Driving around Ann Arbor with real estate developer Peter Allen is a trip through the looking glass. It's Ann Arbor as the City of Tomorrow, as envisioned by someone who's stared at the city for a long time.
Throwing off ideas like Roman candle sparks, Allen thrives on brainstorming about real estate as if it were some new extreme sport. He decries the poor use of our riverfront and underwhelming design in new projects. He wishes for better land use in general and most of all, for "sidewalk excitement" downtown.
He recently helped find space for labcafe, (lowercase CQ) a futuristic looking coffee and yogurt bar in the former Tally Hall near campus. Its young founders, two UM urban planners, decided to stay in Ann Arbor and do something for young people.
Allen is exultant.
"That's what we need. We have to find ways to keep young people in Ann Arbor," he says.
Driving east on Washington Street from downtown, he points out hot spots for future development. The Ann Arbor News
building is on the market for $9 million. It will take another $9 million to renovate the "beautiful Albert Kahn building" for re-use, he says. The AT+T building next door to the News could be converted if Google partners with somebody to hardwire the community.
At the intersection of Washington and South Division, he notes with satisfaction the McKinley conversion of the old TCF bank headquarters.
"They did it right – they took parking off the first floor, got retail and restaurants with outdoor dining, recruited good tenants," he says.
To Allen, sidewalk excitement, as seen on the TCF site, is a key element in downtown health. Its lack may be found on the stretch of Fifth Avenue between Huron and William Street, running past one of the key development sites downtown, he says.
"We need to consider the whole site: the federal parking lot (a wild card), Blake Transit Center, the Y surface lot, the library itself and the library lot. It's the new downtown of Ann Arbor. The library and the courts could anchor it, along with the new Blake Transit Center," he says.
"It's $1 billion dollars worth of development, including the underground parking deck. It needs mixed use: retail, residential and office. Every foot of sidewalk needs to be exciting. It should all be retail or public plaza or dining. Right now it's a dead zone."
He points out that currently the city is giving away the air rights to the library lot and the Y lot, each worth $3 million to $5 million. Because of the economic cycle, developers who have submitted proposals are asking the city to subsidize their projects instead.
"The number one reason developers aren't looking at downtown Ann Arbor is because the financial markets are shut down. We haven't absorbed the space created in the last building boom yet," he says.
He points to Ashley Terrace, a mixed-use center at North Ashley and Huron Streets from Chicago developer Joseph Freed.
"The developer took a good design and built it with cheap materials. It has a laughable lobby – cramped and not on the main street. It's a drive-through bank with a five-floor condo building on top of it. It does nothing for the street scene. It does not excite the sidewalk," he says.
The reason that proposed developments often fail is poor design, he says.
"The reason The Moravian failed is because [the developers] didn't manage the public process properly – and it's a bad design. It would have been a tear in the fabric of the neighborhood," says Allen.
He calls the mandatory design review of new projects with voluntary compliance, now under discussion by the city, "a good start." He also believes the city should hire a consultant to create a master plan for the library lot and surrounding sites.
"That planning job is too big for anybody in town,' he says.
So where does this guy get off blasting the city and his fellow developers?
He has one foot in the business world, the other in academia. He teaches part-time at the University of Michigan. The rest of the time, as principal of Peter Allen & Associates (www.ptallen.com), he offers development, property management, and brokerage services. His associates are Sally, his wife, and their son, Doug.
Among his big-idea projects is Kingsley Lane, a condo development retooled only last week as small rental units on downtown's northern edge. He also carries out smaller scale projects including two good-looking buildings on the riverfront at North Main Street, one of which holds his offices.
He has plied his dual trades for 35 years and long ago lost the inclination to pull his punches when discussing Ann Arbor today and in the future.
"I tell my 100 or students each year that now is the best time to enter the real estate business because the mostly single-purpose, car-oriented junk that we built the last 40 years needs to be bulldozed."
"We need place-based, transit-oriented, mixed-use walkable downtowns to satisfy the bookend demographic niches of millennial workers and baby boomers," says Allen, himself a baby boomer.
His favorite sidewalk for retail is the block of Downtown Home and Garden (South Ashley between Liberty and Washington.) The block of Liberty St. across from the Federal Building is good, too, he says, but the Federal building itself doesn't contribute anything. He says Kerrytown today is "the best it's ever been."
The most overlooked area in Ann Arbor is our riverfront, he believes. He predicts that Argo Dam is going to remain in place for at least 10 years. A proposed kayak run is likely to be built nearby.
The new park south of the Broadway Bridge behind the Gandy Dancer shows what can be done. Allen would love to see a pedestrian/bicycle bridge built from State Street across the railroad tracks and the river into Lower Town. The park could extend to the proposed Fuller Road multi-modal transit hub.
Land owned by MichCon (now part of DTE Energy) on the river north of Depot Street at North Main Street is one of the most valuable – and problematic - development sites in Ann Arbor, Allen says.
The park-like land could host a spectacular development if its environmental problems were ameliorated. The "dirtiest site in Ann Arbor," according to Allen, was filled in with tailings from a coal gasification plant that once stood nearby. A red pipe marks a monitoring well.
He'd like to see the Amtrak station move to the Fuller Road hub to create an outstanding gateway to the city. It could link the medical campus, Pfizer campus, North Campus, main campus, and downtown.
What's stopping all these ideas from happening? The barrier to riverfront development is a lack of consensus among stakeholders, Allen says.
"It won't happen unless a big developer tries to buy the MichCon site and creates a tiff," he says. "The (proposed) Lower Town development (at the former Kroger site) is just waiting for the Fuller Transit Center to bring it to life. It will be as significant to the riverfront as the library lot is to downtown."
Other potential development sites – such as the Brown Block and the Kline lot - are dead in the water for the moment, he says.
"The Brown lot isn't gonna happen anytime soon. Bill Martin owns it and he's making too much money from parking to develop it," Allen says. "The Kline's lot will also take a long time to develop – 10 to 20 years. The businesses that depend on it for parking will assure that. It's a stakeholder problem. The city has too much other real estate. The University, too – and they don't have a real-estate mentality."
Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Bart Bund
.All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Peter Allen at Blake Transit Center
Peter Allen with Susan Pollay and Josie Parker in Front of the Big Hole Next to the Library
Peter Allen in Front of the Gandy Dancer, Where Mass Transit in Ann Arbor Started
The Allens Near Argo Pond
Peter Allen Behind the Gandy Dancer, Where Mass Transit in Ann Arbor Started
Peter and Doug Allen Outside the Peter Allen and Associates Office