Ann Arbor Student Housing – 2018 Update

Around this time last year, I wrote a post entitled “The Truth about Student Housing in Ann Arbor” that was something of a response to all the comments I was hearing about the new developments cropping up around town. I work in the student housing industry to a certain degree so had first hand market research at my fingertips and was able to share some cold hard facts on the subject.

Hub Ann Arbor

Hub Ann Arbor brought 310 beds to Huron St in August, 2018.

The down and dirty was that student housing development had not remotely kept up with demand as enrollment growth and decades of limited (essentially zero) additions to the student housing market had created significant pent up demand even aside from any population gains in the student body.

Occupancy was over 99%, the highest of any of the 50+ university markets we have polled over the years with rents continuing to grow.

However, 2018 brought the most significant additions to the private student housing scene in the university’s history, 1,247 beds in three new complexes opened in August. Thus, time for an update on the scene.


Despite a huge addition on the supply side, occupancy stayed an extremely healthy 98.32%. Overall rents were up 4.64% from a year ago but that is skewed by such a large swath of new, higher priced housing. Apples-to-apples rental rates of existing buildings increased a more modest 1.81% buoyed by huge increases in Studio and 1 Bedroom units, 12.52% and 10.50%, respectively. Most of the new developments have been focused on larger unit types as they are seen as more profitable (4+ bedrooms, only 1 kitchen) which has put serious pressure on the relatively few studio and one bedroom residences.

The three newest properties, Hub Ann Arbor, The Yard, and Six11, opened at 98.40%, 100%, and 96.00%, respectively.

Anecdotally, I did see more advertised specials and discounts, particularly for Six11, so it is possible that effective rents did not increase as much as asking rents.  However, smart money would bet that any minor hiccups experienced in lease up this year will be smoothed over next year when only the 253-bed Vic Village North will open (replacing Ulrich’s).

Enrollment continued to grow, up 1.55% this year to 46,716, so demand shows no signs of slowing. What may be interesting to see is the effect of the university’s efforts to improve socioeconomic diversity on the private housing market.  Notably the Go Blue Guarantee which officers free tuition to families with incomes under $65,000 and significant support to families earning under $180,000.  Obviously lower income students will be less likely to bite off on the premium rent levels being charged at newer developments.

Thus, another year, another very healthy lease up in the student housing market in Ann Arbor.  As I have noted before, it’s hard to even imagine a scenario where these buildings were not built.  By necessity there would be nearly 4,000 students living elsewhere around town, moving further out into the neighborhoods or commuting in from the edges of town.


The Y Lot – Rock, I Presume? Hard Place, I Presume?

The controversial downtown real estate topic du jour is currently what to do with the so-called “Y Lot”, the vacant former YMCA parcel on William Street adjacent to Blake Transit Center. The situation has been covered ad nauseam by Ryan Stanton at the Ann Arbor News and there’s come great historical context available at the old Chronicle website. I’ll try to sum up where we’re at as succinctly as possible.


The Y Lot, approximately 0.8 acres on William between Fourth & Fifth.

They city bought the Y Lot back in 2003, tore down the old YMCA after it moved to Washington Street, and then very nearly pulled off a sale that would have created a new development with apartments and potentially a hotel on the upper floors with retail and a transit center on the ground floor. That deal fell apart in 2007 resulting in a lawsuit the city eventually won, the new Blake Transit Center was rebuilt mid-block, and the lot was again put up for sale in 2013. The city sold the site to Dennis Dahlmann for $5.25 million in 2014 with an agreement that stipulated a mixed-use development with a series of restrictions be built within four years. If no such project was built (as has been the case) the city had the right to buy the property back for $4.2 million.  That right kicked in on April 2nd, 2018 so the city council now must decide whether or not to negotiate with Dahlmann or exercise that right.


Development proposed by Dahlmann/The Habit Co. in 2016 for the site.

So what should the city do?

First off, what’s the lot worth? I don’t think there’s any question it’s worth more than $4.2 million. There’s a couple of different appraisals out there, the one hired by Dahlmann says $6.1 million is most likely, the one hired by the city quotes values from $7.7 million to $12.5 million depending on the size of building that can be built. I pulled my own data (Google Sheet) to show pretty clearly that redevelopment properties with D1 zoning have been typically going for $275-$300 per square foot. Without restrictions, the site could easily be worth $9.5 million to $10.5 million.

At first glance, it’s a no brainer for the city to buy it back, decide what they would like to see and sell it to a developer for a significant profit. Dahlmann signed an agreement, didn’t hold up his end of the deal – as many it seems, expected – and now has to face the consequences. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Dahlmann has sued the city, citing a bad agreement and the city not holding up their side of the deal, notably as it relates to an underground connection to the Library Lane garage that doesn’t actually exist. He’s offered $1.5 million to settle that lawsuit, remove all restrictions and own the land free and clear.

There are a few reasons the city may want to consider a deal with Dahlmann.  These are big time “ifs” but I’ll lay it out there. I believe the city is in a good position to win a legal battle with Dahlmann but there’s almost no question they have a little exposure, the agreement was somewhat ambiguous and this could get dragged out for years. The other “if” is does Dahlmann actually intend to build this project if a deal is made? I’m told he cares about this community and his legacy and he has the wherewithal to pull it off, his track record thus far says otherwise. The final question is whether or not that $1.5 million offer has room. Let’s be conservative and say the lot is worth $8 million without restrictions, there’s a case to be made that a settlement figure here should be $3 million or more.

Here’s why I think the city should at least consider a deal. Even if the property is worth $9 million or more, we’re at the long end of the investment cycle here, there’s a chance that value comes down in the next couple of years. It’s likely that the litigation will tie up the site for at least a couple of years so you’re in an uncertain position in say, 2020 or 2021. Furthermore, if Dahlmann will really build the project, you could be looking at $1 million plus in tax revenue coming in by 2021. The alternative is another project that’s likely 2-3 years behind. The profit the city is counting on can be made up in just a couple years if the development happens. Lastly, and this is not a knock on our administration, it’s more just the way government works, but the city is terrible at selling and/or developing real estate.  Cases in point, the Library Lot and this very site which is some 15 years into a rocky unproductive process.

So, if council believes Dahlmann will build the project, feels there may be some legal exposure if they don’t negotiate, and can deliver a better settlement number while keeping some restrictions in place (let’s say an affordable component and a 3-4 year timeline), it might be time to make a deal.

If they have no confidence in Dahlmann, feel good about their legal position, and cannot do better than $1.5 million, it’s time to buy it back. With good leadership and a settlement of the lawsuit, the city can make money for other services and potentially deliver a worthy project for downtown.

Lastly, it’s important to note that Mayor Taylor and council member Ackermann came out with a new affordable housing vision for the Y Lot over the weekend. It’s a commendable plan and I’ve long said that one of the only ways to really put a dent in the affordable housing commitment is to use public land with an affordable developer partner, but I fear this particular site is too messy to bring this into the fray in the 11th hour. It also completely changes the economics of the deal as discussed above. I might recommend they consider applying this exact same strategy to another city parcel, the Kline Lot for example, which is less entangled?

There is a special city council meeting to decide the fate of the Y Lot this evening, April 23rd. I think there is a case to be made for either side and I urge all our council members to carefully weigh all options.

New Mixed-Use Project Proposed Near Michigan Stadium

Just before Thanksgiving, plans were submitted to the city requesting a rezoning of a full city block at the northwest corner of Hoover & Greene in the shadow of Michigan Stadium for a 170-unit mixed-use development.

151 E. Hoover Development

Proposed by Southfield-based REDICO and designed by Myefski Architects (known for the proposed Library Lot development and the under construction Hub project on Huron), this development is slated to include 170 units with 180 total bedrooms, predominantly studio and one bedroom apartments. The building will have a corner pocket park and 3,350 square feet of retail, a nice bonus in this neighborhood, essentially replacing the small commercial building there now. Parking will be provided in a two story garage below the building and includes more than one space per unit, even more than one space per bedroom given the small floorplans. It’s more parking than is needed by zoning and probably more than is even needed by market demand so the MLive commenters that come out of the woodwork to beat the parking dead horse will have to stick to articles about the Lowertown development.

The block is home to predominantly rental homes and is presently zoned half C2B and half R4C. REDICO is petitioning the city to rezone the entire block bound by Hoover, Greene, Davis and Brown to C2B to accommodate the proposed project. This seems like a great in-fill site with a unit mix that can cater to a mix of students, graduate students and young professionals.  Plus a little neighborhood retail! We’ve noted recently on this blog about the ridiculously high occupancy and rents of properties near campus, studios are now renting for north of $1,400 and have gone up nearly 12% in just the last 2 years.  Hopefully this one sails through the process, seems like an excellent redevelopment project and the need is obviously there.

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.


Update on The Glen Project

The most common questions I get generally run along the lines of “What’s going on with that construction site or vacant lot or empty storefront or project I read about a while back?”.  The desolate swath of land on Glen between Catherine and Ann across from Angelo’s slated for a mixed-use project called The Glen certainly fits the bill.

The Glen 1

The Glen as rendered in May, 2017

First announced in mid-2015, I’m happy to report that The Glen is still moving forward, albeit glacially.  The site plan is in its 4th review with planning, engineering in its 6th review and the traffic impact study (which appears to be the particularly sticky wicket here) is sitting in an impressive 8th review.

To provide a little background, the site was once home to the Glen Ann Service Station, two older homes and a small commercial building that formerly housed Da Vinci’s Pizza. The buildings were demolished in stages through the mid to late 2000’s.  Although technically in the Old Fourth Ward Historic District, you might not know it other than glorious Angelo’s across the street and a couple of remaining single family homes.  The area is dominated by two large UM garages, a couple of 1960’s low to mid-rise apartment properties and several other large campus or medical buildings of varying age and quality.  Suffice to say, this weedy patch of dirt represents an opportunity for a breath of fresh air in this corridor.

Back in 2005, Chicago-based developer Joseph Freed & Associates received approval for a PUD to build a 9-story mixed-use building including ground floor retail, 1-2 floors of office and apartments above.  The state’s Historic Preservation Review Board actually rejected the proposal to demolish the historic homes still remaining on the site.  Freed filed suit and the final settlement allowed the development to move forward with some modifications in 2017.  Locals will know Freed as the group behind the fairly mediocre (although I think solid in concept) Ashley Terrace condominium project at Ashley and Huron and the redevelopment of Arborland Mall in the late 1990’s.  The Great Recession killed their plans on Glen (and caused a complete implosion of the company culminating in developer Larry Freed being found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 230 years in prison in 2016).  Ultimately the lots were sold to new owners for $2.5 million in 2014.

Glen Ann Place

Glen Ann Place as proposed in 2007 by the now defunct Joseph Freed & Associates

Fast forward to the present day and the current developers, a group led by Craig Singer and Fred Goldberg, are slogging through a plan to build a 9-story mixed-use building anchored by a 162-room boutique hotel.  The building will also feature 24 apartments on the top two floors, just over 5,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor and 252 underground parking spaces.  While around the same height, the project is 33% smaller than the old Freed project due to several setbacks which include 5 large outdoor terraces.

The Glen 2

The big question marks here appear to be vehicular access to the site and traffic concerns.  As the always well informed and level headed MLive commenters are all too happy to bring up, traffic tends to snarl on Glen at rush hour and a roundabout at Fuller and Maiden Lane has been in planning since 2011 to help alleviate some of those concerns.  If this project and the proposed development at 1140 Broadway (subject of a future post) were to move forward, it seems the construction of the roundabout would be a necessity.  Traffic is complex and tends to be overblown by us average citizens because it impacts us in an out-sized way depending on our particular schedule.  In reference to this project there is a 234-page traffic impact study prepared by one Tapan Datta of Wayne State University, a man with a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering with a focus on Transportation.  Between that and the now 8 reviews by our industrious planning staff, I feel confident they’ll get this right.  My two cents: make the developers for The Glen and 1140 Broadway chip in for the street improvements to smooth this out.

The Glen is really just the type of project we’re looking for in Ann Arbor.  Perhaps a few stories too tall for the old guard but really not out of line for the area and a welcome dense mix of uses including a new hotel option in the greater downtown area, neighborhood retail and a few apartment units.  Plus, lots of parking, but mostly underground!  I’ll be honest, I’ve never liked the architecture, kind of a Frankenstein trying to blend the historic elements of the Old Fourth Ward with the modern design of the Medical Campus and a lot of different uses to accommodate in one building.  Neumann Smith had a tall order to fill here and I think they’ve done their best but it’s unlikely to win a Pritzker.

The Glen 3

That said, architecture is highly subjective, the plan is strong, the location is ideal, the materials are of good quality and I see no reason this project shouldn’t move forward once all the boxes are checked with city staff.  Let’s get this in front of council so we can see some hammers swinging, I say best of luck, tired of looking at that overgrown dirt patch.

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.

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.