streets, into the dynamic center that now serves as Google's AdWords headquarters.
The building's former design was cold, gray and forbidding to pedestrians, with a sizable parking lot on the side, not unlike The Ann Arbor News building. McKinley painted it a neutral brown with splashes of bright color, opened up the ground floor to businesses and filled the parking lot with new storefronts. What was once an ugly Soviet-style structure is now one of downtown's new economy jewels.
Allen thinks the same thing can be done at the Ann Arbor News building. He points out that even though it has a historic marker and one of the most important histories in Ann Arbor, it's not in a historic district. That would free up a developer to "excite the sidewalk" and "put eyes on the street" by installing more windows on the ground floor to make room for small businesses and to draw pedestrians.
"You take the presses out of the basement and blow out the ground floor to put more windows in the ground floor," Allen says.
Save the presses!
The Ann Arbor News' entire back half looks, feels and smells like a combination of the bowels of a Rustbelt factory and World War II battleship. And the presses are its huge, hulking engine. They resemble an elaborate Hollywood set, capturing the bygone era of big city paper printing presses. And these machines aren't going anywhere anytime soon or with any sort of ease.
The steel presses date back to the 1960s and, in some places, are nearly three stories tall. Though they dominate the space, there is still plenty of open square footage. Possibilities range from using the presses as the centerpiece of a bar, micro brewery or restaurant. The idea is that their gritty aesthetics and intriguing story would make a unique attraction for the city.
"Everybody's idea is it would make a great bar or restaurant," says Ray Detter, chair of the city's Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council.
Detter lives within a stones throw of the building and has called that little section of downtown home for nearly 50 years. He has advocated for historic preservation and controlling the height of downtown's skyline, but could see a few stories being added to The Ann Arbor News building and changes to make it more open to the public.
"I'm really hopeful that something will go in there that will help revitalize that section of downtown," Detter says.
Reclaiming a vibrant corner of downtown
There is already hope for that intersection. Ann Arbor is expanding its City Hall to the corner on the other side of Huron with a project so urban it would make Jane Jacobs proud. Bike lanes, improved crosswalks and some landscaping are also in line to lessen the dominance of automobiles in the area.
The northern edge of downtown, between Fifth and Division, has long been considered a dead zone because of its underutilized buildings and large swaths of surface parking lots, a bane to smart growth principles. Despite touting its walkability, the area screams "park here" or "drive by as fast as possible".
For years it has been seen as the dividing line between downtown Main Street and U-M's campus. But the redevelopment of the McKinley Towne Centre, City Hall and the construction of the 4 Eleven Lofts have played significant roles in reinvigorating the adjacent blocks with more residents, office workers, and small businesses.
"You're starting to see some real urban development on that corner," Strickland says. "The connections are starting to happen. The Ann Arbor News building is a piece that could fill in this section."
As exciting as the possibility of livening up downtown is, it's not going to happen anytime soon. The Ann Arbor News brass is still trying to figure out how to market the building. The earliest it could go on the market is this summer, when the paper closes its doors. Even then, it would go on the block in the worst real estate market in generations. Though downtown property is some of the most valuable in the state, it's probably not going command the dollars that the paper's executives believe it's worth right away.
"Whoever gets it wants it at the lowest dollar," Detter says. "They're not going to rush over there waving lots of money in front of The Ann Arbor News. They're going to wait."
Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publications, Model D and metromode. His last feature for Concentrate was "Downtown and Underground". He believes Jane Jacobs got it right when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
The Ann Arbor News Building-Ann Arbor
The History of the Ann Arbor News-Ann Arbor
The Cross Streets of Huron and Division-Ann Arbor
The Ann Arbor News' Conveyor That Moved Papers in its Day, and My Feet-Ann Arbor
The Presses-Ann Arbor
The Upper Level of the Presses-Ann Arbor
Roy Strickland, the Director of the University of Michigan Taubman College's Masters of Urban Design Program-Ann Arbor
The Weather From Eight Years Ago-Ann Arbor
Don't Forget to Flip the Switch-Ann ArborAll Photos Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He loves paper.
Here is his Blog.