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Posted on Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

13-story Varsity apartments project wins approval from Ann Arbor City Council

By Ryan J. Stanton


An aerial view of the project known as The Varsity, shown in yellow, as viewed from the southeast on Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor. Shown in the background is Sloan Plaza condominiums on Huron Street. To the left is 411 Lofts, and to the right is the First Baptist Church.

Image courtesy of developer

Another addition to the downtown skyline — a project known simply as The Varsity — was approved Thursday night by a 10-0 vote of the Ann Arbor City Council.

The council's action on the site plan and development agreement clears the way for a 13-story student high-rise at 425 E. Washington St.

The developer, Potomac Holdings of Bethesda, Md., plans to build a 177,180-square-foot building containing 181 apartments with 415 bedrooms. It'll be tucked between Sterling 411 Lofts, another student high-rise to the west, and the First Baptist Church.


Tom Heywood


Brad Moore


Chris Crockett


Robert Keane

Tom Heywood, one of several members of the public who spoke during a public hearing, thanked the developer for the project and for listening to input from the neighborhood.

"We understand that there are people in the community who do not like this massing of building downtown, but we sincerely believe it is the future of downtown to have higher density," said Heywood, executive director of the State Street Area Association.

"And we are hopeful that this will be just the first of a number of new buildings in the neighborhood," he said. "Zaragon will be open in September, and so we're looking to the Washington Street corridor being as vital a corridor as some of the others."

An existing two-story office building will be demolished to make way for the new development.

The project continued to draw criticisms from some residents during Thursday night's public hearing.

"The best thing you could say about it is that it could be a lot worse," said John Floyd, treasurer of the First Baptist Church.

Floyd said it's an "act of irresponsibility caused by this council and its zoning" to put a building of that size at that location. He called it "civic vandalism" and "church desecration."

"It takes what has been the most elegant street in town and begins its diminishment," Floyd said, blaming the zoning regulations, not the developer.

Ann Arbor architect Brad Moore said he'll be talking to his client today about the timeline for breaking ground, but he imagines the developer will want to move quickly.

He responded to the criticisms Thursday night to say many concerns were addressed in recent months.

"We have worked very hard with the neighbors and the Design Review Board and the Planning Commission," he said. "This project has evolved, and I understand that it's probably not possible to make everybody 100 percent happy, but we think we've done the best job possible."

Chris Crockett, president of the Old Fourth Ward Association, agreed The Varsity is an appropriate development for the site, and she said it even could be taller than what's proposed.

But one of her main concerns is the look and feel of the north facade on Huron Street.

"Huron Street is a major thoroughfare in this community," she said. "And we have talked for a long time about the importance of making any new construction on Huron Street important and architecturally significant. The facade on Huron Street is anything but that."

Even with changes the developer made to the drawings, Crockett argued the Huron Street facade still is just a "flat face" with "a glorified garage door."

Steve Kaplan, who identified himself as a soon-to-be neighbor of the project, also expressed some concerns about aesthetics, but overall he said he's excited for The Varsity.

"I've been a part of the design review process and meetings since they began for this particular project," he said. "And I have been impressed with the attention and the energy the developers have put into trying to make a lot of the changes."

Robert Keane of WDG Architecture in Washington, D.C., said he thought a lot of good feedback came from the neighborhood.

"And we really took very seriously a lot of the commentary. We're very proud of the building that we've developed," he said.

"We really feel like the evolution of that facade from where it started to where it finished … was a great improvement," he added. "There's quite a bit of detail that's put into the facade treatment. Some people described it as flat. I describe it as a rich texture."

The project includes 70 vehicle parking spaces underground, two shared-vehicle parking spaces on the adjacent property, 121 bicycle parking spaces, plazas on the north and south side of the building and a walkway along the length of the east side.

The plans include driveways off both Huron and Washington streets to different levels of the parking structure.

Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, said he didn't think the Washington Street garage entrance was very pedestrian-friendly. He wondered why two entrances are needed.

"I guess it's not perfect, but we'll have to deal with it," he said.

Council Member Sandi Smith, D-1st Ward, was absent Thursday.

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 e-mail newsletters.



Sun, Nov 13, 2011 : 9:21 p.m.

...and by the way Floyd is correct - the zoning ordinance is a direct contributor to absurd building designs in Ann Arbor and has been for decades. For one thing, developers will create stupid, under utilized, irrational buildings just to avoid going to the Historic Commission, which staffed with under educated nit wits with the power to KILL PROJECTS. If the City wants to improve the quality of development in the City, the place to start is to make the Historic Commission a recommending body rather then an approval body. Their focus is too narrow and skill too low to use that kind of POWER wisely, hence the City gets messed up projects like this.


Sun, Nov 13, 2011 : 9:14 p.m.

Another hideous building to be constructed in Ann Arbor - the city with a clueless zoning ordinance that spits out one ugly building after another. Where is the "architectural review committee"? Did they approve this train wreck? This time the "design team" is composed of an out of town firm and a local architect known for tract housing....and people wonder why this city looks ridiculous.


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 5:59 p.m.

I found this a very helpful article. It is unfortunate, however, that John Floyd's comments on this and many other subjects continue to be ill considered and uninformed. The other comments seem very helpful as the community tries to sort through the pros and cons of this development.

Ryan Munson

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 5:13 a.m.

I completely disagree with John Floyd's statements as reported in this article. I believe more density is needed in this area and to call this civic vandalism and church desecration one simply needs to look at other cities with dense downtown development right next to churches. I don't see any different. There's a 26 story building across the street from mine! I like this design because it is not just one long mass of rectangle. It has some character which is needed in any development (yes I have seen the pictures). I do certainly agree a more notable presence in facade is warranted for Huron as this is a higher trafficked thoroughfare.


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 12:53 a.m.

Good: High rises downtown. Bad: My 2-year-old draws nicer buildings.

Small Business Owner

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 4:33 p.m.

There are other cities putting up 10-20 story apartment complexes that ADD to the cityscape. Mid-town Atlanta. Lincoln Park Chicago. Charlotte. Portland. Significant, relevant architecture makes a difference, creates buzz, builds pride, creates signature/memorable landmarks. Why can't we do this?


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 4:28 a.m.

Small Business Owner: You have brothers posting comments above by the names of Wolfman Jack and xmo. Please read my reply to the former's comment. Comparisons with the much larger cities that you mention do not apply to Ann Arbor. Also I would not like my city looking like Atlanta, Charlotte or Portland (though the latter two have redeeming qualities).

Marshall Applewhite

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 8:22 p.m.

Because there is no middle ground in this city. Either people are adamantly anti-development, or people don't care. The anti-development people are the ones who would otherwise aid in making these buildings more beautiful, however they can't bring themselves to compromise to allow them in the first place.

say it plain

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 5:09 p.m.

Though Lord knows those Ashley Terrace buildings were just gross and meant to be overpriced condos, so....I dunno...we have ...gasp! *low* development standards lol... unlike what all the "build baby build" folks seem to claim?! We don't want to listen to their silly complaints about how developers boohoo can't build here, so we approve nasty-looking buildings made with cheap materials caring only that there be enough parking underneath them and some attempt at a retail facade in front?!

say it plain

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 5:06 p.m.

Because we're building cruddy student-housing towers?!


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:17 p.m.

Why oh why do we need 13 hideous stories??


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:13 p.m.

Hooray! More tax revenue, more people living downtown, more jobs Build baby Build!


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 4:21 a.m.

You must be Wolfman Jack's brother (above). Please read my reply to him as it is applicable to your comment as well.

lindsay erin

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:09 p.m.


wolfman jack

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:03 p.m.

Wonderful. Full marks. The students have more disposable income than nearly everyone all of the natives. That's a fact many of you will dispute - but it is a fact. Collage towns have distinctive economic shifts and that's one of the hallmarks. Your downtown corridor is thriving despite horrendous parking management and outrageous rents from legacy landholders solely because of the tremendous spending from the young crowd. They are not going to Walmart out to the West side target. They're spending their money downtown. Yes - there are starving undergrads eating noodles and turning the heat off until December. However, there are a great many running around with their folk's credit card in their paw spending. These apartments will be easy to re-purpose into office space for "the next big thing" should Ann Arbor become the next big thing. Maybe we'll discover public art cures cancer and build an industry around that. Green energy, the Babel device, materials science, the world center of aeronautical engineering. Maybe the iBrain (implant augmentations and the center of neuro-muscular enhancements). Who knows. There is a "next big thing." Always is. Crop rotation was the "next big thing" once. These big projects bring jobs and tax base. they also import more consumer spending into the downtown corridor which is quite lovely. The consequence will be the next push to limit food and drink establishments in the downtown corridor in favor of more retail. Watch for it. It's coming. "How can we attract more retail.? Too bad 'store X' went out ..." Only the highest revenue per sq foot will survive the next round of rent increases and these will typically be food and drink. Shop at your lovely nook and cranny used bookstores and eccentric boutiques this season. They'll be fewer in the next two years. Downtown will be a very vibrant social scene. Closer to Manhattan than anything we're familiar with yet .... Go baby go.

Ryan Munson

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 5:20 a.m.

Working downtown and living not far from it, I have to disagree with veracity's statement. 41,000 + college students not far away as being not many downtown. I can't begin to understand the ideology nor feasibility of this imperfect statement. =)


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 4:19 a.m.

What an imagination! So you think that U of M students come to town with money falling out of their pockets and anxious to spend it in downtown Ann Arbor. Well, I do not know who you are talking about or when this is supposed to happen because I spend a lot of time downtown and do not see that many students. However, if you travel on South University you will find many students. The rentals will have to be expensive and with the competition from other student residences being built the occupancy rate for The Varsity is unpredictable. I expect that it will not attract enough students to be profitable. Therefore, whatever jobs are created will be temporary and TIF dollars difficult for the city to collect. The only one who well benefit from construction of the Varsity will be the developer because he will take his fee off the top of any financing obtained and will have no long term financial investment in the enterprise. I wish your optimism were justified but I expect you will be disappointed with the outcome when it proves to be just "pie-in-the-sky."

Tex Treeder

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 11:05 p.m.

If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I'd move there.

say it plain

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:43 p.m.

Yours is the 'best case' worst-case scenario, really.. I think they actually still *do* go to the West side Target...hence the need to supply parking spaces for these kids. But, I agree, they will need to spend a lot on food and drink. I just hope that people start coming in with stuff other than Subway and Wild Wings...because that's just not very Manhattan-y in the way I like to imagine Manhattan. It's more AnyCollegeTown USA. Rents have to be low enough to attract even food/drink/convenience-stores that aren't chains to be interesting, and I worry that this will begin an extended period of *nothing* interesting happening downtown. The kids with the parents credit cards will maybe just bulk up on Subway and Wild Wings and Potbelly's, buy Diet Coke at CVS, then off to NYC for the actual retail spending. And for the 'good' restaurant spending. Leaving us with nothing to show for all this student-oriented development...well, not *nothing*, but you know...


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 2:54 p.m.

I have nothing against a tall building in this location, but we have to do something to defend our city from this kind of visual pollution. Time and again council has approved incredibly drab and ugly buildings, and the cumulative effect is going to eventually take its toll--this is where council has to take a leadership role. City Place, now this, the list goes on, one bad design after another. Whatever happened to architecture as an art? I understand that developers are in this for money, but does it take that much more to try to find someone who has some imagination to design a building? There has been unending discussion about the aesthetics of one public sculpture, but we let the city be covered with junk buildings that will be here much longer and have a more lasting impact. True, that was done with public funds, but our leaders have some responsibility here. Other cities have design guidelines that are much stronger--we need them as well, although I suppose the real estate cabal on council would be against this.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 2:21 p.m.

Yet another step in the ongoing uglification of Ann Arbor.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 2:40 p.m.

Amen. And I'm sure the neighbors on the upper floors of the Lofts next door are going to love looking out their windows directly into the apartments of the latest ugly high-rise.

hut hut

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 2:11 p.m.

Can we finally put to rest the notion that Ann Arbor is anti development? It's seems otherwise at this present time, but let's please try to avoid boom and bust real estate cycles and make development sustainable for the long term.

Wolf's Bane

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:54 p.m.

This is a better option to suburban sprawl. Not, necessarily the prettiest though.

say it plain

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:32 p.m.

Exactly...and I wonder how it will play out in the next decades for the 'feel' of downtown Ann Arbor... Seems to me that *for sure* we ought to be hearing any day now about a Whole Foods coming in to the abandoned Borders spot. They may as well capture all those hungry undergrads and even whatever grad students and young professionals might end up renting allll those new bedrooms! Some of them (especially the people paying their own way, like some of the grad students and the young professionals ;-) ) might be pretty 'house'-poor and believe they'd do better shopping for groceries than going out to eat. But they still have high standards ;-) And want coffee and already-cooked meals and so on...Whole Foods might totally work there now..

Rod Johnson

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:46 p.m.

But wait! I thought Ann Arbor was supposed to be some kind of developer hell that never approves projects. So confusing when reality doesn't accord with my prejudices.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:34 p.m.

The Varsity represents a major risk for its financier and for the city of Ann Arbor. Although the cost of construction has not been divulged one can calculate a plausible cost of about $35 million, and maybe more because of the included underground parking structure. With an interest rate of 5% and a 20 year sinking fund, The Varsity will have to generate $3.5 million in revenue annually just to meet financing costs. Therefore, each of the 415 bedrooms must be leased for at least $702. However, the leasing rate will have to be increased in order to cover other costs of operation including salaries of employees, utilities, insurance, maintenance, and taxes. Very likely the ultimate leasing rate will average $1000 per bedroom which is similar to charges obtained by Zaragon Place 1 and anticipated for Zaragon Place 2. With The Varsity joining Zaragon Place 1 and 2, 4 Eleven Lofts on East Washington and The Courtyards near Plymouth Road and North Campus, the high-end student leasing capacity may well exceed the demand. This situation will be complicated by the intention of the University of Michigan to decrease the size of incoming freshman classes in the future. The Varsity can be expected to be a business failure and to be sold in bankruptcy for a fraction of the original construction costs as has happened with 411 Lofts and with Ashley Terrace (not a student residence but similar high priced apartment building). The "fire sale" pricing for the sale of the latter two buildings allowed the new owners to drastically cut leasing rates so that full occupancy could be achieved while still generating profits. When The Varsity enters bankruptcy and is then resold for much less than its initial financing, the city will lose tax money when TIF is recalculated downwards to reflect the loss in value upon resale. The Varsity may never attract profitable occupancy and end up a blight downtown, like the residency building on 4th and Huron.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:27 p.m.

Not a surprise the business's on state want more people downtown. But the root cause is the city council is discouraging shoppers out of town just look at the parking problems and the ridiculous 'local' cross walk laws as recent examples. They do not want people driving downtown anymore. Now they have begun the systematic doing away of the small quant buildings, that small town feel is being replaced with square high rises. When was the last time A2 was listed,, [in a major survery] of best places to live or visit?? Note the 'artists rendetion' in the pictrure of all the green space around the building. That is not the reality of what it will look like, and when the church sells its building and lawn at some point in the future another developer will come up with more affordable student housing. Where will all these renters come from? seriously can anyone tell me?? my guess is that some of these projects will go belly up in the future turn to subsidized housing, the merchants association will complain about the vagrants and transients ... hey that's progress though right.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 7:16 p.m.

To Cahill - I did say major listing for an award - such as Homes and Gardens this used to be a given. did not find the cnn listing you quote, and the forbes listing shows a picture of UofM's campus, that happens to be in A2 which means you miss my point. the quality of life is based on UofM being here not A2 itself. To smart logic take a look a the growth outside of the city, and the vacant store fronts on every downtown street. question i ask is what will the slum lords do with these houses that they cannot rent?? Answer; probably section 8 hud housing. govt. subsidized. The changing dynamics of this city will have consequences it needs to be balanced, when all we see are tennant housing projects being approved, merchants closing shops up because of lack of business the pendelum has swung to far in one direction is what i am saying.

Smart Logic

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:25 p.m.

Well spoken, David. To B2Pilot, i think you're a little too much into conspiracy at this point with the cross walk thing. I don't think that was intended at all to discourage out of town shoppers from driving through. If anything it was a cash grab that allowed them to tote the "safety" pedestrians now have in Ann Arbor. If you build it, they will use it. Renters will fill it, just as they've filled every other major complex that has gone up. Contrary to popular belief, not all college kids want to live in a partially functioning house with cruddy parking and living with 5 other people.

David Cahill

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:11 p.m.

The properties on both side of the Varsity site are in the historic district (Old Fourth Ward). These properties will not be easily changed. 2011 Walk Friendly Community (Gold-level) by Pedestrian and Bicyle Information Center 2010 Governmental Award of Excellences in Urban Forestry, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Urban and Community Forestry Council. Tree City USA (designated since 1980) Winner of the international Energy Globe Award for Sustainability at the 2010 World Environment Day (Rwanda) on June 3rd for LED lighting initiatives 2011 All American City finalist, National Civic League 2011 25 Best Cities for an Active Retirement, Forbes 2010 75 Best College Towns (#2), American Institute for Economic Research 2010 CNN Best Places to Live (#46) 2010 America's Most Liveable Cities (#4) and the list goes on. The Council doesn't control building design.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:21 p.m.

Welcome to Sim City - Ann Arbor Edition. Apparenty these developers have some projected study that shows that these types of residencies will be in demand. With UM (a metropolis competing directly with the city of Ann Arbor itself) buying up all the other good land within the city boundaries I guess this is the only way to make the most tax base out of what's left (until UM buys these too). There's a considerable amount of change that has happened with the availability of apartments in Ann Arbor recently and even more to come in a more rapid fashion in 2012. Anyone remember when Zaragon 1 was listed for sale "as a test" earlier this year? Best of luck on your continued and expanding speculation.

say it plain

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:27 p.m.

You two guys have it just bingo-right ;-) Too bad for us in the real world (those of us who do live in it here in AA anyhow...)

Wolf's Bane

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:53 p.m.

I wish we had the option in Sim City. I'd love to be able to sell an empty building to the University of Michigan along with the land; it is a nice way to get rid of a mistake! Too bad that doing it over and over again shrinks your tax base!


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:05 p.m.

"It takes what has been the most elegant street in town and begins its diminishment," Floyd said, blaming the zoning regulations, not the developer. Really? This is the most elegant street in town? I would argue it's one of the least elegant, and while this building doesn't help that problem, the height is appropriate for the area. Although I wonder about the sustainability of these student high-rises. In about 10-20 years are their auto-cad aesthetics going to give us a skyline of U-Towers? That's the real "civic vandalism."

Smart Logic

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 12:20 p.m.

To the historical crowd: Ann Arbor needs the money. As noble as it is to remember days of old and building history, the here and now is calling and wants things to function. To the church treasurer: all I have to say is that you will soon have a tremendous ministry opportunity right next door to you. If I understand your beliefs correctly, that should be a lot more important than the city planning and aesthetics of this. Seize the opportunity! To the developer: be good, pay all your taxes, and by doing so and show the city that while this may be displeasing aesthetically, it is a relevant contributor to the city's needs.

Smart Logic

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 4:58 p.m.

earthchick, I am glad to hear that. I was not happy to see his comment about "church desecration" and am glad to hear the members do not necessarily share his views.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:54 p.m.

Smart Logic - though John is the church treasurer, he was not speaking at the council meeting as an official representative of the church or its viewpoint. I speak for many in our congregation when I say that we are excited about the opportunity for ministry to the students who will be living next door!

Smart Logic

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 3:21 p.m.

The developer obviously sees the demand, and rest assured that these will fill up with students when completed. I rented a house designed for students and know that space is at a premium. Then, you still have to deal with housemates, parking, and everything else which turns the downtown area into a veritable disaster from September to May every year. There is a demand.


Fri, Nov 11, 2011 : 1:36 p.m.

Yes A2 needs money as we all do, but here's an idea; instead of courting tennant housing developers get a real legitimate business to set-up within the City limits? the only draw is UofM think about what it would look like without UofM drawing all these employees and students downtown?? there is no legitmate significant business's within the city anymore that is the issue. the historical signifcance yes it does make for character but the bigger and harder job should be bringing a toyota tech center, IBM, google or something downtown. Then I could support the apartment business's coming to town. Right now i do not see the demand supporting these developments