Nothing is built in Ann Arbor without some sort of rebellion. Developers always scare the NIMBY neighbors out of the woodwork in Tree Town, provoking the stereotypical fight between greedy businessmen and hysterical local residents. The kind of battle royale that engulfs the neighborhood, City Council meetings and headlines more often than not.
There has been no shortage of these fights in Ann Arbor lately. Epic battles have been recently fought over the likes of 601 Forest, Zaragon Place and The Gallery. More are still raging over the likes of Near North and City Place. All of these fights are over tall, high-density buildings in the downtown area. Often they call for the demolition of historic-yet-neglected buildings in the name of expanded downtown housing, green building and affordable housing.
But what do these really say about Ann Arbor, Michigan’s so-called progressive capital? To combat sprawl, residents call for high-density urban development in their city center with friendly and aesthetically pleasing buildings featuring affordable unit prices for everyone. Yet, neighborhood associations form and voices are raised against these projects when they're proposed.
On the same side of the coin, developers advertise they want to respect the neighborhood and residents' wishes and build something that helps maintain Ann Arbor's unique character. But most of the time they want to demolish parts of that identity and let buildings go vacant and become blighted while asking for projects that go beyond what zoning allows.
It usually ends up with both sides taking extreme positions, delivering opinions that read like code speak for a developer's sense of manifest destiny construction entitlement and NIMBY's refusal to accept any sort of change or evolution to a neighborhood. What results is the de-evolution of grand plans for developments most communities in Michigan yearn for and a reputation for hostility towards business.
"It does tend to put up a red flag to developers looking to develop in Ann Arbor because they know it's going to be a long and arduous process," says Richard Carlisle, president of downtown Ann Arbor-based Carlisle Wortman & Associates.
The question is, can Ann Arbor afford these fights when it’s fighting to compete against the likes of Madison, Boulder and Portland? Ann Arbor may be Michigan's progressive poster child, but it only merits a linear mention compared to the star list of North America’s best cities. The University Of Michigan may serve as a magnet for young people, but Ann Arbor's population is shrinking, aging, and only about two percent of its residents live downtown. Does a stagnant or downsized central city development help re-enforce the greenbelt as a firewall against sprawl or just turn it into a speed bump for more exurban development?
A place for City Place?
Nowhere is this development de-evolution more prominent today than in City Place, a high-density project a block away from Blimpy Burger on the southern edge of downtown Ann Arbor.
Alex De Parry, president of Ann Arbor Builders, originally proposed building 90 brownstone-style condos (pictured right) in a long 4.5-story building above 98 underground parking spaces. A geothermal system (a big-ticket, green-building item) would heat the 750-1,500-square-foot rental units, which were geared toward young professionals looking to live in a vibrant downtown.
"The whole concept was based on a brownstone, Beacon Hill model," De Parry says. "We’re trying to make it a state-of-the-art building."
The development called for razing seven historic homes on the 1.2-acre parcel on the east side of Fifth Avenue. Those houses include one of the city's oldest survivors, circa 1838. The others are a mix of mid-to-late 19th Century and early 20th Century homes. All of them are subdivided into student housing and are in varying stages of disrepair. Few people have any illusions that they will revert to the original state.
But De Parry's proposal is nearly two years old. Since then it has gone through so many different revisions that De Parry has lost count. He eventually offered to sell the houses for $1 to anyone willing to move them. Future incarnations of the plan included building a plain, square, brick building with roof-top dormers. Another plan called for working the facades of the houses into a new, denser building behind it. All of these plans have been dense and urban in design.
Then the voices of opposition came.
The latest version (pictured left), now making its way through the city’s Planning Commission, calls for 24 rental units in two, 4-story buildings. There is no mention of green features or affordable housing. The buildings are split by 36 surface parking spaces in an uninspiring, suburban-style design. The customer focus has switched from yuppies to college students. Gone are the visions of Beacon Hill.
De Parry struggles to describe the style of architecture it employs and quickly adds these aren’t the final plans. "It’s what we're allowed, given the zoning," he says.
Build it and many will come
De Parry isn’t the only developer trying to replace existing housing on the periphery of downtown with denser, more urban residences. The Madison (now the Moravian), Near North and 601 Forest projects all promise to raze buildings that have stood for decades. But their developers maintain they would much rather build on vacant lots in downtown than tear down nearby neighborhood housing.
However, the cost of these downtown vacant lots proves too expensive to make the projects work. Since the cost of construction stays pretty much the same wherever the project goes, premium prices for under-utilized land becomes the biggest roadblock. This makes the land next to the DDA's borders more valuable than the structures that sit on them.
"It's really just a matter of economics," says Jeff Helminski, the developer behind the Moravian and a partner in City Place. "If you have someone who is willing to do it, it just boils down to the numbers. Do they work?"
Not to mention that most of the housing they propose to raze is old single-family homes that have long been sliced and diced into barely maintained student housing. The type of near off-campus student ghetto that dominates the University of Michigan's campus and makes both students and townies turn up their noses in disgust.
"The thing with these old homes is they were never designed to be multi-family homes," Helminski says. "They have been cobbled together over the years. They're very inefficient energy-wise and they don't make economic sense to rehab and keep as student rentals."
What developers say is in demand from both students and young people who want to live downtown is new, high-rise apartment living. This same trend has been seen in several small to mid-sized cities. And it's a demand these developers believe in so strongly they want to spend tens of millions of dollars to make it happen.
But not everyone is happy to see these proposals.
Bands of local residents who either live nearby, are preservation minded or just curmudgeonly averse to any kind of change, usually form in opposition to the project. Then add in city officials who have their own ideas on what they want to see and the clout to make it happen. This ever-shifting onslaught of opinion can create quite the balancing act for the developer.
"Even though you think you have done all of your homework, things come up," De Parry says. "Then you're running around trying to please everyone and you end up pleasing no one."
These obstacles usually result in changes both big and small to the project. Each redesign (City Place has undergone six) can costs tens of thousands of dollars in engineering and architectural fees. And then there is the time spent trying to negotiate with the various parties. Unfortunately, some aren’t interested in striking a deal as much as killing it.
De Parry says that the Germantown Neighborhood Association, which is opposed to City Place, isn't sincere in its efforts to come to the table. He says he has produced drawings to satisfy what he thinks are their needs, only to discover that they have terminated the discussions before a resolution can be found.
"When the goal posts keep moving on you it's hard to get a consensus to get approval on something," De Parry says. "You keep drawing and drawing and think you solved one problem and then there is another that comes up."
Tom Whitaker, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, refused to answer questions about the project, saying he has "grave concerns about fairness and balance in any article published by Concentrate, since (Newcombe) Clark is a partner in one of the proposed developments in our neighborhood."
Clark is a partner in The Moravian and also serves as Concentrate’s publisher. His role in the publication is limited to selling the advertising and underwriting that supports this website. He has no say in Concentrate's editorial content or focus.
A spirited dissent
Ray Detter has seen central city developments in Ann Arbor come and go for nearly 50 years. The downtown-area Ann Arbor resident has spoken out for and against so many of these developments that he has landed on the city's Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council.
The back-and-forth between city residents, officials and developers leads to better buildings that contribute to Ann Arbor's sense of place as a small, college town in Detter's mind. He points out that the current proposal for the 4-story Morovian is better than the 14-story plan for The Madison that preceded it. He also says the smaller Near North development is better designed than the bigger project that was originally proposed.
"The public process produces things that are better, not worse," Detter says. "I would say that emphatically."
He also makes it a point to say that developers aren't angels or willing to bend over backward to cooperate, either. For instance, the houses facing Main Street that are slated to be cleared for Near North were occupied assets before the developer bought them. Now they're vacant, boarded up and falling further into disrepair.
Detter also doubts the current plans for City Place will actually materialize. He believes De Parry will reinvent the designs yet again while he leases the existing student housing for the upcoming school year. In fact, Detter thinks De Parry hates the current design of City Place (Detter calls it an "awful building") just as much as everyone else.
"What we have ended up with is an ugly R4C building that nobody wants," Detter says. "But that doesn't mean we should approve the other ones."
He adds that the plans that are presented rarely conform to the zoning specified for that area. Detter maintains that there is a clear difference between downtown (where most of these buildings should go, in his opinion) and the central city area (where the developers want to build them) that is spelled out in the city's master plan.
Of course, these delineations are as political as they are circumscribed. Ann Arbor's downtown master plan was authored in 1988 and last updated in 1992. It has long been considered in need of an overhaul and has been undergoing on for the last two years. Still, Detter is both informed and savvy in his arguments against developers.
"The problem with developers is they ignore our plans for the area," Detter says. "What they do is come in and ask for something that is destructive to the area."
Detter questions whether these projects are even productive to the developer's bottom line. He points out that many of the downtown high-rises are either not full, offering free rent or other incentives like no security deposit to draw tenants. And then there are the big downtown area developments like 601 Forest that have the go-ahead but no construction start date set.
To Detter those are not the signs of a strong market in need of more housing. In fact, he thinks the influx of more housing along the border of downtown will do much more to hurt similar development in the central business district proper, where everyone says they want to see it in the first place.
"I would say that they are competing with what we want downtown," Detter says. "It's not complementary. It's in conflict."
Pinning down downtown isn't as easy as most would figure. There are the actual Downtown Development Authority boundaries and then there is what most people would consider downtown.
For instance, most people wouldn't say Fingerle Lumber Co. is in the central business district, but they would call it a downtown lumberyard. Fingerle is across the street from where the Moravian is proposed to be built and about a block south of City Place. It's also on the other side of Main Street from Carlisle Wortman & Associates offices and a casual walk to amenities like the downtown library and post office.
"The city is still trying to come to grips with what dense, downtown development really means," says Carlisle of Carlisle Wortman & Associates. "What does it mean to have a central core that is densely populated?"
Carlisle thinks that stretch of neighborhood bordered by downtown, Main, State Street and Michigan Stadium is ripe for redevelopment into a dense urban core, and Fingerle is the low-hanging fruit. The owners already toyed with the idea of putting the 7.2 acreage on the market last year.
But there are complications to the area, such as its location in a flood plain and the presence of a residential neighborhood. Still, it's one of the largest, and most desirable properties in Ann Arbor’s city center and currently home to numerous dilapidated student rentals.
"It's either going to be a private developer or the university (which doesn't pay taxes but uses services) that buys it," Carlisle says. "Now which would the city rather have?"
He sees two possible avenues for solving this problem. First, the city could buy the development rights to the homes and land in these adjacent neighborhoods in the same way the city does for its greenbelt. That would take the development value out of the equation, making the original houses desirable for rehab into single-family homes or into student housing.
The second option is expanding the downtown's traditional borders to encompass a much wider area, say the strip of city between downtown and Michigan Stadium. This would flood the market with available land, driving down land prices by giving developers more options. It trades on the philosophy that by sacrificing one neighborhood the city can better preserve the others that ring the greater downtown area while advancing density.
"When you're so narrowly constricting the supply in a certain area, say this is the only place you can build, well you can guess what happens," Carlisle says.
Not all of these developments turn into cat fights. There are times when the purported Ann Arbor ideal of green building, high density tall structures, and affordable housing come to fruition. Liberty Lofts employs both high-density building and sustainable features while sitting on the border of the Old West Side neighborhood. Ashley Mews also incorporates high-density and affordable housing next door to the so-called Germantown neighborhood.
Both of these help attract young professional talent while creating a walkable, more sustainable urban environment. They also play positive roles in defining Ann Arbor's sense of place. But unfortunately these are more exceptions to the rule when it comes to downtown-area development. In order for Ann Arbor to realize the true advantages of density and fight sprawl its downtown will need more than two successful projects.
"Development can coexist in the neighborhoods and enrich both parties," Carlisle optimistically adds.
Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publications, Model D and metromode. His last feature for Concentrate was "What's Next For The Ann Arbor News Building". He believes Jane Jacobs got it right when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.