1140 Broadway Lowertown Development: Time to Push

This week city council will take a vote on re-zoning for the controversial 1140 Broadway development in Ann Arbor’s Lowertown neighborhood. From an urbanist perspective, there’s a lot to like about this proposal. The redevelopment of a blighted vacant lot, environmental cleanup, significant future tax revenue and strong density in an in-fill location near downtown and along a transit corridor. That said, the zoning change is somewhat questionable, the height and density is pushing the site to capacity, the architecture certainly isn’t groundbreaking, and the mix of uses is not as beneficial to the community as it could be. Because the project requires a generous re-zoning, this is a time where Ann Arbor needs to push back and absolutely demand we get the best project we can.

1140 Broadway

Rendering of the 1140 Broadway Lowertown Proposal

The Lowertown site has been one of the most visible parcels of vacant land in the city for over a decade now. Once home to Kroger and an adjoining retail center, the buildings were torn down in the mid-2000’s for an ambitious mixed-use project dubbed Broadway Village. This $171 million development included 152,689 square feet of office space, 138,275 square feet of retail, and 185 apartments. Planned by East Lansing-based Strathmore Development Co. with support from the State of Michigan, it never truly broke ground, killed off by the Great Recession.


Rendering of the defunct Broadway Village proposal.

The 6.4 acre site at Broadway and Maiden Lane has sat fallow ever since, blighted and polluted. Fast forward to 2017 when Morningside Equities Group, led locally by Ann Arbor resident Ron Mucha, put forward a $146 million proposal to build 549 apartments, 71 condominiums, 4,635 square feet of retail and 573 parking spaces. The package includes $10.2 million in brownfield reimbursements from the city for environmental clean up and other “community benefit” improvements. The whole thing hinges on a re-zoning from the Planned Unit Development (“PUD”) zoning put in place in 2003 to C1A/R (Campus Residential). The spirit of that zoning is really intended for sites adjacent to central campus and is pretty generous in the heights and density it allows. The argument can be made that the Broadway site is next to the university’s Kellogg Eye Center and Wall Street campus (basically the Eye Center and a boatload of parking) but it’s dubious. As such, the city is in a position to make a few more demands than they would if the development was “by right”, designed to conform with existing zoning.

As I think about this project and how it might be improved, I keep returning to a somewhat similar development currently under construction in Detroit. City Modern is being built by Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Detroit, LLC on 8.4 acres of land in Brush Park, just north of Downtown Detroit. The transformative development will add 410 total units, 303 apartments for rent (including 54 affordable senior units) and 107 for-sale condos along with 22,000 square feet of retail. There is a wide range of housing options includes flats, carriage houses and townhouses, all with striking modern architecture. This is true mixed-use, fitting into a historic neighborhood with a unique and thoughtful design. In contrast 1140 Broadway looks monolithic, fairly generic in its architecture, with one dominant housing type and a pittance of retail space in the third phase.


Rendering of City Modern development currently under construction in Brush Park in Detroit.

The community benefits of the Lowertown project are the 4,635 square feet of retail, environmental remediation, a commitment to 30 units of workforce housing and some greenway elements on the north end of the site along Traver Creek. Given that this is arguably the largest private residential development in the city’s history (Glencoe Hills is the largest apartment community in town, 574 units built in the 1970’s, Tower Plaza downtown would be a $149 million project in today’s dollars), it’s simply not enough. Developers don’t want to build retail right now, the future of the whole brick and mortar retail industry is in question, but there’s no reason this project can’t have more flexible commercial space, perhaps a mix of retail and office. This site deserves true mixed-use, not incredibly dense residential with a sidecar retail building that’s years away. The environmental cleanup is a positive but that’s somewhat of a given for any new development, funded by Brownfield Tax Credits. The 30 units of workforce is fine but I think 10% of units set aside for a mix of lower to median incomes should be a goal here, perhaps a senior element. The green space and path on the north of the site is a concession to the neighborhood but it’s just a trail from Broadway to a parking lot.


I don’t want this developer to walk away. They have a good track record in the city (Liberty Lofts most notably) with local ties. This site is in dire need of redevelopment and environmental remediation. But with re-zoning leverage, this site plan can be improved with further push-back from planning and council. A few places to start would be more true mixed-use with a greater balance of commercial space and residential, a better commitment to affordable and senior housing, and improved urban design with green space. Addressing these items would go a long way to making this project more exciting and deserving of this location.

The Truth about Student Housing in Ann Arbor

When residents and visitors comment on the changing face of Ann Arbor they’re most commonly referring to the proliferation of high-rise student housing projects that have popped up along South University, Huron and Washington over the past decade or so. Too often these projects are misunderstood. In addition to my running commentary on the development of these buildings here in Ann Arbor, I work in the student housing business on a day-to-day basis (brokerage across the country) so I wanted to shed a little light on how they work, the supply-demand dynamic at the University of Michigan, and why they’re a necessary evil here in town.


Zaragon Place, with 248 beds, was one of the first high-rise student projects in recent years, opening in the fall of 2010.

First, it’s important to note these are private housing projects, built by developers and marketed towards upperclassmen students. The university maintains its own housing system, the bulk of which is meant for first year students, and it has also built new housing in recent years including North Quad and the Munger Graduate Residences. The private off campus buildings lease by-the-bedroom typically with parentally guaranteed annual leases and often in larger 4, 5 and even 6 bedroom configurations. The developers have been almost exclusively out-of-town companies and thus far all but Zaragon have sold their projects soon after completion. The characterization of these developers as being profit-motivated and not long-term stakeholders in our community is unfortunately largely accurate.

Second, love it or hate it, these buildings are filling a huge housing need. The first vertical student housing development in recent times was Corner House at State and Washington, which opened in 2003 with just 154 beds. Since that time the university has grown by 8,135 students. Between the university residence halls (1,080 beds) and all of the private development (3,730 beds), there has been approximately 4,810 beds added to the current stock in that time. Not even close to keeping pace. The flurry of new development looks to add an additional 1,241 beds in 2018 and a total of 2,384 over the next 4 years, still not keeping up with anticipated demand. We could argue all day about whether the university needs to or should grow but it has. If there are not new buildings to house students on or off campus, it presents an entirely different set of problems.

Lastly, if it’s clear that the students have to live somewhere, they can live near campus in mid to high rises, we can re-zone some areas a little further from campus for mid-rise development, or they can live way further out and commute in from garden style apartment complexes. To date, the vast majority of new projects have been vertical in D1 zoning areas within a couple blocks of campus. The exceptions would be The Courtyards on North Campus and the new project on Main Street, The Yard. A new development, The Cottages at Barton Green up on Pontiac Trail, would be the first commuter style complex in Ann Arbor although most universities have a plethora of this type of housing. I am generally opposed to this type of student project here in Ann Arbor, it encourages car ownership and places a concentration of students in residential neighborhood. However, it would provide additional much-needed new construction housing at a more affordable price point than downtown.


Six11 will bring 343 beds to East University in the fall of 2018.

For those that question the need and demand for housing, feel free to peruse my company’s research report on the market:


The quick stats: university enrollment is 46,002, a new record, and the freshmen class of 6,847 is the largest in school history. Average occupancy across the market is north of 99%, the highest rate we have ever surveyed at a university. Rents increased over 3.5% year over year although demand for 4 bedroom unit types seems to be waning. All those new buildings?  They’re all full. The worst occupancy was 96%. It’s pretty evident that the student housing market at the University of Michigan is extremely healthy.

What does that mean for the future? The university is likely to pump the brakes on growth in coming years, they’re essentially at capacity to house incoming students on campus. There seems to be a good chance that the university will explore building a new residence hall in coming years, the rumor is a larger replacement for aging Mary Markley Hall. Private development is likely to continue as well, mostly in the South University corridor but I’m hearing whispers of a new project on Washington as well. Students have to live somewhere, I believe the focus should continue to be on a dense projects near campus that dissuade car ownership with a renewed emphasis on quality building materials and design, and attractive, pedestrian-oriented ground floor retail and streetscaping.


Is Dockless Bikeshare the Future of ArborBike?

I was recently in South Bend for a Notre Dame football game and noted the stunning number of visitors getting around on identical lime green bikes. Students were riding them, drunk tailgaters were hopping from spot to spot and leaving them anywhere they liked, I probably saw close to 100 bikes over a couple hour span.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is one of the new dockless bike sharing systems in action, LimeBike. I’ve written on Ann Arbor’s bikeshare system, ArborBike, in the past, but as I looked upon more LimeBike riders in a two hour period than I see ArborBikers in an average summer month in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the future for our town.


ArborBike is a bike sharing system relying on stations, in this case 13 of them across the greater downtown area. It’s theoretically a great idea and has worked extremely well in larger cities like New York, London and Chicago. The issues here in Ann Arbor are the relatively short travel distances, lack of quality bike infrastructure, and limited number of stations and bikes as a result of high upfront costs.

A dockless system solves virtually all of those problems. It works just like it sounds, bikes are picked up and left virtually anywhere, preferred locations are sidewalks and other reasonable places, there are fines for leaving a bike in the street or other dangerous spot. There’s usually a set reasonable radius as well, nice work biking to Milan but you probably couldn’t leave the bike there. Users locate bikes with an app on their phone and rides typically cost $1 for 30 minutes or an hour with longer term plans available as well. There are a litany of new startups in the space, the aforementioned LimeBike is one, others include MoBike, Spin, Ofo and JUMP. As opposed to heavily subsidized public systems, these are for-profit enterprises eagerly deploying in cities, think Uber or Lyft but for bikes.

There are 125 bikes in the ArborBike system three years in, there are already 500 LimeBikes in the South Bend system after just a few months. While ridership data is not currently available, I can say unequivocally, it’s exponentially higher. By foregoing stations and using cheaper, lighter bikes, the system can be implemented and expanded rapidly and cost effectively. LimeBike is a good example as they seem to be somewhat focused on college campuses and towns. In addition to South Bend/Notre Dame, they’re in Greensboro, NC at UNC-Greensboro, Raleigh, NC at North Carolina State University and the University of Washington in Seattle. Dockless bikeshare is already huge in China and is entering the United States in a big way, there are four competing systems operating in Washington, DC alone right now.


With uncertain funding and the future of ArborBike in doubt, it’s time for Ann Arbor officials and the Clean Energy Coalition (operators of ArborBike) to open a dialog with one or more of these companies. I suspect this is already happening as Sean Reed, Executive Director of the CEC, was familiar with the proliferation of dockless systems nearly a year ago. The service can come quickly and I think most would agree that getting more residents and visitors on clean, healthy bikes is a positive thing. Here’s hoping we see an expansive fleet of shareable bikes on the streets of Ann Arbor in the near future.


A New Ann Arbor Train Station: Time to Weigh In

Recently the prospect of a new train station in Ann Arbor has supplanted the library lot has the most talked about and controversial local civic issue. With public comments on the Environmental Assessment Report due today, November 2nd, it’s time to weigh in.


The report mentioned above was released by the city and Federal Railroad Administration back in in September stating the preffered alternative is to build a new train station and adjacent parking deck on a parking lot in Fuller Park. The history of a new station in Ann Arbor is exhaustive and has been covered impeccably by Ryan Stanton of the Ann Arbor News as well as by fellow blogger Vivienne Armentrout at Local in Ann Arbor (who may be the most informed person in town on this issue).  There’s also a great take by Doug Kelbaugh, Dean Emeritus at the Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning over at All Aboard on Depot Street.

Given the depth of information available on the subject, I will attempt to just briefly summarize the situation to date.  The vision for expanded rail and a new station in Ann Arbor goes back a long way, notably to John Hieftje’s Mayor’s Model for Mobility in 2006 that was partly the basis for the City of Ann Arbor’s Transportation Plan, adopted in 2009. This laid out a plan for a new intermodal station on Fuller Road to serve Amtrak and commuter rail to Detroit with a link to a seperate proposed light rail route, what later became the Ann Arbor Connector. The University is obviously a major stakeholder and it was suggested that the project be combined with additional parking for UM, predominantly health system students and staff. In the interest of brevity (highly recommend Vivienne’s article linked above for the full tale), the plan fell through, the university built a new parking deck on Wall Street, commuter rail as part of the RTA Master Plan failed at the ballot box in 2016 and the Connector is in limbo due to the enormous cost. So here we are trying to decide what to do with a decrepit existing Amtrak station with more questions than answers. On to my take.

I have something of a unique viewpoint on the train station in that I take Amtrak all the time. Like all the time. I took the train from Ann Arbor nearly 50 times in 2016, I’m taking it today. I even started a spreadsheet this year keeping track of my trips and times so that I had good anecdotal data for posts like this (average delay of 15:37 in 2017 thus far). It’s an imperative link for my job and provides connectivity and productivity that cannot be replicated with other forms of transit at this time.

That said, do we need a new station? Probably? The current one is small and seriously dated, not ADA compliant and the parking is a joke. There are plans to add service that should continue to increase ridership and Ann Arbor’s station is both the worst station on the line and the busiest. Should it be built in Fuller Park as a massive parking deck with sidecar station for a cost approaching $100 million?  Definitely not.


Look hard, there’s a station there somewhere.

The only real positives of Fuller Park over another site is the proximity to the hospital and potential connectivity to the Connector. The argument has been made that the hospital location is important for commuter rail which I find dubious. The line may never happen (I’ve harped on the foolishness of a line that connects A2 to New Center) and let’s remember this line is geared towards Ann Arbor area residents traveling to Detroit, much less so the other way around (there may be 10,000+ employees at the health system, there’s 20+ times that in the greater downtown Detroit area).  A platform could be built on Fuller Park if needed in the future. The Connector, ahem, connection, would be great but the prospect of that project is dim given the astronomical cost. Betting on that line seeing the light of day is a low odds gamble.


On the negative side, Fuller Park is, in fact, a park. While currently used for UM parking, it could and should be a public use riverfront park, not a massive parking structure. Also, while close to the hospital, it’s not close to anything else. There are no Transit Oriented Development opportunities, no neighborhoods nearby, no proximity to downtown.

The existing location on Depot Street has always been a train station, is near downtown and Lowertown, is on a major transit corridor via Broadway/Plymouth Road and offers some unique attributes with the DTE site next door. In short, if a new station should be built, it should go there.

The report gives a number of economic reasons for Fuller Park, a large one hinges on the expanding of the Broadway bridges (unnecessary in the short term) and the acquisition of DTE and Amtrak-owned land (estimated at $6.7M-$12M). How much should it cost to acquire Amtrak land for a new Amtrak station? I think a fair number is $0 but whatever it is, it’s low. What the report fails to take into account is that acquisition of environmentally contaminated land from DTE should also be cheap, in fact the opportunity to partner with DTE on the parking aspect of a future project on that land could very well be a net positive. While the new station needs more parking than it has now (often over capacity in my experience, the current lot is a muddy free for all), it does not need nearly 1,000 spaces unless a million transit positive things happen over the next 25 years. Parking in the short term could be tucked below Broadway and shared with a DTE project. Additionally, there are great opportunities for development and neighborhood connectivity with a transit hub. Fuller offers none of that.

We have a great opportunity here to build a new transit hub for Ann Arbor, a gateway to our town. Expanded train service with all new trains (currently on order) should result in increased ridership (side note: actual ridership projected to increase 19% this year from a construction addled 2016, up 45% over the past 20 years but just 0.5% over the past 10, true increases will require more scheduled runs, better service or higher gas prices). Building a massive parking deck in Fuller Park seems a move geared towards UM parking, takes over an existing park and offers no unique opportunities other than a link to a long shot Connector project.

Depot Street offers the chance to build in a historic location near downtown, create synergies on the DTE site and Lowertown and still connect to strong transit links via Broadway. Properly executed and phased, the project could start at less than half of current cost estimates and grow as needed with ridership and commuter rail links. Our transit future is uncertain with autonomous vehicles on the horizon so investments made now need to be incredibly prudent. Modest, phased construction at the current location is the best path forward.