Beyond the high-rises: How development outside downtown is changing Ann Arbor

Alex and Betsy de Parry couldn't come up with a specific answer when asked how many houses they've built over the nearly 50 years their company, Ann Arbor Builders, has been in business.
"We have truly lost count of the number of homes we have built," Betsy de Parry says. "It's into the thousands."
Not all of those homes have been in Michigan. The de Parrys have also done homebuilding in Florida and Georgia, but the Ann Arbor area is where the bulk of their building has taken place. Their current project is a small subdivision on Ann Arbor's southwest side called Banyan Court, a single street off South Maple Road that will be lined with eight new houses just inside the city's freeway loop.
"This is such a rare opportunity for new housing to be built inside the beltway loop," Betsy de Parry says. "It's a great location. We're five minutes from downtown."
Filling Out Ann Arbor
However, Ann Arbor doesn't have room for too many Banyan Courts left inside its freeway loop. Almost all of the land inside of it has been developed or is well on its way to being built out.
Banyan Court is surrounded by subdivisions that were constructed decades ago. The de Parrys came across the parcel when a friend was about to list the property for sale. At the time it consisted of a run-down ranch house on a nearly three-acre lot. Where most people saw blight the de Parrys saw potential.
Specifically, they saw an opportunity to build new single-family homes in a city with a seemingly insatiable demand for new housing. Banyan Court's houses will range in size from a 1,600-square-foot ranch to a 2,200-square-foot two-story house. All of them will feature craftsman-style architecture. Prices start in the $300,000 range. So far two of them have been sold and one is reserved. The de Parrys expect to sell the rest by the end of the year.
"We are constantly looking for opportunities like this," Betsy de Parry says. "We have our ear very close to the ground. Finding a parcel of land where you can build eight houses in Ann Arbor is unheard of."
It's not exactly unheard of, but it doesn't happen every day. While the construction of new high-rises in downtown Ann Arbor captures many of the headlines and drives most of the city's recent population growth, development outside of downtown is still playing a significant role in Ann Arbor's evolution.
For instance, Ann Arbor's City Council recently approved Peters Building Co.'s plans to build a 52-home subdivision at 2857 Packard Road on an eight-acre parcel on the city's southeast side. Toll Brothers, a large corporate homebuilder, is building nearly 500 single-family-home-like condos on Ann Arbor's north side by Dhu Varren and Nixon roads. Both developments promise to bring hundreds more residents to the city in time for the next census.
"Of course they are lower profile than what happens downtown," says Richard Murphy, a project coordinator with the Michigan Municipal League who has made a name for himself as a municipal numbers guru in Washtenaw County. "They're smaller and happen in parts of town we don't go to often so we don't notice them as much."
Growing By Numbers
Ann Arbor's population saw its biggest jump during the mid-20th century, when it more than doubled from 48,251 people in 1950 to 107,969 people in 1980. Growth became anemic after that, as the city added about 7,000 residents over the next 30 years. But the city has been on a tear over the last few years. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) estimates Ann Arbor has added over 3,000 new residents between 2010 and 2015 and is on a solid upward trajectory with thousands of more residential units in the pipeline for the first time in decades.
That spike is largely thanks to construction of new residential high-rises in downtown Ann Arbor. Each new tower adds space for a couple hundred new city residents. Based on statistics from the U.S. Census, SEMCOG, and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority's (DDA) 2016 State of Downtown report, Murphy estimates that most residential construction in Ann Arbor over the last decade took place in downtown, within the DDA's borders.
"Almost three-quarters of the citywide total residential construction was from within the DDA district," Murphy says.
But that still leaves a huge chunk of population growth coming from elsewhere in the city outside of downtown.
More Density Equals More Growth
Just because something residential is being built outside of downtown doesn't mean it's a single-family home or a similar condo construction.
"Ann Arbor needs everything," says Peter Allen, an Ann Arbor-based developer and founder of Peter Allen and Associates. "It needs more office, more retail, more residential. We need every type of development because everything is in short supply."
A number of denser developments that would seem more at home close to downtown are taking shape deep in the city's neighborhoods. Packard Square is the headliner, bringing nearly 250 new apartments online as part of a mixed-use development a couple of miles outside of downtown. While that project has stalled, it is still moving toward completion. Stadium View Condominiums is also building two huge condos on a former vacant lot overlooking Stadium Boulevard a few blocks west of Michigan Stadium.
Allen believes both of those developments and more like them will succeed because the city's growth streak is putting more pressure on the demand side of the housing equation.
"Any kind of housing is going to succeed in Ann Arbor as long as it's priced within 10 to 15 percent of the market value," Allen says. "The demand is that strong."
Jon Zemke is a freelance writer based in Detroit, where he spends most of his time working in property development.

All photos by Doug Coombe.