Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

For Sale: 400 Block of Liberty St.

10. January 2005 • Scott Trudeau
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Due to a family dispute, the properties on the south side of Liberty St. between Thompson and Division are up for auction. If you have $50,000 for a deposit and $1 million for the minimum bid, show up Thursday, January 13th at 11 a.m. on the court house steps. If one of two disputing family member wins the auction, the properties are likely to stay as-is. If they are out-bid, a new development is possible.

> Bell Properties web site
> Ann Arbor News

  1. I find that stretch one of the more pathetic on Liberty—I’d like to see someone do something useful with it. Apartments w/ retail, maybe? As-is, it’s kinda dysfunctional and along with the TCF building across the street kills-off the cozy pedestrian feel of Liberty as one heads west. Although that Le Dog structure is just quirky enough to be worth saving.
       —Brandon    Jan. 10 '05 - 01:12AM    #
  2. My feelings exactly. The strip of land up for auction is pretty narrow, though, so fitting in a large structure along the block might be tricky for a developer. The AA News article quotes a developer saying as much—saying that properties behind those up for auction may have to be purchased and razed to make a larger development there feasible.
       —Scott T.    Jan. 10 '05 - 01:24AM    #
  3. I’d hate to see Le Dog bounced out of its space, thought these days I’m more likely to have soup at their Main St location.
       —Edward Vielmetti    Jan. 10 '05 - 03:56AM    #
  4. Liberty seems full of underused spaces, and yes, that’s one of them. In a Jacobsian sense, underused blocks make the distance between State and Main feel longer. I’m happy to see that the lot next to Seva is finally being used in any capacity – if this chunk (plus Encore / Thano’s on the other side of this block) were upgraded, it would be a really nice addition to the street.

    Though, of course, the cost of relocating during construction, relocating back, and paying the inevitably higher rents would probably be more than Encore could afford…
       —Murph    Jan. 10 '05 - 10:38AM    #
  5. Don’t even talk about “upgrading” Encore/Thano’s, Murph. Those are classic institutions that will get “upgraded” into chain frozen custard stands and Banana Republics. They at least are decent storefronts on the street, even if they are only 1 story and not in the best-looking buildiungs. How about “upgrading” that awful TCF building or some of those parking lots further down first?

    NOMLS (Not on My Liberty Street),
       —Brandon    Jan. 10 '05 - 01:20PM    #
  6. That’s kinda what I was getting at in my second paragraph. And yes, there are definitely some parking lots which are nearly criminal in their land inefficiency.

    The big lot on Huron and Fifth, across the street from the City Hall, is offender number 1. I’ve been told that First Martin has set an astronomically high price, and is covering their property taxes with parking proceeds until they find the right sucker, but has no intention of building. In locations like that, I’d advocate for not having “Parking” as a use permitted-as-of-right. Rezone to something that doesn’t permit parking, grandfather the lot in with a five-year depreciation period, and force F-M’s hand.
       —Murph    Jan. 10 '05 - 03:29PM    #
  7. I doubt either one of the siblings who are fighting over this property wants to keep it exactly the way it is. Tom Clark has made it clear he’d rather tear it all down.

    But the house on the Division Street corner (most visible in the photo) dates from around 1840, and was the home of one of the founders of the Republican Party, at that meeting over in Jackson in 1854. I doubt that a demolition permit would be granted.

    This notion, by the way, that very deep and large parcels are necessary for any redevelopment scheme is what’s killing the intimacy of the urban fabric. Level a dozen houses or storefronts to build (say) a big box store with parking lot? How exactly does that improve things?

    Moreover, affordable housing (or affordable business space) does not get built new, absent some government subsidy or exaction.

    One of the problems East Lansing has/had was almost zero cheap business space. Part of it was “good” use-segregation zoning, which drastically limited the opportunity for business space to be built in the first place. Another part was aggressive redevelopment, driven by the shortage of retail space: almost every marginal commercial property was destroyed, displaced by ultra-high-rent buildings. That’s why there’s so little interesting stuff in downtown East Lansing.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jan. 10 '05 - 06:40PM    #
  8. That’s a great point on the lot depth, Larry. You could do well with some small buildings that are still far better and more efficient than what’s there now. Your point about affordable housing and business space ought to be noted… this is where I struggle. The urban design is lacking on that block as a corridor between Main & State, but those marginal businesses would be replaced with crappy luxury chains and pricey condos most likely if they were replaced with new construction. Indeed, these situations seem to be prime culprits for some sort of subsidy, but I’m not sure if one currently exists for businesses (and perhaps more cheap housing could be provided better on cheaper land?).
       —Brandon    Jan. 10 '05 - 09:34PM    #
  9. LK said: “This notion, by the way, that very deep and large parcels are necessary for any redevelopment scheme is what’s killing the intimacy of the urban fabric.”

    If you want to take that tack, then it is building codes that are killing urban redevelopment – because any new building that is more than 2 stories must have an elevator and 2 separate stairways, minimum, thanks to ADA and fire codes. They are good things to have, yes, but it makes small projects nigh impossible. We simply aren’t allowed to build as we did in 1900 anymore. Plus, it is not ‘allowable’, politically, to build a 1-story building here (remember the corner of State & Washington). So we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    There is a mostly vacant lot across from Sweetwater’s that was approved to have a 5-story building on it. We architects would jokingly call it the Core Building, because the lot is so small, that nothing besides the core could be built. To this day, the project has never been built. I daresay the site plan approval has expired by this point.
       —KGS    Jan. 11 '05 - 01:29PM    #
  10. Very much agreed about building and zoning codes creating many of these problems. I have worked on this politically, with limited success.

    Perhaps what is needed is a state or national working group to develop and recommend model pro-small-urban-site building and zoning code provisions.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jan. 11 '05 - 01:58PM    #
  11. Thanks for the clarifications, Larry. I was parroting the talking heads in the article. Your points are well taken.

    I’m having a vague flashback to a talk on North Campus last year. It was either James Kunstler or John Norquist . Anyway, one of these old white guy urbanists talked about a city (maybe Milwaukee; it was probably Norquist) where there were vacant lots on an old commercial strip. He showed an image of one lot that couldn’t be developed because regs required parking that would’ve taken up two entire floors of the structure. He didn’t mention other issues (like ADA or fire code) ... I wonder if/how they got around that. Could historic designations or districts be of assistance in this regard, or does that only help for existing structures?
       —Scott T.    Jan. 11 '05 - 04:13PM    #
  12. I don’t remember Kunstler speaking about Milwaukee, so that must have been Norquist. A clear example of how destructive such regs can be.

    More later when I have time.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jan. 11 '05 - 05:33PM    #
  13. Norquist was Mayor of Milwaukee for some time and only recently left there.

    When Stevens House burned this past summer, the ICC had all these same problems. Even if we could have gotten variances for the fact that the old Stevens was “too small” to be a cooperative under current zoning, and, if made big enough, would be too big for the lot under current zoning (and we were pretty sure we could have gotten the city to let us build back the (externally) same building), the ADA elevator killed us. Were it not for ADA, we’d probably have the house rebuilt and occupied inside of 2 years; instead, we’ve sold the site.

    I’ve heard clever suggestions that we should buy everybody who can’t climb stairs a stair-climbing robotic wheelchair, because it would be cheaper than installing elevators everywhere, but the ADA zealots won’t buy it. (When I was on the ICC Board, trying to brainstorm ways to satisfice the ADA, another board member attacked me, saying that we should not be discussing how to get out of putting an elevator in Stevens 2, but that we should instead be looking at how to retrofit all of our buildings with elevators.)
       —Murph    Jan. 11 '05 - 05:59PM    #
  14. Sometimes I feel the urge to become a libertarian… grr. We need to make small-lot development more feasible in Ann Arbor—they are what make up a good fine-grained urban fabric. Why must our greatest cities and towns be illegal? I’m amazed there isn’t more political will to be found both on the right and left to change zoning and other regulations. The fact that a student co-op would require an elevator is ludicrous.
       —Brandon    Jan. 11 '05 - 06:48PM    #