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Posted on Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 2:56 p.m.

Will downtown Ann Arbor ever change much? While some parts see dense development, others likely won't

By Ryan J. Stanton


This map is included in the Ann Arbor DDA's new Connecting William Street plan. It shows the different zoning designation of downtown properties and highlights the areas where the city is considering redevelopment opportunities for city-owned properties (shown in purple). The city's D1 core downtown zoning allows for buildings up to 180 feet tall (some have 150-foot caps), while the D2 step-down zoning allows for buildings up to 60 feet tall.

Ann Arbor DDA

The emergence of a new plan for redeveloping city-owned properties downtown — on top of other developments already in the works — has some Ann Arborites embracing more density and others fearing the downtown might dramatically change forever and lose some of its charm.

But as zoning maps show, and as city officials point out, many parts of downtown Ann Arbor — including some of the most familiar stretches along Main, Liberty and State streets — are protected by historic districts and likely won't ever change much.


A broader map looking at the downtown district from the Ann Arbor DDA's State of the Downtown report from last year.

Ann Arbor DDA

Mayor John Hieftje, who has lived in Ann Arbor since 1951, estimated less than 40 percent of downtown Ann Arbor ever will be redeveloped because of the zoning designations and restrictions on properties.

"The sections of Main and State that we all love will always be off limits to redevelopment," he said, adding the same goes for much of Liberty and William and parts of Washington and Fifth.

"Then we have the Old West Side and the Old Fourth Ward Historic Districts butting right up to downtown," he said. "Those areas will always be off limits to new development as well."

Although, there's fear among some that a new 14-story apartment high-rise proposed for Huron Street could cast a damaging shadow over their historic neighborhood to the north.

The city's Planning Commission postponed consideration of the 413 E. Huron St. project last week amid an outpouring of opposition from residents. However, that's a by-right project on private property in a D1 zoning district and the city might not be able to do much to stop it.

Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said it's true that much of the property in the DDA district is located either within historic districts, floodway/floodplain areas or public property, including land owned by the University of Michgian.

"Moreover, the very short blocks in downtown that make it so walkable also means that much of downtown real estate is public right-of-way, including alleys, sidewalks, and streets," she said. "In fact, only 39 percent of the DDA district — the section of our community that our community set aside for the highest density — is developable without zoning restrictions of some kind."

Hieftje noted the buildings on Main Street — in a protected historic district — are the same as when he was a young boy, and he said the same goes for State between Liberty and William.

"Beyond that, history indicates that if there is going to be any new development on city-owned parcels, it will take a while," he said, noting that other than a small strip of land by the Blake Transit Center, the city has parted with only one downtown parcel in at least the last 12, maybe 25, years.

"It's on First and Washington where a new parking structure is going up with residential built to accommodate working people on top," he said. "There used to be an old parking garage there."

In the meantime, Hieftje said, the city has protected more than 4,000 acres of farmland around the city through its Greenbelt Program and bought several parcels in the city for new parks.

"The only parcel I see the city taking action on anytime soon is at Fifth and William, the old YMCA lot," Hieftje said. "Judging by recent sale prices in the downtown, there is a good opportunity for the city to cash in on its investment and even have some dollars left over."


A chart from the Ann Arbor DDA's State of the Downtown report from last year.

Ann Arbor DDA


Ann Arbor DDA

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



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

I cannot imagine why, if we are a community that values historic areas,we have not put architectural guidelines in place for development adjacent to these areas. Its a fundamental guide for the future. Clearly that has not happened and we are left with a mashup of then and now. The council either takes a stand now in the face of ugly buildings or face the ruin of the charm that is Ann Arbor. Placing 1000's of students in such close proximity to the state and main street areas will eventually convert what is a mix of lovely restaurants and shops into coffee houses and bars, chasing tourists and family's seeking the Ann Arbor experience away. If the goal is residences make them open to all age groups and professionals for a cultural mix and include corner grocery stores to serve them. Otherwise its just "the Villages of Florida" for students, with other age groups discriminated against.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 6:04 p.m.

"The Villages.."


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 2:50 a.m.

Maybe I am color blind, but I don't see much "green" inside the dotted sky blue region (downtown). Jamie is right, we need more downtown recreation areas...and with some actual grass, not more concrete. I like restaurants, but we can only eat so about some diversity downtown!

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 2:35 a.m.

I think those new to Ann Arbor would be amazed how much has changed from the '70s, before Hurricane Brater drove Jacobson's out of town and Main changed from a retail center to a restaurant center. I also think those in Ann Arbor today will be amazed if they stick around another 30 years. Change is constant, even with a crappy mayor and a planning commission that has no idea what it's doing.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 3:12 a.m.

people dont want believe it in "funny Ann Arbor" but we see steady decline in last few years.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 1:42 a.m.

I would like to see a section of Main Street blocked from auto traffic. Route the cars on one-way streets to each side of Main St. The pedestrian only blocks could have more dining seating, some green space in the middle, etc.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 2:31 a.m.

Great idea!


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 2:26 a.m.

Especially in the summer, particularly on weekends.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 2:21 a.m.


Tom Whitaker

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 1:22 a.m.

If I hear the mayor say that historic districts will never be redeveloped one more time I am going to scream! Liberty Lofts, one of the most successful developments in Ann Arbor is in the Old West Side historic district. It features the adaptive re-use of an old factory as well as new construction. Multiple buildings on Main Street have been redeveloped, rehabilitated, and added on to. Others are considered "non-contributing" could be changed or even removed and replaced, provided whatever was built did not negatively impact the neighboring properties. The problem, if there is a problem, is lack of imagination and leadership, not historic district regulations.

Vivienne Armentrout

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

Remember the fable about the goose that laid the golden eggs? The owners decided that if they cut up the goose, they could get at all that gold. But inside was just a regular goose. Our downtown is producing golden eggs from its historic districts, especially Main Street. If you look at CVB, Pure Michigan etc. discussions of Ann Arbor, what do you get? The historic district. We derive our business partly from tourists. They come to see "charming Ann Arbor", not the student high-rises. People who complain about the historic districts must have some investment in development enterprises. Most of the rest of us know this is why Ann Arbor is a walkable successful downtown.

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:10 a.m.

An important part of this, I think, is how developers are viewing building in downtown Ann Arbor right now. The proposed buildings are large because it maximizes profit, and land costs downtown are high. I'm not sure it makes sense from a developer stand point to build a 4-story office building right now.

Jamie Pitts

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:32 a.m.

It is our town and if they want to make that money, they'll have to play by our rules. There must be developers who have taste. If not, the smart ones will learn and then step back and realize that they can create great places and make money too.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:17 a.m.

Exactly, it's all about $$$ and profit for the developers. It's not about preserving the character of a town, it's not about providing a good quality of life for all residents, including those who have lived in historic areas for years, it's not about keeping rents reasonable so family businesses and long term business tenants can survive. It's all about greed. Too bad A2 is part of that, including the real estate cartel that runs downtown buildings. The consequences are clear and the future of A2 is just more Disneyland.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 11:09 p.m.

There is nothing charming about high rises, and A2 has already lost any charm it once had. Packing in these monster buildings next to historic districts and houses has ruined the downtown area in my view. Instead, these monster high rises should have been scaled back to 3-4 stories when they were built, and not built right next to historic areas. Too late for that and the damage has been done. Coupled with increasing numbers of chain retail, and the loss of family run small businesses, the downtown is now Disneyland USA and a giant strip mall lined with monster student warehouses. But, the tax coffers of the city will grow fatter, which was and is the goal.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 5:15 a.m.

actually agree with jrw a town of 100,000 people is not a city, the current high rises look out of place. who would be in these new buildings for businesses or living? i can see some rebuilding and maybe some 10 story building IF there were services, like a mix of restaurants and stores and things to do but right now i have limited desire to walk along main street. it is kind of boring but iam ot sure we have the population to support something else


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 3:14 a.m.

we are not a small town,we need small town charm that those not fit.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 11:32 p.m.

I agree JRW that too many high rise buildings have appeared downtown defiling the skyline and overwhelming the senses when you walk by them. However, the DDA's effort to put massive structures on the few remaining public properties downtown on which such buildings can be constructed ignores the negative effects these monster buildings will have on ambiance and character of downtown.

Steve Bean

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 10:32 p.m.

Downtown isn't likely to change nearly as much in the next 12 years as it has in the last 12 in terms of skyline. Very few new projects will be started. Any that do will be at high risk of bankruptcy. With more college students heading to more affordable community colleges, unless the U attracts an even higher percentage of students from wealthy families, enrollment will decline, freeing up current and in-the-process-of-being-built housing for others. Meanwhile, household size will likely increase as elder parents and young adults move in with the empty-nesters, so city population could increase. Michigan population is past its peak, so any increase here will not fully offset declines in rural areas. The restaurant business will decline (bars will stay open) as more people reduce the priciest forms of entertainment/outings and out-of-town visitors stay closer to home. The surface lots will be full, and the parking structures much less so.

Jamie Pitts

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 10 p.m.

Why can't we create an architecture that can preserve the beauty and humanistic values -- exemplified by the old buildings on Main Street -- while also supporting concentration? Are developers really that cynical and unimaginative? Are we really that unable to negotiate with builders? Density is the future of our city. The emerging environmental and economic situation requires people to move closer together. We can fight it tooth-and-nail, but it will come anyway so it may as well come on our terms. What mystifies me is that old density and new (higher) density are presented in anthesis to one another. I say build what works and what is needed, and learn from the past: - think of what people need in life and in work, make sure those things are there (it may need to be invested in or temporarily subsidized) - charming touches are important to Ann Arbor (involve craftspeople in the process) - people living downtown need substantial recreational space (build it now, not later) Lastly, our city is ours to define. We need a process in place that properly facilitates public participation in planning something as big as what we're trying to do here, taking into account that we are building for a lot of people who aren't even born yet.

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:47 p.m.

More from the DDA's Connecting William Street plan for the five city-owned properties: "All of the sites in this report are designated 'D1—Core Downtown' by the city of Ann Arbor's zoning code." According to the code: "This district is intended to contain the downtown's greatest concentration of development and serves as a focus for intensive pedestrian use. This district is appropriate for high-density mixed residential, office and commercial development."

Will Hathaway

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 11:43 p.m.

An important point to keep in mind is that zoning may allow for higher density than is built. The DDA's view is that these sites are appropriate targets for high-density development (i.e. very tall buildings built out to the maximum "footprint"). The zoning may allow for that, but the City (i.e. the public) own these properties. We can choose to do with them whatever we want - including creating the open space that the downtown lacks. I'm not sure what is counted to reach the open space/parkland figure. I know that the largest single "park" in the DDA district is the Farmer Market - not what most people think of as a park.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:45 p.m.

Good question, Mr. Stanton. I think that the Mayor's apparent desire to "urbanize" random spots in the town is a bit silly. If he really wants a dense, urban town, why would he not want all high rise buildings on Main Street. That way, we would be more dense, more urban, and lot more New York than Ann Arbor. Where we are headed now is in the direction of a Southfield style hodge-podge where his lack of set backs in random places (City Hall complex ...) just don't fit into the rest of the town. While I don't favor either the increased density or urbanization, I simply don't understand the methods the current administration is using.

Scott Reed

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 9:47 p.m.

I think the comparison to Southfield is not good, because Southfield is dominated by huge roads and is quite pedestrian-hostile. Similar to NYC, Ann Arbor can support tall buildings while remaining accessible to pedestrians; there is no conflict here. I like Main Street as it is now, but I would like it better if it were taller and denser. We can take what is already good about Downtown AA and further emphasize these strengths.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:35 p.m.

Putting a dark blue square over them doesn't change the fact that the "Connecting William Street" properties are still historic district and/or public land. Not project sites. And look at the ratio of space given to cars parking vs. parks. Not much green on that map. Thanks for sharing, Mr. Stanton. More people need to see the DDA priorities in color, before they are set in stone, or more likely, pre-fabricated concrete panels.

Sabra C Briere

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:14 a.m.

None of the public properties being considered under the Connecting William Street study are in historic districts or protected by the Historic District Ordinance. All are zoned D1, including the parking structure at 4th and William.

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:43 p.m.

You're welcome! Just to be clear for everyone else following along, the purple areas where development is contemplated in the first image are city-owned parking lots -- no historic structures there to protect as far as I know.

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:33 p.m.

I'm curious -- for those who want to preserve the look and feel of downtown Ann Arbor as it is today, is it enough that we'll be able to hold onto those historic areas along Main, Liberty, State and elsewhere, while high-rises go up in other parts of downtown? What are your thoughts around that?


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:02 p.m.

There is nothing (except the desire to maximize profit) stopping developers from recreating the sections people love about Ann Arbor. Under current restrictions, building another couple rows of mixed use buildings like those on Main Street and State St. would make those who build them SOME money but not the absolute maximum allowable amount of money. Locals would take on projects like that (if they were made available) but out-of-towners never would because they can go massive elsewhere. There's always another Renaissance Center to built somewhere, even if they're not needed. Which they are not, usually.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 3:17 a.m.

hey even new Orleans has charming old historic district, we just polish are up a bit!!


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 2:38 a.m.

I see hour point, Scott, but if not for HDC protection the OWS, for example, would all be a student ghetto. It's already full of students and apartments (now stopped) ...

Jamie Pitts

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 10:12 p.m.

I do no think that preservation is enough. There needs to be much higher standards and vision for downtown. We are a wealthy society. We are a place that any rational developer or business person wants to be a part of. We can dictate standards and make Ann Arbor's Main Street an example -- rather than a historical vestige -- for greater things to come. I heard it said that we look radioactive to developers. This is just incorrect. Maybe to a developer hoping to create another Liberty Plaza we look radioactive. Maybe to a developer hoping to build a Cobo Center in our midst we look radioactive. Ann Arbor in its most tree-hugging, charm-inducing reactionary state of mind is actually a place that developers can and will get very wealthy in. If they can't, they built the wrong thing. A lot of business people are just unable to get out of their self-imposed box and this is how stupid things get built. So we must help them see the light. To build places that work and are also beautiful makes our civilization wealthier, and rewards long-term investors.

Scott Reed

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 9:55 p.m.

The desirable look and feel of downtown Ann Arbor is derived from its (relative) density compared to the usual sprawl, and its (relative) pedestrian-friendliness. Building mixed-use high rises in downtown Ann Arbor as proposed by the DDA will *enhance* what we already appreciate about the downtown. Compared to most cities in the US, Ann Arbor has an enviable and walkable downtown. But that doesn't mean we should freeze it in time forever; it is far from perfect. We should make it much denser and more pedestrian-friendly. It would be a shame if we let short-sighted nimbyism strangle progress in our downtown. I for one am becoming very skeptical about the true motives behind the obstructionist HDC.

Elaine F. Owsley

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:17 p.m.

If the Historic District Commission were to have its way, nothing would change, it would just grow older and more derelict.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:53 p.m.

Repairs involving no design changes and using same materials are not governed by the historic commission. If a repair such as this is large enough to warrant having a building permit, HDC review is $25 and takes less than an hour. I agree that DJ is not correct on the fix front porch steps example, however his description of permit fees for a major project in a historic district are about right.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 4:49 a.m.

Foobar is correct. DJBud's facts are anything but.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 11:01 p.m.

I'm not against historic preservation, far from it. But the perception remains that it adds time and money to taking care of your property. You don't describe your major structural change made, but my figures are far from nonsense, the total permits and fees from the city for an addition, one to two stories, in a historic district performed in 2011 was over $2200, excluding mechanicals. Of that $525 was solely to HDC, plus an extra month of time from plan submission to approval. The three months was from a neighbor who was unfortunate enough to have his item delayed two sessions for a total of three months for plan review. Fix the porch steps? $125 to HDC. As for what good are they? Good is as good does, and it seems to be getting better. I advocate for more respect to the boundaries of historic districts; who doesn't feel for the folks on N. Division and Ann? Holy Crap! Soon to be living in the shadow of a student ghetto! They get the service side of the building, remember?They thought they HAD purchased property in a historic district.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 9:41 p.m.

Except all of the examples you cite are nonsense. The fees are far less, they don't apply to routine maintenance, many actual changes are handled by administrative review, and the wait times are far less for those few projects (usually major structural changes) that require HDC approval. Having gone through a major structural change permit this year, it was quick, the fees were low, the staff was professional, and the process all-around was just fine. And guess what, it helps my property values too. If you don't like historical districts, don't buy property in one.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:51 p.m.

One problem is the homeowners fear of the commission, the barriers to HD compliance are too large. Who wants to pay a $500 application fee and wait 3 months to be heard, and maybe approved, to replace a broken screen door, or repair rotting porch steps? Many would rather let it grow derelict. For sure the HDC has a well deserved reputation as being an impediment to routine maintainence. Then, when there is a multi-department failure to actually preserve, like the Germantown houses debacle, people rightly point to that and ask what good are they anyway?


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:13 p.m.

Now I get it! The monorail between the convention center and the new train station transportation oasis will have almost no impact at all!

Homeland Conspiracy

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 10:46 p.m. Springfield Monorail

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:11 p.m.

Here are the city's historic district maps for anyone who wants to take a closer look at which areas in Ann Arbor (both inside and outside the downtown) are protected:

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 8:13 p.m.

Here's a shorter link to copy: