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Posted on Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Top 5: Ann Arbor development sites to watch for activity in 2013

By Paula Gardner


The original rendering for Lower Town.

Ann Arbor Business Review

Looking at Ann Arbor and its potential for private development left most people with a simple conclusion in recent years: It doesn't make sense to build.

But that changed in 2012, as construction concluded on some projects, started on several others and prompted developers to line up the next wave of building.

There was a time - back in 2011 or so - when it seemed like Arbor Hills Crossing on Washtenaw would be a vacant lot for some time to come. Or that Village Green might keep delaying City Apartments. Or even that Sterling Lofts 411 could stand alone as a student high-rise on its East Washington block.

No more. The Varsity is ahead of schedule on East Washington, and the other new projects are proceeding quickly. (Even on late December Saturdays, I recently noticed).

And now even the most distant building projects have momentum: The former West Towne Condos found new life as apartments, and the new owner of the project at West Liberty and Maple wants to build 53 new units at the now-Blue Heron Pond. The new apartments on the edge of downtown will be taking shape at 618 S. Main. Neighbors are gearing up to battle still more student housing on East Huron, while the high rise on Church Street seems to be finding acceptance.

And now we even find out that the Downtown Development Authority is ready to set a plan in motion to sell the city-owned development properties in the central business district.

So far, the city seems to be avoiding the breakneck development pace that both added residences and retail spaces to the city - and left some developers (and banks) holding property that just couldn't sustain its value during the recession.

We suspect plenty of people are seeking opportunities to build here, and that we'll see still more plans unveiled in 2013.

Here are properties that I'm watching most closely this year for development activity:

1. Glen Ann Place: The site plan was expiring in November as the original developers still owed $80,000 in back taxes. Yet the assemblage of land that would have allowed the 9-story mixed-use project on the block at Glen and Ann remains close to two of the hottest economic engines in Southeast Michigan: The University of Michigan Medical Center and U-M's central campus. The original price of the land and the development may not have aligned with reality, but someone - or some people - simply have to see some potential here.

2. 202 S. Division: This property, at the southwest corner of South Division and East Washington, could have been a hotel. But weeks after a Chicago developer sought to submit plans in 2011, it seemed to go into limbo. The property stayed vacant through discussions over whether a hotel could be built on the Library Lot. It stayed vacant as two high-rises took shape across the street and a third is in the works a block away. It's vacant as the corner of Liberty and South Division grows as a destination. Will it remain vacant through 2013? Hardly seems likely, but the developers (so far) haven't talked.

3. 48.51 acres north of Arborland: This property abuts a popular landmark Ann Arbor shopping center, a subdivision with $400,000 homes and it's in the city limits. It's also been listed for sale for $4.9 million as it went through foreclosure. City officials have been getting inquiries on it; it may have sold in late 2012, but details remain sketchy. This property also is next to US-23 and may not have easy access from Huron River Drive - but it could be a barometer for two questions about our city. The first: When will significant residential development begin again? And the second is what kind of potential developers see in carving out new uses for long-existing vacant land here. In 2008, two hotels, restaurants and senior housing were proposed here.

4. 1380 N. Main: It's stunning and disappointing to me that Ann Arbor has built itself into one of Michigan's most dynamic cities by turning its back on the Huron River. But that's exactly what much of North Main Street does. As a gateway, it's unattractive; as a place that capitalizes on a tremendous natural asset, it just doesn't maximize potential. The city is trying to address the corridor, particularly a bit farther south near Summit Street. But when developers break ground on this proposed office complex, we'll know that something is about to happen in this underutilized part of town. It comes with risks (close to the highway and it'll be costly to build), but also could have a big payback for the city.

5. Lower Town: This could be the ultimate barometer for Ann Arbor's rebound. These 7.8 acres once were envisioned for one of the largest single redevelopment projects in city history, back when a $172 million project only seemed a bit far-fetched. Today, it's easy to look back with amazement that it got as far as it did. (State pensioners, who now own it, may feel the same way). Lower Town continues to give Ann Arbor a development reality check. When someone sees something truly viable for this site - which remains close to the U-M medical campus, a lot of additional building activity and successful residential properties - we'll know that Ann Arbor truly has emerged from the downturn. And I'm not discounting some type of public use for that "something viable."

Paula Gardner is Community News Director at Reach her by email or follow her on Twitter.



Mon, Jan 7, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

North Main has been improving although slowly. Bluffs Park on the west, Bandemer Park on the east, the NEW Center and Peter Allens redevelopment have all been steps in the right direction. This corridor has been defined more by it's relation to the railroad than it's proximity to the river. When you look at all the major entries to the city North Main has the most potential for revealing the natural beauty of the river valley and the city skyline.


Mon, Jan 7, 2013 : 4:13 a.m.

Drawings look better than real life. Just like a model house has no clutter, a drawing of projected development fails to show some crowded areas of people, vehicles of various ages and conditions, the small, new trees that are practical to plant, delivery trucks blocking traffic, clouds, precipitation, dirt, and all such parts of real life. Also, drawings don't show vacancy rates, costs, struggling property taxpayers, etc.. When I look at drawings of proposed development, I see fantasy.


Mon, Jan 7, 2013 : 1:43 p.m.

When I look at the property now I see a bunch of dirt and weeds.

David Cahill

Mon, Jan 7, 2013 : 12:59 a.m.

Any attempt to develop the former Lower Town site will run smack into the Lower Town Curse. In the 1820s, when the Potawatomie were forced out of this part of Michigan, they put a curse on this area. There is a marker on Broadway where a bunch of Native American trails used to meet. The Potawatomie said that nothing within the sight of that spot would ever prosper. And it never has.


Mon, Jan 7, 2013 : 2:49 a.m.

Be a cool place for a rice camp. I wonder if it could grow in the Huron River?

Sabra C Briere

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 7:26 p.m.

The City's Building Board of Appeals will meet on January 10th (1:30, City Hall) to discuss the demolition of the houses on N. Main. If this process works swiftly, those buildings could be demolished by the City this spring.

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 7:57 p.m.

Thanks, Sabra!

Mike D.

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 4:20 p.m.

The Middle Kingdom / Lovin' Spoonfull / Prickly Pear group of buildings is a god candidate for a major retail / residential development. That cluster of buildings is on the best block of the city and is going through ownership changes. Hard to believe someone isn't going to rip it down and redevelop.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 6:36 p.m.

Ahh Lovin' Spoonful. My lovely wife used to live upstairs...hate to see that house go, it is that mix of variously sized buildings that gives an area interest, pedestrian scale, and character. Once those things are gone, they never seem to come back. Not all development is good development.

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 5:38 p.m.

Sorry, correction --- Middle Kingdom is not historic. I believe the Chocolate House building is.

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 5:37 p.m.

Middle Kingdom and Prickly Pear buildings are historic, so the chances of them coming down are slim. I do think we could see development on top of Prickly Pear, though. Also, behind the buildings on the Kline lot.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 3:54 p.m.

Good calls, Paula. I'd like to see a follow-up on rumors that UM might turn to Lower Town next to alleviate its parking problems. Another area ripe for investigation is that failed Near North project area on Main near Summit. The ownership and dollars sunk are probably known but mysterious to me. Will Avalon try something else there? Will it maintain ownership or turn it back to the developer? This would be a great investigative/speculative piece. I noticed that a new condo on North Ashley is being advertised as "Kerrytown". Surely the more stressed areas of this section of Main could claim the same. Kerrytown will meet Water Hill.

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 5:34 p.m.

Here is the latest story I wrote on the Near North project. The site has plenty of issues - most notably, a portion of it now being in the new(ish) floodplain boundaries.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 3:34 p.m.

I honestly don't see what's wrong with N. Main, aside from those houses south of Summit. There are businesses along that stretch that provide jobs, and it's not as if the area is totally derelict.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 6:30 p.m.

I agree, those businesses are and have been dong just fine for decades, we don't need a Tim Hortons or streetscape program to improve the area. Just fix the sidewalks.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 3:27 p.m.

The Lower Town site has great potential. The consolidation of the parcels and the demolition of several buildings leaves a blank slate for what comes next. Though it is a mile from the heart of downtown, it is only a half mile to Kerry Town, close to the Med Center and close to the Huron River. The previous developer's plan was flawed, but it is a great location for a mixed use development. Redevelopment of the North Main corridor would be wonderful. It won't come overnight, but a couple successful projects could bring momentum.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 2:43 p.m.

I agree that North Main up to the M-14 ramps SHOULD be treated as a gateway into Ann Arbor. It would require a much better ramp from both directions AND it's in the flood plain. It could and SHOULD be much nicer than it is, though.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 7:12 p.m.

That whole interchange needs to be reconfigured. It was intended to be temporary back in the 1970s when M-14 was built. There should be a broader redevelopment plan for the interchange and the riverfront since Bandemer Park will likely done away with.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 2:33 p.m.

Top 1 development site to watch for continued inactivity and decay in 2013: Georgetown Mall


Mon, Jan 7, 2013 : 12:30 a.m.

Invisible ... unless there's a photo-op.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 4:49 p.m.

And thanks to the continued lack of visibility of Ward 4's Invisible and Ineffective Women on the City Council, when they show up at meetings or stay for the full meetings. They're certainly not spending their time listening to their constituents, responding to emails, answering calls or messages, etc.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 2:27 p.m.

Ms. Gardner, you really seem to hate the North Main Corridor and north side, but I have yet to see you call for the demolition of the 8 abandoned houses South of Summit. How about some action there? Also, I think that many residents of Lowertown would say they prefer the flower filled lot and Traver Creek abutment to whatever horrible traffic generator the U might put in there, or the equally horrible hotel/parking structure/steak house plan that was once floated. This goes for much of the vacant land in Ann Arbor, let's have some vision to preserve some open space, 40 years from now we will be seen as heros for setting aside open and green space in the midst of our commercial/residential towers. Plus it fits well with the city's own carbon neutral plan... trees and plants are the magic CO2 filters we need. But there is no magic to saving green space, just don't pave it all over.

Sabra C Briere

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 7:27 p.m.

The City's Building Board of Appeals will meet on January 10th (1:30, City Hall) to discuss the demolition of the houses on N. Main. If this process works swiftly, those buildings could be demolished by the City this spring.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 6:27 p.m.

Sorry, these articles get buried so fast I don't remember them all. You are correct, that is the worst thing remaining on Main Street, doesn't it look nice with the church gone? Is there any way that citizens can request action on that property or developer? I cannot believe that obviously blighted places like that can be allowed to stand for so long. Can the city condemn them, tear them down, and send the developer the bill? I seem to remember reading about a bloght ordinence being applied to some single owner residences in town, why not ones owned by a developer?

Paula Gardner

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 2:53 p.m.

Those houses were number 1 on my "North Main blight list" :

Linda Peck

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 2:26 p.m.

Paula, I so agree with you about the Huron River area on North Main. I cannot figure out how this area could be so depressing with a beautiful river right there to look upon. That sad part is the public can barely see it.

Kyle Mattson

Mon, Jan 7, 2013 : 2:19 p.m.

Arbor- I'll admit that as one who did not grow up in A2, it was years until I realized that there was a park there along that stretch of the river and checked it out as soon as I did find out. The issue here seems to be finding a way to connect the four long strips of land consisting of the river, park, existing buildings, and roads in a way that increases all of their value.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 3:37 p.m.

Hmmmm....try getting out of your car. There is a FANTASTIC park all along this stretch!


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 1:26 p.m.

It's only a matter of time before U of M makes an offer on it. After the parking structure is completed on Wall St. and filled, they will look for additional parking. One can only hope that the city says no.

Sabra C Briere

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 7:29 p.m.

The City doesn't have a role in saying 'no' to the UM. The UM makes its land acquisition deals with private owners; the City cannot interfere in private transactions. (And if you think it ought to, remove 'UM' from the equation, and have the deal be between you and the person you are selling land to. Would you want the City to say you cannot sell that land?)


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 4:42 p.m.

When has the city ever said no to the University?


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 3:29 p.m.

It really is a natural spot for U-M to expand into. Since there already is plenty of retail and office space in Ann Arbor, I don't see any other use for that property


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 1:27 p.m.

I am referring to Lower Town.


Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 11:46 a.m.

Nice article. 2013 is going to be more active than 2012. Toss in cleaning up the South State to Ellsworth area too. Good news is more jobs. Bad news is planning for the traffic that goes with this development.

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 3:27 p.m.

@JimmyD: I agree with you that 2013 will continue the momentum from last year. 2012 really was an incredible year for Ann Arbor in terms of development and business activity. I anticipate that will continue with even more strength this year.