Nowhere to grow but up? Ann Arbor grapples with solutions to its high-rise problem

Downtown development was a hot issue during Ann Arbor's Democratic primaries in August and is shaping up to be a top issue for the Nov. 7 election as well.


Downtown Ann Arbor is popular with developers and tech companies, but office space is at a premium. The community has committed to preserving green spaces and limiting urban sprawl, which means that continued growth will require more density. However, many residents are resistant to the idea of tall skyscrapers in the downtown area as a means of creating that density.


That leaves the city with a set of potentially-conflicting priorities that officials need to resolve soon.


"We all want the same things, but we have different ideas of how to get there," says Ann Arbor city council member-elect Anne Bannister. Bannister defeated incumbent Jason Frenzel in Ann Arbor's August Democratic primary election, running largely on the issue of her opposition to a 17-story high-rise on Ann Arbor's Library Lot. She says she believes everyone on city council is acting in good faith and that everyone wants Ann Arbor to be a lively, thriving city, but people of good faith can disagree on how to accomplish that.


A contentious vote on Ann Arbor's Library Lot


After years of debate on what to do with the city-owned Library Lot in the heart of downtown, Ann Arbor's city council in April voted 8-3 in favor of selling the lot to Core Spaces, a Chicago developer, for $10 million. Knowing the city has a lack of workforce housing, council members also decided to put half of the $10 million into an affordable housing fund.


Core Spaces has proposed a 17-story mixed-use building at the location that would include hotel rooms, apartments, office space, and ground-floor retail, along with an outdoor plaza. That plan would have to go through the city's planning commission and back to the council before final approval, however.


Even council members who voted in favor of the sale were reluctant or had mixed feelings.


"I love the city the way it is," says Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor, who voted for the sale. "I love our historic districts, and I also love the vitality and activity you see downtown. But the city is going to change, and we can't prevent that, but we can channel it to beneficial purposes. If we don't have growth in the city, we'll have service cuts. That's just math."


Council member Chip Smith, who voted in favor of the sale to Core Spaces, says he doesn't love the aesthetics of a 17-story building in downtown Ann Arbor but that current regulations don't allow him to approve or deny proposed development on that basis. He says he "feels comfortable" with the idea of imposing a height cap on downtown buildings, or creating aesthetic guidelines for new buildings.


The vote riled many residents, and both Bannister and fifth ward council candidate Ali Ramlawi decided to run for council because they felt residents who oppose high-rise buildings downtown need to be better represented on city council.


Competing priorities


Ann Arbor residents voted in 2003 in favor of a 30-year millage to fund a greenbelt program that would protect green spaces in and around Ann Arbor, and Taylor says residents have to understand that creating and maintaining a greenbelt means having to build more densely in other areas.


"We made a decision a long time ago to prevent sprawl and the city passed, overwhelmingly, the greenbelt millage that was predicated on moving density to downtown to preserve farmland and quality of life throughout the rest of community," Taylor says.


Smith agrees.


"The success of the greenbelt initiative is dependent on the ability to add density in the city," he says.


However, those who oppose high-rises downtown say it's not fair to peg them as "anti-development."


"As a business owner, I understand you need to grow. If you're not growing, you're dying a slow death," says Ramlawi. "My issue is with the type of development we've been pursuing for the past 10 to 15 years since we voted for the greenbelt millage. I voted for it to control sprawl, and my support for that hasn't changed. My problem with development in Ann Arbor recently is the way we're approving this development, like giving variances for parking issues."


Ramlawi says the current leadership is creating a downtown that assumes that people will switch to public transportation or otherwise reduce their dependence on cars, and says that's "a big gamble."


"I tend to deal with things based on reality, and the reality is that cars are here and will be here way into the future," Ramlawi says. "So approving much bigger buildings without adequate parking — I don't think that's a responsible way to develop."


Ann Arbor also knows it has a problem with lack of affordable housing, and both Ramlawi and Bannister say they don't think the solution to that lack is to build "luxury skyscrapers" downtown.


Examining other options


If all sides agree on anything, it's that allowing very tall buildings downtown and discouraging further economic development aren't the only two options. Some note that zoning and other regulations can encourage the kind of development that more Ann Arborites will welcome.


Taylor says the city can improve the first-story pedestrian experience through zoning. He supports adding a mechanism that allows the city to request more architecturally attractive new buildings.


Smith says he would like to see "form-based" building codes for downtown, which would allow zoning regulations to be based on buildings' physical attributes rather than what the structures are used for.


"The arguments I've heard against form-based codes are that they stifle creativity," Smith says. "But we've had some larger buildings built in Ann Arbor, and I'm not seeing a ton of creativity. I would be much more comfortable being clear on what community expectations are up front rather than having us react to what different architects or developers have in mind."


Bannister also thinks that city council and community members should have more say in what new developments look like.


"Developers come in, build, and leave, but we're left with it forever," Bannister says. "And the developer wants us to push back, too. A lot of us know our town better than the developer does, and the developer doesn't want their project to be a big failure either."


Bannister says she's not against tall buildings, but thinks they should be built in "appropriate places" along existing transit lines.


Ramlawi says economic growth doesn't have to mean building 17-story office buildings for big businesses. Rather, he says, city council should focus on tax abatements and other measures to help small businesses that are already located downtown.


"Small businesses are the fabric of our downtown," Ramlawi says. "If we're serious about putting money in the local economy, you need to stimulate that part of the economy that produces the jobs."


Both Ramlawi and Smith say they think the city needs to take some of the pressure off downtown by building up other areas of the city that are along major transportation routes.


Ramlawi suggests more economic development off State Street near I-94 and on Ellsworth and Eisenhower.


"They are transit corridors already," he says, adding that if working-class people can't afford to live downtown affordable housing should at the very least be built near well-used public transportation corridors.


"We're not going to find the answer if we only look downtown. We need to be open-minded and look at other ways and other areas to develop," Ramlawi says.


Smith says the qualities that attract businesses to Ann Arbor's downtown can and should be fostered in other parts of the city, like South State Street, Stadium Boulevard, or Washtenaw Avenue.


"What we need to be focused on is creating other places that have walkability, the amenities of retail, bars, and restaurants," he says. "We need to look at replicating those features in other districts along transit routes. That's the only way we're going to successfully address affordability and housing."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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