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Posted on Sun, Sep 6, 2009 : 5:55 a.m.

Ex-Pfizer facility challenges U-M to configure 2 million square feet: 'Suddenly, space is not an issue'

By Paula Gardner

Filling 2 million square feet of office and lab space will be the years-long culmination of the strategic planning happening this fall.

Teams from the University of Michigan are leading the discussions about how to transform the former Pfizer campus in northeast Ann Arbor into a revolutionary - and nationally recognized - research hub for cutting-edge projects.

Now called the North Campus Research Complex, the property expands U-M’s physical footprint in Ann Arbor and furthers what it can accomplish toward the state’s economic development.

The goals as the teams consider how to use the property are to fill the buildings in a way that expands research, both in the public and private sectors. Up to 3,000 people could work on site within the decade.

“This is not just redistributing people,” said Stephen Forrest, vice president for research at U-M. “… I can’t emphasize enough: We’re not just rearranging deck chairs here.”

Instead, Forrest said, the decisions made on the property this fall should “catapult U-M significantly” into driving innovation.

The size of the campus - spread over 173.5 acres - makes that possible.

“It really is transformational to have this many buildings and this much land,” said Mary Masson, spokeswoman for the U-M Medical School.

The front buildings, visible from Plymouth Road and Huron Parkway, have most of the office space; the research facilities extend toward the southern edge of the campus.

How to fill the buildings centers on questions about timing, space needs, successive moves and how to make it all happen.

But the fundamental questions facing the teams considering the final configurations include what research could and should be done there to drive innovation and economic development.

“We’re mostly thinking conceptually about what will be here,” said Joan Keiser, adjunct professor of physiology and leader in the strategic planning.

Teams are determining emerging areas of research that U-M should cultivate. At the top of the list: Sustainable energy and cancer research.

The opportunities presented by the buildings are endless and no longer confine researchers and departments to existing space, Keiser said.

“Now, suddenly, space is not an issue,” she said.

But deciding to start a new area of research or expand existing ones also means finding experts in the field - and taking all of the steps to get them onto campus and working - has to fit into the space equation, too.

Boundaries also can be broken in the ways researchers work - for example, traditional proximities can be changed to promote new collaborations, Keiser said.

And new partnerships with private industry become possible, too.

Bringing private businesses onto the site as tenants “is certainly on the table,” Keiser said.


Pfizer spent millions of dollars renovating the property in the years just before it moved out - leaving new labs, office space and building systems for the next owner.

A walk-through the property shows Pfizer also left desks, chairs, conference tables and more high-end equipment.

The furniture and electronic equipment in the offices was “left deliberately to make it move-in condition,” said Mary Tresh, manager of the property’s day-to-day operations.

U-M has been running tours of university departments through the buildings, showing the available space and getting feedback. Most people are excited about the potential, Tresh said.

No specific decisions have been made about who will move to the NCRC, Keiser said.

U-M is doing “fit-tests” on various groups, a process Keiser likens to a jigsaw puzzle. Who fits where, who benefits from proximity, and identifying the ripple effects across the facilities are part of solving the puzzle, she said.

In Keiser’s vision, the eventual occupants will represent a broad base from different departments. It won’t be all medical school or offices moving from off-campus as leases expire simply because they need space.

It will be the function - the research - that determines the use, Keiser emphasized. And the focus is on interdisciplinary cooperation.

“There already are hubs for communication here, with spaces for chance meetings,” Tresh said. “… The facility was design to help foster collaboration.”


In the near term, the four single-story buildings on Huron Parkway - buildings Pfizer wanted to demolish - are likely to be the first occupied, possibly by January. That’s due to their ease of launching building-specific systems like heating and cooling, and because they’re solely office space and not more complicated lab configurations.

“Office spaces will be quicker to get into,” Tresh said.

Larger, site-wide systems also are being set up, such as the IT infrastructure and phones.

Next up: Some “dry research,” which won’t require complex labs. Wet labs will be targeted by mid-2010, Keiser said.

While the plans start to take shape this fall and U-M begins to fill buildings in early 2010, the long-term uses for the property will evolve over years, possibly a decade.

“This will take many years to come to life,” Keiser said.

It will be successful, she said, if it creates an environment for innovation among people who don’t normally work together.

“We’re trying to make the right choices now,” she said, “and not just making more moves.”

Paula Gardner is business director for Ann, where she covers real estate and development. Contact her by email or (734) 623-2586.