You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Ann Arbor officials fear more downtown areas at risk for out-of-character development

By Ryan J. Stanton


This parking lot, located on East Huron Street west of North Division, is zoned D1 and could potentially house a structure up to 180 feet tall.

Melanie Maxwell I

The approval of another 14-story high-rise in downtown Ann Arbor marks the second time in recent years that City Council members have begrudgingly voted in favor of a controversial development they didn't like because they felt legally obligated to do so.

The first was City Place, a controversial student apartment project that involved knocking down a row of century-old homes on Fifth Avenue. Neighbors and city officials didn't like the project, but it was approved anyway, and the City Council found itself in a similar predicament again this week.

The 413 E. Huron apartment building, controversial because it will tower over a historic neighborhood to the north, met the city's zoning requirements and so the council had no choice but to approve it, argued the majority of council members who OK'd the project this week.

But following months of intense lobbying, protest, community debate, and hours of public hearings and deliberations, council members' failure to stop a project they didn't want to approve — at least not as presented — now raises questions about the city's downtown zoning.

City officials acknowledge it's time to reevaluate the zoning in certain areas to see if there are any fixes to prevent future projects that might be out of character with their surroundings. The City Council has directed the Planning Commission to undertake a thorough review of the D1 zoning.

"There are some areas that are working well and some areas that need to be changed to better reflect what the community wants," said Wendy Rampson, the city's planning manager.


Ann Arbor resident Widd Schmidt made this poster to show the proposed 413 E. Huron project — identified by the light yellow building — in relation to its neighborhood. The proposed building measures 263,504 square feet, containing a total of 208 apartments and 513 bedrooms.

Courtesy photo

D1 is the core downtown zoning district that allows buildings up to 180 feet tall — or in special cases like the 400 block of East Huron, up to 150 feet tall.

Some have argued D2 step-down zoning with a 60-foot cap would be a better fit for areas like the 400 block of East Huron and other parts of downtown — especially edges that abut residential neighborhoods and historic districts where there's more potential for conflict.

Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, has been leading the push for a review of the downtown zoning. At one point earlier this year, she proposed a six-month moratorium on downtown development, but the council voted 6-5 against it.

Nonetheless, the majority of council members still decided a review of the D1 zoning is in order, and that effort should get under way soon.

The Planning Commission has until Oct. 1 to complete the review and report back to council with its recommendations.

The council is asking the Planning Commission to address whether D1 zoning is appropriate for the north side of Huron Street between North Division and North State (the area of the 413 E. Huron project) and the south side of East William Street between South Main and South Fourth Avenue.

The council also is asking the commission to consider whether the D1 residential floor area ratio (FAR) premiums effectively encourage a diverse downtown population.

Mayor John Hieftje and other council members have said they'd like to see fewer apartments that cater to University of Michigan students and more workforce housing built for young professionals.

The council also is asking the Planning Commission to consider rezoning a parcel on the south side of Ann Street — adjacent to the north side of city hall — that is zoned D1.

Council Member Christopher Taylor, D-3rd Ward, said the multi-year A2D2 initiative that resulted in new zoning for the downtown in 2009 was an intensive public process.

"In the vast majority of cases, we got it right," he said. "I'm looking forward to revisiting residential premiums to better achieve our goal of increased workforce housing."


This map shows the different zoning designation of downtown properties and highlights the areas where the city is considering redevelopment opportunities for city-owned properties (shown in purple). The city's D1 core downtown zoning allows for buildings up to 180 feet tall (some have 150-foot caps), while the D2 step-down zoning allows for buildings up to 60 feet tall. Mayor John Hieftje, who has lived in Ann Arbor since 1951, estimated less than 40 percent of downtown Ann Arbor ever will be redeveloped because of the zoning designations and restrictions on properties.

Ann Arbor DDA

At this point, city officials say they aren't aware of any other potential downtown development projects that could cause the kind of controversy seen with 413 E. Huron.

But under the current zoning, Briere said, there are certain properties where the city is left vulnerable, such as the private parking lot on Ann Street just east of city hall. It's owned by the UM Credit Union, which purchased it along with the former Ann Arbor News building in 2010.

"We're vulnerable there for two reasons," she said, mentioning that it's next to a residential neighborhood and it's zoned for 180-foot-tall development.

"So, if a creative, wealthy developer came along, that creative, wealthy developer theoretically could acquire the Ahmo's property (at the northwest corner of Division and Huron), the property next to that on Huron … and the parking lot, and they could build a big, 180-foot-tall development."

Briere said she's also concerned the east side of South Main Street from William to Packard is zoned D1, creating the potential for a future 180-foot development towering over nearby houses.

"It's not a historic district, but it's a residential area that has some very active, very engaged people who live there," Briere said. "And they have invested in these downtown homes to live in … and they would see a 180-foot-tall building literally in their backyard as an overwhelming threat."

Briere said the row of houses on Thompson Street between Liberty and William in the middle of downtown are zoned D1 and theoretically could be bulldozed for a 180-foot-tall development.

Rampson said the planning staff will turn its attention to establishing a scope for the upcoming review of the downtown zoning now that the 413 E. Huron project has gone through council.

She said planning commissioners might be interested in doing a deeper dive than the council suggested. She said the items council wants addressed would be prioritized to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, and the Planning Commission could keep talking further after that.

In another attempt to take a closer look at the city's planning procedures, the City Council in March decided to reconvene the city's Design Guidelines Task Force to review and make recommendations to council regarding improvements to the city's design guidelines and design review process. The task force must report back to council in September with a set of recommendations.

Rampson said the Planning Commission is eager to dive in and figure out what changes can be made to improve the design review process. Right now it's mandatory that developers take their projects before the city's Design Review Board, but the board's suggestions don't have to be followed.

Local radio show host Lucy Ann Lance interviewed Council Member Jane Lumm on Tuesday morning after Monday's approval of the 413 E. Huron site plan, which Lumm voted against.

In the interview, Lumm raised concerns about the D1 zoning along Huron Street, argued the city's design guidelines lack teeth, and questioned whether the student housing market is saturated. She also explained her vote against the development, disagreeing that it met city code.

"I think our obligation is to approve site plans when they meet all of our development-related ordinances and regulations, and this one certainly didn't in my view," she said. "And I also think it will result in a detrimental effect to the public health, safety and welfare of the community."

Briere, who also was among a minority of council members who voted against the 413 E. Huron project, said it's not about being anti-development.

"The fact that we didn't find value in this project was the problem — not that we didn't want something built there," she said, adding she wants to see more housing built downtown.

"We talk about the early-career young professional living downtown, and I absolutely want to see housing work for that demographic," she said. "But also people in their 50s and 60s who want to move out of their four-bedroom homes that they no longer want and need."

As part of an annual review of the city's master plan, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. May 21 inside city hall. The commission is seeking comments about master plan elements that should be studied for possible change or new elements that should be added.

The master plan is a collection of plans that work together to describe a vision for the city's future and guide decisions about its land use, transportation, infrastructure, environment, housing and public facilities. The adopted master plan elements can be found on the city's website.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Wed, May 22, 2013 : 5:02 a.m.

can the council not vote to change zoning etc. so it makes sense?


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:53 p.m.

I remember when we moved to Ann Arbor, over 30 years ago, Campus Inn was the only tall structure in Ann Arbor. I also remember city council saying no more. We need to keep it quaint. Well, guess what? Quaint it ain't.

Usual Suspect

Fri, May 17, 2013 : 3:16 p.m.

Tower Plaza is taller and was built in 1969.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 12:38 a.m.

"begrudgingly voted in favor of a controversial development they didn't like because they felt legally obligated to do so." I think that fiscal motivation is closer to the truth.

Jordan Nelson

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 8:47 p.m.

Very interesting article.

Jordan Nelson

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 8:46 p.m.



Thu, May 16, 2013 : 8:43 p.m.

I have lived in Ann Arbor since the 1960s. I am saddend everytime I drive in the downtown area to see all the tall buildings either existence or under construction. All this alleged development has ruined the character of our city. No more!!


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:36 a.m.

Okay you are driving in the downtown area- that is sad.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 7:57 p.m.

What if a building minimizes the impact of the new City Hall? Oh the horror! The new building might have real art and a working fountain. EGADS!

Laurie Barrett

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 7:30 p.m.

Words change meaning over time. Not the most elegant example, just to make the point: retarded used to mean something completely different than it's come to mean. "Ann Arbor" is an example of a shifting meaning.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 6:35 p.m.

Please change the typo from hand-ringing to hand-wringing in my post. Thank you.

Cole Bertsos

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 8:06 p.m.

HBA - Sorry — editing comments is not a feature we have on our site.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 6:19 p.m.

Instead of all the wallowing in self-pity (oh, we didn't like the project but we felt we had to vote for it anyway) and hand-ringing, how about enacting an IMMEDIATE moratorium and then reviewing Code and enacting new ordinance that will protect us from future damaging monstrosities. Jane Lumm should have been listened to. Too bad we have Council members with no guts!

MD from ChiTown

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:57 p.m.

Lizzy Alfs and Pegret- My point exactly!! This could be a bubble in the making.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 7:20 p.m.

Could be?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:27 p.m.

Too many people tie the character of downtown A2 to being small and lowrise. But the reality is, that formula is repeated throughout metro Detroit- Plymouth, Northville, Rochester Hills, Milford, the list goes on. The uniqueness of Ann Arbor is in the vibrancy and multiple uses. Better to grow up than out. Still, I aplaud those on city council who prefer post college housing to private dorms. I hope they will also advocate for increased hotel space downtown.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

The feedback I've heard from people regarding the hotel and conference center to which you refer is that it featured an unappealing design that would be out of place in the neighorhood. I struggle with the idea that additional hotel and conference space- within walking distance of U of M, would not be succesful. Proximity to campus would create demand, alllowing Ann Arbor to host conferences and meetings that are presently going to other communities. Such a hotel should have no trouble blowing away the average occupancy across the region.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 5:28 a.m.

A few years ago Valiant Partners LLC proposed a 150-room 14-story luxury hotel to be built over the subterranean library parking structure which was actually designed specifically to support the hotel. A conference center was to built alongside. Unfortunately, Chuck Skelton, a long-time expert in hotels and hospitality, published a thorough financial evaluation and found that such a hotel was not feasible. No one contested his facts. Even Valiant Partners admitted that they would have to charge $199 per night and need an average 75% occupancy in order to break even financially (and pay its loan). Most recently average occupancy of all Ann Arbor hotels is 63.3%. Fortunately, City Council withdrew its RFP for the hotel or we would have a white elephant sitting next to our library.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:32 p.m.

Growing out rather than up is the quickest way to loose Ann Arbor's character to the sprawl of metro Detroit.

Bob Needham

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 4:25 p.m.

Does anyone think a side effect of all the new student apartments might be some conversions of multi-unit rental houses back to single family? Has anyone seen it happening so far?


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:34 a.m.

It is happening in Burns Park.

Tom Whitaker

Fri, May 17, 2013 : 12:45 a.m.

Only if the City changes the R4 zoning as the study committee recommended (and not as the planning commission has once again gutted). The City should also be considering tax incentives and grants to encourage this. If people are really concerned about sprawl, these old urban neighborhoods are the perfect alternative for young families--that is if the current adminstration doesn't see to it that they are bulldozed or otherwise ruined.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 7:54 p.m.

It will take some time but I am convinced it will happen.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:31 p.m.

Conversion of multi-unit rental to single family housing would be the strongest argument in favor of high rise student housing. My experience during school, however, was that privately run dorms costed substantially more than standard rental properties. I wonder if the markup on student dorms is part of the reason people are rushing to build them?

vicki honeyman

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 4:05 p.m.

meanwhile, downtown is lacking in infrastructure to accommodate all these tenants and their vehicles. need to buy a hammer and nail or hooks or a toilet seat? you won't find products such as these downtown . . . in the car you must go to a big box on the outskirts or to packard or stadium to the hardware stores. sure there's plenty of restaurants and coffee houses to feed all these new downtown residents but those downtown businesses are already congested, with long waiting lines to get in. if the concept is housing people in the city proper who will park their cars in garages and support downtown businesses, an infrastructure is needed offering a variety of groceries, hardware stores, etc.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:32 a.m.

Statistics demonstrate that people who live in the AA downtown walk, use public transportation, and ride bikes more than they use cars even when they own 1 or 2 of them. People in the core downtown around the Main Street area have fewer than one car per person. Even when that ratio increases in the downtown area the same travel pattern exists. You would have the basic businesses that you rightly crave if there were enough concentration of people to support such businesses. There are several areas in the D2 zoned area west of Main street that could be redeveloped with such stores. No one will build those stores until market studies indicate that the population and demographic exists to support them. One of the goals of the D1 zoning that is under attack was to increase and concentrate that population in large enough numbers to bring back the grocery and hardware stores. The concentration of the population near services and employment hubs decreases the need for cars; it doesn't increase the need. The City is giving up on a worthy goal before giving it a real chance to flower.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 4:29 p.m.

In the "city proper"? That's everything inside the city limits of Ann Arbor. The downtown-centric thing gets funnier by the day.

Bob Needham

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 4:19 p.m.

As a dedicated owner of a cool downtown business, do you think there are things the city could/should be doing to encourage that type of infrastructure?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:59 p.m.

Lumm and Anglin showed their complete ignorance of the law by saying this project was a detriment to the "health, safety, and welfare." Why not say it's unconstitutional because it deprives people of life, liberty, and happiness? We have general statements of purpose and then we have regulations. Read the regulations -- those are what the developers have to follow, and in this case, they did.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 5:17 a.m.

Lumm's case was laid out very well by fifteen citizens who spoke at the previous meeting about the failure of the developer to consider ALL of the zoning ordinance which included a number of stipulations under paragraph 5. No one made a case for setting aside or ignoring that part of the zoning ordinance which, if presented accurately, should stand up in court.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:20 a.m.

Lumm sounds like she knows what she is talking about. Anyone who actually understands the various laws and codes know that she either did not understand those laws and codes or she does and was simply pandering to the hissing and booing audience and camera. Anglin is only interested in playing to his crowd and likely does not understand.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:40 p.m.

Politics 101. When you are in the minority, you can vote with popular in a position that you know would be detrimental if it actually went through. You look good to voters, but you don't have to face the consequences that would come if your vote was successful. It's the TEA Party strategy. Luckily other council members chose not to play such theater, otherwise we would be faced with very expensive litigation. Shame on Lumm for such a cheap political stunt. Ann Arbor deserves better than that.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:52 p.m.

City council and planning commission members (at least some of them) will be looking to the citizenry for preferred changes to the zoning. The sooner that discussion begins, the better. Complaining has had its due time. If you would like to impact the process, set aside the complaints and offer suggestions. If you like new tall buildings (for whatever reasons), prepare to make your case and state how much shorter you believe they could be built in the future without a loss of beneficial impacts. I'll add my usual caveat that this will likely be the last large building constructed downtown (if it is completed). While this zoning amendment process might be a little too late in that sense, I think it will be a valuable one for the community to go through in any case.

Steve Bean

Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:57 a.m.

No one in particular. Maybe Sabra will step into that role, maybe another council member, maybe a planning commissioner, maybe no one.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 7:18 p.m.

Who do you have in mind?

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 6:13 p.m.

The economic reality will override such desires, I think. Regardless, the starting point is the current zoning, and the clear direction for adjustment is smaller buildings, at least in certain locations. Getting good public input will likely depend on a facilitator who can get people past the two-sided, density vs. sprawl argument to a more open consideration of alternatives that address concerns in both those areas and more.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:44 p.m.

It's gonna be a heavy lift, Steve. The never-ending growth crowd still rules.

Usual Suspect

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:30 p.m.

When the people who are supposed to be in control of this sort of thing are telling us they are no longer in control of it, I would call that, "incompetence."


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:24 p.m.

As others have posted, I would like to see the timeline of how we got to the current zoning that they now want to change. If I recall, a LOT of time and task forces and committees and consultants and think tanks and brain trusts (you know, the usual) went into our current zoning, and it was a months if not years-long process that JUST RECENTLY finished. And then, within months, they want to change it. Am I not remembering this correctly? And this article is VERY kind to the City Place debacle; that wasn't just the city approving it and people not liking it. That was a ridiculous farce from the beginning, and was a back and forth between A2 and the developers that made A2 look like a circus run by morons.

Tom Whitaker

Fri, May 17, 2013 : 12:38 a.m.

Yes, many years and much effort went into the current downtown zoning, but it was gutted by a density-drunk planning commission and council at the 11th hour with no time given to analyze all their last-minute changes.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:58 p.m.

"the task force include Maria Higgins, Tamara Burns, Dick Mitchell, Bill Kinley, Norm Tyler, Kirk Westphal and Doug Kelbaugh." These are the folks entrusted with evaluating the merits and architectural expectations of these types of projects. It appears they are a experienced mix of Architectural / Planning background and should be the best opinion the city can offer developers. If you want to put up a box in Ann Arbor, don't take this task force lightly. Screw your lawyers. It is our city Mr. Georgia-man.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Some of the more influential members of this "task force" were instrumental in creating the zoning ordinance in 2009. Therefore, do not expect many changes to occur. Do not forget the mantra of the urban planner: if you are not changing then you are dead! For some powerful government officials in this community the aim is to fill whatever space remains for construction with the largest structures possible, actual need notwithstanding. Developers love this concept since that means maximizing the size of construction loans and, oh yes!, the size of their fees.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:31 p.m.

Absolutely, these highly experienced team members know design guidelines like the back of their hand. Ultimately, it's about foregoing the Fear Of Missing Out (on new development in this case) that often hampers mandatory guideline implementation. I don't think we should be too worried about that yet, although the student housing market is becoming rather saturated. We should have had these mandatory guidelines when the boom started a few years back - their enforcement by law can't start soon enough.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:56 p.m.

I'm less worried about them being "out-of-character" and more worried about them actually filling up. Those are two very different schools of worry. Not everyone is united in their discomfort.

MD from ChiTown

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:44 p.m.

I think one of the biggest concerns here is the growth in student rentals. With a student loan crisis coupled with a high unemployment and underemployment rate of recent college grads, we may see a decrease in demand for luxury student high rise apartments. Whether something is done to prevent students from becoming overextended at graduation or not, just the awareness of this issue may cause some students to rethink their college plans. This could create a student housing bubble. Some may be compelled to borrow less which will cramp their lifestyle on campus. This includes opting for less expensive housing. This will put pressure on the building owners to keep the rents lower than expected. Others may opt for cheaper alternatives than the traditional 4 year college whether it is attending a community college for their freshman and sophomore years or attending an on line college so they don't have to leave home at all. Still others, sadly, may choose to forgo college when they would have otherwise gone. This may mean fewer tenants for these buildings. It will also be a tough sell to get young professionals and empty nesters to move into a building that is predominately student housing.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:36 p.m.

"It will also be a tough sell to get young professionals and empty nesters to move into a building that is predominately student housing." Very good point. They need to build urban apartments that are not lux and not filled with students. Just moderate range rents and spaces that appeal to young professionals not making $100,000 (there are plenty of those around), and that appeal to empty nesters or younger couples without children. There is a wide range of possibilities beyond students, which will not necessarily fill all the new lux bedrooms and the UM housing once it's renovated.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:48 p.m.

Also, UM Housing has been closing one residence hall a year for the last several years for renovations. Once this program is completed, several hundred student beds will become available again. Don't think that the U will let dorms sit empty...all they have to do is make it mandatory for students to live in residence halls for 1 or 2 years, like most other major Universities. That would definitely reduce the demand for these so-called 'luxury' student apartments, which are really nothing more than overpriced, bare-bones boxes with lots of amenities.

Lizzy Alfs

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:01 p.m.

@MD from ChiTown: Whether there is demand for additional luxury student apartments is certainly thing to keep in mind: there has been a lot of development downtown in the past several years, resulting in 2,300 new beds (and that's once AA city apts, Varsity, Pizza House are all completed). The question is, are there 2,300 UM students and young professionals willing to pay the high premiums to live in the buildings?

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:27 p.m.

Now that the monstrosity has been greenlighted, the thread of a lawsuit over a moratorium is gone. That excuse no longer exists. So impose the moratorium to close the window for lawsuits, while the topic is further discussed, for as long as it takes.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:22 p.m.

downtown character -- would love to see that defined -- or is it one of those "I know it when I see it" type of things?


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 5:07 a.m.

For bonsai (since you ask), character = the set of qualities that make something distinctive, interesting or attractive


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:06 p.m.

In a previous comment brimble stated that "Market Demand drives the nature development." What market demand? How is market demand measured? What we have here are developers who wish to maximize the size of their projects so that they can obtain the most funding from which they take a generous (1% or 2%) fee off the top! It is the developer's avarice that drives the market. Just think, what recent development downtown did not push the maximum dimensions on each property? With the Planning Commission and some members of City Council approving new construction depends only on the site plan meeting the MINIMUM requirements of the zoning ordinance which right now only defines the dimensions of buildings. The minimum requirements is what the Planning Commission and City Council must change. However, I will remind the citizens of Ann Arbor that the present Planning Commission is populated with the same individuals that determined the zoning code in 2009 with which we are now struggling? Does anyone really anticipate that these same individuals have changed their views of development in Ann Arbor. And the majority of City Council members who approved the 413 E. Huron project will throw their support behind the Planning Commission. Therefore, Ann Arbor residents should prepare themselves for no significant changes in the zoning ordinance and continued business as usual with developers determining how the "new" Ann Arbor will look, that is, tall buildings everywhere.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:02 p.m.

Gill, Lincoln Park and Andersonville are both inside the city limits.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 5:03 a.m.

Even I who believes that continuous construction is not needed to maintain a vibrant and attractive downtown find Steve Bean's and timjbd's infill ideas as the best choice for any further development.

Steve Bean

Fri, May 17, 2013 : 2:02 a.m.

Comparisons to downtown Chicago are specious. The places timjbd listed are closer in scale to downtown Ann Arbor and make worthwhile comparison points. What about such housing structures wouldn't work in our downtown and also increase density substantially? Nothing that I'm aware of.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:31 p.m.

Lincoln Park and Andersonville are suburbs of downtown Chicago, much like Burns Park and the Old West Side are suburbs of downtown Ann Arbor. I do not believe that high-rises are proposed outside the downtown, and Chicago has MUCH taller buildings in it's downtown.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 7:15 p.m.

Sonny, Tall buildings are NOT required to increase downtown density. Tall building zoning (bad zoning practices like A2D2) are all that is required to attract companies that make their profit off construction of tall buildings. Density can be increased incrementally by repurposing existing buildings (like Liberty Lofts), infill houses in large lot neighborhoods, etc. And by repeating the blocks in town that people like- look how quickly the apartments above the shops along Main and Liberty get snapped up when they come on the market. That way, when you reach the point at which no more people are willing to, or can afford to, move downtown, you can stop and take a break until demand re-emerges. AND you are not left with three or four mostly empty mega blocks of what were once student apartments- built as big and cheaply as possible with bargain basement construction- ravaged by the elements on the outside, and by hard partying, transient students within. It's a destructive myth amongst old school urban planners that density is increased only by the addition of massive housing blocks. Take a look at Lincoln Park or Andersonville in Chicago, 14th Street or Georgetown in Washington, DC, Greenwich Village or Soho in NY, Fells Point in Baltimore, the North End in Boston, and on and on. Very dense, very lively and low. Generally not more than 5 stories. Some large apartment buildings, but mostly tight row houses and apartments over street level retail and restaurants.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 6:08 p.m.

timjbd, shouldn't say "always". There are sometimes exceptions. ;-) Veracity, thanks. I've had been thinking about your second point and wondering what options the city might have to require owner occupancy, local ownership, or similar ways to prevent the speculative development approach. What about the massing of adjacent parcels? Any thoughts on that?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 4:38 p.m.

Shouldn't say "all." there are always exceptions.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 4:37 p.m.

You've described the way all building was done before the profession of "real estate developer" came in to being. Every great building was built by the company that took up residence therein. For-profit speculation is the way to ensure the cheapest possible construction practices housing the maximum possible square footage. No more, no less. It's too bad Mr. Taubman is not as infatuated with the city as he is with the University. Or the Motts, or....


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:21 p.m.

Glad that you asked, Steve. Recent construction of high rise buildings have been speculative, meaning that the property is not pre-leased which would guarantee revenue and presumably profits as well. Any bankruptcy with all its dire consequences would be unlikely if full occupancy is guaranteed. The construction that I favor is that generated by existing enterprises which have deep financial pockets which will assure successful enterprise once the building can be occupied. For instance, I would find favorable if Google wished to build a separate building for itself when it first arrived in Ann Arbor. Similarly, Baracuda could have constructed a new building to house its expansion instead of moving into existing space on Maynard. I would favor that construction as well. Each example demonstrates two principles which I find important: first, the building would be built to specifications based on anticipated needed space for operations and not building to maximum allowable dimensions as is done with recent speculative construction. Secondly, the building will be done by an established and profitable business entity that can be expected to continue to be successful after its new quarters are constructed. The common elements among these examples, which I prefer to see, are almost certain financial success after construction and building dimensions determined by need for space rather than building to fill a space. You may consider my approach conservative and it is. If Ann Arbor's downtown is to change in appearance and in function I am hopeful that the alterations will improve the city and that most residents will look at what is happening and say, unequivocally, that "This is good!"


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:53 p.m.

The financial meltdown of 2008 was due to banks and investment funds being sold (and re-sold and re-sold) fraudulent real estate investment vehicles which were cooked up and misrepresented by the Wall Street investment banks and ratings agencies who packaged, approved of and sold them. All those players (like Greenfield Partners) are still in the real estate game because, due to the lack of current effective regulation, it is still possible to make huge amounts of money on speculative and unnecessary development. None of these banksters went bankrupt (except Lehmann Bros) and none are going to jail. When their former investment schemes went belly-up, the taxpayers bailed them out at 100 cents on the dollar, now they're on to new schemes. The new laws passed to avoid this happening again have been effectively neutered by these same banksters and their operatives in congress and the Obama admin, so we'll all still be on the hook for all these spec developments. The developers having gotten their payouts and long gone. Greenfield, LLC is a group of Wall Street investment bankers. They are not here to help. It looks clear now the commercial real estate bubble is vastly over-inflated because it's based on continued over-consumption by Americans increasingly under extreme employment and wage pressure (any teachers out there?). Perpetual economic growth, like perpetual motion is a fantasy. You can't necessarily tell where we went past the saturation point while it was happening but it already happened and it, too, will explode. This is inevitable. The city will be on the hook for maintaining these buildings (or not) in perpetuity, because the city allowed them to be built here, and will not have the money to do so.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

Do you have any suggestions, Veracity?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:23 p.m.

Real estate investors are desperately looking for 'safe investments' as they have been under fire for their previously risky behavior (e.g. the mentioned Ashley Terrace). The University of Michigan is a blue-chip institution which will always attract students, which have more and more money to spend / lend. As a result, investors are more than eager to 'store' their money in the projects we have seen over the years. That may change when some of these buildings are no longer instantly rented to capacity.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:51 p.m.

Ross- Don't be naive! Smart developers can always find financing even for the worst plan. For example, consider the Ashley-Terrace fiasco. The developer, Joseph Freed and Company, convinced Bank of America and the LaSalle Group (both of Chicago) to fork over $20 million so that the 10-story 99 unit condominium building could be built. However, because the developer needed to pay off the loan, each condominium carried a very expensive price tag. Not surprisingly, the condos did not sell well, the developer could not meet loan payments and the building went into bankruptcy. If Bank of America can be tricked into a bad investment do you think that it would not happen with other financial institutions and groups? A lot of money is available to be thrown at lousy investments!


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:39 p.m.

Yeah but someone is still paying to build these things. Obviously they think it is a wise investment. To which one can only imagine they are heavily scrutinizing the market trends to properly gauge the real demand. A world in which developers just do whatever they want would be quickly unsustainable. Look at the occupancy rates of other student housing built downtown. Sold out quickly! Kids (rich kids) want to live in trendy, fancy apartments, not crummy, drafty old houses.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:52 p.m.

Other cities around the country have stricter zoning laws and also have criteria that must be met other than just meeting the zoning laws. Burlington, VT, is an example. How the building fits with the surrounding neighborhood is part of the decision to approve new construction. Ann Arbor can do the same thing. Change the existing laws.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:41 p.m.

bron, it's not an either/or situation. You can build reasonable urban apartments and condos that do not overwhelm the surrounding historic districts and homes. Urban development is a good thing, but it's not good when the impact of the development on surrounding areas is not taken into account in the decisions, planning, and laws.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 6:20 p.m.

broncoslover, can you quantify that qualitative assertion? What level of restriction (reduced height? is that what we're talking about?) do you imagine JRW is suggesting? How much difference to rural development as opposed to downtown development do you think it would make?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:24 p.m.

You are making good arguments for people to continue developing outside cities in rural areas.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:51 p.m.

Here's a thought: CHANGE the zoning laws! Don't allow these monstrosities to be built. Why is that so difficult? As long as the city has zoning laws that allow for these kinds of monstrosities to be built, nothing will change.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:10 a.m.

Steve, are you sure that your 20-50% reduced density building would be feasible based on the high land costs, city extractions for park funds, offsite footing drain disconnects, affordable housing funds, exorbitant municipal application, review and building fees, protracted land use approval processes, and the normal risks attendant to multimillion dollar investments. Maybe if they could garner even higher rents than currently exist.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:38 p.m.

Ross, my comment is in direct response to the headline: Ann Arbor officials fear more downtown areas at risk for out-of-character development. If that is the case, then change the zoning laws.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:38 p.m.

Ross, do you think a 20-50% reduction in maximum height would be a compromise that would please more people than the current zoning limits?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:36 p.m.

It's difficult, in part, because NOT EVERYONE AGREES WITH YOU. I don't support this 413 building, but the point of a city is to concentrate people and commerce in a downtown area. Sprawl is worse.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:28 p.m.

City Place turned out fine. Some people just don't like any change.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 3:15 a.m.

Fine if you think this is the place for a cheap motel. What is the occupancy rate like?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:51 p.m.

The original design for City Place was superior in my humble free opinion.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:14 p.m.

I agree that the city has learned a great deal from its Master Plan's successes (more people downtown) and failures (development that is out of context). Firstly, I don't think it's up to the city to decide what types of dwellings are built, that is up to the market. While it stuns me anyone is even considering building yet another overpriced student high-rise, I'd say let them crash. The market rate for housing will inevitably go down, and Ann Arbor's infamous slumlords will be more pressured to up their ante. Many cities and countries have a mandatory design review system, something that Ann Arbor is strangely lacking. This system has pros and cons: mainly that you can enforce new construction to actually help the city by securing pedestrian friendly design (active frontages, not too many curb cuts etc) and prevent incontextual developments such as portrayed on Huron Street. Yet its enforcement can be a legal nightmare, as a design review can always be challenged as rather ambiguous. Stricter zoning could work, but some may posit that it restricts market activity. It essentially curbs development opportunities downtown from its current level. This means that eventually there will be less people downtown, less support for new amenities, retail etcetera. Yet you are better able to 'save' downtown-peripheral locations. It's ultimately a political decision, and I get a sense that a lot of vocal people are concentrated in these surrounding districts (Old West Side + Old Fourth Ward). I would opt for a mixture of stricter zoning and strong design guidelines. Cities all over the planet are enforcing contextual, sustainable and pedestrian friendly architecture and functional mixtures by law, not by committee. Look at Chicago, Seattle, Berlin for example. Do know that architects and developers will cry foul. Yet we are all witnessing that Ann Arbor is a very hot commodity at the moment, I think it's that point in the relationship with them that we can make some demands.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 12:54 p.m.

It would be a D1 zoning with a bit of D2 buffer zones added, and probably some more setback requirements under D1 in the 1916 New York zoning style responsible for many Art Deco highrise architecture. That way buildings still line the street but more light and air can enter. I could even see guidance going a step further into form-based zoning, making very custom site-specific building envelope requirements part of the legal zoning framework. All zoning in The Netherlands works that way for example. It is however ultimately a political decision if this much guidance is desired. Pro - it makes sure that the design will be as planners (and citizens) want it to be both in form and function, but con - it can be very restrictive toward developers. Once the downtown student housing bubble bursts, that might just be a bridge too far.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 6:16 p.m.

cck, what do you mean by stricter zoning? Can you be a little more specific?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:07 p.m.

Sabre is leading the push to revise the guidelines that she previously approved? Can we get an article outlining the history of how we came to be in this mess? I think that would be very illuminating. The headline tells the story, our officials govern in fear, not with conviction.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:50 p.m.

Hee Haw!

Mike D.

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:05 p.m.

Classic NIMBYism. The council needs to stop pandering and think about our future. It needs to say unequivocally to developers that they can do business here. Ann Arbor is growing as a regional hub of technology. It's one of the few glimmers of hope in this God forsaken state. The talent we (and in saying "we," I include myself specifically) need to allow that to happen wants to live downtown, and we're worfully under-supplied with downtown housing and rental stock. Someone is always going to hate big buildings going up, in Ann Arbor and anywhere else. But these inane "changing the character" arguments are just backward looking. This is change for the better. Density breeds growth. Density is green. Density means height. Think, people!


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:03 a.m.

Over at least the last decade vacancy rates in Ann Arbor have been very low. That drives up market rental rates and demand for new housing units. It is extremely expensive and risky to develop in downtown Ann Arbor. The over romanticizing of historic districts, especially the over-bloated and sacred Old Fourth Ward, which mostly contains non-historic resources and functionally obsolete rental houses, help to keep what scarce and fragmented land exists downtown at very high rates. The low supply of land and vacancy rates increase demand and land value. These factors consequently decrease the ability to build affordable or workforce housing. The majority of parcels in the downtown area fall under the jurisdiction of an unelected historic district commission that has more power than the city council or planning commission with regard to the redevelopment of those parcels whether a pedestal for an actual jewel or a slab for a functionally obsolete non-historic resource whose sole purpose is to buffer the jewels from the stink of tall buildings. If the HDC rejects economic development to save the functionally obsolete or middling historic resource, the only recourse is an appeal to a state historical preservation agency and then circuit court. Guess who wins? Hence, the City is left with little control over the majority of downtown land. The University is one of the biggest land owners and does not pay property taxes that go into the general fund that supports city services. One of the purposes of D1 zoning was to use the more plentiful airspace (compared to postage stamp parcels) to increase a declining downtown tax base. So, yes keep big buildings away from old houses, funnel new residential development out to fringe AA areas, increase car trips, decrease the potential for needed tax revenues to fund services, buy more development rights in the greenbelt and hope for the best.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:12 p.m.

@ a2xarob: absolutely. But... in the short term, the income per square foot of student housing is simply higher than non-student housing. I do get the feeling the student housing bubble is about to burst, after which some of these new towers may hopefully be converted to the units you are talking about. So, perhaps the market will do the job on its own. If not, I agree that the city can start making some demands (as they do with affordable housing percentages) to have professional housing as well. But these two scenarios are quite politically loaded... I lean on your side but I'm not sure if all citizens do.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:05 p.m.

Are you at all concerned,though, that these student towers which are high-density to-the-max will be in a shambles in 20 yrs, whereas what we need to increase the vibrancy of downtown is much better designed, larger units for professional ppl who are here for the long run? The current developments are little more than student ghettos which in no way enhance the ambiance that young professionals or active retirees would enjoy. I think we must require a much higher standard for new development, no?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:17 p.m.

While I agree with your argument, I feel that development pressure is high enough to make at least some demands. If we allow anything and everything to be built, we end up with tomorrow's problems (e.g. what is currently on Huron Street, street-killing parking structure over Maynard, towers that generate wind-swept streets etc.). Density breeds growth and I'm all for it, but a few tweaks can make it benefit the city much more than it currently does.

Chase Ingersoll

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:04 p.m.

#thinker See you in Ypsilanti.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:27 p.m.

I have to agree with all of you. Ypsilanti knows what character is and chooses to attempt to retain it. The people over there are engaged in the community and they aren't just catering to students and "young professionals".


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:06 p.m.

Couldn't agree more. I grew up in Ann Arbor and much prefer Ypsi now. Fewer chain stores and way less of a hassle with parking and whatnot. I feel like Ypsi now is what Ann Arbor used to be.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:48 p.m.

I'm with you two... we used to spend our entertainment dollars in Ann Arbor, but it's gotten so full of hulking new buildings and chain stores/restaurants that there's very little about it that's still interesting. I'm happy now to spend my money and my time in Ypsilanti - a town that is now much of what Ann Arbor used to be.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:42 a.m.

I hate downtowns with towering buildings that make you feel like you're walking in a tunnel. The character of downtown is gone. I don't go there anymore.

Lizzy Alfs

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:57 p.m.

@fjord: I'm not sure if you're kidding, but you're right about the radio! It no longer works driving on East Liberty and other streets of downtown...kind of funny

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:51 p.m.

or maybe Veracity would be more comfortable living in Dexter or Manchester. That argument works 2 ways.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:29 p.m.

Craig Lounsbury - What growth? SEMCOG predicts that Ann Arbor will only gain 6% in population by 2040. Anyway with the pricing of new rentals downtown, those desiring to live do in the new buildings will need income of $100,000 or more yearly. Where are those jobs coming from? Fjord - Seems to me that you will be more comfortable living in Chicago or New York.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:49 p.m.

Personally, I love downtowns with towering buildings that make you feel like you're walking in a tunnel — or more accurately, a canyon. The only thing I don't like about it is that it messes with my satellite radio reception.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:58 a.m.

Do you prefer small towns or sprawling towns? because it seems to me if a town is going to grow its either up or out, or some combination.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:24 a.m.

Quite frankly I'm less concerned with 'out of character development' than I am with sustainable development. Yes, zoning needs to be laid out to protect the interest of existing property owners within reason, but there will always be some dissatisfied with any new development. More importantly though, I thought we had learned in the last bubble burst that investors and developers aren't always focused on the long term stability and improvements, and that extremely rapid growth that seems to outpace natural demand can come back to bite us. I'm concerned that some of these developments are projects that can be sold for profit in the latest frenzy, but end up half occupied and depreciate the market or become a public nuisance in coming decades. How many units have we added or approved downtown in the last three years, compared to how many jobs we've added or how much the population has grown? If the numbers don't closely resemble one another, it seems like this should be a red flag for another unwanted bubble.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:16 a.m.

I believe the Fox Tent site is D-2 which is capped at 60ft . The Planning commission gave them a variance to go to 80 ft. If you don't stick with the regs, then what's the point of zoning? 60 ft would have been much more appropriate for this parcel.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:55 p.m.

Exactly. Why grant variances? Stick to the laws and rules.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:11 a.m.

I think we should tear down all those historic neighborhoods. I am rather fond of what this place looked like in 1643. That's the snapshot in time I'd like to remain frozen in.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:05 p.m.

as long as the tents aren't more than 5 feet tall. I don't want them blocking my view.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:37 p.m.

yes, we can all pitch tents!

Jon Saalberg

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:07 a.m.

I don't understand all the focus on the 413 E. Huron structure. What about the building that is going to be built on the old Fox Tent & Awning site? Talk about changing the character of a neighborhood - that is the Old West Side, which has been the scene of several highly debated building projects, such as the residential fence deemed "unhistoric" and worthy of a multi-page document from the city, detailing the fence's inadequacies. This building will have far more profound an impact than the Huron structure, which is being built in an area that is already mostly businesses and rental units.

Lizzy Alfs

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:56 p.m.

Also should be noted that the 618 S Main developer worked with neighbors and Old West Side Association and reduced the scale.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:49 p.m.

It seems to me the opposition was underwhelming.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:22 p.m.

No, JRW, it is not that the mayor does not have a backbone. This kind of construction is really what he and his minions want. IMHO, those on the Planning Commission and those voting with the mayor on City Council are co-conspirators with developers to maximize construction in Ann Arbor without consideration to overall appearance or any changes to character. As often happens, money trumps everything else!


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:56 p.m.

"In the case of 413 E. Huron, there's overwhelming opposition." Yet, it was approved because the mayor has no backbone to stand up to these out of state fat cat developers.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:44 a.m.

The difference is the 618 South Main project actually has the support of the Old West Side Association, which told city officials last year the developer did a great job of working with neighbors to refine the design. In the case of 413 E. Huron, there's overwhelming opposition.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:57 a.m.

It's time to think about the Fingerle property before the U snatches it up.

Jay Thomas

Fri, May 17, 2013 : 3:32 a.m.

They could still use it for athletics... taking it off the tax rolls.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:16 p.m.

I believe the Fingerle property is protected by the fact that it is in a flood zone.

Dirty Mouth

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:36 p.m.

The Fingerle Property is in a flood zone, so building anything beyond a practice field is probably a no -go.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:19 a.m.

If you wanted to know where the U is going to build next, you could probably follow Bill Martin's purchases.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:51 a.m.

Ryan, While I appreciate your articles on this, I am confused why you continue to use a completely fraudulent image depicting the 413 building. I'm not asking for a developer image either, complete with "tree stamps". But you might as well park the Empire State Building there as it is disingenuous to the conversation. As for zoning, I think @brimble's comment above is the best I've seen in a while.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:29 p.m.

@Ryan: Thanks for responding. @Veracity: Ryan said "It's definitely not exact", but you're agreeing with something else. The structure pictured is in that area, but it does not appropriately indicate its proportions. I am all for making arguments against the structure, but let's stay away from exaggerated drawings by self-interested parties.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:40 p.m.

Ryan, by responding to "1bit," you acknowledge his argument and give it power and decrease your relevance. No need to do this, you're the author.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:15 p.m.

I agree with Ryan Stanton that the picture appropriately depicts the size of the construction planned for 413 E. Huron. You are obviously affected by the impact of the size disparity when compared to neighboring structures as well as with other large buildings in the area. The incongruity of having such a massive structure at its location will be even more obvious when construction is completed.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 11:19 a.m.

It's definitely not exact, but it does show the project in relation to the surrounding neighborhood (the issue at hand), and there aren't any current renderings from the developer that show that as far as I know. Here's an older rendering, before changes were made, that showed the 413 project in relation to its immediate surroundings, including two other student high-rises already built:


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:24 a.m.

Market demand drives the nature development. The function of zoning is to limit the scope of the market to work within parameters which serve a larger purpose, such as creating neighborhoods, or, you know, "zones" for different kinds of development and/or preservation. But zoning has to be progressive, that is, future-forward directed, and it has to reflect a larger vision than just "we don't like buildings." It also has to mitigate against unintended consequences. Stop development downtown, and get extra-urban sprawl and overcrowded roads. Stop development downtown and limit sprawl, and drive the market to unaffordability. Develop downtown and create hyper-premium costs and some perceived crowding within a small space. It isn't going to satisfy everyone. But a smart, cohesive plan that doesn't suffer exceptions is a far better answer than what we have now.

Mark Evans

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

Your comments seem sensible, but confused about a couple of things: (1) how are "drive the market to unaffordability" and "create hyper-premium costs" different? (2) From the story, I gather the authorities have been maintaining a plan with no exceptions. Isn't that why the opponents are upset - because they didn't override the zoning provisions? What, exactly, are you advocating that is different from the current situation?

Bob W

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:14 a.m.

From my observation of the zoning map, the patchwork of small (some ridiculously so) parcels virtually ensures future controversy. Might want to fix that.