The Uncertain Future and Huge Potential of ArborBike

Like some 1,000 cities around the world large and small, Ann Arbor jumped into the bike sharing fray back in 2014 with the aptly named ArborBike program.  Now entering its fourth year in operation the initial funding is starting to wind down and the future of the service is uncertain.

arborbike-07-580

Three years in now, most have probably seen the bikes in motion but a quick refresh for the uninitiated: There are 13 stations around town housing 125 bikes, available for rent with a credit card to the general public by the day, the month or the year.  The system is owned and operated by the Clean Energy Coalition in partnership with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (“AAATA”), University of Michigan and City of Ann Arbor.  They have a website, pretty straightforward really.

The funding and future of the system however, is less straightforward.  The University provided the bulk of the funding for the first three years, committing $200K annually.  For 2017, they have reduced their commitment to $80K, dropping to $40K in 2018.  Other sources, primarily the Downtown Development Authority, City of Ann Arbor and the AAATA, have stepped up their support to fill in the gaps and ArborBike is operationally funded through the 2017 biking season.  Financing for 2018 and beyond is a big question mark but there are some (relatively) simple solutions in sight.

First, it’s important to understand that bike sharing is a form of transit.  Even in places like Chicago or London, most trips are not tourists poking around the sights, they’re residents getting from A to B (or maybe poking around the sites a bit themselves).  As a percentage, fare collection at ArborBike is already on par with other forms of mass transit and can improve with increased ridership.  Second, the system grew organically by 24.57% to 17,675 trips in 2016 according to Sean Reed, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Coalition and head of the service.  That’s with no change in service, bikes or stations.  It’s starting to take hold.  ArborBike needs the proper investment, marketing and partners to not only secure funding but absolutely thrive.  Here are three ways to get the system to take off in 2018.

University/AAATA Partnerships with Shared Passes

The fastest way to boost membership and revenue would be to include the service with the UM student MCard.  There are 44,718 students at the Ann Arbor campus, each is assessed a couple of small semester fees on top of tuition including $4.25 for Student Legal Services, $4.60 for Central Student Government and $32.50 for University Unions & Recreational Sports Improvements.  Adding a few dollars to that last fee and updating the technology so that the MCard could provide immediate access in an integrated system would result in explosive ridership growth and significant operational funding.  The same integration should be established with the AAATA, specifically with GoPass.  GoPass is the DDA sponsored program that offers heavily discounted unlimited use bus passes for employees working downtown, there were 611,353 rides in 2016.  That pass should include ArborBike, again with a unified card system if possible.

Expansion of the System

The system is growing but is limited with the current number and locations of stations.  I’ve covered this previously on the blog, the present stations are virtually all at final destinations.  They’re downtown, dotted around campus and at the hospital.  The problem is that many, I would argue most, people are traveling to those destinations from an area that does not have an ArborBike station.  Namely neighborhoods around town, heavily student areas to the south of campus but all over the core of our city.  Reed believes there is funding for additional infrastructure from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (“CMAQ”) and other sources if operational financing can be secured.  There are also some new examples of stationless bike share that might be an option.  The bikes are equipped with locks and GPS technology that would allow them to be dropped off and picked up anywhere within a certain boundary.  While the bikes themselves are more expensive, it saves money on kiosks and provides for greater flexibility.

Corporate Sponsor/Partner

The final piece of the puzzle is identifying a potential corporate sponsor.  Most of the larger systems are underwritten by an enormous company, think Citi Bike in NYC, Santander Cycles in London (formerly Barclays Cycle) or Biketown in Portland (Nike).  It’s possible that someone local could step in (Bank of Ann ArborBike anyone? they do love to help), the branding and advertising would be excellent but it’s a probably a pretty big check to write.  I think the obvious choice here is the closest Fortune 100 company to Ann Arbor, Ford Motor Company.  If that sounds crazy, you might be surprised to know that Ford is looking far beyond automobiles, embracing new technologies and all forms of mobility in a changing world.  They’re already sponsoring San Francisco’s program, bought crowd-sourced shuttle service Chariot and are opening an office in downtown Ann Arbor.  Seems like a perfect fit.

chariot-ford-gobike-hero

2017 will be a pivotal year for ArborBike, will the growth continue, will funding be secured, will it survive?  The suggestions above are easily attainable but it will take a number of organizations working together to achieve them.  Sean Reed says the five year goal is 100,000 bike trips and I believe that is absolutely within reach with the right expansion and partnerships.

 

 

Coming Soon: New Openings Planned Downtown

Downtown Ann Arbor is constantly in a state of flux, businesses opening and closing, rents going up, owners retiring, young entrepreneurs trying to break in.  It’s sad to see old standbys close but also exciting to see new concepts try to make a go of it.  I’m always curious as to what’s going on when I see a storefront papered over, contractors laboring mysteriously behind the scenes, hopefully bringing something exciting to the block.  As a (very lax and part time) blogger of the haps downtown I try to ask around and dig through city documents to see what’s going on.  I thought I would share a few upcoming openings, some more exciting than others.

“Bar Star” – 220 S Main St

Bar+design_Synecdoche+Design.jpg

The former home of Elmo’s T-Shirt Shop (now operating just down the street on Liberty) will be converted into a high end cocktail bar with the working title of Bar Star per construction documents.  This swanky spot comes from the owners of Melange and is being designed by local shop Synecdoche Design.  The interior appears to have a very modern theme with an open concept and chef’s table.  Critics may label as it as just another emblem of gentrification but it’s a substantial investment in the space and I look forward to checking it out.

 “TBD Sports Bar” – 309 S Main St

melting-pot

This one I’ve been waiting on expectantly for some time, The Melting Pot closed here in November of 2015 and I hoped for a fairly quick turnaround as the space is relatively turnkey for a restaurant/bar.  After a misfire or two (I heard the owner of Tavern & Tap in Lansing had the space under contract at one point) there’s now a yet unnamed sports bar in the works.  I don’t have a whole lot to go on here, mostly looking at a building permit, but it appears that the proprietor is the owner of Shalimar next door.  The space will be opened up a bit, occupy all floors of the building and feature a rear patio on the second floor, much like Jolly Pumpkin next door.

Kosmo – 308 S Ashley St

The second outpost of local Korean spot Kosmo will open in the former Lucky Monkey Tattoo parlor.  Personally thrilled for this as it’s about 100 feet from my office, look forward to exceptional bibimbap.  This one was already covered by the Ann Arbor News here.

Fred’s – 403 E Washington St

babo

Another one recently covered by the News but the old Babo location at the corner of Washington and Division is being re-positioned as Fred’s.  This comes from Fred Lelcaj, brother of Babo owner Sava Lelcaj who recently ran a much smaller version of Fred’s on South U.  I never got to try the old spot so excited to check it out downtown, should be open by the time you read this.  (Side note, perhaps the closing of Babo will free up Sava to launch another concept downtown?  Here’s hoping.)

Roasting Plant – 312 S State St

amers

Testing the depths of Ann Arbor’s seemingly insatiable demand for coffee shops, NYC-based Roasting Plant will open their second Michigan location at State and North University (RP has a very popular spot in the First National Building on Campus Martius in downtown Detroit).  I believe this space was most recently the northern portion of Amer’s Deli, they’ve consolidated (along with Chicago Reds and Yogurt Rush, you can really cover all your bases here) into the southern half of the building.  Roasting Plant’s shtick is a custom pneumatic roasting system called Javabot.  I’ve been to the Detroit location, it looks cool and makes a good cup of joe but the competition in that nook of A2 will be stiff, Comet and lab are right nearby for high end stimulation, Espresso Royale, Sweetwaters, Elixir Vitae and of course Starbucks offer a more traditional coffee experience.

Core Spaces Leasing Office – 306 S State St

Pretty boring but in case you were wondering what’s going on in the old Work Gallery Space on State Street, it’s a leasing office for Core Spaces, developer of The Calvin on Huron and conceivably The Collective on Fifth, the building planned for the library lot.  Positive here is that they will renovate the space and only be there a short time, hopefully setting it up nicely for a new tenant (note: I understand the building permit has been temporarily denied as they work on some accessibility issues).  In better news, the gallery has moved to larger space in McKinley Town Center on Division Street

Exscape Smoke Shop & Vape Lounge – 607 E William St

I don’t vape so this opening excites me about as much as a leasing office but for those who do, you’ll have a new option in the former Menna’s Joint space on William just west of State Street.  Exscape has eight locations, primarily in college towns, including one in East Lansing.

Collegian Leasing Office – 1112 S University Ave

The venerable Village Apothecary shut down seemingly overnight back in 2015 and the building (along with many of the others on South U) is probably not long for this world.  There are plans in the works for a redevelopment of much this stretch by developer Hughes Properties, there are two student towers in the planning stages right now.  I understand that most, if not all, of this block will eventually be torn down but for now Hughes is going to use the space as a leasing office for Collegian North and Collegian East.  Not looking to rent a student apartment?  It appears there will also be an ATM, so you know, there’s that.

Smoke’s Poutinerie – 1300 S University Ave

landmark-retail

This is the corner space in the newish Landmark Building at the corner of South U and Forest once home to World of Beer and briefly another bar called Dick Tyler’s Tavern.  The Toronto-based purveyor of gravy fries is growing rapidly with locations planned for Detroit, Ann Arbor and East Lansing.  Honestly this sounds like a great spot for them, this is classic, relatively inexpensive drunk food.  The menu looks absurd, ah to be 22 again.

Odds & Ends

Another business in the Landmark building, Tim Horton’s closed down in late 2016 to make way for MVMNT, an indoor cycling studio which had their grand opening on January 20th.

No word on the former Kai Garden at 116 S Main St although they did recently complete an interior demo and clean out of the building.

Siris, the BBQ and cigar lounge on North Main is still in its seemingly perpetual “coming soon” mode.

Eve in the Bell Tower Hotel closed back in September 2016 after a flood in the restaurant.  Unfortunately it appears the damage was extensive and the closure is permanent.  Eve is looking for a new location and no news regarding the future of the Bell Tower space.

Not sure what’s going on at the old Carter’s Auto Service on Ashley that was once planned as a brewpub.  The building has been cleaned up and painted so certainly some improvement there.

I’m sure I missed a bunch of future openings, hit me with a comment or or social media if you have word on any fun new business developments.  Also, follow me on Twitter for updates like this in real time.

On the RTA and Success in 2018

Back in November the proposed funding for the Regional Transit Authority Master plan failed at the ballot box dashing the hopes of transit proponents and supporters of regionalism across Southeast Michigan.  While certainly a setback, it provides an opportunity for the RTA to step back, reassess and tweak the plan and marketing for another vote in 2018.  Below are a few suggestions and considerations for the next go round.

brt

First of all, planning an entire mass transit system essentially from scratch for a region containing some 5 million people across 4 counties is a massive undertaking.  The RTA staff and their consultants did an admirable job but there’s always room for improvement.

Refocus on Rail

The current plan relies on Bus Rapid Transit (“BRT”) in the primary corridors, namely Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenue.  At first glance it makes a lot of sense.  BRT is cheaper and more flexible and those roads are massive, 100-120 feet wide through much of the city, up to 200 feet of ROW further from the city center and in the suburbs.  However, these are long corridors, Pontiac to Detroit is some 30 miles making this one of the longest BRT lines in the US.  There’s over 25 intermediate station stops.  Projected travel time is 70 to 80 minutes.  That’s an untenable commute for your average suburbanite with a choice.  BRT is primarily a substitute for light, city rail, think the Chicago L or the New York City Subway.  Those systems work mainly within the city itself, extending out to a few inner ring, city-adjacent suburbs.  To go further out you need to take a regional train, something faster with fewer stops.

There’s a lot of rail infrastructure in place already with clear rights of way in and out of downtown Detroit from a time when the area actually had a commuter rail network.  The trip from Pontiac took 60 minutes on the train (or 41 minutes express) over 50 years ago.  There’s rail going north to Pontiac, east to Mt Clemens and Port Huron, west to Ann Arbor and Plymouth and south to Toledo.  The RTA is only planning on the Ann Arbor service and I think that’s very disappointing.  A relatively high speed train from Troy to downtown Detroit in say 30 minutes or so (essentially possible in the 1940’s so hopefully manageable now) is a truly compelling commute option for your average worker or Tigers game attendee.  Twenty stops on the bus?  Not so much.  I would want to see the other radial routes as well but the Woodward main line makes all kind of sense to start with.  Lastly, and I’ve discussed this previously on this blog, the lines need to go into downtown.  A train to New Center is all but worthless and you’re not going to get travelers that have a choice.  I would love to take the train from Ann Arbor but I’m not going to drive, bus or Uber to the station here, hop the train for an hour and then take a 20 minute Qline ride on the back end to work or play.  That’s just not realistic.

Prepare for and Embrace New Technologies

chariot_ford_go_bike

I hear from transit detractors all the time that autonomous cars and other emerging technologies are going to eliminate the need for public transit.  That’s not true at all but it’s an objection that needs to be met head on and there are potentially some ways to utilize more tech going forward in the plan.  This is a plan where much of the infrastructure is 10 or more years away yet the tech isn’t all that strong by today’s standards.  Essentially buses with drivers, GPS tracking and signage and shared ticketing with a smartphone app, etc.  Basic things that most major cities have had for years.

This is the home of the auto industry and hopefully home to the future of autonomous vehicles.  Think to the future, think bigger.  Work with Ford’s Chariot service, plan for autonomous vehicles, cars, buses, trains.  Partner with the GM-backed Lyft service for first and last mile connections.  You want votes, aspire and inspire.

Highlight Property Value Increases

Not everyone is going to use public transit especially in the cradle of the automobile.  If you want to get voters on board in places like Macomb County you’re going to have to convince them there’s something in it for them.  With two years to educate folks, focus on what’s important to them.  It’s been well documented that proximity to transit boosts property values and while that was certainly a bullet point in the plan, perhaps it needs to be more of a focus.  Use studies, show heat maps to give people actual potential numbers to consider.  This goes back to my previous point about rail though, the impact of fixed rail transit on property values is much clearer than that of BRT.

Progressive Tiered Millage Rate

This idea is a little more out there and I don’t even know if it’s legal.  The RTA was asking for 1.2 mills from every property owner in the four county region.  I get the argument for regionalism and a working public transit system is good for everyone but it’s still really hard to convince someone living in rural Washtenaw County of the benefits of this system to them.  They’ll see little to none of the property value increases I mentioned above and they’re very unlikely users.  How about a millage that’s tiered based on proximity to service?  A little complicated to be sure and I have no idea if the math works, but something like 0.5 mills withing a mile of a regular bus route.  1.0 mills within a mile of a rapid bus or train line.  2.0 mills within a half mile of a rapid bus or train line.  If you’re more than a mile from any service you pay nothing.

commuter_rail_061413_rjs_003-thumb-646x435-145040

The backbone of the RTA’s plan is solid and I think fundamentally a BRT-based system is a good place to start.  High speed rail in and out of DOWNTOWN I think is an absolutely necessary part of the service as is increased technology and autonomous vehicle elements.  The rest is just marketing.  The RTA has two years to make changes and improve their outreach and education, this blogger wishes them the best of luck.

More Condos Proposed for North Main

A site on North Main Street once planned for affordable housing is now slated to become 19 townhouse condominium units.

Ann Arbor North Townhouses

Formerly home to eight deteriorating houses, Avalon Housing had once proposed building 39 affordable units but scrapped the plans in 2012.  The site languished until earlier this year when demolition finally proceeded with the remaining homes.  Now Auburn Hills-based Trowbridge Companies has submitted plans to the city for a new market rate condominium development.

The project would sit on just under 1.2 acres at 700 N Main St and is alternately called “Near North” or “Ann Arbor North Townhouses” in site plans (in desperate need of a trendy new moniker, The Residences @ 700, LUX on Main or some other silliness).  The condos would join two other recently completed townhouse projects on North Main, Main on the Park and 414 N Main, both of which quickly sold out.

The design is sort of meh at best although it’s a gateway into downtown that is in need of some serious love.  It’s a little more modern than the other developments on Main Street but certainly not groundbreaking.  I’d like to see more of a statement here and I thought this would be a good location for mixed-income housing but based on the success of similar projects in the area, I can see the appeal for a developer.  Walk to downtown, a stone’s throw from Kerrytown, it’s an empty nester paradise and likely to sell quickly.

Overall this is a project that’s hard to get excited about but also hard to find a ton of fault with either.  It’s vacant land that was destined for moderate density residential.  Feel free to check out the plans and renderings at your leisure.

Top 10 Development Sites in Downtown Ann Arbor

ann-arbor-aerial

Subtitled TreeDownTown’s private war on surface parking lots.

As I walk downtown day to day my eyes tend to linger on various under utilized sites, often parking lots, that represent gaps in the urban fabric.  All of these lots were once home to buildings or houses, demolished over the years as Ann Arbor, like most cities in America, became slave to the almighty automobile.  Some were quite substantial, like the five story Whitney Theater at Main and Ann, others were more typical turn-of-the-century two and three story buildings like the St. James Hotel on Huron.  I documented many such lost treasures before in a fairly exhaustive post about the forgotten historic buildings of Ann Arbor.

There are those that oppose virtually all new development downtown, particularly of the high rise variety.  Many in this group would also argue that we need parking, probably even more than we currently have between public and private lots.  There’s no question we need parking, at least here in 2016.  The vast majority of visitors to downtown arrive in a vehicle.  Still, there are two primary reasons these surface parking lots should be developed.

First, as it relates to parking, it’s well documented that younger generations are driving less and are less interested in car ownership in general.  Here in Ann Arbor we recently invested heavily in our transit system with more potentially on the way in the form of the Connector and the RTA.  Uber and Lyft are out in droves chauffeuring people in and out of downtown, rideshare systems like Zipcar and Maven continue to grow in prevalence and self driving cars are on the horizon.  Essentially, it’s almost impossible to imagine a future where we need more parking spaces per visitor or per resident than we do in 2016.

Second, parking lots are a terrible use of prime real estate.  They pay virtually no taxes despite sitting on what should be the most valuable property in town.  While they are potentially a means to a customer or employee arriving by car, they are otherwise devoid of life, not creating any jobs, any retail or any pedestrian activity of any kind.  The development of a building has the potential (if done well) to do the complete opposite, bringing jobs and residents, street level buzz and conceivably up to seven figures per year of tax revenue.  I should also note that I believe some of these lots should be developed in partnership with the DDA to continue to provide public parking.

Like most American cities, virtually every block of downtown Ann Arbor was once filled, built for pedestrians in the European mold.  I look to a future that returns to this ideal, albeit with a few taller buildings and increased density reflective of the size of the city today and the infrastructure laid out to support it.

That said, here are the Top 10 sites in Ann Arbor in most dire need of development.

Honorable Mentions

The USPS parking lot on Fourth that is sandwiched between Ruth’s Chris and the now confusingly named Pretzel Bell building (formerly home to Mezzevino).  This lot is a layup mid-rise development project, 3 story street wall with perhaps two to three stories set back behind it.  It could potentially be combined with the inexplicably vacant lot it adjoins at 112 E Liberty St next to Cupcake Station.  The twin lots on either side of Catherine on the west side of Fourth Avenue are also prime.  One is owned by the city, the other by the county.  I would consider a small, two level underground garage that goes underneath Catherine Street with low to mid rise development above.  Something in the 3-5 story range is probably appropriate there.

#10 – SW Corner of Washington & Division

20161031_131203

  • Size: 13,068 SF (if combined with house at 336 E Washington)
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Private Surface Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Hotel, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: Dahlmann Properties

Formerly a used car dealership, this site has been the subject of a couple different development proposals over the years, most notably an apartment project dubbed Metro 202 by local owner Mckinley in the mid 2000’s and then a hotel project by Chicago-based First Hospitality.  Dahlmann gained control of the property ostensibly to prevent new hotel development, protecting their interest in the former Campus Inn.

It’s a small site but could be combined with the house next door and be a great boutique apartment building, more targeted to market rate professionals, graduate students and the like.  I still think a small hotel would work there as well.

#9 – Southeast Corner of Huron & Ashley

  • Size: 21,824 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Private Surface Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Hotel, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: Dahlmann Properties

This site along heavily traveled Huron was once home to the St. James Hotel and a number of other smaller businesses that were demolished in the 1960’s to make way for parking for the adjacent Glazier Building, now home to KeyBank.  Key has a drive thru ATM on the site and still uses the parking for their employees and visitors.  Unfortunately, any future development would probably have to find some way to accommodate some parking for the Glazier.

If that could be arranged, the site would be ideal for a number of uses, particularly apartments.  Ashley Street continues to develop with several new businesses in recent years (notably the new Residence Inn across the street) and the lot is just a half block off Main.  As it stands, this corner is pretty desolate when considered with the massive Brown Block parking lot across the street.

#8 – Palio Lot

20161031_130146

  • Size: 8,189 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Public Surface Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid Rise
  • Owner: City of Ann Arbor

This is the smallest site on this list but possibly the best location.  This lot at the Northeast corner of William and Main next to Palio and sits in the heart of the Main Street district.  It’s typically used as a City of Ann Arbor public parking lot although it’s currently being used as a staging area for the construction crews working on the Fourth Avenue Parking Garage renovation project.

This is one of several lots on this list that are covered in the Downtown Development Authority’s excellent Connecting William Street Plan.  They recommend a mid-rise office development here with street level retail and I agree (although I would be open to residential on the upper floors as well).  The bellwether for this project is the 6-story office project currently planned just up the block by Dr. Reza Rahmani.  If this proves successful (and I’ll be shocked if it’s not), it’s the perfect model for this location.  In fact, I would advocate opening a discussion with Dr. Rahmani to sell him the site, he’s proven himself to be a very good steward of downtown real estate thus far.

#7 – Southeast Corner of Huron & Fifth

  • Size: 19,645 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Private Surface Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Hotel, Civic, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: First Martin Corporation

This good sized site has a high visibility location on Huron and is currently used as a private parking lot, primarily servicing the many office workers in the immediate area.  First Martin has marketed this location mainly as a build-to-suit office building for some time.  I feel this site could go many different ways, I’ve suggested it as a potential new location for the Federal Building if my downtown park dream were to come true, but conceivably office, residential or hotel could work here.

If the DDA moves forward with preliminary plans to re-imagine Huron through downtown into a grand boulevard, improving walkability and connecting downtown to Kerrytown, it will only have a positive affect on this site.

#6 – Southwest Corner of Main & Ann

20161031_131949

  • Size: 15,199 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Public Surface Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Hotel, Civic, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: Washtenaw County

This is one of the lots on this list that just pains you as it once was home to the beautiful Whitney Theater and Hotel.  Briefly a prison exercise yard (!) and now a public parking lot catering to employees and visitors to the city and county offices nearby.  While the site could conceivably be used for Washtenaw County expansion at some point, it seems doubtful they would need that amount of space.

This site is actually adjacent to the Ann Ashley Parking Structure which is expandable.  Another location where a host of uses are possible, this one strikes me as a good potential option for mixed income housing, both market rate and affordable units.  Either way, the vacant chasm on this block is an impediment to connecting Main Street north of Huron that could be rectified with an active use.

#5 – DTE Lot

20161031_130224

  • Size: 19,200+/- SF
  • Zoning: D2
  • Current Use: Private Surface Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid Rise
  • Owner: K.R.G. Investments

The third and final Main Street lot on this list and another important part of an overall plan to fill in the gaps on Main and along William Street.  This site used to house a small DTE building that was leveled to make way for surface parking and a new office building for DTE in the early 1980’s.  The office building on the south end of the site is poorly designed within the urban fabric with few windows, a side entrance into the parking lot a complete lack of street level activity.

The lot in front is primarily used for DTE visitors and was actually recently down zoned to D2.  The future here is likely a mid-rise apartment or office building with ground floor retail.  Along with development of the Palio Lot (and maybe longer term a redevelopment of the BP Station across the street?), the potential is there to remake Main and William into an active urban corner akin to the corners just north at Liberty and Washington.

#4 – Y Lot

20161031_130525

  • Size: 35,878 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Vacant
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Hotel, Transit, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: Dahlmann Properties

The Y Lot, so called as it was home the downtown branch of the YMCA until it was demolished in 2008, has been the subject of a fair amount of recent news and controversy.  Once the site of a huge plan dubbed William Street Station, the property was sold to Dennis Dahlmann in 2014 for $5.25M under the condition he build a project by 2018 that included apartments, office, open space and a “grand fountain”.  Hindsight would seem to indicate the city was sold a bill of goods as the project never got past preliminary planning stages with Dahlmann blaming issues at the site including the AAATA buses that stop around the property and environmental and infrastructure issues that remain from the YMCA demolition.

It was recently announced that the site was being sold to a partnership led by The Habitat Company out of Chicago but that group walked away citing an overburden of caveats and restrictions being put in place by the city.  Dahlmann may continue to explore a sale of the lot but the city does not have to approve it and can wait to buy the property back in 2018.

This one is a little complicated (honestly the city has bungled it pretty good for 10 plus years here) but it’s undoubtedly a great site deserving of a worthy, high density development.  It sits next to the Blake Transit Center in that coveted area between Main and State street.  It also has the ability to connect underground to the Library Lane Parking Garage.  Ultimately the city would like to see some affordable housing here and I think that makes sense along with the customary ground floor retail and perhaps a floor of office.

#3 – Kline Lot

20161031_171732

  • Size: 57,145 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Public Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Hotel, Arts, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: City of Ann Arbor

This one is particularly exciting because it’s owned by the city, is huge and offers such a wide range of possibilities.  The Kline lot takes up over an acre at the Northeast corner of Ashley and William and currently operates as a 143-space public parking lot.  There was a development proposal for a 12-story hotel and conference here in 2010 that never took off and the DDA has said in recent years they would consider building a parking garage on the site if the demand arose.

This site has far too much potential to be just a parking garage.  However, I could see a DDA partnership here, building several levels of underground parking with a development above, not unlike the Ann Arbor City Apartments project at First and Washington (although hopefully executed much better, the first floor of that building is repulsive from an urban design standpoint).  The Connecting William Street Plan suggests breaking the block up with a building on the corner and one mid-block with a pedestrian connector/plaza to Main Street in between.  I like this concept and will take it one step further, I think the alley on this block is a perfect fit for a “green” alley concept like The Belt in Detroit, it’s quite wide and clean as it is right and already has some rear seating areas.

The mid-block building could work with the adjacent Ann Arbor Arts Center, I understand they’re looking for additional space, perhaps even live-work studio lofts above?  The corner building could perhaps be a more traditional apartment building although both buildings could probably incorporate some affordable component.  I have a whole blog’s worth of ideas on this lot.

#2 – Library Lot

dscn4191-1024x576

  • Size: 35,412 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Public Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Hotel, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: City of Ann Arbor

What, thought this would be #1?  Fair point, the Library Lot has been the most discussed, most controversial downtown development site in a long long time.  I’ve even taken the time to weigh in myself ad naseum.  If you’ve been living under a rock, this site sits above the Library Lane Parking Garage and was put up for sale by the city last year.  After an exhaustive bidding process, negotiations have been ongoing to sell the site to Chicago-based Core Spaces for a 350,000 square foot mixed-use apartment, hotel and retail development with a 12,000 square foot public plaza.

Called The Collective on 5th, the project is slated to include 360 apartments, 131 hotel rooms, 20,198 square feet of office space and 3,353 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.  It’s very likely the largest, most important private development project in the history of downtown Ann Arbor and very pivotal in the overall direction of the urban core and the fate of several other city owned lots.

Read my blog linked above on the subject for more than you ever wanted to know on the Library Lot.

#1 – Brown Block

20161031_160708

  • Size: 69,696 SF
  • Zoning: D1
  • Current Use: Public Parking Lot
  • Proposed Use: Apartments, Office, Hotel, Mixed-Use
  • Proposed Height: Mid-High Rise
  • Owner: First Martin Corporation

If you’ve actually read this far, maybe consider reaching out, we should get a beer.  The #1 development site in all of downtown (per this biased jury of one anyway) is the Brown Block, the whole city block bound by Huron, Ashley, Washington and First.  This one is a doozy, just a block off Main forming the west gateway into downtown, the Brown Block has the potential to be an absolute game changer for downtown.

Home to a car dealership going back to at least the 1940’s and formerly owned by Mayor William E. Brown, Jr., the block has been owned by First Martin Corporation for decades but is leased to the DDA for public parking.  First Martin is one of the largest private owners of real estate in town and a group that I find to be generally very responsible with their real estate in keeping Ann Arbor’s best interest in mind.  That said, they have sat on this incredible plot of land for quite a long time at this point.  With the continued development of the west side of downtown, including their own Residence Inn project across the street, I believe the time to move on this site is approaching.

With a whole city block, the possibilities are endless but this is another opportunity to potentially partner with the DDA on parking, the size and topography is conducive to underground parking with development above.  I believe the block should be broken up, perhaps with different components at each corner, rather than one mega-development.  I have a vision of a taller apartment tower at the corner of First and Huron flanked by shorter office and hotel buildings at the First/Washington and Ashley/Huron corners with a park/plaza at the Ashley/Washington corner.  The buildings should have different facades with active ground floors on both street and plaza side and could share amenities across the uses.  The plaza could have outdoor seating for the restaurant users and be a public benefit.  Maybe even carve out a space for food trucks that are currently wedged in across the street at Mark’s Carts.  I have no doubt First Martin will end up doing a quality development here at some point but I would urge them to move sooner rather than later.

 

So, at long last, my 10 top development sites in downtown Ann Arbor, all of them currently underutilized as surface parking lots.  What am I missing?  Did I prioritize incorrectly?  Feel free to reach out or comment below.  As long we get the conversation going, we’ll see progress in the goal of creating a more walkable, sustainable downtown, a return to the density and unbroken urban fabric of before the rise of the automobile.

The Promise of Commuter Rail to Detroit

carexterior

The Regional Transit Authority (“RTA”) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently with politics as usual getting in the way of regional cooperation.  Essentially the counties of Oakland and Macomb are arguing they’re not getting enough service for their tax dollars and it feels like the old city versus the suburbs battle that has held back the Metro area for a generation at least.  Washtenaw County actually sees the least in terms of new service as Ann Arbor is somewhat removed from Metro Detroit and already has a robust transit system (in fairness, it will also be paying the least) .  That said, I support the RTA’s plan, it’s important for the region and connectivity to our major city is fundamentally crucial.  However, the planned connection via commuter rail has one critical flaw: the final destination is in New Center, some 3 miles north of where it should be in downtown Detroit.

Although Ann Arbor exists in its own little ecosystem, it actually benefits significantly from proximity to Detroit and the amenities and infrastructure that comes along with a major market.  A generation of Southeast Michigan residents, including many Ann Arborites, turned their back on Detroit seeing the relationship as a detriment as the city declined.  The winds of fate have changed and national movement back to urban areas is not lost on Metro Detroit as a whole swath of young suburbanites are discovering the city for the first time and apartments and offices cannot seemingly be built or renovated fast enough to fill the demand as people gravitate towards downtown.  In turn, many people are starting to see that what’s good for Detroit is good for the region and the state as a whole, and regional cooperation is finally taking hold.

One big step in that direction is the creation of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan which began operation in 2013 as a joint effort between the counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw to coordinate regional public transit.  The RTA released its $4.6 billion master plan in May of 2016 with plans to put the measure on the November ballot for voters to approve a funding millage (although that timeline is now in serious jeopardy).  Because the area is so far behind in terms of transit and regional cooperation in general, the plan is vast, spanning 20 years and hundreds of miles of new or improved service.  Requiring support from a wide range of people and geographies means it includes something for almost everyone; rapid transit bus, commuter rail, street car, local bus service, etc.  Ann Arbor is already blessed with a strong public transit system, the AAATA, so it will see some improvements but less of a complete transformation than some communities.  The main components include express bus service to Plymouth and the airport, a bus rapid transit line down Washtenaw between downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and commuter rail service to Detroit.

RTA Master Plan

Ann Arbor has always been intrinsically linked to Detroit, the university was first founded there in 1817 before moving out to the country in 1837.  The Michigan Central Railroad opened the first rail line connecting the two cities just a couple years later in 1839.  For 145 years trains regularly ferried passengers between the two cities, primarily operated by Penn Central and later by Amtrak on the Michigan Executive line.  The service was terminated in 1984 due to declining ridership, aging rolling stock and the State of Michigan’s decision to withdraw its support.  The prospect of resuming this vital link is exciting but the RTA’s routing plan may prevent the service from being successful.

19444283465_fd9a434a58_k

The current RTA plan for commuter rail service relies on the existing rail line currently used by Amtrak running from the Depot Street station just north of downtown Ann Arbor to the New Center station at Woodward and Baltimore in Detroit.  The biggest issue arises right off the bat, the line carries passengers to New Center, a neighborhood some 3 miles north of downtown Detroit.  While the station will be linked to the CBD by the soon to be opened QLine streetcar on Woodward, that adds a connection and a 15+ minute commute to most jobs and points of interest.  New Center is a relatively strong neighborhood (and improving) with immediate access to Wayne State University and the Henry Ford Hospital.  The iconic Fisher Building is there as well as Cadillac Place, a massive landmark office building home to the State of Michigan offices.  There are certainly some jobs and noteworthy cultural icons in walking distance but they pale in comparison to the downtown area.

As the service is primarily targeted at people heading into the city for work, I tried to take a quick look at commuter data from Washtenaw County to Detroit using the U.S. Census data from their 2006-2010 CTPP package but the numbers weren’t great.  The data is old, really before the development of downtown Detroit took off, and the margin of error is high.  For example, there have been over 16,000 jobs added to greater downtown area since 2011, most of them in the CBD.  For what it’s worth, 5-10 years ago over twice as many commuters from the Ann Arbor area reported working in census tracts in the downtown area versus the New Center area.   For a more current but less scientific approach I also looked at local commuter van pooling services and their destinations.  Using vRide to find available routes I noted 2 potential routes to New Center and 26 to Downtown.

The work-related commuter data is compelling and that’s to say nothing of the cultural points of interest.  While there are many institutions in Midtown as well, the CBD is home to three major sports teams, several world class theaters and countless restaurants and bars.  Suffice to say, more people are visiting downtown Detroit than any other neighborhood and it’s not close.  And while the connection to the Qline is a positive, asking riders to complete another transfer while also making the travel time less competitive with driving is a serious detriment.  It’s clear to me that the rail line needs to eventually run downtown.  It also needs to run frequently and continue into the evening and on weekends to service pleasure seekers as well as worker bees.

For the first phase, the current routing makes sense.  Most of the infrastructure is in place and commuter service could be up and running in a shorter period of time with less cost to the taxpayers.  Long term, routing to downtown needs to be explored and I’ll throw out one suggestion.  The easiest right-of-way from the west into downtown is probably Michigan Avenue.  Seven lanes across at some points, there is excess capacity for vehicle traffic that could be taken up by railroad tracks.

Detroit Commuter Rail Routing Map

I’m suggesting the trains take the established Amtrak route, hopping down onto Michigan Avenue where the two meet between Scotten and Hubbard and then continuing in dedicated lanes to downtown.  This potentially gets in the way of the RTA’s plan for Bus Rapid Transit (“BRT”) in this corridor but I believe the two could work in tandem.  Additionally, the tracks could be used for an extension of the QLine down Michigan, it’s 2.7 miles to Campus Martius Park where it could meet that line, very similar to the 3.1 mile Woodward stretch.  In the short term the commuter line could end with a basic station on Michigan in between the Rosa Parks Transist Center and Campus Martius, perfect for making bus connections, hopping on the People Mover or picking up the QLine to go to Midtown or New Center.

I’m picturing something like Austin’s MetroRail which enters downtown at grade in the street and terminates in a very basic platform station.  It’s not ideal but the location is more important.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Obviously this is a very rough plan but a significant improvement over the planned service.  Although it’s a mundane, fact-of-life type of service in many metro areas, the prospect of being able to take a low stress and efficient train ride into downtown for work or for play is pretty exciting here in Southeast Michigan.  Let’s hope the RTA Master Plan continues to evolve and that the powers that be see the light in working on a route to downtown Detroit from Ann Arbor.

 

 

 

Jim Brady’s Detroit Plans Revealed

Way back in March, 2015 it was announced that Tom Brady (not that Tom Brady) of Diamond Jim Brady’s in Novi had purchased the former Vellum building on Main Street with the intent to create a new outpost of his Jim Brady’s Detroit restaurant concept.

20160627_172606

The former Vellum Building today

I expressed some reservations about the 1950’s lux throwback theme in my Spring Restaurant Roundup a couple months back but I’ve never been to the Royal Oak location (a third spot in downtown Detroit is targeted for 2017) and will give the benefit of the doubt to anyone that would like to invest in our fair city.  The Royal Oak restaurant features modern takes on American classics and it appears the Ann Arbor spot will be more nightlife oriented than Vellum with three levels of space and two large bar areas.

1538912

Jim Brady’s Detroit Royal Oak Location

Brady filed plans with the Historic District Commission on June 24th to make renovations to the building including a new storefront, mechanical and facade improvements and all new dining spaces.  I’m excited about this because the building at 209 South Main was built way back in 1868 and is in need of some restoration.  Plans include rehab of the 3rd floor windows and the installation of a decorative cornice that at least imitates the way the building looked in the 19th century.

Jim Brady's

Image from HDC plan submission by Rossetti Architects.

The cornice isn’t nearly as elaborate as the original but they are difficult elements to re-create.  For the dreamers, what if Brady gets with Governor Synder (who lives in the condo on the top floors of the Four Directions building next door) to replace the whole cornice to the way it looked originally?

7396663964_771fb5c096_o

Jim Brady’s will occupy the north half of the 4th building down as seen in this view looking south down Main Street from Washington in the early 1900’s.

Probably pie in the sky but a blogger can dream.  Regardless, I’m glad to see the investment in the building and I wish the restaurant the best of luck, I’ll be sure to check it out.

The Library Lot: Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

“Get busy living or get busy dying” – Andy Dufresne, banker, wrongly accused, rock hound, urban planner?

I’ve been hesitant to touch this one but with the recent news that a proposal could head to the ballot in November, it’s time to weigh in.  The library lot, most specifically the proposed development on top of it, is probably the most controversial item on the city’s agenda in 2016 not associated with shooting Bambi’s relatives.

dscn4191-1024x576

To quickly bring you up to speed, the so-called library lot is the parcel immediately to the north of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library on 5th between William and Liberty.  All the way back in 1991, the area was studied for a public park with mixed use development behind it.  The space was still a surface parking lot when the 2006 Calthorpe Report came out and furthered the same notion, now with an underground parking garage with a “town square” and residential development above.  The city actually followed through on the first part of this plan and began construction of the Library Lane Parking Garage in 2009, opening to the public in 2012.  The garage goes 4 stories underground, contains 711 spaces and was built to potentially accommodate a future building above.  During construction the city issued a Request for Proposals (“RFP”) for development of said building.  Six proposals were submitted and the one to that rose to the top was a 15-story hotel and conference center presented by Valiant Partners out of New York.  The public park space was strangely absent and the proposal was eventually shot down, mainly due to the fact that the city was financially on the hook for the conference center component but also stemming from a variety of political factors.

That brings us to present day(ish), where the city has one again issued an RFP on the library lot.  The city hired CBRE to market the site (for an exorbidant fee I might add, I work in this space, that’s highway robbery) and initially received 9 proposals.  This time around, projects were required to include 12,000 square feet of public space for a park or plaza.  All proposals included a hotel and/or residential component ranging from 8 to 18 stories and some public space although oddly most did not include the full 12,000 square feet.  These initial proposals were hewn down to 5 and then to 2 finalists in December 2015 before finally the project from Chicago-based Core Spaces was chosen as the preferred alternative in January 2016.

The Collective on 5th

The city is currently negotiating the sale and soliciting public input so the project continues to evolve but here’s the basic overview.  Dubbed The Collective on 5th, the project is a 17 story, 180 foot tall, 352,496 square foot building with 360 apartments, 131 hotel rooms, 3,353 square feet of retail/restaurant space, and 20,198 square feet of office space with a 12,000 public plaza out front.

The Collective Site Plan

Final approval of the sale and site plan is no foregone conclusion, sale of public land requires 8 city council member votes and only 7 voted to even begin negotiations of a sale. Additionally, a group of active citizens, the Library Green Conservancy, has been collecting petitions to bring the measure to a city-wide ballot in November.  I generally feel we elect council members to do this work for us and make decisions based on the best information at hand while representing the needs of their consitituents.  However, if there’s any chance of this going to general election, the populace needs to be educated on the facts (hence, you know, this blog).

The petitioners, led publicly by Alan Haber (and bless their hearts and their conviction, I disagree with them but this is democracy at its best), present a very simple alternative to potential signers: Do you want a downtown central park or another tall, ugly building?  If you frequent the downtown YMCA, the Farmers Market or any of a number of other downtown area haunts you’ve likely seen them or been approached, as I have, several times.  Faced with that basic choice, the signing residents, which skew to a grayer demographic, somewhat obviously prefer a park.  What I’m attempting to do here is present the actual data points I think one needs to make a decision on a proposal such as this.  Like the petitioners, I won’t try to hide my own bias but I will show the whole picture as best I can.

Core Proposal Library Green
Basics 17-story Mixed-Used Building Public Park/Plaza
Public Space 12,000 SF Plaza 16,600 SF Plaza
Public Space Responsbility Privately Maintained by Core Maintained by City of Ann Arbor
Apartments 360 units of market rate housing not targeted at students (potential workforce housing component) None
Hotel 131 rooms None
Office 20,198 SF (1 floor) None
Retail 3,353 SF on Ground Floor None
One Time Economics $10 million to city plus $5 million for 200 parking spaces in garage (optional) $0 to city, assumes majority of money privately raised to build park/plaza in future
Ongoing Economics $2.5-$3M in property taxes per year, no plaza upkeep $0 in property taxes, city plaza upkeep
Pros Economics, Active Use, Need for More Downtown Housing & Hotel Competition, Privately Maintained Plaza Larger Public Plaza, No Tall Building, Land remains public
Cons Tall Building, Removal of Public Parking Spaces, Smaller Plaza Economics, Wasted Infrastructure/Opportunity

The root of the issue for me comes down to the public space and economics.  The library lot isn’t that big, it has a parking garage below it and assorted ramps, elevators and stairwells.  It can support a fairly small park that’s really more of a plaza as it’s not built to accommodate large trees or heavy sod and plantings.  I’ve advocated for a downtown park in the past, we could use a public commons space in Ann Arbor, but if you’re thinking of this as a central park with all the amenities we need, I’m sorry to disappoint.  This is more of an urban plaza, a little larger than Liberty Plaza around the corner which is just over 10,000 square feet.  As such, with the Core Proposal you get up to $15 million dollars in a one time payment and up to $3 million per year in property taxes plus a 12,000 square foot park/plaza!  The alternative is no money to the city and a 16,600 square foot park/plaza!  Money certainly isn’t everything but those economics are tough to ignore.  Think about our school, infrastructure and affordable housing needs.

Library Lot Park

Now if you have nostalgia for a bygone time and simply can’t stand tall buildings in Ann Arbor, I know where you’ll stand.  I get it, it’s a big building.  It does, however, conform with zoning height limits making it comparable to newer buildings and still well below infamous towers like Tower Plaza or University Towers.  There’s actually more than a dozen buildings within a few blocks of here with 10 or more stories so it’s not as out of context as some would argue.  It will also bring a beehive of activity to the heart of town, activating the park, providing permanent jobs and hundreds of patrons for local businesses throughout the downtown area.

I truly think this project is a fair compromise in regards to the park and the economics are eye popping.  It’s important to remember that growing outward with sprawl is inefficient and more expensive long term and that we are restricted in that sense through our Greenbelt program.  Thus, we have to increase density and grow within the city limits, namely in appropriate transit corridors and in the downtown core.  If you’re simply anti-growth period, consider that Michigan state law limits property tax increases and that government expenses outstrip tax revenue without new development.  Without new development we will almost certainly have to payer higher taxes or cut services.  Of course, that doesn’t mean it has to be this development but we can’t stay static, you either get busy living or get busy dying.  This is smart growth with multiple uses in the heart of downtown across from Blake Transit Center that also provides a public amenity.  No development is perfect but this one checks a lot of boxes.  It should receive a little more tweaking by planning, council and the public through this process but ultimately this should be a project that deserves to move forward.

Downtown Apartment Development Pipeline

There has been a lot of new development in downtown Ann Arbor in recent years and the vast majority of that has been apartments, much of it catering to students.  I thought I would assemble a summary of what’s been completed and what’s on the table.  This is only formally announced rental developments and thus does not include condominium projects.  There are a couple of other things in the works on both the student and market rate apartment side that could be added to the list in the near future.

Property Status Year Built Market Units Beds Parking Spaces
Sterling 411 Lofts Completed 2008 Student 97 318 109
Zaragon Place Completed 2009 Student 66 264 40
Landmark Completed 2012 Student 173 606 146
Zaragon West Completed 2012 Student 120 200 40
Varsity Completed 2013 Student 181 415 148
615 S Main Completed 2014 Market 156 186 132
Ann Arbor City Apartments Completed 2014 Market 155 205 73*
Sterling ArborBlu Completed 2015 Student 113 242 48
Foundry Lofts Completed 2016 Student 209 512 114
The Madison Proposed 2017 Market 24 33 11
611 E University Proposed 2018 Student 90 343 56
The Calvin Proposed 2018 Student/Market 124 310 108
618 S Main Proposed 2018 Student/Market 229 588 163
The Collective on 5th Proposed 2019 Market 360 540** 200
Average       150 340 99
Total       2,097 4,762 1,388
Total Student       1,402 3,798 972
Total Market       695 964 416

So 2,097 total units encompassing 4,762 beds could conceivably be added to the market in a roughly 10 year time frame.  Is this a lot?  Considering there was essentially no units added in the downtown area in the preceding 30+ years, I don’t think so but let’s take a look at a couple numbers.

Everyone asks me about student housing and for good reason, student high rises are the biggest thing changing the skyline of Ann Arbor right now.

20160423_132529

The Foundry

Including The Foundry which just opened last month there have been 2,557 beds of private  student housing built in the greater downtown area since 2008.  If you add in the Munger Graduate Residences built by the university and The Courtyards (a private student development on north campus) you come up with a total of 4,085 beds.  In that time the University of Michigan has added 4,117 students.  Actually seems just about right.  There’s another 1,241 beds proposed by 2019 while enrollment is expected to grow anywhere from 749 to 2,352 students depending on which trend analysis you use.  Based on the rhetoric from the administration, I would assume the lower end of that spectrum, perhaps 1,000 or so, many of them graduate students.  Still, this seems to buck the thinking that new housing is pulling many kids out of neighborhood homes.  Long term I think that is a theme but it seems that to date and in the short term future, housing supply is meeting growth.

Additionally, our own research at my day job shows that occupancy in off campus housing at U of M was 98.6% for the 2015-16 school year (national average is 95.3%) with rent increases averaging 7.8% over 2014-15.  Pretty strong market.

20160602_091536

618 South Main

The market rate apartment side is harder to gauge compared to say, population growth, but the numbers are modest anyway.  There have been just two developments with 311 units and 391 total bedrooms between them, Ann Arbor City Apartments and 618 South Main.  Both are 100% occupied with rising rents.  I was told by management at 618 that the lease up was the fastest for a new development project they’ve ever been involved in.  Given the macro demand for urban living and relative lack of supply, it’s pretty easy to surmise there is still a substantially untapped market for market rate apartments catering to young professionals, empty nesters and essentially anyone else looking to rent an apartment.  Granted the rents are out of reach for many but that tends to be the case with new construction (and that’s a whole other blog anyway).

Against my better judgement (I’m guilty of reading too many MLive comments) I included parking numbers in the table as well.  I actually think the ratios of parking spaces to units/beds is not out of line but I realize many people disagree (that’s perhaps another blog as well).  It’s important to remember we don’t want to really encourage driving downtown but rather the use of more efficient, sustainable transit.  Also, the hope is these buildings will still be here many years from now and research shows the use of private automobiles decreasing substantially in the future.  It’s all about smart growth folks.

In summary, it really doesn’t seem that student housing is overbuilt, at least not yet, but new buildings will have to start attracting tenants from older properties rather than relying on natural enrollment growth.  Downtown apartments, however, seem to have plenty of runway with demand almost certainly far outstripping supply.

 

* Ann Arbor City Apartments is built on top of a public parking garage in partnership with the city.  There are 251 total spaces. 73 available for full access, 73 available for nightly access and 105 public spaces.

** Total number of bedrooms have not been established for The Collective on 5th, the proposed development on the Library Lot.  This number assumes 50% of the units to be one bedroom or studio units, 50% to be two bedroom units based on the number of units projected and target demographic.

Reimagining Burns Park

This blog is ostensibly about downtown Ann Arbor but I live in Burns Park and walk through the park itself every day.  Basically I couldn’t help sharing a few thoughts on some ways to improve it.

20160525_090038

Let’s get this out of the way, Burns Park is fantastic.  It is the quintessential neighborhood park.  The gorgeous Burns Park Elementary School forms its western flank and the park itself contains almost everything one could ask for: ball fields, tennis courts, play equipment, a senior center and a shelter building.  It’s one of the biggest reasons we bought a home in the neighborhood.  People may literally yell at me for suggesting we change a thing.  That said, like so much of our infrastructure, some facilities are showing signs of age and part of the point of this blog is to look around and say, “This is great but how could it be even better and how do we position it for the next generation?”  First, of course, a little history.

The land where Burns Park currently sits is the former home of the Washtenaw County Fair Association, established in 1890 but used for various fair and equestrian activities long before that.  The land was purchased by the city for a public park in 1910, naming it Burns Park in honor of George P. Burns, a University of Michigan botany professor and inaugural member of the Park Board.  The city continued to lease a portion of the land to the Ann Arbor Driving Club for a horse track until 1921.  The double row of linden trees there now roughly duplicates the original path of the track, seen clearly below (don’t worry there are a couple little saplings doing their best to fill that gap in the southwest corner).

nbp-aerial-e1318303934705

The mound of dirt that had been at the center of the track was moved to the southern edge of the park and is now colloquially known as “Magic Mountain”, a popular mini sledding hill for generations of Burns Park children.  The current shelter, built in 1957, replaced an 1898 log cabin and the Senior Center is an expansion and renovation of the old horse barn originally built in 1912.  In 1925 the city sold the western portion of the park to the school board for the site of the Tappan School.  When Tappan moved to its current location on Stadium Boulevard in 1951, the building was renamed Burns Park Elementary School and has housed grades K-5 ever since.  There have certainly been minor improvements and changes but the 15-acre park has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950’s.

Okay, background history established.  On to the future.  Below are a few ideas for Burns Park, loosely in order of priority and/or awesomeness.

The Shelter/Warming Hut

The Burns Park Shelter, used as a warming hut in the winter, was built in 1957 in the northeast corner of the park.  It’s a pretty basic, low slung brick building with restrooms, a garage area and a community room with a kitchenette.  There’s a little outdoor area with some barbecue grills, the building is available for rent for $137 per day for a summer weekend.

20160525_090239

In my experience this building is in actual use about a dozen times a year, perhaps a little more this past year when the ice rink was installed.  Here’s my idea: lease the majority of the building to a private user.  It might require a renovation and expansion of the building (and I think a portion of the building needs to remain available for public use) but that could be financed by the lease payments of the tenant.  The ideal tenant in my mind?  The good folks over at Argus Farm Stop.  Argus is a year round farmers market and coffee shop that in just a couple years has become the heart of the Old West Side neighborhood.  Can you imagine having something like that at the epicenter of Burns Park?  Let’s take it up a notch (since this is fantasyland right now anyway) and imagine a pairing with Argus neighbor Blank Slate Creamery for ice cream.  Coffee in the morning, local farm shopping during the day and ice cream on a summer evening?  Sign me up.  (Side note: I know the Dairy Queen has its loyal following but come on, DQ’s are everywhere and you have to walk across 5 lanes of traffic and a gas station to get there.)

I don’t personally know Bill and Kathy at Argus or Janice at Blank Slate but perhaps one of the 11 readers of this blog do.  Any plan would obviously take cooperation from the city and Parks and Recreation as well.  I’m excited about this idea in particular so perhaps we can get some traction.

Community Gardens

This one is a no brainer.  The majority of the lots in Burns Park are relatively small and old growth trees, while lovely, make gardening at home a near impossibility for many people.

Project Grow has been facilitating community garden plots in Ann Arbor since 1972 and now boasts 15 sites around the city providing over 350 individual plots.  Some locations have as few as 5 plots.  There are a number of out of the way areas within the park that could support 5-10 plots depending on the amount of sunlight required.  There are some fairly wild areas behind and adjacent to the tennis courts that could be a fit or perhaps the northeast corner of the park that is actually across Baldwin Ave?  That site is usually home to one lonely picnic table and is rarely used.

I would be shocked if a small community garden site in Burns Park didn’t have a waiting list a mile long if implemented.

Senior Center Expansion/Redevelopment

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little out of my depth when it comes to the Senior Center.  I don’t fit the target demographic and as such I’ve never set foot in the building.  That said, it seems to fill a need and from what I can tell keeps fairly busy most days.  It requires a membership, is open most weekdays from 9-4 and can be rented after hours for various events.

20160525_085907

The Senior Center is a nice amenity to the park and the neighborhood but I think there’s untapped potential there.  I would propose a new, larger building that would be open to people of all ages.  Something with open space and community rooms on the ground floor that could keep up with programming catering to seniors and perhaps a second floor with a fitness center and more space that could serve families and people of all ages.  The Burns Park Social Club has a nice ring to it.  Parking could be an issue but hopefully you could control that through parking passes and/or membership priority for neighborhood residents.

This looks like a mini YMCA in my minds eye and a really strong neighborhood amenity, a town hall of sorts for Burns Park.

Baseball/Soccer Field Realignment

As a huge baseball fan this pains me a bit but the American youth sports landscape has changed.  The interior of the tree ring (I call this the Great Lawn in my head) contains two baseball diamonds which take up the majority of the space.  Fields for soccer, ultimate frisbee and football are sort of jury-rigged around the infields.

Again, it pains me as a baseball fan but we could probably stand to eliminate one diamond and put up some permanent soccer goals there.  Both diamonds are in mediocre shape at best and are rarely in use at the same time but there are often 3-5 soccer games or practices going on at once.  Most of the space should probably remain flexible but one legitimate soccer field would likely find good use.  Side note: Please no field turf.  I get the advantages but let’s just leave Burns Park regular old grass, dandelions and all.

Miscellaneous

Like virtually all parks in the city, most of the infrastructure could use a face lift.  I mentioned the ball diamonds above, the basketball court is also in need of a resurface.  The play equipment is a mixed bag but my favorite is the old wading pool that now sports the super popular funnel ball pole (when was this ever a thing? I remember a brand new one at our elementary school in the early 80’s that wasn’t cool then).  There’s also a couple Pétanque courts that were built with the best intentions back in 2009 but I’ve walked by probably 100 times in the last year and have yet to see them in use.  The entrance signage is faded and the whole park could probably use a bit of color, flowers, etc.  Not too much, Burns Park is and should always be more about function than beauty.

 

That’s what I’ve got for now.  Just a few ideas that have bounced around the ol’ noggin as I’ve walked through the park with the dog, annoying my lovely wife with half baked schemes.  Please feel free to share any more in the comments or via your social media of choice.  You can find TreeDownTown on Twitter or Instagram.