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Posted on Wed, May 15, 2013 : 5:33 p.m.

Residents not benefitting from downtown development

By Letters to the Editor

Between the boundless greed of downtown landlords and the handing over of downtown to developers by the City Council, all the unique and interesting independent businesses that gave Ann Arbor its special appeal are rapidly being driven out.

For years my husband and I lived downtown. The numerous and diverse mix of small, independent businesses made it possible for us to do most of our shopping downtown and made it a great place to live. Those days are long gone, obviously. Yet those businesses are what made living and working downtown a joy.

The DDA and City Council should think hard about what it is that makes living in Ann Arbor, and particularly downtown, attractive in the first place before allowing more high-rise development.

The push to make the downtown more “vertical" as a means of containing sprawl, are making the downtown darker with the enormous cast-shadows created by these high-rises. When skyscrapers first appeared in Chicago and New York early in the 20th century, ordinances were passed to require greater setbacks in order to minimize this effect. Our City Council, however, is pushing for buildings right up to the sidewalk, thereby exacerbating the problem.

These projects benefit no one except out-of-town corporate interests. The goose that laid the golden egg is gasping for air, and no one appears to care, except current residents, whose opinions apparently do not count.

Karen Cass Anderson

Ann Arbor



Fri, May 17, 2013 : 8:08 a.m.

I live downtown, and more buildings doesn't bother me. Read Jane Jacobs. It's good to have people on the streets. I enjoy walking to the library, post office, bank, etc. Just wish I could walk to a reasonably-priced grocery store.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 5:13 p.m.

Can someone tell me if the apartment on Ashley and Huron is fully occupied? Really?

sandy schopbach

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:10 p.m.

I couldn't agree more. There's no rhyme or reason to the "development" going on, other than getting as much money as possible. Ann Arbor's attraction was in its small businesses and excellent local restaurants, its open attitude in a small-town atmosphere. Ann Arbor is NOT Manhattan-on-the-Huron.


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

This is all trumped by the fact that No Thai has room to sit, now. Also who doesn't love 7-11?


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:29 p.m.

Ms Anderson - When the Mayor put the idea of the greenbelt millage on the table, his whole goal was to significantly increase the density of the downtown. When the zoning was setup, with some but not enough input from the citizens, the second nail was put in the downtown character. City Place, 413, the train keeps rolling. Connecting William is the next set of nails. The writing has been on the wall for years. Want to stop the train? Change the Council make up, get rid of the overlap between the DDA board and the Council.


Thu, May 23, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

The primary election is August 6 in Ann Arbor.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 2:56 a.m.

... and the next election is in November.

Hugh Giariola

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

"...all the unique and interesting independent businesses that gave Ann Arbor its special appeal are rapidly being driven out." Really? If that is so, I guess someone should tell the owner of Babo Market that high-rises are evil and that independent businesses cannot thrive.

Lightnin' Bug

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

Anybody ever wonder if we have enough ladder trucks to take care of these high rises if a fire breaks out?


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 2:53 a.m.

We don't. The fifth floor is it. But those living higher up are provided with paragliders so do not worry.


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

I have wondered that, yeah.

Steve Hendel

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:23 a.m.

Downtown's 'vertical development' is the flip side of the PDR (Purchase of Development Rights) program-funded, I might note, with a millage approved by a wide majority of the voters-which aims at establishing a greenbelt around the City. Yes, "eliminating sprawl," the same goal as "vertical development."

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:15 p.m.

And the middle path is low-to-mid-rise buildings.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:13 a.m.

This author loved living downtown, now that more people are able to experience what she loved, she laments. I find that expression to be greedy and narrow minded. The rich and poor should both be able to enjoy downtown, over time, only the 1%-ers in this city could afford to live down there, now it's still expensive, but at least non 1%-ers (and people who bought decades ago) can enjoy the best of this city.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:10 a.m.

Thank you John. The issue is not to stop development, but to manage it intelligently. Of course we need more people living in the downtown area, but how and where to put the housing is the crux of the matter. The Huron monstrosity is simply in the wrong place- a block or two in such areas makes all the difference. We also need more variety of housing so that we have a good mix of people. The problem is that so much of the current development is driven only by profit, which is not necessarily bad, but it is untempered by any community concerns or aesthetic ambitions. Just try to walk by the Varsity--it could have had some character and not be a looming hulk that takes up every possible inch of space, without proper setbacks. This kind of artless, bottom-line architecture does nothing to enhance the experience of the area. Why is it possible to create attractive buildings elsewhere, while we get this clumsy hulk, the coming characterless biggie across the street and City Place? Build, by all means, but create decent buildings that fit properly into their surroundings and enhance them rather than undo them. Since the developers seem to have no ambitions aside from profit, it is up to city government to zone the area properly and to encourage better construction. Put in a moratorium for a limited amount of time and work out the zoning in a proper and responsible manner. This can be done ....


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3 a.m.

One thing people in this town really need to accept; all these "funky" businesses that made downtown so special over the past 10 years have nothing more to offer than the average mid-size airport. Look; I love Ann Arbor. I live here, I went to and graduated from U of M, and I put a lot of effort and money into living here. But people need to be a little more realistic about this town. Every town has a Main street. Every town has handblown glass ornaments. Every town has those olive oil/vinegar stores, and every town has a farmer's market. When people stop falling prey to the idea that somehow we're a mini-New York City, we might at some point be able to grab hold of ownership of our streets. The rents are too high, and they're not really based on anything except vapor reputation. The building boom is ridiculous. The rents are ridiculous. We have as many empty decrepit storefronts as plenty of other places not on "best place to..." lists. Ashley Terrace happened (build it, have people with a sandwich board saying there's only 3 units left walk all over town, then foreclose), but incoming developers ignore it. The problem ain't developers. The problem is prospecting companies that have managed to take ownership of huge amounts of the town (McKinkley, landlords, U of M) being able to set prices and own everything that goes on. The problem is also an inefectual management of the city, which is basically a room of 12 or so poeple trying to figure out how to spend the ridiculous amount of money that is guaranteed to pour in (don't pay your property taxes, lose your house).

John Floyd

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:50 a.m.

The economic benefits of historic preservation and heritage tourism are pretty well documented. Our present zoning, in combination with the DDA's legal syphoning off of all new tax revenue from new development, means that our town will actually be worse off for all this inappropriately located out-of-scale construction.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:44 a.m.

Can you provide a link or citation to the studies which document that Ann Arbor's historic districts have brought the city economic benefits?

Michael Kvicala

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:54 a.m.

What is disturbing about these new developments is that the set-back regulations have been relaxed and that there is no apparent concern about wind-shear effects with squared-off buildings (think Chicago). Not impressed with the architectural statements being made, either - rather ho-hum and boring. Why are our city leaders rushing to create the next Southfield in a condensed scale? Surely, there are better models to copy.

Tom Joad

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:53 a.m.

Downtown needs a grocery store on the scale of a Kroger or Trader Joes/Whole Foods for it to be a truly walkable downtown living experience. The People's Food Coop is fine but pricey, as are the boutique markets in Kerrytown and Babo on Washington. The number of residents downtown could easily support a large grocery store just with foot traffic, alleviating the need for a large parking lot. Getting people out of cars and reducing the number of trips required to drive to the nearest Kroger or Whole Foods is a great idea. Personally I'd like to see a Trader Joes--they have one in Menlo Park, California, similar in configuration to Ann Arbor's small downtown and it's wildly popular and convenient. The DDA should broaden its mission to provide and encourage affordable grocery infrastructure. Trader Joes eminently provides that level of affordability, and even Whole Foods has a large cross section of groceries for every price range. The current grocery selection is niche-based and expensive for students or working class folks who don't have a car.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:05 p.m.

Since johnnya2 has taken issue with it, let's frame Tom Joad's comment a bit differently: A real grocery store downtown, be it an independent or part of a larger chain, would help to make downtown living more attractive by enabling residents to acquire most of their needs within walking distance. Whether anyone with the means to do so ever feels that opening a store downtown makes good business sense is another matter altogether — but that doesn't change the fact that having such a store downtown would improve life for downtown residents. Call it a "wishlist item." Maybe the next 14-story building could incorporate a grocery store on its ground floor.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:54 a.m.

Tom, You are free to find a location and build your million dollar idea at any time. Whole Foods has TWO locations in A2. Do you really believe a third is viable? Trader Joes also already has a location in the former Whole Foods. I have no idea the vvolume the current store does, but I am pretty sure the management of TJ's looks at these things every single day and makes decisions based on ROI. It always amazes me how somebody who has no skin in a business wants to tell them where to locate their business.

Chase Ingersoll

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:43 a.m.

One persons "enormous cast-shadow" is another's million dollar view.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 2:43 a.m.

You are referring to the developer as he counts his fee, right?


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

This is all very positive for Ann Arbor. I don't love all of these buildings, but density is a wonderful thing for our town. Add some more offices for all the startups to expand into, and a first rate hotel/small conference center and we will be in even better shape economically. Downtown is thriving like never before. People are all over the streets. Many, many local independent shops are doing incredibly well. Some have failed. If they fail it is because they aren't connecting well enough with their customer base. That's the way business works. No, I don't love this particular building, but I do love the progress. Oh, and I am a very long time and current resident.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 2:41 a.m.

ManA2 - There is little demand for expensive downtown apartments and office space so the "Field of Dreams" concept of "if you build it they will come" is unlikely to materialize. For that reason all recent building has been speculative and by out-of-town developers not familiar with Ann Arbor. SEMCOG predicts that Ann Arbor will only grow 6% by 2040 which does not justify a continued building spree. While famous U of M economics experts anticipate over 60,000 new jobs in Michigan over the next several years we should not forget that we still have 400,000 long-term unemployed left over mostly from the prior automotive recession. 1bit - The continued fall in the unemployment rate reflects mostly those unemployed who leave the state and other unemployed who no longer apply for unemployment insurance payments because they have exhausted their allowed time limit for payments. The key figure to watch is the total employment record which, for the nation, is stuck at 63.3% for the past two months.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 1:40 a.m.

Cheer up Steve things are not so bad.


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

@Steve: By what basis have you determined the likelihood of the end of the ecomomic recovery? U of M recently forecast that Michigan's unemployment rate will continue to fall for the next two years.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:42 a.m.

You're making an assumption that the economy will remain strong enough to support those startups and a hotel, which isn't easily supportable. The far greater likelihood is that the economic recovery is reaching its end and that downtown development will drop off considerably.


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 11:57 p.m.

I'm sorry to hear the sky is falling. This progressive townie loves change and all that it brings!


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 11:24 p.m.

At some point shouldn't the DDA evolve into the Downtown Enhancement/Improvement Association? Erecting a bunch of tall buildings isn't development.


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

Unfortunately, the DDA is under financial strain due to incurring an excessive debt load that has created deficit budgets in recent years. By encouraging the construction of large buildings the DDA hopes to gain more TIF money which can be applied to debt payments and maybe to productive efforts if additional funds are available.

Bryan Ellinger

Wed, May 15, 2013 : 11:12 p.m.

There are plenty of independently owned businesses in Ann Arbor that are poised to thrive in a more densely populated downtown, e.g. Babo, Kerrytown's shops, PFC, Running fit, Main Street Ventures, fast-food row on William etc.. The list goes on. What Ms. Anderson attributes to greed is simply market forces at work. Prices, rents etc. reflect what the market will bear. It would be great to have a downtown apartment glut, which would force rents down. That would be nice. Bring on the density! This editorial is simply a case of sentimentalism. This critique coming from a 37 year resident who loves Ann Arbor as much now as ever.


Fri, May 17, 2013 : 2:27 a.m.

Actually, JohnnyA2, that is exactly what happened. Another investor bought the Ashley-Terrace out of bankruptcy for only 30 cents on the dollar. The new owner could afford to reduce rental rates to competitive levels and filled his apartments. He made out like a bandit, as some might say. Unfortunately, there are losers in addition to the Bank of America and the LaSalle group. The city loses by having to reduce TIF valuation by two-thirds and thus receiving less tax money. The citizens of Ann Arbor lose by the city not having as much tax money to use on services for the community and citizens lose again by having to view the hotel every time they visit downtown.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:49 a.m.

@ Veracity, So you have just made the point that the COST of the building came down. When a bankruptcy happens, the bank forecloses. They can either sell it, ot keep it on the books (just as they do with homes). Most want to sell it since they are lenders, NOT real estate people. They sell the building for less than it cost to build it, and guess what, you have a VALUE. A brand new building that would cost two-three times to build over. The new buyer will set rents where THEY can make money. The concept of other peoples money is they believe they can make the money back. People do not get to use other peoples money just because they want to.

Steve Bean

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 1:37 a.m.

A factor you overlooked, Bryan, is zoning. What I haven't seen in the years since the Calthorpe process that led to the A2D2 zoning changes is a calculation of potential increase in downtown population if various parcels were built out to the maximum. That would be interesting. Then we might have a sense of whether a desirable and realistic increase in the number of downtown residents might be achieved by not allowing buildings above a certain height. In other words, what might we learn when we do the math? That said, I think this will be the end of large-scale downtown construction for some time.

Bryan Ellinger

Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:48 a.m.

Yes, Veracity, you're right. There have been overly optimistic projects that lost in the market. It is true that the market determined their failures. What do you think will happen to those properties? My guess is that they'll be spared the wrecking ball and eventually be priced to attract buyers and renters.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:22 a.m.

"Prices, rents etc. reflect what the market will bear." Not true, Bryan Ellinger. Developers construct buildings with other peoples' money. The cost of servicing the debt along with other costs of doing business puts a floor under the rent that must be charged in order to financially breakeven, let alone make a profit. It cost so much to build Ashley-Terrace that the owner could not reduce the selling prices for the condos enough to attract buyers. When the condos were converted to apartments the rents had to be too high to attract enough lessees so that debt liability could be paid. So Ashley-Terrace became bankrupt. Which of the buildings presently under construction will have similar experiences?


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 10:52 p.m.

I would think the internet has more to do with the demise of local or brick and mortar businesses more than anything else. When Borders can't even survive in the age of, you know there is a fundamental shift in the way people shop. Heck, even the shipping from Amazon (free) is cheaper than the cost of parking to go shop downtown. Even eclectic, hard-to-find, or handmade goods can be easily found on the internet nowadays, which takes away from the uniqueness of independent businesses. I highly doubt the doom and gloom of high-rise shadows (like the ones you find in NYC and Chicago) will have a detrimental effect on their businesses.

Bill Wilson

Thu, May 30, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.

@ Veracity, I live in Ann Arbor for 2-4 weeks per year. Mostly, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I use Pea Pod to... yes, deliver milk, fresh fish, tomatoes, and more right to my door. They have all the major and small brands.


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 11:57 p.m.

Will you be ordering tomatoes and milk from Or how about fresh fish?


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 10:35 p.m.

Nonsense. Higher residential density does not foster small independent businesses. The evidence for this is abundant. Chain retail is coming to dominate high density residential areas in major cities.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 3:54 p.m.

In major cities where high density residential development is taking place in districts with diverse pre-existing retail businesses, investment is driving rents up and forcing out small independent businesses. This dynamic is evident on the avenues in NYC's Lower East Side and Upper West Side. First Avenue, Amsterdam, and Broadway are becoming increasingly homogeneous and dominated by chains. Independents survive where they own their building, and on the streets. The same transformation is taking place in Boston, Chicago, Washington and other major cities. It's hardly surprising that investment in higher residential density, particularly at the upper end of the rental market, chases out small independent retail.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 10:34 a.m.

@glacial: I'm not sure what abundant evidence you are referring to. Certainly higher population density attracts large commercial retail and chains but not necessarily to the exclusion of small independent businesses. I see the latter all the time when I visit Chicago, San Francisco or other large cities. Maybe you are looking in the wrong places?


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 10:07 p.m.

This opinion is non sequitur to say the least. More residents downtown will encourage and support more independent small businesses. Ann Arbor is still thriving. Businesses come and go. Change is the only constant.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 2:45 a.m.

@ Veracity, So how many OTHER businesses have failed in A2 over the last decade? Why should that matter to you? Sometimes businesses stay, sometimes they fail. When it is YOUR money you can have an opinion, otherwise, it really is none of yur business.


Thu, May 16, 2013 : 12:43 a.m.

@dancing: Why would you believe that? More consumers - especially those with money to spare for expensive apartments - mean more businesses will want to take the risk for shopping/dining/etc establishments. @Veracity: I have no idea and it's not something I personally would invest in because I agree that this may be a "bubble" of sorts. On the other hand, if someone else wants to take a chance with their money then that's not my business. This opinion piece was specifically decrying the death independent small businesses which has nothing to do with the high rises.


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 11:54 p.m.

With the boom in highrise building of the last several years I expect that the Varsity, Village Green City Apartments, 413 E. Huron, 618 South Main and Packard Square will have trouble competing for lessees when they are completed. Which ones and how many do you think will financially survive?


Wed, May 15, 2013 : 11:31 p.m.

It doesn't actually support more independent small businesses. It's attracts chain drug stores, fast food restaurants and corporate retail.