Top 10 Development Sites in Downtown Ann Arbor


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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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 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.


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.

A Downtown Park?

The idea of a park in downtown Ann Arbor has been around a long time but has come to a head recently with the ongoing discussions of selling the so-called Library Lot to a private developer for a mixed-use project.  Proponents of keeping the land for a park are even calling for a public vote in the fall.


For a variety of reasons, I don’t think the Library Lot should be a park.  It’s essentially mid-block, it’s not large enough to be the significant central park it should be and the parking structure underneath prohibits large growth vegetation.  Furthermore, the parking garage was built to house a building on top and it’s an ideal location for the dense project that’s been proposed by Core Spaces.  Backing away from it now would be a disaster and cost the city the $10 million it will receive for the land plus millions more in tax dollars for years to come.  Taking the decision out of city council’s hands is also a little ridiculous, we elect these officials to make city decisions, let’s let them do their jobs.  (More info on the planned project can be found here.)

However, I’m all for a downtown, central park.  I just think the Library Lot is the wrong location.  The right location is directly across the street.  I’m talking about the Federal Building.  This building, arguably one of the ugliest in Ann Arbor, is an awful use of one of the most prominent sites in the city.  Even more criminal is some of the beautiful buildings that were torn down to make way for it including the beautiful Masonic Temple.

The Federal Building was built in 1977, a closed off, low slung building with a large parking lot in the rear.  Essentially, a travesty of urban architecture during a time period that saw altogether too much of that.


The site it sites on is much larger than the Library Lot and would have access to Liberty, Fourth and Fifth.  The rear of the site could be sold to the AAATA to expand the Blake Transit Center with a desperately needed additional bus lane and perhaps more indoor waiting area space.  This would essentially be a western extension of Library Lane and would help take buses off Fourth.  The remainder of the site could be used for the park.

Downtown Park Map.png

The benefits are obvious, an expansion of the transit center, green space to counter two larger nearby developments and filling the need of a downtown meeting place that the community needs.  The big and even more obvious problem is what to do with the existing Federal Building.  I would suggest building a new, more functional urban building in one of a few locations.

In my opinion the best location would be the the site just two blocks north of here, the southeast corner of Fifth and Huron.  That property is owned by First Martin and has been held for an office development for a long time.  It’s directly across the street from City Hall and the Courthouse.  It’s also a location where modern architecture would not be too out of place if a new building went that direction.  Another good option would be the County-owned site at the southwest corner of Main and Ann.  That location is across the street from the Washtenaw County Courthouse and has direct access to the Ashley and Ann Parking Garage (which can be expanded to house an additional 375 cars if necessary).

Is this all a pipe dream?  Perhaps but it could be done and the results would be outstanding.  I would say the citizens of Ann Arbor that want a downtown park should consider using their time and effort towards this end, perhaps petitioning their federal representatives instead of continuing their pursuit of a park on the Library Lot.