Reimagining Burns Park

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


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

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


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

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

The Shelter/Warming Hut

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


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

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

Community Gardens

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

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

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

Senior Center Expansion/Redevelopment

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


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

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

Baseball/Soccer Field Realignment

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

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


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


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


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.


The Calvin – 124 Unit Apartment Tower Coming to Huron Street

A 12 story, 124 unit apartment tower will be coming soon to the parking lot between the newly renovated Graduate Hotel and the Sloan Plaza Condominiums.


The project is being developed by Core Spaces, the team behind the winning Collective on 5th proposal for the Library Lot.  Unlike the highly controversial Foundry Lofts development just down the street at the corner of Huron and Division, The Calvin practically sailed through the site plan approval process.  Both the city and project neighbors praised the developers for their outreach and willingness to work with nearby property owners and residents.  Although the building maxes out the 120 foot height limit, the total square footage of 132,939 represents a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 515%, well below the 700% maximum allowed with premiums.

As such, The Calvin received a clear stamp of approval from the planning commission in a 6-0 vote and went on to unanimous approval from city council.  If that’s not shocking enough, not a single Ann Arborite spoke out against the plan at the council meeting, instead a smattering of praise was heaped on the development team.  President of the Old Fourth Ward Association, a vehement and outspoken opponent of the Foundry Lofts had this to say: “I have been in on many, many, many development meetings with developers and never before have I dealt with a group of people where they sought us out and they sought to build not only a handsome building, but a building that would not negatively impact the neighbors. This is a rarity.”

Of course it helps that the project is on a block of Huron that features four high rise structures and is sandwiched in between two on an underutilized parking lot.  It’s a large and somewhat oddly shaped parcel that naturally provides a fair amount of setback between the building and neighboring houses to the rear.


In short, there’s not a whole lot to complain about aside from the usual gripes about parking.  There will be 108 parking spaces and 54 bike spaces.  Given the walkability of the location and access to public transit, this should be more than sufficient  (remember folks, building more parking encourages automobile use, bad for the roads, bad for the environment and requires more parking elsewhere).  I wouldn’t have minded seeing some retail here but it’s a tough location for it so I can live without here.

The property will be marketed towards students as well as young professionals and other market rate tenants with rents ranging from $999 to $5,200 per unit.

Much like the planning commission and city council, I don’t have much else to say.  Looks good, fills a gap wasted by a parking lot and provides more housing which can only help to bring more energy and vitality to the area.  Best of luck guys.


Disclosure: I know most of the folks over at Core personally.  I’ve tried to be non-biased here, it really is hard to find too much fault with the proposal.


Montgomery Houze Condo Development Coming to 4th Avenue

This development was announced back in 2014 but I’m happy to report we should start seeing visible signs of progress any day now.  Located at 210-216 S. 4th Ave in what has most recently been known as the Town Center Plaza, owners David Ebner and Joe Barbat of Barbat Holdings, LLC are planning 33 condominiums in a completely renovated and expanded building coined Montgomery Houze.


This is one of those developments that it’s hard to find too much fault in.  The building was long ago the victim of a bad corrugated metal facade and the new renderings show a masonry exterior much more reminiscent of the original building, once home to Montgomery Ward’s.

Montgomery Ward.jpg

The original Montgomery Ward & Co circa 1925.  The building was later expanded with another bay to the south where Bandito’s is now.

The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase leases the basement space in the building and Bandito’s Mexican Restaurant will remain.  There will be 2-3 new retail spaces.  The condos range in size from Studios to 3 Bedrooms and there is no on-site parking.

I’m told interior work is currently ongoing and exterior work should begin soon.  The building was originally planned to be apartments or a mix of condos and apartments but the hot sales of condos in projects like The Mark, 121 Kingsley West and 414 N Main convinced the developers to pursue an all condominium strategy.


Barbat has been busy opening a couple other “Houze” developments in Detroit, the Regis Houze and the new Briggs Houze.  From what I can tell these projects appears to be excellent adaptive reuses of historic buildings, I wish them the best of luck both in Detroit and here in Ann Arbor.  As a bonus, local architect Brad Moore is behind the design at Montgomery.

I personally think 4th Avenue has a ton of potential and this project is an excellent step in the right direction.  Formerly a red light district of sorts, 4th offers less expensive retail rents as compared to Main Street or even Liberty but has great character and some unique local businesses.  If Habitat builds on the old Y lot and the city goes through with a plan to put a retail business incubator in the ground floor the 4th and William Garage, we’ll only see greater things coming to this street.


Improving ArborBike and a Bikeable Ann Arbor

Did you know Ann Arbor had a bike sharing progam?  Based on the 2015 usage statistics, odds are you didn’t, or simply chose not to use the program for any number of reasons.  ArborBike launched in 2014 and 2015 was its first full year of deployment.  Ridership did not meet expectations the first year but there’s reason for hope going forward, assuming a continued commitment from the city, the AAATA and the University.

ArborBike is actually owned and operated by the Clean Energy Coalition in partnership with the institutions mentioned above.  Perhaps you’ve seen the sporty blue bikes around town or in one of the 13 stations dotting campus and the greater downtown area.  Day passes cost $6, annual memberships will run you $65.


In theory, I love the idea of a bike share.  It’s great for the environment, eases strain on our notoriously lousy streets and promotes exercise and healthy living.  In fact, it’s hard to find fault with it except for the fact that like all other forms of transportation, it requires a public subsidy.  Last year the program cost $227K while only bringing in $41K.  The University is covering the difference in costs, up to $200K per year for three years as part of the initial pilot program.  Initial startup costs of some $750K came in the form of a $600K federal grant and $150K from the city.  In the grand scheme of things, not huge dollar amounts but this is public money, it’s important to see results.

Initial membership projections were around 10,000 for 2015.  Unfortunately the first year only managed to garner 4,474 riders between annual and day passes, a little less than half of expectations.  The question is why?  Is it typical for cities to start slow?  Do we not have enough stations?  Is there just not enough marketing and awareness yet?  Are we not a bikeable city?

To start to understand this, I took a look at a couple of comparable cities to see how we stack up.  Both Madison, WI and Boulder, CO have had bike share programs in place for several years and both systems were built out by BCycle, the same company behind ArborBike.  Below is the historic ridership data for each city.

Year Stations Bikes Trips Annual Passes Day Passes
Population: 2011 12 85 18,480 1,170 6,000
105,112 2012 15 110 25,354 869 8,269
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2013 22 150 30,314 807 8,698
25.7 2014 38 280 43,143 1,455 9,834
2015 38 280 83,850 1,539 15,382
Population: 2012 29 225 63,325 2,150 11,710
245,691 2013 35 290 81,662 1,843 15,367
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2014 39 315 104,274 2,622 18,651
94.03 2015 40 315 101,339 2,789 25,734
Population: 2015 13 125 14,189 82 3,820
City Area (Sq. Miles):

So we’re not too far behind Boulder for the first year although Boulder is a slightly smaller city than Ann Arbor.  There’s also some huge opportunity for growth, Boulder has exploded while Madison has put up big ridership numbers but appears to be tapering.  I wanted to look at some other metrics as well, notably station and bike density and per capita ridership.

Year Stations/ Sq. Mile Stations/ 1,000 Residents Bikes/    1,000 Residents Trips/ 1,000 Residents
Population: 2011 0.47 0.11 0.81 175.81
105,112 2012 0.58 0.14 1.05 241.21
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2013 0.86 0.21 1.43 288.40
25.7 2014 1.48 0.36 2.66 410.45
2015 1.48 0.36 2.66 797.72
Population: 2012 0.31 0.12 0.92 257.74
245,691 2013 0.37 0.14 1.18 332.38
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2014 0.41 0.16 1.28 424.41
94.03 2015 0.43 0.16 1.28 412.47
Population: 2015 0.45 0.11 1.06 120.48
City Area (Sq. Miles):

Looking at this data, our stations relative to the size of the city and number of residents was in line with the other cities and Ann Arbor actually had more than enough bikes.  Still, ridership was over 30% below Boulder and over 50% below Madison in the first year when looking at trips per 1,000 residents.

So our bike share infrastructure seems okay to start with, what’s the reason for the poor ridership?  Marketing and exposure is part of it, I believe the city and university could do more to promote the service.  But I think the biggest issue is actually the location of the stations and the lack of quality bike lanes and paths in the city.


Let’s start with the bike stations and their locations.  With the exception of the North Campus locations (numbers 6 and 7), the vast majority of these sites are easily traversable on foot.  Granted, they are located near major points of interest and economic drivers but in order to fully realize the system, I believe there needs to be some stations further afield in areas that are really more accessible by bike.

Potential locations for expansion that come to mind include Michigan Stadium, Burns Park, Veterans Park, West Park, Nichols Arboretum, Argo Park, Eberwhite, Gallup Park, Briarwood Mall, County Farm Park and Barton Nature Area. Many of these locations are well served by bike lanes and several are along the Border-to-Border Trail which is the city’s best scenic bike route that’s truly accessible from the downtown area.  While biking is a great way to get around, an ArborBike tour could make a top 10 list of summer activities for an Ann Arbor visit if it includes the river and the natural treasures of our fair city along with the urban sight seeing.


Perhaps most importantly, Ann Arbor needs better bike lane and path infrastructure.  The most recent figure I can find is that the city contains 71 miles of bike lanes.  Boulder has 160.  Beyond that, many of the so-called bike lanes are shared lanes, basically a painting of a bicycle and an arrow on the road in the same right of way as cars.  The League of American Bicyclists actually ranks cities based on their “bike friendliness” which includes percentage of streets with bike lanes, percentage of bike commuters, education, safety and a number of other factors.  Madison and Boulder both rank “Platinum”, Ann Arbor is certified as “Silver”.  UM is rated “Silver” as well while UW earns a “Gold” rating and UC is oddly not rated.  (Of note, A2 does rank as the only large city in Michigan to even gain as high as “Silver”).

With few exceptions, biking in this town is not nearly as simple, safe and accessible as the city purports it to be. Cyclists in traffic and bikes on sidewalks are common.  There have been several tragic accidents in recent years.  If we really expect people to bike this city, both locals on their own bikes and visitors on shared bikes, we have a long way to go in terms of promoting an inviting and safe environment.

The city needs designated bike lanes and more non-motorized paths like the planned Allen Creek Greenway.  Bikeable cities attract young people, are healthier, better for the environment and less congested.  ArborBike, supported by the proper infrastructure could be a huge success story for the city.  Ann Arbor has the opportunity to be a leader in the bikeable space but it will take an ongoing commitment from the citizens, the city and the university to achieve it.


New Retail Project Coming to South U?

There are some major changes afoot on South University.  It’s been long rumored that Ron Hughes of Bingham Farms-based Hughes Properties is working with the Ulrich family to redevelop their significant holdings in the area.  Hughes is responsible for some pretty serious commercial projects in town including the former Borders redevelopment on Liberty and the ground floor retail component of the Landmark high rise at South University and South Forest.  The DDA is also in the planning stages of some much needed street and sidewalk improvements for the area including removal of the massive round planters, crossing improvements to the South Forest-South U intersection and increased space for outdoor seating.


Adding to this change could be a smaller commercial building filling the only structure-less void on this stretch.  Back in 2009, arsonists burned down the former Pinball Pete’s, at the time vacant and boarded up as Pete’s had moved across the street some years before.  The Tice family, owners of the Pizza House restaurant, had owned the property for many years.  It appears they had explored several options for the site, including experimenting with a food truck court in 2013, but had never committed to a long term redevelopment plan.


In December of 2015, they sold the property to Boston-based Suburban Campus Properties, owners of the adjacent University Towers (SCP also owns the commercial component of the Michigan Theater Building), for $1,050,000.  This makes sense simply as a buffer against future high rise development next to the Towers but SCP does not appear to be sitting on their hands, they recently listed a potential new retail/office development for lease.


The listing shows they’re planning a two story building with up to 12,000 square feet of space available on both floors.  It’s important to note that this is just a conceptual plan, the design and size of the building will be dictated by the tenant or tenants they attract to the space, however it gives you an idea of what the owners are anticipating.  They’re asking $45 per square foot, a hefty price tag and one that can likely only be taken on by a national retailer looking to plant a flag here in Ann Arbor.  New construction with high ceilings and modern amenities in the heart of the campus area is a rare find and I would expect there to be considerable interest from the market.  For reference, the Landmark retail space was asking $45 per square foot as well, 7-11 pays nearly that for 2,500 square feet.  Walgreens pays just over $40 per square foot for nearly 18,000 square feet of older but completely renovated space with high ceilings at State and North U.

Like most locals, I hate seeing the proliferation of national chains in the downtown area although I do understand that a mix of local, regional and national businesses is healthy.  This building would replace a vacant gravel lot in an in-fill location and that is certainly a good thing.  Normally I would say there is plenty of older, cheaper space on South U for local businesses to establish themselves but I don’t know what the future will bring to this stretch, some of those buildings may face the wrecking ball.  Here’s hoping they find a quality tenant that fits in well with the overall character of the area and build a high caliber design.  I know the family behind SCP just enough to know they care about more than just the bottom line and I believe they will be selective and measured in their decisions going forward on this project.


My first thought when I saw this project was the possibility of a Nike Store to go along with the new Nike apparel contract at UM.  I just read a story about Under Armour opening a 15,000 square foot flagship store in Madison, WI following up on their recent contract with UW.  Would the townies want that?  Definitely not.  Would your average 19 year old be thrilled?  Probably.

For the record, I think South U needs some redevelopment.  There are a number of buildings that would break my heart to lose but there’s some brutally designed, poorly maintained 1950’s-1980’s structures that are in need of a major reboot or potential replacement.  I’m a huge proponent of character but significant swathes of South U are tired bordering on moribund right now.

When poking around for this story, I noticed that 1121 S University, the building at the NW corner of South U and Church with TCF Bank on the ground floor, sold last year to University of Michigan Credit Union.  UM ended their partnership with TCF last year in favor of PNC.  I would not be surprised to see TCF exit this location whenever their lease is up and see a new UM Credit Union branch replace it.  Hard to argue that would be anything but positive, the building needs some work and you’re replacing an out of state bank with a local one.  Hope I’m right.

Argus Farm Stop Expansion

It’s rare that a place opens and immediately becomes an indispensable part of the community.  Sometimes, a business at once fills a void we didn’t know existed and also epitomizes the culture and character of a neighborhood.  For the Old West Side, just off the western edge of downtown Ann Arbor, that place is Argus Farm Stop.


Husband and wife team Bill Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample opened Argus not two years ago in August, 2014 in an old service station at the corner of Liberty and 2nd.  A year round farmers market and coffee shop, Argus quickly became the de facto meeting place for the neighborhood.  The quick popularity and success however seems to have put a strain on the already tight confines of the space.  Last summer they announced plans to add a 556 square foot greenhouse to the front of the building, effectively increasing their space over 40%.

Work is finally underway and should go relatively quickly.  I wish them the best of luck in their expansion, this is a regular coffee and occasional grocery/lunch stop for me.  Pro tip: Matteo serves up awesome barbecue from a serious smoker in the front parking lot on Fridays and Saturdays.  Highly recommend it.

Restaurant Roundup – Spring 2016

Ann Arbor really is a great food town.  That said, it’s easy for things to get a little stagnant.  Turnover and change in the restaurant business is not only a part of life, its generally pretty healthy assuming the openings are outnumbering the closings.  There has been a lot of activity recently so I thought I would try and sum up some of the happenings in the downtown area in 2016.



The Pretzel Bell – 226 S Main St – An Ann Arbor institution reborn in the former Lena/Habana space at the prominent corner of Liberty and Main (The Parthenon or Cunningham Drug Store if you’re going way back).  It won’t be the original and may never have its character but it could fill a void downtown, there’s actually very few decent, non-chain sports bars (BWW and Bar Louie are chains, The Arena sure but it has its issues, Scorekeepers doesn’t count unless you’re 19).  This place is about 50 feet from my office and I always felt Lena never lived up to its potential so looking forward to scratching my name into a table under the bell soon.

Fred’s – 1113 S University Ave – A cool addition to the standard (read: delicious when recently drunk) garbage on South U, Fred’s is a little health food spot specializing in juices, smoothies and light breakfast and lunch fare. Sorry to see former UM basketball player David Merritt’s clothing store close down in this location but it appears they live on online.  Fun fact: Fred is the brother of local dynamo Sava Lelcaj of Sava’s, Aventura and Babo Market fame.


Piada – 311 S State St – So-called Italian Street Food, this fast casual spot just opened in a location that was most recently Five Guys but will always be remembered by a certain generation of us as Shaman Drum.  A chain based in Columbus, OH is normally a double whammy of hate but honestly the concept seems to provide something different to the area and with only 35 locations or so, it’s not the kind of place you see on every corner… yet.

Mark’s Carts – 211 W Washington St – Now it’s in 6th season, there are two new food carts joining the fray in the little lot off Washington.  Pita Cruiser, a little gyro and shwarama truck based in Charlevoix is the first.  I sampled the gyro the first week it opened and wasn’t too impressed but need to give it another chance once they’ve established themselves.  The other is Seafood Driven.  This one I’m excited about.  Helmed by two young partners, one a Zingerman’s alum, they feature quick, East Coast style seafood, think clam chowder and lobster rolls.  I hope to be a regular.



KouZina – 332 S Main St – 2016 is the year of Mediterranean “Street Food” in Ann Arbor.  Building on the success of his very popular location in downtown Royal Oak, owner Bobby Laskaris is opening his fast casual Greek spot in the former Middle Kingdom space on Main Street.  It’s Chipotle-style ordering, pick a gyro, salad or bowl, pick a protein, pick the toppings, etc.  Main Street is typically more a full service restaurant location so it will be interesting to see how they do here but I can tell you there’s a definite lack of simple lunch spots downtown west of State Street.  The building looks great and they appear set to open any day now.

San Street – 415 N Fifth St – New Korean spot coming from Ji Hye Kim who is graduating from her San Street food truck to a full on bricks and mortar location.  Partnering with the good folks over at Zingerman’s, Kim will be taking over their Events on Fourth space (Zing will move to their new, larger Greyline space in the new Residence Inn on Huron).  A former Mark’s Carts occupant, this is sort of a great local success story.  Look forward to steamed buns, banh mi and fried chicken from a really talented young chef.

20160423_130829 (1)RoosRoast – 117 E Liberty St – Beloved deep local coffee roaster RoosRoast is taking over the lease of Elixir Vitae on Liberty just east of Main.  The original location on Rosewood sort of epitomizes A2: communal, original, funky and friendly.  If they can bring half that character to downtown it will be a great addition to the scene.  Lobster Butter Love y’all.

Jim Brady’s – 209 S Main St – An unfortunate loss for the Ann Arbor dining scene, Vellum closed in 2015 after just 2 years in business.  High end and creative, it was never quite able to find its place.  The space was bought by Tom Brady (not that Tom Brady) last year and should be the fourth location of his budding Jim Brady’s mini chain.  It first appeared the restaurant would open in 2015 but it seems this location was put on hold while the Detroit spot was opened up.  Jim Brady’s Detroit is up and running so perhaps we’ll see some progress here soon on the 50’s themed throwback bistro.  Here’s hoping the A2 location is not too heavy on kitsch and focused on bringing a unique experience to Main Street.

Garage Bar – 618 Church St – Not necessarily a new opening but rather an outdoor expansion of Pizza House in the ground floor of the new ArborBlu building at the corner of Church and Willard.  Looks to be a little more bar oriented compared to the restaurant feel of Pizza House and is exclusively outdoor with large garage doors opening out to the street.  Numerous taps and a fire feature appear to be on deck with an opening likely in May or June.

Siris – 207 N Main St – From the owners of the Heidelberg comes a new barbeque concept featuring 100 craft beer taps and a downstairs cigar lounge.  Formerly Sheesh Mediterranean Cuisine, the restaurant and a significant portion of the building were damaged by a fire back in 2011.  This block of Main Street struggles with foot traffic but there is a lack of good barbeque in the city (ricewood notwithstanding) and cigar lounges are few and far between so that will attract a certain clientelle.  The renovation has been long in the making including digging out the basement for the cigar area, looking like an early summer opening.

Allen Rumsey Supper Club – 615 E Huron St –  The restaurant opening in the recently renovated and re-branded Graduate Hotel, the old Campus Inn on Huron.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the guys over at AJ Capital Partners, the Chicago-based hospitality firm behind this venture and I can tell you they’ll put a ton of thought, energy and experience into this place.  Their eateries in the Soho House and CAA in Chicago are totally original with damn good cocktails and food in a community setting.  The location is a little challenging and the swank may be a test for Ann Arbor but I think these guys can pull it off.  Looks to open in June or July.


309 S Main St – The former Melting Pot location, a chain fondue spot.  Few mourned its loss and not notifying the staff?  Not cool.  The space has a “for lease” sign in the window but no visible signs of a change over.  The location is too good to stay empty for long.

116 S Main St – Formerly Kai Garden, a thoroughly decent if not exceptional local Chinese restaurant that closed down in 2015.  The business is still listed for sale for $195,000, I would think the space needs a pretty good overhaul, definitely a little tired inside and out.


307 S Fifth Ave – Old Jerusalem Garden space, most recently the Katoi pop-up.  Another tough blow for the downtown scene, Katoi was awesome.  Our loss is Corktown’s gain, they opened their new permanent location in Detroit this spring.  This building is tiny and from what I understand, needs some work.  Perhaps it can serve as another incubator for an up and coming restaurateur?


How Does Ann Arbor’s Transit System Stack Up?

The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) recently released a massive new transit database aggregating information from 805 transit agencies across the country.  This awesome new tool, dubbed AllTransit, offers a trove of data, analysis and maps about transit access, frequency and usage in all major (and many smaller) markets in the US.

Ann Arbor AllTransit Map - Bike Commuting.png

A map of central Ann Arbor overlaid with the percentage of bicycle commuters, just one of many data sets that can be easily analyzed and mapped.


The data points are numerous and the site breaks down its major metrics into six categories: Jobs, Economy, Equity, Health, Transit Quality and Mobility Network.  They put this vast data set into an algorithm to derive a simple AllTransit Performance Score, a number from 1 to 10.  They have rankings as well, perhaps it’s unsurprising to see New York City with the overall top score at 9.60.  Ann Arbor fares well, its score of 7.87 is good enough for 14th in the country for cities between 100,000 and 250,000 residents.  It ranks 36th overall with virtually all higher ranked cities being either a major urban center or a suburb of same urban center.

I wanted to pare down the rankings and take a quick look at how Ann Arbor stacks up against comparable college towns across the country as well against various cities in Michigan.

College Town Population Transit Use Percentage AllTransit Performance Score
Cambridge, MA 107,289 29.87% 9.5
Berkeley, CA 118,853 23.22% 8.7
Ann Arbor, MI 117,770 11.05% 7.9
Boulder, CO 105,112 9.90% 7.7
Charlottesville, VA 46,597 9.09% 7.4
Madison, WI 243,344 9.67% 7.3
Chapel Hill, NC 59,376 N/A 7.3
Eugene, OR 160,561 4.52% 6.2
Provo, UT 116,288 2.28% 5.2
Athens, GA 119,648 3.11% 4.0
Average 119,484 11.41% 7.1

Again, Ann Arbor stacks up well.  Cambridge and Berkeley may not be the best comparisons as they are essentially adjacent to major cities with highly established transit networks (Boston & San Francisco, respectively ranked #2 and #4 in the country in this metric).

Michigan City Population Transit Use Percentage AllTransit Performance Score
Ann Arbor, MI 117,770 11.05% 7.9
East Lansing, MI 48,648 6.02% 7.1
Detroit, MI 680,250 9.21% 7.0
Grand Rapids, MI 193,792 4.11% 6.7
Lansing, MI 114,620 4.59% 5.7
Flint, MI 99,002 4.16% 5.2
Battle Creek, MI 51,833 N/A 5.2
Saginaw, MI 49,844 2.16% 5.0
Royal Oak, MI 59,069 0.88% 4.8
Kalamazoo, MI 75,922 2.59% 4.4
Average 149,075 4.97% 5.9

Ann Arbor tops the list in Michigan and in fact, Ypsilanti would be #2 on this list with a score of 7.6, not shocking since the cities are intrinsically linked and share a transit system.  Somewhat surprised to see Kalamazoo at the bottom of this list, a city with a heavy student population and a fairly established bus system.

The possibilities for using this data for city planning, real estate development and affordable housing are endless.  It’s clear Ann Arbor is a leader in transit for its metro size but there are still many opportunities for improvement.  The city has no true high frequency service and the percentage of transit and bike-based commuting has plenty of room to grow.  Hopefully the upcoming service changes at The Ride and future projects like The Connector, North-South Commuter Line, Ann Arbor to Detroit Commuter Line and Washtenaw Avenue BRT Line will continue to make the city more accessible, efficient, environmentally friendly and welcoming to young and old residents.

A Downtown Park?

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


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

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

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


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

Downtown Park Map.png

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

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

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