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.


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


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


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


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


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


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.

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.

Edit: New renderings have been released for this project.  It appears the developer is taking a much more traditional approach.  17 townhouse condominiums

Near North Rendering 2

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.

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.


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.


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?


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.

Top 10 Lost Buildings of Downtown Ann Arbor

Readers of the blog know that I’m generally pro-development.  While change can be difficult, it’s also inevitable and if properly fostered, development and growth is what pushes us forward, creating an ever changing, progressive and dynamic city.

That said, I would also describe myself as a historical preservationist, in towns like Ann Arbor the historic buildings provide the foundation for the character and charm that we all know and love.  Thus it’s important to remember that newer is not always better and while new, taller buildings and increased density can make for a more vibrant and walkable downtown, we’ve also seen some pretty tragic mistakes in the past when beautiful buildings were torn down for the next big thing.  Or worse, a surface parking lot.

Below is my list of the Top 10 Lost Buildings of Downtown Ann Arbor along with present day photos of their replacements.  There’s been a lot of work on this in the past, over at the Observer and the AADL and in a couple of published works that I’ve looked to for sources, most notably Lost Ann Arbor but also the more recent Downtown Ann Arbor.  Consider this a 2016 update with our own TreeDownTown spin.  Plus, who doesn’t love a Top 10 list?

Notes: There are no frame buildings or houses on this list.  With few exceptions, the downtown core is not really the place for single family homes no matter how old.  There are also no university buildings, that could be a whole other blog, UM has reinvented itself many times over, often tearing down beautiful buildings but often constructing timeless buildings in their place.  Photos are sourced from a variety of places but mainly the Flickr gallery of the irreplaceable Wystan Stevens, the AADL’s historic buildings of Ann Arbor archive and the Image Bank at the Bentley Historical Library.

Honorable Mentions

City Hall

Old City Hall, built in 1907 at the SW corner of Huron and Fifth, demolished in 1965.  Now the City Center Building.


First Presbyterian Church built in 1872 at the SW corner of Huron and Division , demolished in 1935.  Now the old Ann Arbor News building, currently home to the University of Michigan Credit Union.


The Cutting Apartments, built in 1906 as the first apartment building in Ann Arbor at the SE corner of State and Monroe.  Torn down in 1962 for a parking lot.  Ouch.  The only thing keeping this from being higher up on the list is the site is now home to beautiful South Hall for the Law School.


The Anberay Apartments built in 1923 at 619 E. University Ave, demolished in 2007 to make way for the Zaragon Place student housing tower.  We called this Melrose Place back in the day and although I actually like Zaragon for the most part, the architecture of Anberay is irreplaceable.


The Planada Apartments, built in 1929 at 1127 E. Ann St.  Demolished in 2003 by the University in favor of a parking structure.  One of perhaps only two Spanish/Moorish Revival designs in the city, the still standing Kingsley Post is the other.


The Ladies’ Library built in 1885 at 324 E. Huron St.  Torn down in 1945 to make way for a Michigan Bell Telephone building.  Now owned by AT&T, the building is a brutal blank brick facade on the Huron Street side.


The Detroit Edison Building, built in 1915 at the SE corner of Main & William.  Torn down in 1983 for a parking lot for the new DTE building (brick rich, window poor) further down the block at 425 S. Main St.  This is one of the most prominent intersections in the city and it currently boasts this parking lot, another parking lot and a BP gas station.  Ugh.


The old Ann Arbor High School, occupying the whole block at State St between Huron and Washington.  Built in 1906, demolished in 2007 to make way for North Quad.  The facade of the accompanying Carnegie Library on Huron was preserved.

Okay, enough of the also rans, on to the top 10!  Starting with…

#10 – The 100 Block of West Huron Street & The St. James Hotel


The St. James Hotel was opened in 1896 (awesome article in the Ann Arbor Argus announcing the opening here) and was still around in 1960 when the above photo was taken.  The block also housed the Rae Theater from 1915 to 1928.  In the postcard below from around 1910, you can see that the buildings were also home to Frank Ayer & Co., a lobster and oyster company.


The buildings were torn down in the 1960’s by the Ann Arbor Trust Company, now part of KeyBank.  KeyBank still occupies the neighboring Glazier Building and uses the site for a parking lot and drive thru ATM.  Awful use of downtown real estate and an unfortunate gap in the streetscape.  There was a ton of history on this stretch of Huron.  Below in 1976 and today.



#9 – State Savings Bank & The Washington Block


Built in 1908, the State Savings Bank stood proudly at the prominent northeast corner of Washington and Main.  The building is brand new in the above postcard from 1908.  Below, the building was expanded to the north at one point as seen in this photo from 1935.


The site was previously home to Eberbach Hardware, originally built in approximately 1878, seen below in this photo from 1890.


The remainder of the Washington Block is beautiful, especially the end of the block, the building at the northwest corner of Washington and Fourth.  It brings to mind the still standing Weinmann Block located just a block to the east.


The bank building is still looking pretty good in the below photo from 1943 although missing some of its detail, notably the stone work on the ground floor and elaborate cornice.  The block is still in tact as well although it appears all of the buildings have lost their beautiful, ornate cornices.


Like so many buildings, it was covered in paneling in the 1950’s.  I believe the paneling was put on in 1958 during an addition to the rear of the building.  Seen below in 1967.


The Washington Block was brutalized even earlier, sometime in the 1930’s.  Below is a shot of the Capitol Market which occupied that corner in 1939.  It later became one of the city’s first parking garages in the 1960’s


Today, the NE corner of Main and Washington is home to the Chase Bank Building.  The good news?  I think the old bones of the 1908 building are still under that glass facade.  The bad news?  The building is currently awful and it would take a fortune to restore it.  The glass is out of character with downtown and the first floor is an endless marble expanse, effectively killing any street level activity.  The worst thing?  Chase could probably get by with a ground level presence of about 1/3 of the building, the whole floor is a waste.


The Washington Block is now home to a new parking garage, probably the city’s most attractive one but that’s a dubious honor when you consider the competition.  The garage was built around 2003 when we should have known to add some ground floor retail that would have served that street well.  Instead the whole block hates pedestrians.


#8 – The Majestic Theater8570723270_46e5378997_o

The Majestic was located at 316 Maynard St and opened its doors for the first time on September 19, 1907.  One of many theaters that popped up in Ann Arbor around the turn of the century, it stuck around the longest, closing its doors in 1942 when ownership opened the new State Theater around the corner.  The above photo is from 1930 based on the marquee showing Call of the Flesh.


“The Maj” showed movies as well as vaudeville acts.  The beautiful detailing can be seen in the above photo from 1912.  Information from Wystan Stevens has the building being torn down in 1948 but the below photo seems to indicate it was still standing in 1952.


Regardless, it was certainly demolished by 1955 when the city built the Maynard Street parking structure on the site that still stands today.  Dolph’s funeral home is now every 19 year old’s favorite bar, Scorekeepers.  Current site today:


We’re lucky to still have the Michigan and the State but we lost too many beautiful theaters over the years.

#7 – The Hamilton Block, later the Cornwell Building


The Hamilton Block, later the Cornwell Building, was built in 1882 at the Northeast corner of Huron and Fourth.  The building originally housed the Postal Telegraph Cable Co. and then later the Cornwell Coal Company.


One of the original and beautiful buildings that fronted the courthouse square, it was sadly demolished in 1936 to make way for a gas station that still stands today.  One of many examples of the almighty car ripping the heart out of the urban fabric.  The Cornwell looks like it would have stood for about a million years if it hadn’t met the business end of a wrecking ball.


#6 – The Gregory Block, later the Masonic Block


The Gregory Block was built in 1862 at the epicenter of downtown, the Northwest corner of Main and Huron.  It actually replaced a log home built there in 1824 by town co-founder John Allen.  It became the Masonic Block in 1885 when the Masons moved into the top 2 floors and remained under their stewardship until 1926 when they moved to their newly built location on Fourth Ave (see #5!).  The masons were certainly there when the below photo was taken in 1893.



Another building that fell victim to the paneling craze of the 1950’s and 60’s.  Below you can see them going up in 1962.  The building condition had gotten pretty bad but all the detailing, including the cornice, is still there!


The building became the Municipal Court Building and was certainly a candidate for ugliest building in Ann Arbor until it was destroyed by a fire in 1971.  See below, the damage was pretty total.


The site is now home to One North Main (confusingly bearing the address of 101 N. Main) which was built there in 1983 with a combination of apartments and office space.  The building struggled initially and the original owners filed for bankruptcy but overall, the use of space here is better than most.  Much less attractive than the original building it replaced but it at least adds density and fills the site.  The ground floor is poorly conceived but I suppose it beats a parking lot or garage.


#5 – The Masonic Temple on Fourth Avenue


This one just kills me.  Such a cool building and there’s nothing else like it in town.  The Masons built this temple in 1925 at 327 S. Fourth Ave.  Designed by Jean Jacques Albert Rousseau and clad in white brick similar to Rousseau’s other downtown work, St. Mary Student Parish.  The building may have housed secret rooms and passageways so common to other Masonic Temples and could have been re-purposed in a myriad of ways.  It was also perhaps the finest example of art deco architecture in the city.  Below, a colorized postcard from around 1925.


The building was taken through eminent domain by the federal government and demolished in 1975 to make way for the new Federal Building which still stands there today.  Arguably the ugliest building in town, the spot where the temple was is actually a parking lot for employees and USPS vehicles.


I mean, really?  I advocate rebuilding a better federal building and tearing down this abomination for a park in another blog.

#4 – Hill’s Opera House, later the Whitney Theater


Hill’s Opera House, later the Whitney Theater, was built in 1871 at the Southwest corner of Main and Ann.  Below on the far right, looking south down Main in 1893.


An addition in 1906 added a floor and certainly killed some of the historic charm but it was still a beautiful building well into the 20th century.  It was the largest theater in Michigan in 1906, described as “an unbelievable gem” by Ted Heusel, radio personality and actor of the day.  See below in a postcard from approximately 1906-1909.


The Whitney Theater and adjoining Clarken Building in 1938 below.  Look at the Clarken Building!  Could have made the top 10 on its own!  At this time the Whitney was running as a “B” movie theater operated by the Butterfield chain, owners of the State and Michigan Theaters as well.


The building was condemned by the first marshal in 1952 and torn down in 1955.  For a time the county used the site as an exercise yard for inmates of the jail on Ann Street(!) but the corner has been a parking lot since 1978 when the jail moved out of downtown.  That’s right, the county has sat on a parking lot on Main Street for almost 40 years.  What a shame.


#3 – The Cook House, later the Allenel Hotel


This site, at the Southwest corner of Huron and Fourth had been a hotel since the 1830’s when the Cook House was constructed in 1871.  A temperance hotel for 37 years, the building was renamed the Allenel in 1911 to honor town co-founder John Allen (Allen + hotel).  Below is a photo from 1909, just before the name change.


A preferred lodging place for visiting dignitaries, Gerald Ford and his wife spent their wedding night there (obviously long before he was famous).  Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan gave a speech from atop the front entryway in 1908, see below (bonus: look how great the now Embassy Hotel looks in that photo!).


The Allenel name change came about after a fire badly damaged the hotel.  A two month remodel brought about a number of modern touches including telephones in every room, an electric elevator and hey, alcohol.  Seen below in 1913, a couple years after reopening.


A few years later in 1930 below.  Such an active street scene that is now mostly blank facing walls with traffic speeding by.


The building still looks good in the 1950’s below albeit with some of that same bad paneling on the first floor.


The Allenel was torn down in 1964 to make way for the 11-story, 202-room Sheraton Hotel, completed in 1968.  A failure pretty much from the word go, the hotel went bankrupt in 1970. It reopened as a Ramada in 1972 and then shortly thereafter became the Ann Arbor Inn.  The Inn made it until January 1990 when it too went out of business.  The city took control of the property through tax foreclosure and the building was sold to developer First Centrum to be converted to affordable senior apartments in 1995 under the new name, Courthouse Square.


This building is essentially awful but has some potential.  There was a restaurant on the top floor at one point and a new facade and renovation could do wonders.  I’d bring back the Allenel in a heartbeat if I had a flux capacitor but for now we’ll have to do what we can with this ugly mass.

#2 – The Beal Block


Quite possibly the most ornate building in Ann Arbor, the Beal Block was built in the Romanesque style in 1882 at the Northeast corner of Main and Ann.  The building housed the U.S. Post Office from 1882 to 1909 before it moved just down the street to Catherine and Main.  Seen below around 1900, I think this would be the most beautiful building in town if it still stood.


The shame of it?  The building was torn down in 1935 by the Ann Arbor Daily News for an expansion but they later changed their mind and never even built here (the News also tore down the First Presbyterian Church that’s referenced in the honorable mentions, at least they actually built there).  The site sat vacant for 5 years before Kroger built a small store there.  It later became a Salvation Army Thrift Store until Washtenaw County bought the building in 1987.  A County office building stands there today.


Actually a fairly nice government building, it just pales in comparison to the legacy laid down by the Beal Block at this corner.

#1 – The Old Washtenaw County Courthouse


The grand dame.  An absolute classic built in 1878 in the middle of a green square on the block bound by Main, Huron, Ann and Fourth.  Designed by G.W. Bunting and built for a total cost of $88,000, the courthouse featured a timeless design with a limestone cupola and a soaring clock tower.  This was the centerpiece of downtown, the grassy square its community commons, something so lacking today.  The square was framed by so many of the buildings on this list, the Beal, the Whitney, the Allenel, the Hamilton, the Masonic.  This was the most beautiful block of Ann Arbor.  Below with the Beal Block in the background.



Civic leaders found it outmoded and inadequate, allowing it to fall into disrepair.  They turned the square into a parking lot and removed the beautiful clock tower in 1948.  A new courthouse was approved in 1955 with construction to take place around the original building.


Then Mayor Brown perfectly summed up the mindset of the age, “The present courthouse was built before the turn of the century. Need I say more?”  Historic preservation was barely a consideration in 1950’s America.  The new building and demolition of the old was completed in 1957.


Considering the era, the design could have actually been worse (no panels!) but it’s a sad replacement for a priceless building.  Today the building looks much the same as it did when it was built although the green tinted windows were thankfully removed in a 1990’s renovation.  No green space and a lot of marble.


If preserved, this pocket of town would have been absolutely gorgeous and the town could still have grown and developed substantially in the area between the University and downtown that had fewer masonry buildings, more frame houses and lower density.  As it stands, only a few buildings from the era remain, mostly on the east side of Fourth Ave.  As such, this part of downtown contains the worst stretch of Main Street and is generally an area that one passes through on the way between Kerrytown and the shops and restaurants of South Main.

Lessons learned.  Look forward to the future but remember the past.  We still have a lot of history here, let’s continue to grow responsibly and cherish that which cannot be replaced.

Hope you enjoyed.  What did I miss?  Let me know in the comments.