It was a telling moment. A group of graduate students from the University of Michigan had just finished making presentations to members of the Ann Arbor District Library board. They were part of a class on urban design taught by local developer Peter Allen.
Some of their class projects had focused on development of the Library Lot, and two teams were on hand to show their work to the board.
When they were done, Allen talked about why the student perspective was important – for the worldview they brought, and the insight they could give on how to make downtown Ann Arbor attractive for the 25 to 35-year-old professional.
The moment came when Prue Rosenthal, the board’s treasurer, asked this question: “How many of you plan to stay here?”
Silence – then some awkward laughter. None of the six students, it turns out, intend to stick around Ann Arbor after graduation.
That alone isn’t a big deal – it’s a small sample, after all. But it was striking when combined with the vision these students had for downtown development – a vision very different from what’s typically proposed for Ann Arbor, or from what actually gets built. But it’s a vision that, if realized, might compel these young professionals to make a life here.
I was able to watch the students’ presentations, both at the Dec. 17 meeting at the library as well as earlier that week, when six projects were showcased during a three-hour class meeting on Monday, Dec. 14. Their task had been to pick one of three sites in Ann Arbor, and develop a proposal that would help create a lively, liveable, transit-oriented town.
Some common themes emerged from their work, providing a lens through which to view the city’s current efforts to develop the Library Lot. More broadly, their projects raised questions about what might be possible in downtown Ann Arbor – and highlighted challenges that developers would certainly face to get there.
Student Visions for Ann Arbor
Since 1981 Peter Allen has been teaching this interdisciplinary course, or classes similar to it, as an adjunct faculty member at the UM Ross School of Business and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. One of the main components is an exercise in developing a specific site in Ann Arbor – Allen selects places that in theory could be developed, and asks students to do the research and come up with proposals that are as close as possible to what a real developer might make.
This term, three sites were selected: 1) the Library Lot, atop a city-owned underground parking structure being built next to the downtown library, between Fifth and Division; 2) a city-owned lot on Fuller Road, where a joint city/UM transit station and parking structure are being developed; and 3) riverfront property owned by DTE Energy – known as the MichCon site – and the adjacent Amtrak station, near the Broadway Bridge.
At the Dec. 14 class, six teams gave presentations – two for each site. Elements of each project varied, depending on the location. The MichCon site, for example, includes heavily contaminated areas that any developer would need to remediate. And the Fuller Road site had to be designed to include a multi-modal transit hub, on the assumption that a high-speed rail line would be part of that location.
That said, there were many common threads among the six projects. All put a premium on density, and on a mix of different uses – hotels, restaurants and cafés, retail shops, groceries, offices, apartments or condos.
Most mentioned that retail and restaurant tenants needed to encompass both national chains as well as locally-owned businesses. Some students even cited specific stores they thought would appeal to young professionals, like Express, Brooks Brothers and Zara. (I was a bit surprised to hear that Brooks Brothers appealed to young professionals, but I’m willing to believe.) “Basically, we want to steal business from Briarwood Mall,” said Peter Sotherland, a masters student in urban planning.
Other similarities: All of the proposals included tall buildings, some designed to the maximum height allowed by the A2D2 zoning changes – one as tall as 17 stories. Most proposed public space, either park-like settings or plazas, and some incorporated areas envisioned for outdoor performances or public art.
The developments were, without exception, designed to be accessible for pedestrians and cyclists, with the assumption that residents and visitors would have access to public transportation, or be within easy reach of whatever services they required, from grocery stores to health clubs.
Students also followed a similar process in developing their proposals, regardless of location. They were asked to identify stakeholders that would be affected by their projects, and their reports included an analysis of those different perspectives. For the Library Lot site, for example, teams met with Ann Arbor District Library director Josie Parker to find out what features of their developments would be seen as assets or detriments for the library.
That library-as-stakeholder approach taken by Allen’s students contrasts rather sharply with the approach now being taking by city officials – and theirs is not just an academic exercise. They’re currently evaluating actual proposals from actual developers for the Library Lot in response to an RFP (request for proposals) for that space. But the library is not represented on the RFP review committee, and the committee did not solicit the library’s feedback – though library leaders are providing feedback anyway. [Chronicle coverage: "Two Library Lot Proposals Eliminated" and "Library Lot: What Should Go on Top?"]
Library Lot: Thinking Big
The students’ Library Lot proposals reflected another approach differing from the one that the city is taking: The projects took into account a much wider scope than just the development on top of the underground parking structure.
The issue of master planning – or rather, the lack of it – came up during a Dec. 21 library board meeting, when board members discussed what they’d like to see in a development next door, and the implications a development would have on the library’s future. From a Chronicle report of that meeting:
Margaret Leary said she liked the idea of a hotel and conference center. She then spoke more generally about the kinds of things that would affect the downtown library. It’s crucial for the library to know what’s going on top of the underground parking site, she said, because it will affect how the library designs its own building, when that project is ready to move forward again.
And it’s not just the underground parking site, Leary added. The library will be affected by what happens to the surface parking lot at the northwest corner of Fifth and William – formerly the site of the YMCA – and by what happens at the AATA’s Blake Transit Center, adjacent to that parking lot. What’s needed is a master plan for the whole area, she said.
[For background on the AATA project, see Chronicle coverage: "AATA Board: Get Bids to Rebuild Blake"]
The student teams who developed proposals for the Library Lot connected that space with surrounding properties.
A proposal called “Library Gardens” extended its scope to Liberty Plaza, the multi-tiered city park at the southwest corner of Liberty and Division. The project called for making Liberty Plaza into one level and connecting it with an outdoor amphitheater/ice skating rink to the south, which in turn would lead into the proposed Library Lane, a small road running between Division and Fifth next to the library. Library Gardens also envisioned using the former YMCA site – now a city-owned surface parking lot at the northwest corner of Fifth and William – in part as a community garden.
Likewise, a proposal called “City Center” incorporated Liberty Plaza, the library, the UM Credit Union property just east of the library, and the former Y site. Presenting the team’s project to the library board on Dec. 17, MBA student Sara Jones said they took inspiration from Washington D.C., as well as cities in Europe, to make the area a focal point for downtown Ann Arbor. The plan called for building a new library on the former Y site, and using the property vacated by the current library as part of a complex of four buildings, including a hotel, offices and apartments. The project also envisioned creating new pedestrian-friendly streets within the block – a restaurant row, fashion avenue and a street modeled after a European market.
The student proposals are quite detailed in terms of their market and financial analysis, though obviously there are real-world considerations that in some cases they sidestep. For example, library director Josie Parker noted there are constraints on vacating or selling the downtown library property – linked to the library’s historical connection to the Ann Arbor Public Schools – which make it unlikely that they would pursue that option.
Still, the student projects contain an element that’s missing from most development proposals that come before the city. Perhaps it’s that the students are emboldened to take risks – there’s really nothing at stake for them, after all. Perhaps it’s that they’re not grounded in the city as it is, but rather as it could be – as they’ve experienced in cities elsewhere, places where they’ll move when they graduate.
After hearing their presentations, library board member Margaret Leary said she felt discouraged about the ability of Ann Arbor to ever realize the kind of vision that these students laid out. The two student projects she’d just seen were better than any of the six proposals that had been submitted to the city for the Library Lot site, she said. [Two of those six proposals were subsequently eliminated by a review committee. Copies of all six proposals are posted on the city's website.]
Leary described her experience as a former Ann Arbor planning commissioner, noting that the commission couldn’t even get approval to allow accessory dwelling units in the city – a zoning change that was originally seen as low-hanging fruit, she said, but that was “flattened” after two years of public debate.
How is it possible to focus on the greater community good, she asked, when some people will pick apart each project based on their own pet goals, from affordable housing to green space? Even when those goals are desirable for the community overall, if every project is forced to address them, then creative development is stymied.
Peter Allen told the board that getting political consensus was the biggest obstacle to any development project, “but I think you can build consensus around this site,” he said. He urged the board to take a leadership role – the library has built great public trust, and now needs to step up and help create a master plan for the area. “You need to be driving this process,” he said.
Some Final Thoughts
The demographic that these graduate students represent has been cited repeatedly as an important one for the city’s future – and for the state’s, for that matter. The Ann Arbor Region Success initiative has identified the development of a young professionals network among its priorities.
So following up on her own question – the one I cited at the start of this column – Prue Rosenthal asked what would compel the students to stay here.
One student talked about how she hadn’t needed a car, until she moved to Ann Arbor. The city either needs a better public transportation system, or more businesses within a walkable distance to housing – like pharmacies and groceries that aren’t overpriced, she said.
Active nightlife was another draw – things to do 24/7, whether it’s nightclubs or restaurants or just people out and about. In fact, the energy of people – the thrum of activity, of different kinds of people going about their business or play – was a strong allure. And that kind of energy, not coincidentally, was what their development projects sought to foster.
But if there are lessons to be drawn from these students, it’s not just in what they envision for Ann Arbor, but in how they would attempt to achieve their goals – like talking to stakeholders and taking seriously their input, and taking a far less piecemeal approach to projects that will transform the city, for better or worse.
Perhaps because I’m not from Ann Arbor – though I’ve lived here 13 years, and plan to stay – I’m most intrigued not by what the city was in the past, but by what it will become. And I hope Peter Allen’s students will return some day to see how things turn out.
Editor’s note: Added to this article on Dec. 31, 2009: