Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Panel Discussion on Downtown Ann Arbor

12. April 2005 • Juliew
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A panel discussion on downtown Ann Arbor that actually does not include a DDA or Friends of the Greenway member.

Downtown Ann Arbor – Today And Tomorrow:
Local Association Leaders Discuss the Future Challenges Facing Downtown

Thursday, April 14, 2005, 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM
Downtown Library Multi-Purpose Room

What does the future hold for the Downtown Ann Arbor area? What are the challenges facing downtown today? What concerns need to be addressed for the future? A panel of local downtown association leaders discuss these issues, and point out the hidden gems that exist in our downtown area. The panel will be introduced by local author Joan Blos, who recently authored a pamphlet guide to downtown Ann Arbor. Panelists include Irene Bushaw, Kerrytown District Association; Tom Heywood, State Street Area Association; Maggie Ladd, South University Area Association; and Edward A. Shaffran, Main Street Area Association. Join us for a fresh look at an area we are all familiar with – Downtown Ann Arbor. This program is part of the Library’s National Library Week program series.

  1. Woot – (Julie’s) first post!

    Presumably, it’ll end up being about the greenway as soon as the question section starts regardless of the original topic. I give 8:1 odds in favor of somebody accusing these folks of being “in the pockets of developers”.
       —Murph    Apr. 13 '05 - 02:45AM    #
  2. Well, Ed Shaffran is a developer, so…

    He may also still be on the DDA board. I suspect that several others are at least DDA members.

    Sorry to rain on your first post, Julie. ‘Specially since we just finally met.

    Personal downtown gems: 16 Hands (natch) and all those other arty places like Washington Street Gallery (which is on Liberty, fyi), the PFC/Cafe Verde, the many other restaurants where I can get vegetarian (and even organic!) food for lunch, the AADL, the DTC, the farmers market, the street trees and planters (though more would be better), Downtown H&G, the Michigan Theater, Community High School, the many cool facades on Main and elsewhere, Hill Auditorium, the Rackham building, the Bell Tower, the Diag, the Arb, and West Park (but are they downtown or not!?)

    Honorable mention to Kerrytown and the Zingerman’s complex, Encore Records, Dominic’s, Leopold’s, Prickly Pear (for the back patio seating), Liberty St. Video, Kilwin’s (candy and ice cream!), the great people who work in city hall, the Ecology Center, ...

    Ok, I’m getting tired of thinking about it.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 13 '05 - 03:51AM    #
  3. Shaffran isn’t on the DDA board, I checked first. Not to say he never has been, but he isn’t one of the current batch.

    I agree that this discussion will most likely end up being about the Greenway, which is a shame because there is so much else to talk about. I was walking down Liberty this morning thinking that it would be a great place for more development that would tie the State Street and Main Street corridors together (and help East Liberty in the process). If use is an indication of success, Liberty Plaza has been a failure since it was built. Why doesn’t the city sell that space to a developer to build a 10-story apartment complex with ground-floor retail and options to park at Tally Hall and/or the Library (surface or structure—whatever that works out to be). With the Bells probably doing the same across the street, and LoFT 322 going in next door, it would make sense. Why is the DDA pushing retail on Ashley? Retail on Ashley is already doing far better than retail on East Liberty and it is all affordable and locally-owned. One-off streets rarely do well in retail so making a big push for it doesn’t seem reasonable to me. I suppose you could make a case for putting so much retail space downtown that it depresses the market entirely, thus allowing more local retailers, but that seems like a dangerous game to play with a functioning downtown.
       —Julie    Apr. 13 '05 - 01:18PM    #
  4. I think part of the reason proposed for retail on the Kline’s lot, Julie, is network effects – filling in the gaps makes everything around the gaps stronger (In theory) by making people more likely to wander from one area to the next, rather than requiring some intent on their part.

    Not arguing that East Liberty doesn’t also need some of this. Hopefully the empty storefronts between State and Division fill in soon (including, but not particularly optimistically, Tally Hall). McKinley will theoretically be making the TCF building somewhat more hospitable – less fortresslike and more sidewalk-oriented, though I’m just not a fan of the recessed arcade, there or in any of the other examples found on Liberty. Some of the little homelot-sized parking areas on Liberty could stand to be filled in (Loft 322 will at least be _a_ building, if not a particularly useful one).

    Liberty Plaza either needs a through connection to something interesting (more so than the Library Lot is right now), needs better supporting uses around it (honestly, who’s going to go to a furniture store and then take their new ottoman across the street for a sit?), or, I suppose, could be swapped out for a lot that gets somewhat more direct sun.

    Just bringing up surrounding land uses on Liberty and Division will do something, I expect, and making Liberty more of a corridor, rather than something of a dead zone between the State St. area and the Main St. area, would help a lot.
       —Murph    Apr. 13 '05 - 01:59PM    #
  5. None of the members of the panel are on the DDA Board, although Ed Shaffran once was. When I was Chair of the DDA Board, it was Ed who said to me, at his first DDA Board meeting, “Do you realize that all your parking structures are falling down?” $53 million later, we have functional, well lit, attended parking structures. We repaired four and replaced two, adding only UM designated parking at Forest. So that cost did not include much new parking. It was all paid for by parking revenues.

    All these people on the panel represent those who own the “gems” described by Steve Bean. I believe those are the “gems” of all of us – they certainly are mine!

    As to retail on Ashley – that is a plan for that particular neighborhood. Extending successful retail to the 300 block of Ashley will result (hopefully) in allowing more locally owned businesses at lower rent rates. The rentals on E. Liberty are much higher, and are less affordable to locals. There is a group call Local Economy which is an association of locally owned businesses, headed up by Rene Greff and I believe that Mark Hodesh of Downtown Home and Garden is a member. These kind of businesses need our patronage.

    Tear out Liberty Park Plaza and put in an apartment building? I think that’s a GREAT idea – we can add one more floor to Liberty Square (right across the street) to allow for parking. You are quite right about the park there. The land could be used for a much better purpose.
       —Leah    Apr. 13 '05 - 02:06PM    #
  6. Leah, is the Local Economy group a separate one from the Living Economies Network? Bob Dascola is the chair(?) of that group, and director(?) Lisa Dugdale also lurks around here occasionally, so we’ve already been well-infiltrated by the cold, heartless business community.

    (sorry, kids; I’m bad with titles)
       —Murph    Apr. 13 '05 - 02:14PM    #
  7. Under “DDA Three Site Plan Benefits” on their website:

    “Strengthens a struggling retail corridor along Ashley with the infusion of a significant amount of new retail space.”

    That was also one of the secondary goals listed.

    I just sent Susan Pollay a request for their thinking on that.

    Leah, could you address Julie’s concern about one-off retail? Was that considered in coming up with the goals for this plan? Maybe that’s what you meant to address with your comments about local businesses and lower rent.

    Also, if Liberty Plaza were built on, what would you envision as a gathering place for music, brown-bag lunching and such in that area?
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 13 '05 - 02:21PM    #
  8. Steve, as far as I know, the only reason there has ever been music at Liberty Plaza is to try to get people to actually use Liberty Plaza. There are not many people who brown-bag and gather there other than the homeless population (which is a deterrent to others, but it is their city too). When Pilar was there with tamales, there was a bit more lunch-time activity, but I think that cart has moved over to South U. Over the years there have been several attempts by several mayors and associations to get people down there (hence the bands), but for whatever reasons, people just don’t want to be there. The Main St. area doesn’t have many places to sit and hang out other than the planters (which I agree are nice), but once you get close to State St., the large grassy areas and little tucked away parks of the University are far nicer spaces than Liberty Plaza and all open to the public so people go there. The new benches on Liberty/Maynard are also used quite often.
       —Julie    Apr. 13 '05 - 03:49PM    #
  9. This event will be broadcast live on CTN, Comcast channel 18. A DVD will subsequently be made available for checkout at the Library. Please feel free to email me if you’d like to be notified when the DVD is on the shelf.
       —eli    Apr. 13 '05 - 04:30PM    #
  10. Yes, you are right Murph, I do sometimes lurk around here, and sometimes I even post! But I’d define us as the warm, community-oriented business community instead of your definition.

    Rene Greff is the Board President of the Living Economy Network, and Bob Dascola is the Board VP. I am the volunteer coordinator. We’re fairly new/small, and are currently focused on putting together a directory of locally-owned business members in Ann Arbor, which will also include information about why patronizing locally-owned businesses matters to our community (and our downtown). Some of the businesses mentioned will be in the directory, and we’ll be approaching others. We’ll be putting out 5,000 copies of it in August. Hope that clears up the confusion!
       —Lisa    Apr. 13 '05 - 05:00PM    #
  11. Ah, okay. So the warm, community-oriented business community is being infiltrated (at the very highest levels!) by the cold, heartless DDA. I gotta keep this all straight . . .

    (It is obvious that my comments on cold and heartless businessfolk are 100% facetious, right? I just want to make sure I’m clearly distinguishing myself from Cowherd’s mention of the Council being in the pockets of the development lobby…)
       —Murph    Apr. 13 '05 - 05:14PM    #
  12. Why isn’t Julie listed on the blogger information page?
       —SG    Apr. 13 '05 - 05:38PM    #
  13. Picky! Because the info page lags everything else by a lot. It’s on my list of things to change.
       —Murph    Apr. 13 '05 - 06:34PM    #
  14. Thank you for correcting me about the Living Economy – that is exatly what I mean – I did not realize that Bob Dascola was the Pres. – I tought it was Rene, but in any case, that is the group.

    Other news about retail – you will see from tonite’s “scab rag” that the “no sweat shop” American Apparel is coming to E. Liberty – no one but a national retailer can afford $35.00 a sq. ft. So, that is what I am thinking about – a “street away” means lower rents, and a parking structure at 1st/William means elevator and pedestrian access through the city owned vacant lot on Ashley – and these folks would rather use that than climb the hill, right? So, there they are right on Ashley St.

    Julie is right about Liberty Park Plaza – the Mayor eats lunch there in the summer months, but that’s about it. I don’t see brown baggers there…does anyone else? They used to have some programming, but that seems to have gone as well. It’s not a very friendly place. I like Sculpture Plaza on Fourth Ave. better – it’s more lively, even though there is not a blade of grass.
       —Leah    Apr. 14 '05 - 01:45AM    #
  15. Thanks, Leah. That all makes sense about the pieces around the goal for Ashley. Obviously, much thought was put into that by the DDA (not that I doubted that.)

    I like the Sculpture Plaza too. However, it did have trees (ashes cut down because of emerald ash borer, I believe), and it does still have plantings. It also has a sculpture and nice seating. It also has businesses close by that offer food to go (Cafe Verde and Kerrytown shops.) Grass isn’t necessary, but tree shade and greenery definitely help make spaces attractive.

    Will all places like Jerusalem Garden have to eek out their own outdoor space in central downtown or will there be a public space in a location that works? Sidewalk seating is nice, but that means you have to be able to afford paying for service. That niche has been filled sufficiently, I’d say.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 14 '05 - 02:14AM    #
  16. Leah, Rene is the pres of the LEN, I’m VP. This thread is really good. I’ve been away from the computer for a couple of days. I was wondering how the Monday night discussion group went? I haven’t read anything about it in the News.

    Started up a new group called Friends of West Park. We had a meeting today and looked the park over for possible improvements to the rain run off on the surface. Two branches of Allen Creek come together near the bottom of the park and flooding happens all the time from heavy rain. We thought of a retention pond some where in the park, much like the one that is going in at the new YMCA location. There was ground water run off on the south side and we haven’t had rain in a few weeks. Much water was flowing in the pipes. I could here it on both branches through the little holes in the man hole covers. I think that there is water being pumped out of the under ground well that is contaminated from Gilmans out on Wagner Road. The County drain commissioner told me that there is a mandate to clean up the water that flows into the Huron river, so that means many things will have to be done to help this project along. Any body want in on the action let me know. Some things have been done over there, but much more could be done with some good planning from you urban planners. Input will be good for the park. I see west park as a central park. It has many things going for it already. the Band shell just got fixed up last year I think and it looked good. My friend said that the City band plays concerts there all summer long. the band shell could be used for fund raising to help pay for some rain meadows plantings. Already talked to Mr. B about fund raising. Mark was very interested in helping and just loves to play the piano when ever he can. Any ideas please let me know.Thanks.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 14 '05 - 02:29AM    #
  17. Hmmm…Sam’s fills my American Apparel needs fairly well – though they’ve said there that they’re selling AA basically at cost, and I can’t imagine that it’s an effective loss leader, so maybe AA opening their own store won’t hurt them too much?

    Bob, Monday’s WPA event was . . . fiery. I met Leah and Steve (Julie was there too, but I’ve met her before), which was fun, and saw Doug Cowherd speak for the first time. Some disjointed thoughts:

    It definitely seems that the Friends/Sierras have an advantage in “message”; their greenway plan is roses and sweetness and light, while the 3-Site Plan is more technocratic and bogged down by real-world problems. When Cowherd and Alice Ralph finished talking, one audience member (sitting right next to me) asked, “That sounds wonderful; I can’t imagine why anybody would be against it?” Susan and Leah (and Rene) are hampered by the fact that the DDA is considering things like parking needs and paying for brownfield cleanup – realistic but totally unglamorous.

    I was impressed that the folks who spoke after the presentations (which didn’t include me or Steve or Julie) seemed to be basically evenly split in opinion (and all very passionate!); I would have expected a clear slant towards the Friends/Sierra vision.

    I’ve decided I very much dislike the “Why don’t we plan for the people who already live here?” tactic, as represented by Chris Crockett. Dear Chris Crockett: I already live here, too. Just because I am not a homeowner, and have only been living within the City for a mere six years, does not mean that my opinion is less valid than yours.

    Actually, it suddenly strikes me that, under Crockett’s implicit value judgement, I’m more of a citizen than she. Anybody know her address? I want to look up how much her house is worth. As a co-oper, I own $17 million worth of house, which is probably more than she owns.
       —Murph    Apr. 14 '05 - 04:03AM    #
  18. Chris Crockett is at 506 E. Kingsley.

    At the Monday night event, I felt attacked personally by Doug when he said that all DDA Board members are in bed with developers. As I attempted to answer, someone in the audience cut me off. Oh, well – I thought it was badly run because the moderator sat in the audience. Doug’s “sweetness and light” presentation was unrealistic – that river walk slide looked a lot like Paris (France). Not a bad city! :-)

    No one paid much attention to the visioning workshop about the parks connectivity, April 25, 11:30 – 1PM at WISD (e-mail if you want to go – free lunch!) but afterwards a Parks Advisory member got the info from me. That is about the river greenway and includes many jurisdictions – a presentation sponsored by the Washtenaw Metro Alliance. Y’all come!

    West Park – I think a “wet meadow” might work, with perhaps some drainage. Some school kids built one in Buhr Park. Take a look, Bob. If we improve West Park, maybe the residents would use it! Unfortunately, thanks to Doug Cowherd, the City lacks maintenance and improvement money because he petitioned to change the millage to acquisitions. We need to change it back, and take care of the parks we have, without harming the Greenbelt efforts.
       —Leah    Apr. 14 '05 - 11:15AM    #
  19. Have any of you talked to the team of MBA students that’s looking at the greenway? (er, the general concept, not any particular version.) They gave a short presentation in my real estate class last night; their plan involves selling $6m worth of city land (on 1st/William, 415 W. Wash, 921 N. Main) in order to get the money to buy greenway ROWs in other sections and to construct and maintain their greenway. They’re also planning to upzone everything along the greenway to put more “eyes on the street”, and expect to generate $3.6m annually in property taxes from new greenway oriented development. Presumably, being business students, they’re planning to do the upzoning at the same time as the greenway acquisitions.

    The part of their presentation I was least happy with is that it’s largely within the rail ROW, but they’re not removing the rails. (good on the second half of that, bad on the first.) They had an image which involved a high fence running along the tracks, with a paved path and about a foot of green on either side of it on the other side of the fence. I don’t think that’s going to pass muster on the parts of either Leopold or Cowherd, and if you run afoul of both of those views, you’re probably in trouble.
       —Murph    Apr. 14 '05 - 12:47PM    #
  20. Murph,

    Did anyone speak as to the destruction of local business?

    Julie, what did you think of the meeting?

    I am still working to get a date in May for the Charrette. It seems that everyone wants to have it that month, so I’ve had to send out a new barrage of emails, shifting things away from this month.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 14 '05 - 01:46PM    #
  21. Todd, the DDA talked it, but the Friends/Sierra position sticks to their guns that the greenway will be enough of a draw, both to people within Ann Arbor and people from the surrounding area, that it will help local business more.

    I just don’t buy the “destination” greenway vision. Growing up outside of Chelsea, I came to A2 for entertainment and shopping. If I wanted green space, I walked out my backdoor and went traipsing through the soybean fields to the woods. (And now, if I want greenspace, I go to Bandemer or Cedar Bend or Island – the parks close to me. I don’t go to Burns or West Parks, and I probably wouldn’t go to the new parks from here.)
       —Murph    Apr. 14 '05 - 02:50PM    #
  22. Re: West Park

    I wish they’d make it easier to have live music in the band shell. Word of mouth is that it’s really, really hard to do live music in the park and get permits for large gatherings. IMO, it’d be a perfect location for spring and summer late-afternoon gatherings & festivals … but the neighbors don’t like the noise. :(
       —Scott    Apr. 14 '05 - 03:10PM    #
  23. Leah, Thanks for filling me in on the event the other night. It really doesn’t surprise me about the attacks on the personal level from Mr. Cowherd. He does have an undergraduate degree on psychology from Sonoma State University and a masters degree in organizational psychology from the U, so getting people to do things he wants done is very easy for him. It’s to bad that the people in the audience were so rude, but that reflects the low level of maturity.

    I did look up the Buhr park kids project. This is where I got the idea of the wet meadows. Projects like this with volunteers give the person a sense of ownership of the park and that was what I was thinking for West Park. We saw many empty booze bottles off on the side where the ground was very wet and it needs some major clean up. My idea of adopt a park sure would go a long way here. The West Park Neighborhood Association isn’t doing any thing for awhile, but if that could be brought back it would help the park. About the money for the green belt and buying land, it had to come from somewhere. I am not a fan of sprawl and I also like green spaces. This city has 147 parks not counting the U stuff(Arb, Diag,etc), and the grass cutting will be spaced out because of the budget cuts. If the neighborhood associations can get into this helping the city out it would be a big help. I did mention this in my last letter to the editor published last week. The Allen Creek bug has bitten me big time. Next week, Joe O’Neil will be speaking at the Rotory Club Meeting. I will be there to hear him first hand which I’m looking forward too. More later.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 14 '05 - 05:05PM    #
  24. Todd, what do you mean about destruction of local businesses? The actual demolition part of the long-term greenway vision or the theoretical part of not having a parking structure?

    I thought the meeting on Monday was interesting. I liked hearing the well-thought out and passionate comments from the attendees. There were one or two rude people, but on the whole that was not in any way the general tenor of the meeting. I thought that Cowherd and the DDA basically brought out their standard spiels which were strongly tailored to each “side” (of course) and promoted doom and gloom to anyone who thinks otherwise. It did look like it might be a Gunn vs. Cowherd battle for a moment, with Leah snatching the microphone away from a citizen who was about to ask a question in order to refute one of Cowherd’s obviously biased remarks. The situation was diffused by the aforementioned “rude” comment (which was said in a too-snotty tone, but the point was a good one—it was not, after all, a debate).

    Rene Greff did not attend so Susan Pollay had to read from Rene’s slides and Margaret Wong was not there so Alice Ralph did the presentation for the Friends. I thought both did a good job with a difficult situation. The Friends had better slogans: “inspiration, not desperation” and my favorite “a community can build a parking structure, but a parking structure can not build a community.”

    The DDA had prepared a lot of documentation which was STRONGLY biased in their favor, including a check sheet that had Joe O’Neill commenting that he had obviously flunked a test that he didn’t know he had taken and that “if he had written it, he would have passed with flying colors too.” It seems quite apparent that although the DDA is asking for comments and input, there isn’t any system to have this input reflected in any plan. Leah, I will unfairly put you on the spot—are there really any plans to make changes based on citizen input? It seems as if this three-site plan is a done deal from the DDA perspective. Maybe this whole thing just got too ugly too fast for either “side” to compromise, which is unfortunate for all of us.
       —Julie    Apr. 14 '05 - 06:14PM    #
  25. “Todd, what do you mean about destruction of local businesses? The actual demolition part of the long-term greenway vision or the theoretical part of not having a parking structure?”

    OK, my fault, that was out of nowhere. What I meant was: did anyone speak as to the context that we are in? Rents through the roof, local businesses are leaving as fast as they can, etc. etc.

    I was just restating my broken record of “the city is in poor fiscal health, local business can’t afford to do business here, and a select few are asking us to spend more money on parks in an area that would clearly help to alleviate the above problems.”

    If any citizens starts with the notion that Ann Arbor is in perfect shape as it is, then each and every one of my arguments are completely pointless. I keep reading about people who don’t seem to think that there is anything amiss in Tree Town.

    To them, I have no answers…...
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 14 '05 - 06:28PM    #
  26. Julie, if Leah had said, “The Friends’ plan will cost eight billion dollars and require the ritual sacrifice of one child per mile of greenway,” presumably nobody would have minded Alice or Doug saying, “Um, those numbers are totally false.” Granted, I’m exaggerating the degree to which Cowherd was giving false information, and I don’t remember what exactly he said, but I was pretty certain he was making numbers up even before Leah objected.

    I think there’s a big difference between “a debate” and “getting facts straight”. So far, the DDA has struck me as much better with facts.
       —Murph    Apr. 14 '05 - 07:49PM    #
  27. Todd, I think people are pretty aware of what is going on in town. How to fix it is not so clear, but open discussions with input and changes made based on that input would help. Interestingly enough, in both the budget meeting last week and the Greenway/DDA meeting this week, different people brought up the idea (supported by others in the audience) of millages and tax increases to support various local initiatives if the city can’t do it on the current budget.

    I am less optimistic than you are about the DDA plan. I think it is forcing something that probably won’t work, while ignoring the very real problems and opportunities that exist in other parts of the downtown. Before we add a lot more retail and housing to the Ashley area, what about South U, what about E. Liberty? I see that City offices would like to stay where they are and build a new building (removing Tios while they are at it) rather than move into Tally Hall (because they don’t want to remove Tally Hall from the tax rolls-ha!). I would rather see City Hall move to Tally Hall, which has proven to be basically unrentable and see the City Hall site sold to a developer to put in lots of housing and keep the local businesses like Tios that are doing well (and doing good for the community while they are at it). Same goes for Ashley St.—existing small businesses are doing well, why are we forcing new development (New retail! New housing! New Parking! Higher rents!) there when it could be done in other places to better effect?
       —Julie    Apr. 14 '05 - 08:14PM    #
  28. Murph, I agree that Cowherd was blowing smoke, but the DDA reaction was exactly what he was hoping for. A simple “um, that statement is totally false” with a little chuckle and shoulder shrug at the audience would have sufficed.

    As for facts and impressions, both sides play a little fast and loose. A lot of that “factual” documentation from the DDA bothered me because it was so unnecessarily biased. And you did notice Susan Pollay’s emphasis on the lovely Liberty Plaza urban park …
       —Julie    Apr. 14 '05 - 08:35PM    #
  29. So was Cowerd blowing smoke or lying? There’s a big difference in my book.
       —Kurt    Apr. 14 '05 - 09:01PM    #
  30. Kurt, honestly I wasn’t paying enough attention to his details to be able to say for sure if he was lying, showing the project in the best light, personally attacking, etc. Murph? Steve?
       —Julie    Apr. 14 '05 - 09:16PM    #
  31. “Same goes for Ashley St.—existing small businesses are doing well, why are we forcing new development (New retail! New housing! New Parking! Higher rents!) there when it could be done in other places to better effect?”

    Could you expand on those thoughts, Julie, taking into account the need to replace the First and Washington parking structure? That’s the one necessity driving this (which council asked the DDA to respond to.) The rest of the three-site plan is an attempt to take advantage of opportunities (i.e., city-owned properties) where they exist to the benefit of that area of downtown.

    How would it be “forcing new development” there, but not if it were on E. Liberty?

    Leah has indicated that one of the goals of the new retail on Ashley would be low rents, if I understood correctly. Why do you think they will be higher?
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 14 '05 - 09:41PM    #
  32. Steve, E. Liberty already has retail buildings that are sitting empty, as does South U. So somehow working to encourage retail in those areas rather than creating whole new areas of retail seems better to me. Why are the rents on Liberty so high (if, as you would expect, the empty spaces would cause rents to fall?). Is there something that can be done to “encourage” those owners to lower rates if a building sits empty for more than say, six months? Does the city have any ability to promote local businesses over chains? If the city thinks there is a need to encourage new one-off areas of downtown, why not enhance William or Washington between Main and State so there is a better bridge between the various existing areas of downtown. There is currently retail on both, but it only extends a few blocks.

    As for having lower rents for retail on Ashley, the city will be selling that property and will not be able to control the rents, exactly what is happening on Liberty. If a large building with “market price condos” goes in across from those houses and small retail shops on Ashley and a parking structure right behind them, how long do you think the hair salon, tattoo parlor, Red Shoes, even the Fleet, will really last? I think the new “retail” on Ashley will be just like the newer buildings on the same block of South Main—eventually mostly ground-floor offices, maybe an up-scale local or chain retailer (Renaissance), low-end franchise or chain restaurant (WG Grinders), or empty (WG Grinders).

    I can see doing a couple things with First and Washington: replace the existing parking structure with a structure with more spaces or rebuild with the same number of spaces and some mixed rate residential above (perhaps with affordable housing subsidized by a city-wide millage, although I don’t think it has been shown that subsidizing affordable housing downtown is a good strategy in the long run) or actually build the long-anticipated Kline’s lot structure and use the First and Washington site entirely for housing. Let the Friends and the Sierra club use the First and William site as a park, but have them raise the $1 million for the contaminated site cleanup and Allen’s creek drain renovation. Until that happens and the new structure on one of the other sites is built, use that lot for surface parking and make money. Oh, and sell Liberty Plaza for housing and retail.

    You asked. :)
       —Julie    Apr. 14 '05 - 10:39PM    #
  33. Julie, there are a variety of reasons rents are high, and some of it is due to who owns the property. (Some property owners are interested solely in maximizing their rental income, and are willing to let their property sit empty for a while to do so over the long-term.) Off-hand I certainly couldn’t say if that’s the case on Liberty, though it would be possible to figure that out. Regardless, there is a lot that can be done via public policy to strengthen locally-owned business, but much of it would involve telling property owners what they can or can’t do with their land. This could be seen as either protecting the character and economic viability of the community, OR ‘favoring’ one type of business over another, depending on your view.

    A couple of things other communities have done are to limit or ban ‘Formula Businesses’ in a particular area (aka chains – see for more information), and to enact a rule that stores in a main commercial district must serve town persons’. I’m not making the last one up –

    If we really want to explore this idea, it would be great to talk further with Stacey from the New Rules project plus a couple of other experts locally and nationally to brainstorm additional ideas. There are many other things that could be done, just limited by political audacity, knowledge, and innovation.
       —Lisa    Apr. 15 '05 - 02:10AM    #
  34. Julie, I have some info I’d like to share with you about the lower rents from 3 site plan. One idea that I heard about from the DDA was that they would sell the ground floor spaces to small businesses at an affordable rate kind of like a condo, but for use as a business. Then in turn the business would be able to afford to stay in the area and control there own rent because they owns it. I think there was also mention of limiting the resale of the same units to an affordable level for another business to come in. It would be kind of like when Ashley Mews went up, they had to offer some percentage of the units to affordable housing and keep them that way even when the low to middle income person was to sell the unit. The way they can do this, is that the other condos would cost more to make up for the lower units. Does this make sense to you? The other thing I’d ask you is, do you have any idea of how much it cost to build any thing in the downtown? If you know the answer, then you can see why it’s very hard to have any thing that is affordable. The only place to lower the cost of building in the downtown is sell the land at a lower level, which in turn brings down the price of each unit, and the end results is affordable housing.Also, it put the city owned property back on the tax role.
    We all know that the city needs more income for the budget and this is one way of doing this. They could raise the parking ticket fines very high to cover the budget, but we know that the businesses suffer because of that. It’s like a dog chasing it’s tail and never catching it. The more money that comes it, the more money that gets spent. The only group that can spend more then they take in is the federal government, the state and local governments can’t do the deficit thing. I also heard that we have about 79 cities that are on the edge of being bankrupt. Roger Frazer did some things about 2 years ago that has kept Ann Arbor away from that problem. Were very lucky to be in as good of shape as we are. Does any of what I said help Julie?
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 15 '05 - 02:41AM    #
  35. Bob, I also heard the part about retail condos (as I understand, “condo” is a generic type of ownership structure, and not specifically a housing thing), but there’s the problem that new construction is still really expensive – even if the business is buying and not at the mercy of a landlord, it’s not a cheap rent by any means. Underpricing the land sale is one way of making it more affordable (land cost is typically ~10% of development cost), as is allowing greater density/height, as is requiring less parking.

    I do like the idea of moving the City to Tally Hall (building up for more space), and developing the current City Hall site. It’s so suburban – set right in the middle of the block with parking around it – that it annoys me every time I walk past.
       —Murph    Apr. 15 '05 - 04:54AM    #
  36. Thanks, Julie. Your comments opened a door to a new perspective for me.

    I have no idea how many alternatives the DDA discussed or even just listed as possibilities early on. I’ve only heard about the “DDA Three-Site Plan”. That it has a name is in itself is cause for concern that the process is not truly open to public comment to the extent that anything beyond minor details are up for consideration. Once a “plan” is in place, the tendency is to look for ways to make it work – and defend it when it’s challenged – especially when your name is on it.

    With that in mind, the forum the other night was a mistake. Contrary to the claims of both the DDA and the Friends, the forum could almost not possibly be about anything other than parking vs. parks. It was set up that way. How could the audience detach from that sufficiently to consider the components of the DDA plan in a broader context. I know that I was having trouble (and I was trying very hard to be objective – I doubt that most people there were.)

    With three sites, there are three basic one-site scenarios, three basic two-site scenarios, and one basic three-site scenario. Throw in the major elements of parking, (affordable) workforce housing, market-rate housing, and new retail, and the possibilities multiply substantially (in spite of the limitation of no housing in the floodway.)

    So I’m trying to step back from the plan and think about this on my own (with the help of your provocative comments.) And right now I’m thinking just about the Kline’s lot and its best use. I’ll come back to the major elements (parking, housing, etc.) later.

    To start, I think about William St. From Division west, I’d say it belongs to the Main St. area. Raja Rani on the south side probably actually belongs either to Liberty or maybe even Maynard. In any case, moving west from there William is residential on the south up to the funeral home and the Beer Depot (with private parking.) Then comes the DTE lot, the gas station, and Anderson’s paint store (with private parking. Then it’s back to residential with the Avalon house, briefly interrupted by the tracks and the fenced-in, unpaved, parking/storage yard.

    On the north side, it’s similarly lacking in retail spaces. In other words, it’s the dead edge of the Main St. retail area.

    Does it make sense to put a retail building on the Kline’s lot when the south side (assuming the idea is to put a storefront(s) there) is hanging out in ‘space’? I wonder. (If it happens, at least put on-street parking there on William. Heck, put it there anyway – it’s like Catherine with a superfluous lane.)

    This is getting long, so I’ll stop here and let you all chew on this. I’ll share more thoughts about the type of retail – current and anticipated – on Ashley later.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 15 '05 - 12:53PM    #
  37. “Todd, I think people are pretty aware of what is going on in town. How to fix it is not so clear, but open discussions with input and changes made based on that input would help. Interestingly enough, in both the budget meeting last week and the Greenway/DDA meeting this week, different people brought up the idea (supported by others in the audience) of millages and tax increases to support various local initiatives if the city can’t do it on the current budget. ”

    If these people are honestly aware of what has happened to local businesses in this town, then why on earth would they want to raise millages and taxes even more?

    IMHO it is too late for local business in downtown Ann Arbor. We had our chance to help, but that boat left the docks a decade ago. We will continue to disappear, and even those local businesspersons who are fortunate enough to own their buildings will be confronted with regional developers who want to turn their storefronts into mixed use condos.

    IMHO, we’d be better served as a city if we braced for the financial impact of the mega-mall that will be coming as it will bring the Cheesecake Factoriies and the P.F. Chang’s of the world….and you can rest assured that these sprawling complexes will have plenty of parking. Main St. restaurants and stores will really be screwed when those people from Midland and Canton choose to go to the Mega-Mall for their night on the town instead of Ann Arbor.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 15 '05 - 01:42PM    #
  38. Just as a note about vacancies: I’ve worked at my current job for about five years. We own the top half of the building we’re in, so don’t pay rent per se. We’re on Huron, between 4th and 5th. The guy who owns the ground floor has had it vacant for the entire five years that I’ve been there. He’s had a couple of nibbles from people like U of M, but he refuses to ask for anything less than $45 per square foot (though I can’t remember how many square feet he has down there). He seems to have absolutely no problem leaving it open until the end of time. It would be lovely to have a restaurant or a bar or a retail store there, but it’s just not going to happen as long as his rents are at that level, and I don’t think that the city could do anything to change his mind. (And frankly, it’s better for us if he doesn’t rent it, because we use it as free storage space). He has what should be a prime spot on Huron, if that corridor ever gets developed, but knowing that, he’s waiting for a prime rent that may never come.
       —js    Apr. 15 '05 - 02:29PM    #
  39. Todd, interesting that you bring up mega-malls. My real estate class (which I find myself invoking an awful lot lately?) had a guest speaker this week who works for Taubman Co. He said something like, “I’ve been asked to find places to put five ‘lifestyle centers’ around Ann Arbor – the fifth request just came in today. The malls want to build here.” He seemed to imply it wasn’t going to happen, but, in case you didn’t already feel like you had an axe over your head. . .
       —Murph    Apr. 15 '05 - 03:11PM    #
  40. OH, IRONY!

    Doing some digging through old Council minutes: the resolution in July 2003 that authorized the DDA to work on the 3-Site Plan was moved by Easthope and seconded by Woods. Not that I hold changing of positions to be a mortal sin, but Easthope sure spent a lot of time at the Council meeting last month talking about just how long he had supported the Friends-style greenway for somebody who, 18 months earlier, had moved the resolution to authorize this.

    City Council Minutes, 7 July 2003 , scroll down to page 50.

    Note that the orginal version included purchasing air rights from the railroad to run the upper levels of the parking structure above the tracks. Yum, cantilever. . .
       —Murph    Apr. 15 '05 - 03:19PM    #
  41. Todd. Last year an urban planner named Bob Gibbs from Birmingham Michigan spoke at the Mayor Downtown Marketing Taskforce meeting. He told of a group that was planning to put a life style center in some where in this area in the next 24 months or so. He didn’t say where, but we figured out that 14 and Gotfredson Rd. was the area that was being looked at. This life style center is like going into an area and building a downtown. A Main street, side streets, on street parking, condo’s above the retail stores, affordable housing for the workers and all the bells and whistles. When someone does a town like this, they control how it’s laid out, how much rent, the business mix and all that. Like the Mega malls, they plan what retail goes in to support the people that live there. They even have schools for the families.

    Ann Arbor is our life style center, the difference being that there are many people controlling the business mix, what gets built, who lives where, high taxes,ect. Central planning is very important for unity. We don’t have that at all. Groups of people are working on getting central planning like Van Couver BC, but it will take much to long to put that in place to save what is left of the old time businesses. If your going to the Michigan Theater tonight at 5 for the cool cities thing we’ll see you there. Several of the poster to this web site will be getting together afterward to food, drink and talk. Hope you can make it.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 15 '05 - 03:37PM    #
  42. I don’t feel like I have an axe over my head.

    We have changed our entire business model because Scott and I know full well what is coming. We are moving into sending our spirits out-of-state much sooner than we had originally planned. Our business is in very good health, thankfully.

    The writing is on the wall, and every local businessperson/developer I know (I’m talking to more and more of them these days) sees the exact same thing that I do. We are preparing for a Mega Mall, and the other people in and around Main Street would be wise to do the same. It happened in Boulder, and it will happen here. Of course the irony is that the locals said the same thing about Boulder…that the reason that prices/rent goes up is because “Boulder is such a desirable place to live”. They had no clue that the real problem was that you couldn’t build anything in the downtown area. Now their entire local economy is in shambles. Broomfield was happy to get the money that should have gone to dowtown Boulder’s coffers….

    Actually, all the new wealth that has come into town has helped our per customer average purchase. But that’s no way to make money. It reminds me of the local who said that I must be happy that the Del Rio is closed since he saw many of the Del regulars at our place. That’s no way to make more money. Thanks but no thanks…I’d rather have the Del around, and I’d rather have the working class enjoying our $2 pints (nite special) after a shift up the road.

    All that the REITS need is a couple of those 2,500 home tracts to get approved in Saline or Dexter, and it’s game on as far as demographics are concerned, and you’ll hear rumblings about a planned Regional Mall soon after…
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 15 '05 - 03:56PM    #
  43. “Central planning is very important for unity. We don’t have that at all.”

    You are 100% correct. I have been griping about this on AAIO for a few years now.

    This is the single biggest reason that things are where they are in Ann Arbor. The second biggest reason is that we allow citizens get involved on individual projects. What we get as a result of these two problems is stalemate.

    It really bums me out to see Ann Arbor make the same exact mistakes that Boulder did…I don’t see this changing, but maybe I am just in a foul mood today.

    No, that’s not it. It’s a beautiful day, and I’m sampling the hefeweizen that JS loves so much. :)
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 15 '05 - 04:00PM    #
  44. Bob, funny you should mention Bob Gibbs; he’s the one who spoke to my class about there being interest in building 5 lifestyle centers in the A2 area. Note, also, that a lifestyle center has an important distinction from a real downtown, in that it’s not at all in the public realm. It’s closer to a Briarwood with no roof than a Main St: owned by one entity, which has total control over things like, say, political speech on the “streets” of the lifestyle center.

    I’m probably not going to make the Cool Cities event. Bob, do you have a venue in mind for the post-CC schmooze?
       —Murph    Apr. 15 '05 - 04:03PM    #
  45. Murph, I don’t know where the group will end up, but if you give me your cell phone number in e-mail I’ll call you and let you know.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 15 '05 - 05:32PM    #
  46. Bob, I’m going to try and make it out.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 15 '05 - 05:47PM    #
  47. Hi all –

    Per a conversation with Bob, we decided to put a location up here for people who are joining us after the event.

    So… if that’s you, we’ll be meeting at Arbor Brewing so Todd can take a rest from sampling his own hefeweizen, and the rest of us can walk there after the event.
       —Lisa    Apr. 15 '05 - 06:15PM    #
  48. Just to chime in on js’s point, my employer owns a few prime retail spots on State and William. At least two of them have sat empty for some time, but he did reach a limit on one.

    The reason most of the building owners are able to leave those spaces open, waiting for that ‘ideal rent’, is based on simple operating loss/tax deduction numbers. Most of them are more reluctant to make SOME money up front and potentially slow the increase in rents (or miss out on that mythical golden opportunity right around the corner) because they can always ‘make’ money by paying less in taxes on whatever LLC or partnership happens to own the property in question.

    Now, we did lease a basement space on State for a pretty low price, but that was only after it had sat empty for 3 years and there had been no inquiries on it. That one is basically a throw-in, anyway, being that it sits under Espresso Royale, which is the real moneymaker for that property.

    I can’t see any way that most landlords would be convinced to lower their commercial rates, barring some kind of significant real estate implosion. Most of them are gritting their teeth and lowering residential rates solely on the belief that the ‘rebound’ is, once again, right around the corner…

    BTW, I ran into Chris Easthope today and wanted to ask him about these matters but he was on crutches and so was I, so it wasn’t exactly opportune.
       —Marc R.    Apr. 15 '05 - 06:40PM    #
  49. I find the speculation over an Ann Arbor-area regional mall interesting. As to power centers, isn’t one of those pending outside of Brighton? I know the News has reported on something called (I think) the Shoppes at Green Oak Place, at Lee Road and US-23. Supposed to be 600,000 square feet or so; would the anticipated Ann Arbor mall be larger yet?
       —Jeff    Apr. 15 '05 - 07:42PM    #
  50. I got a call from Bob to say that Leopold’s was the place after all, as ABC is packed. I’ll be heading down there once our group project can be turned in, which may or may not be any time soon.
       —Murph    Apr. 15 '05 - 11:54PM    #
  51. In case any of you missed this article on “lifestyle centers”...

    We need to retire that moniker ASAP. They are auto-dependant outdoor shopping malls selling faux New Urbanism to the city-life-starved suburban masses, and that’s it. They are almost worse than traditional malls, in that there’s something dishonest about them, claiming to be “main streets” or “towns”... off freeways with acres and acres of free surface parking.
       —Brandon    Apr. 16 '05 - 12:12AM    #
  52. Brandon, It would be nice to see the life style centers go away, but this is the coming thing. With the stock market doing poorly, real estate flipping is the way people are making big bucks, so it’s easy to get a group of investors interested in these Life Style centers. The wave of the future as I heard it said. Ann Arbor needs to tighten up the split community so we can all work together to make a better Ann Arbor. We already have our life style center, it just needs more people living in it.

    I talked with Julie and her husband tonight. The subject was about the greenway and neighborhoods. Thought it would be good to make the neighborhoods better around the downtown, which in turn would help the downtown. They are right in there thinking. Julie said they do most of there shopping downtown. It’s do-able, but from what I heard, it could be better. One thing they had trouble buying is mens underwear.

    Bob Gibbs(urban planner) said that Ann Arbor would do ok, but it could do much better. He said that the downtown had to many restaurants and not enough good retail mix. I was in Van Couver last fall at the International downtown association conference, we learned that Van Couver hired urban planners to do the different downtown area’s. The planner was in charge and what he said the city did. In the 2 sq. miles of downtown there are 80,000 people living and another 40,000 are planned over the next few years. Ann Arbor is 1 sq. mile and has about 3400 people living in the downtown. The different properties had mix use, set back high rise’s, green space, parking garages under ground where you don’t see them and more tree’s, planters and a warm mix of reflective building to make the place look light and airy. My hotel room was on the 34th floor and the building right next to the hotel was condo’s. I could see the penthouse and it had gardens, trees and all that kind of stuff. I watched one day while the people were watering everything. If I didn’t see the height I would of thought that those people were on the ground like our neighborhoods.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 16 '05 - 02:52AM    #
  53. I am sorry I missed all of you last night….the launch of our spirits is approaching, and the paperwork and meeting times have been growing. I spent the evening at Kinko’s.

    I have a question for Leah: what would happen to downtown Ann Arbor if a Regional Mall showed up somewhere in Washtenaw County? You seem to be in a good position to answer that.

    For Bob and Julie, how would having “nicer” neighborhoods around the downtown area help downtown itself?
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 16 '05 - 04:01PM    #
  54. Vancouver is a model of residential density, but it should be noted that business is fleeing from the city. According to our guide (journalist/architectural critic) at the conference that brought me there last week, developers make 5x the money on residential developments that they do on business developments. Thus, there had not been a SINGLE new business development in Vancouver in about 4 years and people did the reverse commute thing, where more people left the downtown in the morning for work than came in.

    It was incredible foresight to empower the planners as they did (a planner was elected mayor in the early 70s and started the process, natch), but they could use an economic development coalition (a DDA?) to complement their physical planners.
       —Dale    Apr. 16 '05 - 04:07PM    #
  55. Dale, DDA’s are usually somewhat different from economic development groups. DDA’s are more (infra)structural, usually, while groups like (in Ann Arbor) the Chamber of Commerce, Living Economies Network, Washtenaw Economic Development Council, etc. do other stuff.

    Considering some of the things that planners have been responsible for in the past, also, I think it’s reasonable to have some strong checks on them. Says the planner.

    Marc, what kind of lease lengths do people usually sign around here? Would it not make sense to sign few-year leases at low rates to kickstart things, then cash in with higher rents when things have picked up? (I’m speaking in terms of what would be rational for landlords, rather than what I’d like to see – the result I would expect of this behavior is a cycle wherein good stuff comes in during the low rent period, pushing up activity and value, landlords cash in with Starbucks, et al, when things have picked up, and then things decline again until Starbucks leaves, and we start over . . .)
       —Murph    Apr. 16 '05 - 04:25PM    #
  56. Murph,

    I can try and help to answer your question of Marc,

    We started out with a 5 year lease, and we renewed after the 2nd year. Unless something foolish happened, our landlords paid off our building in full after 4 years. The building is assessed at well under $1 million, and if I had to guess, the starting point in negotiating the purchase of our building would start at ~$2.5 million.

    Holding a building makes tons of sense. You are paying lower taxes since they never really reassess a building, and getting a tenant to sign a two year lease would be really hard….unless the tenant only needs to space of two years, or unless the tenant is a complete moron. If you don’t need the cash, waiting for the perfect tenant makes sense.

    This is why the ancecdotal stories about how “I’ve seen so many vacancies downtown” don’t tell the whole story. This doesn’t happen because there is more supply than demand….quite the contrary…this happens because experienced building and land owners in the downtown area know full well that there is such an imbalance between supply and demand that they’d be foolish to not simply wait for the right tenant. They know that it takes years to get a project of significant size approved downtown, so they know that they don’t have to deal with real market forces: i.e. competition.

    It really is a bad situation, and I can tell you that I personally know of 7 people who own buildings or land in Ann Arbor, and they are just sitting and waiting.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 16 '05 - 05:01PM    #
  57. Todd- Heh. About your beer… The last time my pals and I went in (where I finally met Murph in person), my porter was fine (if a little boring). A brewer pal got the Imperial, and immediately could tell that something was wrong. It was totally soured, and had a high funk to it. He said that that’s what happens when you get a contaminated batch.
    I tried to get ahold of Scott, but he excused himself from talking to Brandon as soon as we walked up (I can’t begrudge a man a piss).
    Don’t get me wrong, I still like the beer there. Just thought you should know…
       —js    Apr. 19 '05 - 02:57PM    #
  58. Thanks JS,

    It was a bad keg. It was pulled the next morning, and I had to chastise my staff for not letting me know about the return. Vinegary finish. Not good.

    The following keg is perfect.

    Thanks for the help.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 19 '05 - 03:37PM    #
  59. Todd – what would happen if a regional mall showed up near Ann Arbor? Well, in the 70’s, one did – called Briarwood. What it did was basically take out downtown. The “anchor” stores, such as Sears and Penney’s went to the mall, Montgomery Ward’s at Arborland went out of business. Many local stores, such as Kresgee’s (where Mongolian Bar B Q is) and Faber’s Fabrics simply shut their doors. The DDA was founded in 1982, to try and revitalize downtown. Our downtown is now an upscale “niche”, and our anchor store is a bookstore (Borders) – it’s unusual. What keeps us going at all are three things: the U of M, out of town visitors, and people like all of us who love the downtown experience. Getting more people to live downtown would be a great help. But, we are a “high end” retail, restaurant,gallery, and entertainment downtown – not one for shopping except for specialty items and things geared to the college population. That is why you won’t find any men’s underwear since the three dept. stores (Jacobson’s, Kline’s and Goodyear’s) left. Because the nature of business in Ann Arbor’s downtown has changed, I think it will survive a “life-style center”. They are SO artificial, and Ann Arbor is real.
       —Leah    Apr. 19 '05 - 04:21PM    #
  60. Leah- I thought that Mongolian Barbeque was on the site of Kiddie Land, an old toy store. It was there for years when I was a kid (until they went under, and I was able to buy all the He-Man toys I wanted).
       —js    Apr. 20 '05 - 01:06AM    #
  61. Well, I’ll be back down there soon enough to have some more. You guys doin’ a Maiboch this year? (I think it’s too late in the season for me to properly appreciate an Imperial. But I’ll be picking up the pils again…)
       —js    Apr. 20 '05 - 01:08AM    #
  62. Kresges all moved out to the suburbs and became Kmart in 1977, so while it was surely a Kresge (as the sign above the door at the building’s west end attests), it may also have been a Kiddie Land during the time you remember, js.
       —Dale    Apr. 20 '05 - 11:36AM    #
  63. js – you may be right – but I remember that there was also a Kresgee’s on Main St. He-man toys? Hmmmm – how sexist! :-)
       —Leah    Apr. 20 '05 - 11:36AM    #