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Posted on Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 2:40 p.m.

New York investors proposing hotel and conference center for development in downtown Ann Arbor

By Ryan J. Stanton

The parking lot next to the downtown Ann Arbor District LIbrary on Fifth Avenue is the site of a planned underground parking garage. A group of investors wants to build a hotel and convention center atop of the parking garage. Steve Pepple | Ann

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.”

Ryan J. Stanton covers government for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.



Thu, Aug 27, 2009 : 10:28 p.m.

I honestly like the distinction they're making between a "conference center" and a "convention center". The latter we don't need; the former I think we could support. Ann Arbor has much, much more to offer than a downtown that only serves to support conventioneers and seasonal traffic. Convention centers can co-exist with healthy, cultural neighborhoods, but you have to be careful--I wouldn't want to see Ann Arbor turn into a support community for a convention center. If anything gets built there, I think it should be of modest size. 24 stories? I support taller buildings in A2, but I'm not sure that's the right place for one. It would depend on the building--a massive, blocky structure has no place there IMO. Step-backs would be a necessity. I actually think there's a better space for a conference center and a hotel...right across the street. Demolish the federal building and rebuild it as part of a multi-use facility. You heard it here first :) Again, I think Ann Arbor can support a conference center, and could probably use one or two more hotels near (not necessarily in) downtown, but...this is going to take some thinking. Don't assume this is the best space for it. I was kind of getting on board with the idea of the top of the library lot as a more civic space, maybe with some offices or retail areas. At any rate, any "conference center", with or without a hotel, has got to contribute to the streetscape. I agree a big, ugly, anonymous, windowless building is not the best use of that space--it's not what Ann Arbor needs there. You've already got that in the library and, again, across the street in the federal building. Why build more? Whatever gets built there, it has to be something the locals will appreciate. Sensitive to the town's character. That has to be kept in mind. Remember you've got two-story residential housing within a block or two of that lot. I support development, but it has to keep context in mind.


Thu, Aug 27, 2009 : 2:36 p.m.

Perhaps they should put in a small business incubator that occupies a couple levels...A place where new start-up companies can rent affordable spaces until they can fully develop their product/service. Suppliment the rent with profits from a conference center/hotel/restaurant/parking structure surcharge etc. It would potentially attract the type of people that want to start a small businesses but cant afford to because the start up costs are too great. When/if the companies reach a certain level of success and can take on the expenses, they can lease or purchase space in other vacant storefronts or office buildings downtown, opening the space for another new business.


Thu, Aug 27, 2009 : 10:58 a.m.

"Second, what happens to those smaller businesses?... (Herb David's Guitar, Christian Science Reading Room, Seva, Jerusalem Garden, etc)..."... These properties are actually in the City of Ann Arbor's East Liberty Historic District, and are subject to Historic District Committee rules.


Thu, Aug 27, 2009 : 8:59 a.m.

I have two concerns, first, those streets are not designed to handle the influx of traffic, first street maybe, but all the others? Second, what happens to those smaller businesses on Liberty, construction WILL affect them, if not displace them completely. Are there plans for that or is it just "get out, we need your space, tough luck"? David;s guitar studio, the Christian Reading room, Seva... I don't remember a time when these WEREN'T here... and I've lived here for 40 years... We need to remember that small unique places like these are what make Ann Arbor so great. I hear people all the time asking where "that vegetarian restaurant is" when tourists come to town.. We need to take care of our own if we plan on doing this... and what the heck is this 15 story crap? Could we possibly get a little more grandiose? There is no way they will be able to make that fit smoothly into the existing architecture and feeling of neighborhood... It's gonna look like someone stomped on our downtown area.

Matt Van Auker

Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 4:13 p.m.

You've got to be kidding me. I thought it was already settled on underground parking and a flat surface. That's what we need, more downtown congestion. Give me a break.

Joan Lowenstein

Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 3:02 p.m.

I'd like to correct sh1 above. As a planning commissioner, I said the space above the parking garage would not be a park, that a building would be built there. That is what will happen and that is the RFP process. There will be a committee that will make a recommendation to City Council and there will be opportunity for public input. People like to stand by and Just Say No, but if you have a vision of what you'd like to see there, get a group together and approach the developers you want to bring your vision here.

Cartman's Conscious

Wed, Aug 26, 2009 : 10:43 a.m.

A downtown conference center could have a significant, positive impact on the downtown economy, especially its retail sector..." What retail sector? There's just a handful left and they're fading fast. Ann Arbor doesn't need a another faceless red brick mid rise to draw more "business". How about creating an environment where small retailers can actually afford to set up shop with businesses that cater to the CITY RESIDENT's needs. It would be nice if we didn't have to drive to the outskirts to get affordable groceries & sundries. What does Ann Arbor do - farm out city planning to Walmart? More big business corporate crap literally being built at the tax payer's expense is not needed.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 7:15 p.m.

@Bob Dively & Edward Vielmetti To you both...the city of Ann Arbor site planning and permitting process along with other county and state permitting programs process already cover everything covered in the lawsuit(s) specifications. The client(s) of the law firm are being taken for a ride along with us taxpayers in an indirect way. Thats why I commented "Only In Ann Arbor", because this case is what I would call double dipping the taxpayers due to the litigation set forth and the already heavy regulated city ordinances which will only cost city staff an unecessary burden of time and money (taxpayer money) on approving this project.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 4:05 p.m.

I am struck by the short timeframe so many commenters are thinking within. We're currently in an economic downturn, to be certain. But projects of this scale need to think in terms of years and decades into the future. And that's especially true for this site. First, the underground garage needs to be near completion before the above-ground structures begin. And that construction will likely on the order of years rather than months. This is an important cite. It's on the main corridor linking downtown and Central Campus. It's the logical place for quality infill that will support the local economy into the future. I don't know whether a hotel / conference center is the best use, but I'm happy it's one of the proposals. And the idea of a public green-space on the roof, is the cherry on top, so to speak.

Bob Dively

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 2:31 p.m.

@Edward Vielmetti Thanks, Ed.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 12:39 p.m.

Well now what a surprise....a customed tailored proposal for the UPG that will fit what the City builds and DDA just opened this site up for ideas..LOL... I believe there is our "sweetheart" that was in mind all along for this sweet heart deal...and all the better they are also blue blooded wolverines....what an "american dream" come true. "Public and Private partnership....that has been kept very secret!

Bob Dively

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 12:27 p.m.

@a2jpb I don't know the details of the lawsuit (lawsuits?) filed, but I suspect that the businesses are claiming that because of reduced business during the construction process, they are concerned that they won't be around in two years to enjoy the benefits of the completed construction, ten-fold increase in business or otherwise.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 10:31 a.m.

This is very cool! Perhaps we can lure Adobe in for a design conference...hehehe!


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 10:20 a.m.

As a 10-year Ann Arbor resident who recently visited Chicago I have been marveling at the lack of hotel space near downtown Ann Arbor. It wasn't something that had occurred to me until that recent weekend visit. There are very few opportunities for visitors to stay downtown -- staying out by Briarwood or Plymouth Road is not the same. Now, I can't say that I support or oppose the Council's methods, but I am tired of hearing the very vocal minority keeping Ann Arbor in the 60s. I'd like to be a "Townie" -- as a 28 year old professional I'm at a crossroads, deciding if Ann Arbor will be the place I settle or if I will move on. I know I'm not the only one. I would just love to be a part of a bustling, exciting, culturally rich Ann Arbor. It's been dying -- something needs to change and I think we need to embrace responsible progress.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 8:51 a.m.

When I travel I personally enjoy staying in the downtown area - that is of course if the city is safe. I think Ann Arbor would be a wonderful place for conventioneers to gather and stroll around never veering too far where a short cab ride couldn't get you back to your room. Ann Arbor has that vibrancy and a hotel like this is in order for the city and should be supported. Tourism is a very big industry and it brings in a lot of tax dollars!

Chuck Warpehoski

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 8:36 a.m.

I'm not sure where I stand on the proposal yet, but in terms of the demand question, I've heard Jesse Bernstein, former President of the Chamber, often say that the lack of a convention center inhibited AA's ability to recruit businesses. His take is that Ann Arbor lacked both hotel space for high-end CEOs used to 3-star and up service and large-group meeting sites. That was Jesse's take. Like I said, I'm still making up my mind.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 8:07 a.m.

Yet another great idea and opportunity that will get bogged down or turned down by the city council and members of the community that would prefer low income housing on the spot.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 7:42 a.m.

Before leaving her position on City Council, Joan Lowenstein said at a public meeting that the space would go "to the highest bidder." That's a really sad and short-sighted way to make changes that will permanently affect the city. The lack of public input here has been frustrating, speaking as someone who lives downtown.


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 7:14 a.m.

It hardly matters whether this development a good thing or a bad thing. It will be good for some and bad for others. What really matters is the underhanded way that, with the aid of Roger Fraser's deceptive strategy, the mayor and his gang on council came to this decision WITHOUT ANY PUBLIC INPUT!


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 6:57 a.m.

Is there really a need for such a thing? Lots of that around the perimeter of towns where it should be.I've been to conferences-who wants to deal with the center of towns. People who have to use airports want it near a highway exit. Or if people drive from another town-why spend another third of your time navigating into a city. Can't see the desire for this-is this another hookup with the University type of thing? Are they asking the city to do this?


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 6:47 a.m.

Don't worry, if your build it, they will come, really it works every time...Don't worry about housing overcapacity, business foldings, declining populations, auto bankruptcies... details. Look at Georgetown, we are such a happening area that all surrounding commercial real estate is just hot, hot, hot..It's a can't miss deal...


Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 6:37 a.m.

your right bob...disrupted by more business ten fold. my bad.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 12:43 a.m.

What a nice idea, a different type of development for downtown. Pity the People's Council of Ann Arbor will never allow it. By the time they get through with the proposal, all that will remain is an underground homeless shelter powered by tanks of pig dung serving gourmet vegan food in plates recycled from the bones of our town's Founding Fathers.


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 9:39 p.m.

Must be nice to have the citizens of Ann Arbor donate over an acre of prime downtown land AND pay for the infrastucture for $50 million private development. Excuse me while I puke in my mouth... If something looks like dung, smells like dung, it must be dung... this project keeps taking turns for the worse. Public land and city backed debt should not be used to profit OUT-OF-STATE developers. If the Hyatt, the Holiday Inn, or some other FOR PROFIT hotel company believed it could make $ in downtown Ann Arbor they would be here ALREADY. If these developers believe their model is economically feasable then why are they not asked to pay for the land & infrastucture! Hey New York developers... there is a recently vacated site across the street(former YMCA site), that would be a great place for such a project. You can puchases the land @ fair market value & put ur own money into the infrastructure like any other legitimate development. Expect more lawsuits if this proposal is adapted.

Steve Feinman

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 8:01 p.m.

Picutre another almost project with no economic basis.


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 6:38 p.m.

@Lois Schwartz: How exactly have New York developers destroyed NYC? What would New York be with out it's developments?

Concerned Citizen

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 6:29 p.m.

There are some majestic heritage trees and a long, stately, picturesque hedgerow that currently border this area and are shared by neighboring properties. Are these to be protected by "Tree City"?... What are the plans for these landscape features?

Concerned Citizen

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 5:40 p.m.

What is the definition of "Speed Ramp" as designated in the plan?

Lois Schwartz

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 5:32 p.m.

NY Real Estate Developers have utterly destroyed New York. I hope for nn arbor's sake that this never comes to pass!

Bob Dively

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 4:46 p.m.

Jerusalem Garden is suing because its owners claim that their business will be disrupted. Businesses file these sorts of suits all the time. Why do you think that it's unique to Ann Arbor?

Bob Dively

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 4:29 p.m.

It's not "near the corner of Fifth and William" - it's right smack in the middle of the block. And the post still says "that's one vision for the future of the corner of Fifth and William streets".


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 4:26 p.m.

jerusalem garden is suing over an underground parking structure/ hotel/convention center replacing a surface parking lot? only in ann arbor.


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 4:10 p.m.

I hope it is a better plan that the old tally hall...


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 4:06 p.m.

hopefully city council wont screw this plan up as well.

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 2:29 p.m.

@Rizzle Thanks for your comment. We have clarified that the site is near the corner of Fifth and William, between Liberty and William, as the map shows. Glad we could clarify that.


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 2:23 p.m.

This is very cool! This kind of infrastructure puts in place one the steps to make Ann Arbor the center of Southeast Michigan instead of Detroit...


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 2:18 p.m.

Liberty and William is a corner that does not exist in Ann Arbor.