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 Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 5:50 a.m.

Downtown Opportunities: Envisioning 2 new public plazas in downtown Ann Arbor

By Guest Column


A University of Michigan architecture graduate student project showing a plaza in front of a mixed-use building on the Library Lot, which consists of a 15-story residential tower over a 4-story base of retail/restaurants on the plaza and mixed use on floors 2-4. The perspective is looking northeast from the Fifth Avenue sidewalk in front of the library, with Library Lane on right.

Courtesy of Doug Kelbaugh

Editor's note: This is the second installment of "Downtown Opportunities," a two-part guest column by University of Michigan professor Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of architecture and urban planning. In the first part, Kelbaugh offered points to consider as Ann Arbor officials ponder future redevelopment opportunities for four city-owned parking lots downtown. In the second part here, Kelbaugh discusses the potential, as he sees it, for two new public plaza spaces downtown.

The first possible plaza site, now staring us in the face, is on the "Library Lane lot." It sits strategically within what was an overly large block that Library Lane has sensibly cut in half. That block is strategically located at the center of the downtown core and needs careful design.

Why a plaza rather than a park here? Beyond attracting more residents and visitors to downtown, there are three reasons.


Doug Kelbaugh

First, there is an architectural/engineering rationale: For structural reasons, the top of a parking garage is better suited for plaza than a park, which needs deep, heavy soil for trees and berms. An area or approximately 100' x 100' atop the garage has been engineered for open space rather than a building. (It can support some trees and plantings, but a plaza would have less than a park).

The parking garage is also designed to have buildings on the east and north sides, with the library south of the lane forming the third side of the plaza (which would be enlarged by 50' when Library Lane is closed from 5th Ave. for events. I'm not talking about a grand, open plaza, but a piazzetta - small enough to easily recognize a face or hail a friend, but large enough for outdoor dining, art shows, music, children's events, etc.)

The second reason is environmental — it is ecologically greener to have a dense, complete downtown than suburban sprawl, because, as noted in Part I, urban residents have smaller ecological footprints per capita. Arguably a plaza makes downtown more complete than another park. (Liberty Plaza is much more of a park than a plaza, because it is heavily planted, multi-leveled, has no shops or eateries fronting it, and is open to the streets on two sides. It is also physically possible to develop a true park on terra firma behind the "AA Spark" building owned by First Martin.)

Third, there is a fiscal rationale - the city can capture considerable cash from private development of the site rather than spend scarce public funds on a public park. The revenue from sale of this and the other three lots can be spent toward restoring fire and police cuts or whatever is deemed appropriate.

The other ideal plaza site is on S. Main Street, on the west side of the longest block. If the three small buildings (or the shops within them) immediately south of Gratzi Restaurant were moved to the “Palio lot” (the smallest of the four sites in the DDA study) or to the Ashley and William site, the corridor of Main Street could open into a well-defined public outdoor space.


Aerial view of a model made by Kelbaugh's students, looking east over the city-owned Kline Lot (at Ashley and William) to Main Street, the Fourth and William parking garage and beyond. The hypothetical project shown on the Kline Lot here is split into two mixed-use complexes by a pedestrian passage that crosses the alley and connects to a new plaza proposed along Main Street.

Courtesy of Doug Kelbaugh

It could easily open through to the "Ashley and William lot," and connect down to the proposed Greenway. It's a finite "place" that punctuates the otherwise endless streetscape, and it offers the right dimensions and sense of enclosure for pedestrian comfort.

In any case, new developments on the four sites need to remember that Liberty Street is the main link from campus to Main Street, and they need to be mindful that development on William Street should not compete with or dilute the most lively east-west corridor.

DDA has responsibly orchestrated a long process that involved voluminous community input. Their consultants' illustrative build-outs are on the timid side for our downtown core; there is no reason to keep building height below the legal D1 zoning limit of 180 feet. This typically 15 story height is not excessive if the high-rise core is clearly bounded by Huron,1st Ave, William and Division Streets.

Let high-rise buildings crisply define a discrete downtown that is distinctly taller than its environs and the campus. Keep the D1 zone on the south side of Huron, the east side of 1st, the north side of William, and the south side of Huron, which has the added, just-in-time benefit of shrinking the massive building proposed at 401-413 Huron, which completely overshadows the adjoining historic homes and Sloan Plaza. The D2 zone can transition to adjacent residential areas with buildings that can be up to 60 feet tall and relatively urban in size and character.

Like circling the wagons, a taller, more compact downtown core with plazas to complement street life will bring us smartly into the future, which is naturally unfolding as more urban land and energy prices rise along with air temperatures and community aspirations.


lou glorie

Wed, Feb 13, 2013 : 3:19 p.m.

Even though I'm weary of the resources we are expending on the re-engineering (over planning) of downtown, this opinion piece presents too many incongruities to ignore, but I'll concentrate on the most glaring--Mr. Kelbaugh attempt to paint concrete and steel "green" while painting "leafy" a manifestation of antigreen. So in the first paragraph, he's setting the stage for the green space bashing to come. You see, my dear sillies, green space is not green. Paved plazas are green, high rises looming over "outdoor living rooms" are green, but make no mistake about it—a patch of green to lie upon and gaze up at the passing clouds is not green. A place providing a soft landing for a young'un's cartwheel is not green. I have no idea where Mr. Kelbaugh gets his ideas about what a city it, but it seems to be limited to marketing imperatives like "Live! Work! Play!" where "play" obviously means something other than Frisbee or duck-duck-goose. Why not just say Shop! Spend! In his brave new city, he does admit the need to accommodate "some" families. But those would be families with children who do not need to run around. But families who might make give downtown Ann Arbor a pass anyway because there will be no place to let the tots crawl. Ann Arbor has some great parks. But have a look at the city's park map Pan to downtown and what you see is the area of the city with the least park space. Not only that, but those green areas mean "park" and "park", does not mean "places of green repose". The term includes the Farmers' Mkt, Sculpture Square and that lil' thing called "Hanover Sq". No place to stretch out on a lawn and read. No place to shuffle over unshaved on Sunday morning with your Times and a mug of joe. If we want our downtown to be a place of convivial urbanism, we will need patches of green—real green.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 9:18 p.m.

Liberty square square it and they will occupy....duh......

Prue Rosenthal

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 4:28 p.m.

I so appreciate having Doug Kelbach weigh in on this very important community discussion. Our city planners and decision makers one hopes attend to these well reasoned and thoughtful contributions to this on going challenge for the city.

Bob Beckley

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:56 p.m.

The argument Plaza vs. Park has much to do with semantics and our own interpretation of what these words mean. Perhaps we should turn our thinking to what activity we want downtown and the kinds of spaces needed to support those activities. More residences and work places - yes. More community related activities - yes. Main Street gets turned into a plaza many times during the year simply by eliminating traffic. It becomes home to Festa Fools and other parades, dance parties, car shows, and has the potential for hosting many other kinds of events. But those opportunities are ephemeral. Why not another place - call it a plaza - that can house community activities on a more permanent basis? Ann Arbor needs places where the entire community can come together to celebrate. A well designed plaza can support those kinds of opportunities. Note, I say well designed. Let's call it a public gathering place - a people magnet. Let's concentrate on what activities we want such a public place to support, a place that can be uniquely identified with the life of Ann Arbor at its heart - downtown.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:31 p.m.

Please read my comments to Mr. Kelbaugh's first installment published yesterday. Mr. Kelbaugh's academic exercise in fostering the construction of large buildings for the Connecting Williams Street plan fails to recognize important practical realities. First, no demand exists for additional commercial, office and residential development of the four properties. Neither DDA or City Council members have identified specific business enterprises that would want to occupy these buildings. These city leaders do not claim that important services and commercial enterprises are missing from our downtown which would be rectified by new construction. Also, land and construction costs are high downtown requiring high and undesirable rental rates. So presently the DDA wishes to build speculatively on each property, hoping to provide occupancy for business enterprises capable of providing TIF revenue. The prospect of receiving more TIF payments is the DDA's primary motivation for developing these properties. The DDA has generated a series of deficit budgets which have required diverting money from its reserve fund in order to balance its books. The reserve fund may be exhausted in the next year or two which means that continued deficit budgets will result in insolvency. The DDA's deficit budgets are driven by recently added bond servicing charges associated with the constructions of the Municipal Building, the Library Lane subterranean parking structure, the Village Green City Apartment parking structure and a loan from Republic Parking for computers. These costs will persist for years and only new TIF revenues will help offset these expenses. Speculative construction does not guarantee TIF payments adequate to balance the DDA's budget. DDA insolvency should result in its disbandment but the city taxpayers will remain responsible for all of the DDA's existing debts. The DDA's plan guarantees no benefits.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 5:17 p.m.

All fair points. From my experience I feel I can safely say that due to the many historic areas in Ann Arbor (Main, State, surrounding neighborhoods) I don't think there will be too much incontextuality, and with proper design (!) not too much claustrofobia either. Some of the presented proposals work, some don't. The Huron Street development proposal presented recently shows me that some of the zoning isn't quite what we should be looking for, and Doug agrees with that in his piece (he limits the D1 to south of Huron). I don't think the DDA can/will develop non-public properties on its own, and I hope they realize that subsidized private construction is also not a way forward (ie the conference center/hotel). That means we will soon have an excellent test whether there is market demand: the lots will be put on the market for developers to buy. If no-one is interested, we have a problem. Somehow however I don't think that will be the case, the interest in Ann Arbor by developers still amazes me sometimes. Really, how many overpriced student rooms can we still absorb? Just an example. As for parking as a profitable land use: I suggest reading 'Lots of Parking' and 'The High Cost of Free Parking' on this topic. Parking is an excellent 'placeholder' land use. While of course much coveted by surrounding properties, it is considered a 'tax-payer': in other words only a land use that pays the tax bills if nothing else can be built. For reference, look at downtown Detroit. I think with the current (over?)investment in underground parking we can and should move beyond that stage as soon as possible. I really do think TIF payments and the lump sum of land sales will markedly offset parking profit (income-tax), the latter is much, much lower than you might think.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 4:58 p.m.

cck - I forgot to answer your question about a solution to the DDA's perpetual deficit problem with impending insolvency. I do not foresee parking fees and TIF payments covering expenses. Therefore, one of four actions will occur: 1. City Council and city administration agree to "gift" enough money from the city's general budget to balance the DDA's budget; 2. City taxpayers are asked to approve a new millage; 3. City taxpayers are asked to approve an income tax; 4. The DDA is disbanded and its indebtedness absorbed into the city's indebtedness. NOTE: The city's general budget may not have enough uncommitted funds to cover the DDA's debt obligations which will mean that a millage or income tax will be sought.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 4:46 p.m.

CCK -- Please do not dismiss the present utilization of the four properties. They are functioning parking lots, often heavily used, and generating considerable revenue for the DDA and the City. Building on these lots will both eliminate parking fee revenue and require downtown patrons to seek less convenient parking elsewhere. So the four properties are not weed-infested unproductive land. Questions that would need to be answered in the affirmative for me to support development of the four lots include: 1: How much unmet demand exists for commercial, office and residential property downtown (what square footage)? What specific enterprises are awaiting the availability of rental space in downtown Ann Arbor? How many can you name? 2: With the high price of land and construction costs, what would developers have to charge in rental rates to those seeking occupancy of commercial, office and residential space? Will most potential tenants be "priced out"? 3: How will construction of 12-story to 15-story buildings effect the appearance of downtown Ann Arbor? Will Ann Arbor citizens feel claustrophobic or crowded by the addition of big buildings? Should this be a consideration? 4: How predictable will TIF payments be after completion of construction and will TIF payments really offset the loss of parking fees presently collected in sizable amounts from all four properties?


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:45 p.m.

But you wouldn't disagree that the only way to recoup the (admittedly vast) expenses for parking structures would be to at least seek development on these sites? Otherwise you are right and we will be paying dearly for an insolvent DDA soon. So, assuming that you'd also rather not see that happen, what is your proposal? I am not a market expert but I could see more demand for apartments (just look at these overpriced student flats) and large-floorplate offices as creative and knowledge companies are increasingly interested in clustering downtown (Baracuda and Google will generate spinoffs). All I see Doug starting is an exchange of thoughts about how to recover investments, and everyone's financially sane (i.e. not just building revenue-negative park space) ideas would surely be welcome.

Bob Needham

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:30 p.m.

Doug Kelbaugh, thanks for writing these pieces. Lots of interesting perspectives and food for thought here.

Seasoned Cit

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:19 p.m.

Will these Plaza's be City property ? i.e.... no income...but expensive to maintain ?


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:23 p.m.

That is why construction right next to them would be beneficial. It is very common to have private development partly pay for the construction and upkeep of public space. In other words: more density would mean less tax dollars spent on public space (not to mention more people to keep it safe and vibrant).

Ted Annis

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:17 p.m.

Doug, The plaza is great. But, the UoM Architecture Department's idea of architecture is boxes stacked up and on stilts. This concept is visually awful and has not withstood the test of time. (It is time to get beyond Metcaff.) Hopefully, your students can do much better than what is presented here. Perhaps the UoM students should look at some interesting buildings in Chicago or NYC or at the DTE building at 414 South Main Street, Ann Arbor or at the new dorm at State and Huron. Ted Annis

Dog Guy

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:14 p.m.

Such plazas will enhance the greater University of Michigan area without cost to the university. The plan is "intelligent greenbelting." Ain't education wonderful!


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:01 p.m.

In defense of Doug and in response to some of the commenters below. The parking garage under the library lot has a little southwest corner constructed in such a way that there cannot ever be anything built on top of it. In other words: that will always be open space. But... the rest of the garage roof is built in such a way that a proper tree can never be planted on top of it (like 99.9% of all parking garages). The roots would go as deep as an entire floor of parking! So this ridiculous idea of building a 'central park' on top of it? If you like barren fields with no vegetation, go right ahead. Nothing. Else. Will. Grow. Furthermore, don't we already have a nicely vegetated central parklet in Ann Arbor, Liberty Plaza? Oh wait, not quite a success. If people would only step over their own shadows, forgo their ideology for one second, I hope they would realize that the fiscally, socially and environmentally (there, I said it) sustainable solution would be to build on top of this garage. If you don't agree, please read this article again. If you still don't agree, please present your arguments in which the words 'DDA' and 'disband' are not allowed. To add a fourth reason for a building: the 'healthy business community' that is often mentioned here doesn't thrive on air, it thrives on more people working, playing and living downtown. Guess where they could be? That's right. Sorry ladies and gents: you voted for a greenbelt, you voted for more density in the city. It's not that scary, trust me. By the way, I am not commenting on the aesthetics of any presented solutions here, 'de gustibus non est disputandum' as they say.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 8:28 p.m.

It's quite evident that numerous trees of many varieties can grow and (relatively) thrive without an "entire floor of parking" underneath for roots. Even if such a claim about "proper trees" were true, the option of adding soil to make sure that there was enough room is a reasonable one. OK, also no mention of either DDA or "disband."


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:44 p.m.

Two reasons for not building highrise buildings as suggested: 1. No need for these structures has been documented; and, therefore, 2. The development will financially fail providing no financial benefits for the DDA and the city. The ultimate result will likely be a small herd of white elephants. (There you go: not even a mention of "DDA" or "disband")

cornelius McDougenschniefferburgenstein jr. 3 esq.

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 2:57 p.m.

the areas will be aptly named WINO PLAZA and JUNKIE PARK.they will feature padded chutes so they can slide in from LIBERTY PLAZA safely+swiftly.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 8:39 p.m.

Cornelius, absolutely agree! BTW, how did you come up with that creative handle? :)


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 2:16 p.m.

I'm glad I ordered The Greenest Building (DVD, $30, 1 hr.) and viewed it. As a non-architect, I feel I have a much greater understanding of several issues Mr. Kelbaugh brings up. The film provides statistics regarding the current US building explosion, and a lot of other information which make Kelbaugh's ideas seem almost from a past era. Reusing buildings whenever possible is the reponsible way to go for many reasons.

Nicholas Urfe

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

Plaza = concrete. Like the "art plaza" in front of city hall. Yeah, that is wildly successful.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 1:26 p.m.

I'll support more public plazas when the city has cleaned up Liberty Plaza.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 3:04 p.m.

I would agree with that. The problem is, who pays for that? New construction would do two things: generate more public/private money to build higher quality public spaces (and clean up LP) and generate more normal, working people to populate them.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 1:03 p.m.

I was noting, as I read the article, some of the "so let it be written, so let it be done" reasoning of the author - e.g. Liberty Plaza more of a park; Library Lot not suited for a "heavy" park, even though it is designed to support a structure the size of the Empire State Building, etc. Imagine my (non)surprise when I found the most fallacious statement of all, claiming "DDA has responsibly orchestrated a long process that involved voluminous community input." While I agree that a more compact downtown is preferable to urban sprawl, I am not interested in hearing the drum banging of a DDA shill. Besides, one look at the design renderings at the article's outset (looks rather like something I saw in Beirut during the civil war there: swill cheese style) should have told me that we were in for the equivalent of an architectural bad hair day.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 1:46 p.m.

oops, swiss cheese, not swill cheese - although the latter might exist in some form.


Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 12:53 p.m.

I wonder how the characterization of the DDA's process as 'responsible' was arrived at. Surveys they sponsored did not always allow for choices (in the clickable buttons/votes) that represented an plaza. If respondents wanted to express support for a plaza or park, they had to do so in comment sections. Additionally, as I understand it/recall, DDA scenarios for a collection of city owned lots offered a) 'some' commercial development, b) 'more' commercial development, and c) 'LOTS' of commercial development--but not the lot by the library as only and completely a park. DDA is not really open to the idea of a park--they have hedged against that form of public use of public space and undermined efforts to create such. They are a pro-business organization, and want to see public spaces/resources made available for that use. Certainly we need and want a healthy, thriving business community--in our downtown--but let's not mistake the DDA for a neutral, wise arbiter of how public resources should be used: they have an agenda. I favor use of one of the city's lots for a downtown, central park. The lot next to the library seems ideal given the public nature of the library and the presence of the federal building across the street: those aspects give both a central and a public, community feel to that area. Additionally, that location is more central to the main/liberty/state street centers of the downtown, and could connect with--and perhaps redeem?--Liberty Plaza. The Ashley lot as a site is interesting, but frankly seems marginal to the downtown. If we develop the Library lot, we will never be able to make it a park. Think of Tally Hall. If we try a park there and it doesn't work, we can build there later.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 : 12:46 p.m.

It took me a minute to puzzle out what he meant, but Doug's idea for a plaza on Main St. south of Gratzi's is actually quite a good one that would add vibrancy to an already vibrant area.