New York investors proposing hotel and conference center for development in downtown Ann Arbor
Picture a 15-story hotel and conference center rising from the top of a new underground parking structure in downtown Ann Arbor.
It could include up to 200 rooms, as well as a smaller number of high-level suites, with restaurants and shops at the street level. The roof of the conference center would be a summer garden open to the public with a skating rink in the winter. Inside the building, a spacious ballroom would seat up to 1,000 people.
That's one vision for the future of a city-owned parcel on Fifth Avenue, where the Downtown Development Authority plans to break ground next spring on a 677-space parking structure next to the downtown library.
The question now is: What goes on top of that parking structure?
Representatives for a group of private investors from New York confirmed today they'll be submitting a proposal for a hotel and conference center project, potentially costing $30 million to $50 million to build, and involving a public-private partnership. Details of the potential partnership have not been disclosed.
The group of investors is being represented locally by two Ann Arbor business professionals - attorney Bruce Elliott and business consultant Fritz Seyferth. Both were college roommates and football teammates under coach Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan from 1969-1971.
“It will be a wonderful concept for the city,” said Seyferth, who doesn't yet want to disclose the identities of the investors or any specific project plans.
He said a detailed proposal will soon be coming to the city and also said at least two firms are involved, both with offices in New York.
The city announced on its Web site last week that it's soliciting proposals from private developers who may have a vision for what goes on top of the underground parking structure being built by the DDA. The city has set a Nov. 13 deadline for proposals for development of the 1.2-acre lot owned by the city at 319 S. Fifth Ave.
City Administrator Roger Fraser confirmed the city has been approached by representatives for the New York-based developers over the past year. In fact, Fraser relayed their vision to City Council members at a retreat in January.
“There's all sorts of things people would like to see there,” Fraser said of proposals for what's known as the Library Lot. “The RFP was very purposefully crafted to not have a set of expectations. We wanted respondents to the RFP to come to us having looked at the market, having looked at the community, and having made their best guesses as to what fits there and what works economically."
Fraser said city officials aren't yet leaning toward one idea over another, but noted the concept of a hotel and conference center is one that will be considered. He said the proposal includes a creative use of the parcel, such as the public park atop the conference center.
Vivienne Armentrout, a former Washtenaw County commissioner from 1997-2004, has been critical of the city in recent posts on her blog, claiming the request for proposals the city sent out are tailored for a “secret plan for the conference center.”
“The question of course, is: will this RFP truly be an opportunity for many competing ideas for the best use for the top of the underground parking structure? Or it is merely a vehicle for a 'done deal' to put into place the secret proposal mentioned in January?” she writes. “My conclusion: it is 'wired.'”
Armentrout reports that the proposal has strong support from a team called Valiant Partners LLC, which includes - in addition to Seyferth - New York resident Bruce Zenkel, a major donor to U-M's Ross School of Business and U-M Athletics; Michael Bailkin, a dealmaker from New York; and Keith D. Coe, CEO of VF Hotels.
The city's Downtown Plan, adopted by the Planning Commission in May, states a goal of the city to “support the private development of a downtown conference/civic center within the core area.” The plan also states the city is interested in investigating “the costs and benefits of public funding participation in the construction and/or operation of such a downtown visitor attraction.”
“A downtown conference center could have a significant, positive impact on the downtown economy, especially its retail sector,” the plan states.
Seyferth said his primary interest in the project is helping to move Ann Arbor forward. He said he's gotten positive feedback in the community about the hotel and conference center concept and believes there's a strong need for it in the community.
"This is not a convention center - it would be a conference center targeted to the intellectual properties that reside in the greater Ann Arbor community,” Seyferth said.
He said it could be a meeting place for high-level discussions about emerging concepts, for instance, in alternative energy or new battery technologies.
"We pride ourselves in the Midwest as being a hub of remarkable intelligence in Ann Arbor,” Seyferth said. “We're trying to say, 'Why don't we create a center here where we attract those people?'”
DDA Executive Director Susan Pollay said the parking structure and related infrastructure improvements over the next two years have been designed to accommodate a building as tall as 20 stories, in case there's interest in going vertical.
“We're designing the infrastructure to allow us to have that conversation,” she said. “We're putting in all the pieces so we can, as a community, talk about that vision, what should go there, what complements the library, what would be a really good connection that continues us between Liberty Street and William Street. There's infrastructure in place to support whatever it is we come up with.”