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Posted on Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 8 a.m.

Conference center - again? My Top 5 questions about Ann Arbor's downtown development

By Paula Gardner

Development efforts are back in Ann Arbor, where recent news focuses on high-rise developments, the vision for city-owned property downtown and how to create the best mix for the downtown area.


The Ann Arbor DDA presented this revised plan for redeveloping five city-owned properties during a special City Council work session Jan. 14. On the Kline Lot (yellow), the plan recommends a medium-density, mixed-use development with a residential focus and an active ground-floor use. On the Palio Lot (orange), the plan recommends a medium-density, mixed-use development with an office focus. On the Library Lot and Y Lot (blue), the plan recommends high-density, mixed-use development with a lodging or office focus. The plan recommends and active ground-floor use for all five sites, the fifth one being the ground floor of the Fourth and William parking garage, which could be retrofitted.


And I didn't even write that in 2005: That's just what happened last week.

Yet there's a strange sense of "deja vu all over again" now that we have a Downtown Development Authority consultant telling us that a conference center might work on the library lot. And a hotel.

It was enough that even in a work session, Mayor John Hieftje — himself a DDA member — said he thought we'd been over the topic and agreed "it just wouldn't work here."

Or would it? Brace yourself, Ann Arbor, we might be debating that for the coming decade as the city considers selling five city-owned lots in the "Connecting William" corridor.

And as a result, I found myself considering: My top questions about downtown development.

1. Why do we let consultants tell us to do due diligence studies? Don't we think that's the place of the developer, who actually will invest in the property? The more market studies the city does, the more of the open market that passes us by. We know the city has land and we know land in and near downtown could both carry high value and create additional value. But it's not a government entity's role to define the market and what needs to be there. We can create parameters to a deal — like asking for the best submission from a developer that does not include 4-bedroom apartments for students. Or choosing to bypass the highest market value to invest in a park. We can't assume that someone will invest in land to build a new office building on a specific site just because we think that 500,000 square feet of office space fills a perceived (and momentary) need.

2. What would happen if we sold some of the downtown property to the University of Michigan? And why isn't U-M active in these conversations? OK, those are two questions, but they're related. We can't keep having this conference center and hotel discussion without real information from U-M. So much of the discussion is set up like U-M is the goose laying golden eggs of hotel-room occupants due to conferences. If we sold some of the land to U-M, we'd give up control and tax base — but also, possibly, gain a partner in harnessing what's publicly perceived as an economic engine that's would fuel a hotel and conference center. I'm not recommending that we sell the land to U-M — and I'm as concerned as anyone else about the amount of property U-M buys in Ann Arbor. But I think the concept is interesting to consider as a brainstorming device to figure out why we keep coming back to this concept.


This proposal for a downtown hotel and conference center by New York-based Valiant Partners was rejected by the Ann Arbor City Council in April 2011.

Ryan J. Stanton |

3. Why not experiment right now with a downtown park? Liberty Plaza does not work as a downtown "green space" — so it's not going to persuade anyone that the city needs more of it. But we're looking at years worth of decision making when it comes to all of these downtown spaces. The city simply will not act that quickly. So why not turn the Palio Lot into a temporary park as an experiment? Or the top of the Library Lot? Set up a low-overhead, 24-month plan to see what the downtown park advocates can do with the space. Call it an urban green space laboratory. We might be disappointed with the results — we might be delighted. In the meantime, we're using experience instead of concept to drive the land-use decision.

4. Why are we still talking about an Apple store downtown? Apple has been approached. Apple has rejected sites closer to campus. We might see an Apple store in Ann Arbor outside of Briarwood someday. But we really need to move our discussion about what retail will look like downtown, and what kind of store will anchor development, beyond this specific pipe dream.

5. Focusing on the future is fine, but what about right now? Liberty Plaza is begging for a solution. Main Street business owners are taxing themselves to make sure the snow gets shoveled. Ensuring enough police foot patrols, eradicating graffiti, controlling panhandling and increasing customer attraction all are issues for everyone concerned with downtown today. Creating a vision keeps our future from developing randomly. But it's painful to rehash ongoing discussions about downtown that don't seem to get resolved while other aspects of downtown continue to pose challenges that the business owners and residents feel on a daily basis.

Paula Gardner is Community News Director of She can be reached by email or follow her on Twitter.



Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 9:35 p.m.

Since downtown Ann Arbor has never been able to support a hotel, I don't understand why there's still talk about putting one there. No, we shouldn't let U of M buy more land and take it off the tax rolls. Yes, we need a park downtown. The most successful downtown areas in cities the size of Ann Arbor, have parks. Even if we didn't have that evidence, it seems to me that a downtown park should be close to the top of what we want for our city. I wasn't in favor of buying green spaces surrounding the city because it makes no sense for people to have to get into a car and drive outside of town to get to a green space. It's not as if we have a great mass transportation system. Especially not in favor of buying more green spaces when we can't afford to maintain the parks we have inside the city. And if we're increasing downtown residency, a park makes even more sense. But I've been saying all this for years. sigh


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 6:43 p.m.

Thank you, Paula, for a well-written thoughtful article. Hopefully, it will result in open transparent consideration. For our part, we would love to see an ice rink on the model of Rockefeller Center in New York City--with cafes and perhaps some boutiques on either side. Why not give it a try?

Vince Caruso

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 4:30 p.m.

The DDA is in a major financial pickle and they see more density as a solution. It will not be good for the city in the long run but they don't seems to be interested in the public comments against a totally built up downtown with no green space. The TIFF arrangement and the DDA needs to be reanalyzed if council is not willing to direct the DDA in a meaningful manner and just use them as a 'Straw Person'. Like many others have asked recently (including at the last public CWS), who is driving the Conference center at the Library Lot at great cost to the city tax payers with no support from the community? The business interests who want to privatize their profits and socialize the outrageous costs? The vast majority of whom don't even LIVE in the city but write nice checks for political campaigns! Will the mayor and business community have another secrete convention center plan drawn by a crony developer to drop in the laps of the unsuspecting council members? Lets plan for the many not the few.

Arno B

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 3:02 p.m.

I'm wondering what happened to the two beautiful engraved glass historical placques in the little rest area at Liberty and Division. The stanchions are there, the engraved glass is gone. Did the noble "Occupiers" vandalize them? Will they be replaced by some new form of "Art"? Or are they removed routinely for the fall and winter? Perhaps the Artsy folks could put up a statue of Shaky Jake instead.

Steve Hendel

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 2:38 p.m.

Bravo, Paula !


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 1:22 p.m.

We sure won't need it for any union or other union supported conferences, thanks to our governor!


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 12:29 p.m.

The mayor is also a member of the DDA? What an incredible conflict of interest. Who thought up that structure?

Vivienne Armentrout

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 3:49 p.m.

The DDA charter provides that one member is the mayor or his/her designate. Until John Hieftje became mayor, the DDA board most frequently had an appointed designate. Of course the mayor also appoints all other members, so he has a pretty broad influence on it.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 3:45 a.m.

Love #3 - let's EXPERIMENT. Ann Arbor city government seems risk-averse these days.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 1:52 a.m.

Paula you make some excellent points. There is hoever an underlying issue that should be addressed. That is whether the current construct of the DDA is meeting the needs of the citizens of Ann Arbor or those of some other interest groups.I believe it's time to pause the DDA onward push for development so that it's purpose and utility can be reviewed and evaluated by the electorate or at least the representatives of the electorate. There seems to be a tendency in the DDA, AATA, Library Board for unwarranted self aggrandizement. These are apppointed bodies gone wild.

Joseph McConnell

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 11:10 p.m.

Forgive me if I respond by recycling an old joke. Did you know that if you stand outside all by yourself, up to your calves in snow, and tear up a lot of money, it's exactly like building a convention center in Ann Arbor.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 8:09 p.m.

I encourage everyone to watch this video about open space in urban settings. It is a little long, but never boring.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 11:38 p.m.

This video from the 1970s has a lot to say about the way people use public spaces. One of the points it makes about "undesirables" (their word) is that this does not happen where the general population is meeting friends, having lunch, reading a newspaper, walking through, and generally populating an area with active use. Liberty Plaza is poorly designed and has discouraged general public use. This has encouraged its use as a hang-out for people who don't have other places to go. They might still be around in a more generally used area, but not seen as a threat. The video is well worth watching. Even in sections. It describes what a vibrant city space should be.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 7:15 p.m.

Paula, thank you for this thoughtful essay. We are fortunate to have someone who has been observing and reporting on local real estate for years to bring us perspective. I don't agree with the idea of the UM being involved in planning the downtown. The UM is important to Ann Arbor, but we have to realize that their interests are not necessarily our interests. They are a sovereign state in our midst, neither antagonistic nor paternalistic. And I think they are well enough represented. It is clear that we need more time as a community to sort out what we really want from our downtown. The DDA has made it clear what they want - the maximum density and taxable value that can be achieved. This is understandable considering that they benefit from the taxes generated (while the rest of the city does not). But the downtown is a unique place in a city and it belongs to all of us. It is where we have multiple layers of expectations for service, for enjoyment, for community engagement. And the city-owned property is an asset that rightly belongs to the taxpayers of Ann Arbor, not to an appointed board. The use of this property should be determined by our elected city council (who are accountable to the voters) and disposal of these assets should be ruled in part by the public benefit to be obtained (first we should agree what "public benefit" is) and in part by the priorities Council sets in meeting our community-wide needs. Your idea of the temporary park on the Library Lot is excellent. It would allow us to experiment and play out scenarios on how a downtown public space would operate. I was impressed with the "Imagine a Park" event held by Library Green last summer. They succeeded in creating the image of a park through the efforts of volunteers. Imagine if the city would facilitate use of the area for events and use through the next year or so. It would help us know what the organic (natural) use of the area could be.

Rita Mitchell

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 6:48 p.m.

Thanks for "thinking bigger", Paula. I like the idea of a test of a park on top of the library parking structure. Tom Whitaker's ideas are good options, too. We have an opportunity to make a good test of the concept. Let's do it.

Alice Ralph

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 6:40 p.m.

Ms. Gardner has highlighted some good points of departure. I believe a fundamental shift is needed toward quality-of-life issues instead of the pursuit of increasing tax revenue from new development. The responsibilities and obligations of government and residents not only cost money, but also can generate a sustainable community and a better physical environment for living. Green roofs might become an important supplement to dumb underground tanks that do nothing but sit there with or without accumulated storm water. Trees moderate the local climate and clean the air. Good transportation systems reduce carbon and save wear on pavement--and so on. These are among things that can be done now, since we have the creative capital within reach. Build happiness.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 6:26 p.m.

The Eagle Crest Conference Center is a great facility, is on Whitaker Rd right at I-94, has a hotel and a golf course and best of all, free parking. If I needed a conference center around these parts, that is where I would go.

Jared Mauch

Wed, Jan 23, 2013 : 9:54 p.m.

One of the challenges I see is the conferences I attend need space for 600-1500 people. There isn't a way to do that in the county. We have always ended up in Dearborn which is not walkable from the major hotels that can house these groups.

Tom Whitaker

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 6:26 p.m.

Several communities, from Detroit to Dexter, install temporary public ice rinks every winter in their downtown parks. Regardless of anyone's opinion on the long-term idea of a park on top of the of Library Lane structure, there's no reason why this couldn't be done there now. They have portable refrigeration gear, so are not entirely weather-dependent. I hope the downtown business associations, DDA, Library, and others will get together and figure out how to make this happen next year. It would draw thousands of people--families, youth, couples on dates, etc., to downtown and would show everyone just how great a public park/plaza downtown could be. Although, I'm sure there are those who will resist it for just this reason. Looking to Spring/Summer, how about moving the lunchtime concerts from Liberty Plaza to the "top of the parking structure" or having a few Sunday's in the spring when the farmer's market expands to hold its sales of annuals there? How about letting artists set up there for Art Fair, or using it for the Rolling Sculpture car shows? None of these would require any new infrastructure--just temporary set-ups.

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:27 a.m.

Tom: Really great point on the ice rink. I was just in Grand Rapids, which also has one. It was a Saturday afternoon and it was packed with families, young teens, people walking their dogs nearby etc. It was very cool. It's just such a big draw and a great way to get people downtown, eating at restaurants and shopping at businesses.

Sven Gustafson

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 5:44 p.m.

This column has been updated to correctly reflect the name of Liberty Plaza.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 5:43 p.m.

Paula, I think park "trial run" is a good idea, what can it hurt? Downtown is entirely comprised of concrete and hardscape, why is the city so against adding some grassy areas for people to enjoy and hang out? If the city wishes to attract more "young professionals" downtown, amenities like grassy parks, grocery stores, and dog parks MUST be addressed in the near future!


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 5:42 p.m.

We need to have a serious discussion about the relationship of city-owned property sales and taxpayer approval. If these properties, or any property that is city-owned, is to be sold, why is owner approval not needed? That is, we the taxpayers own these properties. Is it considered our approval if our city council representatives agree to it, on our behalf? If that is the case, why do sales of parkland need public approval? And I know that many people feel that their concerns ARE NOT properly address by their council reps, who are too often absent, indifferent, or potentially conflicted by their service to other entities, DDA, etc. Should we consider making any sales of city owned properties subject to public referendum? In doing so any potential developer (be it private, public like UM or the city for re-use, or quasi-public like the DDA) would have to present a compelling and financially sound argument to the owners, aka we the taxpayers. Would something like this have the potential to slow down development? Maybe, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Remember, this is currently public property, owned by all of us, and it is being suggested that this public property be sold to private development, forever removing it from public use, for the benefit of a few. Yes, we gain the taxable value, but that potential income can be spent or squandered in any number of ways by the current and future city leadership, their DDA friends, etc. Thanks for another good article. Love the temp park idea!


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 5:23 p.m.

I like the idea of a park...some greenery. Little oases like that make living in a town bearable. The charm of Ann Arbor is not towering sky scrapers.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 6:30 p.m.

Problem is, it might turn in to a mega Liberty Plaza Square Park (or whatever it's called) with five times the problems. Except for that, I think it is a good idea too.

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:36 p.m.

1. Simple really, the consultants are called in to help create the most profitable solution while also adding their stamp of approval and credibility to whatever the DDA and City dream up. Think of them as expensive cheerleaders. 2. Two part: A) This scenario will likely not happen; U of M's strategy appears to be more about consolidation than full on expansion. Having said that, we'll probably see smaller acquisitions like the recent purchase of the Blimpy Burger property continue as the University mops up and expands its borders ever so slightly. Think of it as encroaching on a natural habitat like, say, the rainforest. B) University of Michigan and various City of Ann Arbor agencies and Developers are constantly engrossed in dialogue-making decisions about the welfare of our city and we, the average taxpayer, are simply not invited to participate in these conversations. Unless, you have skin in the game, you're not invited to play. The honest truth is that while we are invited to voice concerns at public City Council meetings, most of the decisions have already been made behind closed doors. The City Council meetings are at best a formality to give them a sense of propriety. 3. Liberty Square Park needs to be redesigned or closed. 4. Good point. We have an Apple store in the mall. Why on earth would Apple move into downtown given that they already have a program at the University of Michigan, providing educational discounts to thousand of students and faculty? Think. 5. Two-part: A) The city needs to find alternative means of generating income than simply given developers the keys to the city. B) The DDA and the City need to consider the public-at-large and find alternative methods to conjure up oddball proposals for downtown development. As many people, including academics have previously pointed out, the DDA and various consultancies are doing themselves and the city a massive disservice.

Sabra C Briere

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:32 p.m.

I do hope this article will be corrected to indicate Liberty Plaza as the already-existing public park on this block. LIBERTY SQUARE is the name of the McKinley-owned commercial area closer to State Street - the one that includes the parking structure. (It's also the name of a troubled housing complex in Ypsilanti, but I don't believe that is contributing to the confusion.) LIBERTY PLAZA is a public park on the corner of Division and Liberty.

E Claire

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 6:09 p.m.

I don't think anyone was confused about what space Paula is referring to. I think the confusion, as timjbd points out, is that after reading this article, this is all you have to say.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 7:28 p.m.

That's what you're worried about?


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:22 p.m.

I was hoping for a dog park with lots of pieces of scrap metal welded together and called "art".


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:18 p.m.

DEVELOPERS ONLY INTERESTED IN PERSONAL PROFIT WHILE THE DDA WANTS TIF I agree with timjbd. Developers want their two percent (or higher) fee off the top of any construction financing. Obviously larger buildings require larger loans and provide larger fee collections. Also the DDA can use the TIF payments that large buildings can generate but only if they are profitable. The construction which is planned is the "Trojan Horse" by which developers can get the approval of the planning commission and City Council. Projects can not go to banks and investors for financing until their projects have received approval to start construction. Even if a building is not completed because of bankruptcy or its business enterprise fails, developers retain the fees received prior to the beginning of construction. Paula Gardner should have acknowledged that construction on four of the "under-developed" properties will eliminate hundreds of parking spaces and considerable parking fee revenue which is needed to reduce the DDA's annual budget deficit. Visitors to Ann Arbor will encounter more inconvenience in finding parking proximate to Main Street if these parking lots disappear. These properties are not lying fallow and unproductive. Then Paula Gardner should have observed that all the proposed DDA property development is entirely speculative. The DDA has no idea exactly how an additional 500,000 square feet of new space will be used. The DDA suggested that one building constructed (you pick the spot) should be an office. Well, who will occupy the office? If the building is going to commercial which manufacturers want to lease space when space is available? Ann Arbor maintains excess (meaning unoccupied) office and commercial space downtown and elsewhere throughout the city. The belief that "if you build it they will come" from "Field of Dreams" will not work for Ann Arbor and should not be the basis for approving massive construction, as apparentl

Jamie Pitts

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 3:44 p.m.

So many fantastic points are made! Consultants: I see using consultants as outsourcing our thinking, and outsourcing our ability to connect with the market. It appears risk-averse to let consultants drive the process -- by way of our innate authority bias -- but it leads to bad decisions. Instead of paying to survey, or paying to analyze, leaders should create a process by which we can collect, aggregate, and analyze what developers and "end users" know. Experimenting with a park: we are living in a time of pop-in stores and fail-fast startups, and we can apply this kind of experimentation to our civic space. We should just do the pop-in park now! No need to deliberate, we have hundreds and hundreds of parking spots in a safer location underneath the future park.

Jamie Pitts

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:14 p.m.

I just realized that I'm using the wrong neologism: this should be called a pop-up park :)

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 3:40 p.m.

I think you pose some really interesting questions. The idea of the urban green laboratory intrigues me.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 3:17 p.m.

#1. " But it's not a government entity's role to define the market and what needs to be there." If the government of Ann Arbor does not determine what IS needed, then a developer will build whatever makes him the most profit. Upfront. This is not how you want to do city planning. There are many things missing from downtown Ann Arbor. Things that are not necessarily the most lucrative for a developer to develop. Who do you think would have developed the Farmer's Market if that were the way town planning had always been done? Or the Michigan Theater or the Blind Pig or all the buildings along Main Street? If low-income housing is needed, no developer would build it when they could develop HIGH-income housing in the same place. And so on..


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 4:15 a.m.

And something to keep in mind is how poorly government handles what some might think is "better" than private enterprise. E.G. Water Street, Ypsi. Also, the Farmers Market, while I'm glad we have it and I hope it stays and gets better, is actually very shoddy. I've been in Farmers Markets in smaller towns and less "hip" and more "hip" towns, and they all are neater, cleaner, bigger, and better managed than the Ann Arbor one. It's kind of embarrassing, actually, to take visitors to it. Part of that might be the city management. I recall a huge waste of money (around $200,00 or so, am I remembering correctly?) on just planning for a revamp of the facility, or adding solar power, or something, and it fell through. After the planning money was spent, of course.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 7:05 p.m.

I'm sure that's true but they would not be developed in today's development environment if the developers were free to develop whatever they wanted because those projects would not maximize the short-term profit potential of the sites they inhabit. But a city can say, "We'd like a movie theater built on this lot. Or a farmer's market. Here are our guidelines. Please submit your bids." And then you can choose from all sorts of movie theater or farmer's market designs. As we stand today, this site would merely be made available for whatever a developer wants to develop without regard to what the town needs. Why else would there be 6 huge student housing projects being developed at once?

Joel A. Levitt

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 6:18 p.m.

I'm not sure, but I think all of the things you listed were developed privately.

Joel A. Levitt

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 3:14 p.m.

One nice thing about whenever possible keeping government out of market processes is that the probability of government corruption is reduced.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:26 p.m.

Joel- What do you mean? You do not recognize the DDA as a government entity? It is spearheading the building effort and determining what it wants built on each property. As far as government corruption, I have no evidence for DDA malfeasance but I consider the DDA irresponsible because of its series of annual budget deficits.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:11 p.m.

Private developers aren't corrupt? At least with public servants, we can vote them out.

David Cahill

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 3:12 p.m.

Er, Paula, I think you mean Liberty Plaza, not Liberty Square.

Steve Bean

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:45 p.m.

You make no mention of risk, Paula. I think that's the key consideration at this point. The rehashing that's going on is a reflection of the non-recovery we've been in. The CWS sites aren't likely to be developed in the near term. The markets are poised for a major drop, lasting 3 years or more, followed by a depressed economy for much longer. It won't be long before we've shifted focus to other things and left behind dreams of higher density downtown.

Kai Petainen

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:27 p.m.

Paula.... sometimes in the comment boards you get criticized. I hope sometimes you are applauded as well. These are great questions and it's nice to see that you are asking the questions. So, here is some *applause*... nicely done.

Brian Kuehn

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:56 p.m.

Paula, you are right on the money as far as #1 and #3. We differ a bit on the role of the U of M. While the U of M should be involved in some discussions, we do not need them to purchase any more land inside Ann Arbor. Overall, a well thought out piece.