Column: Visions for the Library Lot

UM students think big, offer contrast to real-life proposals
Local developer Peter Allen and Stephanie Simon, a student in Allen's course at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

Local developer Peter Allen and Stephanie Simon, a student in Allen's urban development course at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Simon was part of a student team that had developed a project for the Library Lot – they presented their work to library board members on Dec. 17. (Photo by the writer.)

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.

Emily Tsiang, an MBA student at the UM Ross School of Business, describes Broadway Mills, a project that her team developed for Peter Allen's course on urban design. (Photo by the writer.)

Emily Tsiang, an MBA student at the UM Ross School of Business, describes Broadway Mills, a project that her team developed for Peter Allen's course on urban design. She gave a presentation at the Dec. 14 meeting of Allen's class. (Photo by the writer.)

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:


  1. By Rod Johnson
    December 28, 2009 at 11:38 am | permalink

    Great ideas, and I can’t help but wondering why the current powers that be seem unable to look at downtown in such big-picture ways. I understand that there are economic and political constraints that students didn’t have to think about, but it’s hard to avoid the thought that there are preconceived ideas about what should happen with the library lot property (for example) “Preconceived ideas” is kind of a euphemism for “hidden agendas, I guess–at any rate, I think the perception is widespread that there’s a disconnect between words and actions in the city power structure.

    More concretely, it seems like incorporating Liberty Plaza into the planning is just a no-brainer, and any proposal that doesn’t at least explain why it doesn’t should be sent back for more work.

  2. December 28, 2009 at 12:39 pm | permalink

    This was a very thoughtful report (not sure why you called it a column). I think the idea of an area plan for that whole section of downtown is a valuable one. I wish that we had a mechanism to do more small-area plans, especially as we contemplate use of public land.

  3. By John G.
    December 28, 2009 at 2:18 pm | permalink

    Great column. The students seem to have framed fundamental questions that the city and the developers have overlooked or ignored. This exactly the kind of careful and perceptive integrative planning that AA sorely needs. It would be great to have a link to the proposals themselves, and to know what constraint precludes the relocation of the library to across Fifth. Allen is right–the AADL can take the lead to build public support for a plan that is more ambitious and thoughtful than the four remaining truly mediocre proposals. Better to start over and get it right.

  4. By ArgoC
    December 28, 2009 at 3:36 pm | permalink

    Thanks for this article! I wish we had a lot more connectivity between University classes (and faculty) and the town. Students tend to be more aware of what’s been done elsewhere than we townies are – first, students tend to come from somewhere else, and second, they’re getting an education in what’s out there.

    I see a discrepancy between S. Rapundalo’s statement that a (or the?) primary criterion for the use of this space is financial benefit to the city, while the students’ apparent primary criterion of having a focal point for urban activity, social life, and shopping.

    The conference centers and hotels that survived the city committee’s first cut are definitely financially oriented, and they also seem to be intended as focal points … for visitors to the city. Not for the residents.

  5. December 29, 2009 at 12:14 am | permalink

    Nice article, Mary. I agree with the comment that integrating Liberty Plaza is a no-brainer regardless of what is built.

  6. December 29, 2009 at 10:16 am | permalink

    Mary, I don’t see any links to the students’ presentations. Am I missing something? Are they available electronically?

  7. By Mary Morgan
    December 29, 2009 at 10:37 am | permalink

    Re. student presentations: I’ll post them as soon as I have them. Peter Allen has asked his students to provide me with electronic versions, and I’ll update the article to include those when they come in.

  8. By Linda Spector
    December 29, 2009 at 10:43 am | permalink

    I agree with the comments above that point out the lack of vision on the part of city developers. Bravo to the students for having the vision these “professionals” apparently lack. Having lived the majority of my life in large metropolitan cities (notably NYC, as well as DC, Boston, and LA), I would welcome the projects these students laid out. I only wish the city officials were able to see this as well. We will never keep young people here without incorporating these urban ideas into any plans for our downtown. Does anyone see any of this as a possibility? Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope of it; and see only more of the same sort of uninspired “development” in Ann Arbor’s downtown future. It’s a sad and ultimately grave outcome.

  9. By Tom Whitaker
    December 29, 2009 at 11:55 am | permalink

    I was worried, based on the opening paragraphs, that this column would conclude that if only there were more mixed-use developments downtown, that all of these students would have a change of heart and decide to stay in Ann Arbor after they graduated. (Jobs usually work best.) How refreshing to read that the primary take-away from these presentations was the need for a more holistic plan for these long-suffering blocks.

    This is a pretty unique section of downtown, containing two blocks of nearly all publicly owned land, from Main and William to Liberty and Division, with none of it being very attractive–from the City-owned surface lot next to Palio, to the 4th and William parking garage, across 4th to the former YMCA lot, the Blake Transit Center, the Federal building/post office, then on to the Library, the “library lot,” and finally, Liberty Plaza. What a tremendous opportunity for some real government leadership and public participation in redefining an area that has been under-utilized and unfriendly to visitors for years!

    Why, with all the talk of transit-oriented development (see the new North Area plan and the AHP study) has this area not been aggressively pursued by Council and the Planning Commission for more focused and strategic area planning? This would seem to be the perfect location to test transit-oriented development principles, as well as a unique opportunity to re-vision this area as the public center of town—the gateway into downtown Ann Arbor, if you will. With thousands of bus riders using the transit center each day, the library, which attracts hundreds of visitors per day, and soon, more than a thousand parking spaces within a block, this could be tremendous opportunity for us all to reclaim a “town square” that the City has lacked since the old County courthouse was torn down in the Fifties.

    Instead, we now have a new transit center being designed and built in a bubble (even with plans under way for a new one on Fuller). We have a new library building on indefinite hold. We have an underground parking structure being built with no idea of what it will need to hold on top. We have an RFP for the top of the new structure that has been completely devoid of any public vision or area planning and would seem to be headed for that special tax-payer hell known as a the “public/private partnership.” We have a city-owned surface lot (the Y) that is the subject of a lawsuit due to a previous failed City attempt to develop publicly owned property. We have an ugly Federal building with a huge parking lot that is apparently perceived as untouchable (but I wonder what opportunities a few phone calls and meetings with the General Services Administration might unlock).

    Imagine if the City, AATA, the DDA, the Library Board (and AAPS), formed a joint committee to reach out to the public to develop a master plan for this area (with Federal, State and County folks brought in where needed). Instead, each government entity is now guarding, planning and/or building its own independent castle. Each has given only token thought to how these castles might relate to each other and their surroundings and very little thought (if any) to what the public (a.k.a, the property owner) wants to see. Shouldn’t the focus of all these individual efforts be to create things (library, transit center, park, private developments) that are not only attractive and useful individually, but relate to each other in a way that encourages people to stay downtown longer? Isn’t that the whole point?

  10. By Peter Jacobson
    December 29, 2009 at 11:56 am | permalink

    I certainly support the above comments. I would just add that pursuing the students’ vision would add an element of vitality and excitement that would be very attractive to young people, even if their vision could not be fully implemented. What the policymakers should be thinking about is generating a “buzz” that will ensure national attention.

    Ann Arbor should be a center for creativity in planning as much as a center for academic excellence. Other than myopic thinking, there’s no reason why we can’t be a model for how a small city can use innovative planning to enliven the city center and attract new businesses, artists, etc. For instance, why isn’t the waterfront along the Huron being developed?

  11. December 29, 2009 at 1:39 pm | permalink

    Tom (in #9) touched on a point I wanted to make…

    Parks (and art for that matter) will not keep students here. They also will not be the main attraction here. If you want to bring people here (to stay), then you need good, high paying jobs. That’s going to be the number one attraction for long term growth. If you want to bring people here for a few years at a time, then you already have the University to handle that for you.

    Parks, art, and other might make living here more enjoyable, but a good high paying job will move someone to a new location quicker than those factors will make them stay.

  12. By David
    December 29, 2009 at 4:51 pm | permalink


    You make an excellent point. Look at how many people move to “undesirable” areas because that is where a challenging, well-paying job is located. Those people then spend their money taking vacations to place that are more attractive and desirable.

    In regards to the folks that want to build a convention center/hotel on top of the undergound parking garage, do they have any data or studies that indicate the facility will attract conventions and/or tourists, or is this all based on hope and dreams?

  13. By Rod Johnson
    December 29, 2009 at 6:03 pm | permalink

    A great summary, Tom.

  14. December 29, 2009 at 11:18 pm | permalink

    Tom Whitaker described very well the challenge and promise of linking all the key sites, issues, stakeholders and opportunities around the new city center that could occur within a block of the new 700 car underground parking structure at the library lot. I would like to add a few other sites and issues to his summary: all the transit options, especially how the new Fuller Rd Gateway Center to Ann Arbor might connect Ann Arbor to downtown Detroit and to the world via Metro Airport; how the possible trolley or light rail might connect Gateway, former Pfizer (NCRC), and U of M campuses to downtown; and how the rezoning of downtown and all the commercial properties might change the places that people will work and live. We are at a watershed moment for Ann Arbor for the next 100 years. How do we merge all the interests of the neighbors, the citizens of Ann Arbor thru City Council and Planning Commission, the AATA, the U of M, the Library Board, the Parks Advisory Commission, the various owners of the properties and the U of M graduates we want to stay in Ann Arbor into a combined vision? Peter Allen

  15. December 30, 2009 at 12:04 am | permalink

    Hey guys, no mystery here. Young adults need stuff to launch a life. They’ll follow the money. Is it possible to integrate the grand designs all commentators aspire to with income generating opportunity? Seems to me that this kind of thing should be a component of the thinking. It also seems to me that Peter Allen comes the closest to this kind of thinking.

  16. December 30, 2009 at 9:11 am | permalink

    Great and thoughtful article. I also really appreciate all of the comments here. Lots of good points.

    As someone who is still a young professional (though at 30 I am quickly moving out of that demographic) I definitely agree that the students vision is something I am many other young professionals want. Many of the communities that younger folks are moving to are walkable, with lots of vibrancy. And I feel like I need to stress that we can have more of these things in Ann Arbor without sacrificing Ann Arbor to the alter of extreme-urbanism. We don’t have to become Chicago or New York development-wise to have some of the great aspects of those places.

    I would also say that while jobs are clearly important (especially in this economy) people do move to areas and then try to find jobs. The organization Michigan Future has documented this phenomenon and has concluded that place matters a lot for knowledge workers. It’s actually an interesting chicken and egg concept. If you focus on quality of place do jobs follow or vice versa?

    Personally, my husband and I moved to Ann Arbor because we heard it was a lot like Madison, WI. We moved to Madison after college and loved it. I was also interested in graduate school at some point, so the idea of moving to Ann Arbor seemed great. So we moved here when both of us were in our early 20s (in 2002) without jobs or family connections. And we found work and I went to graduate school and we loved it here so much that we stayed. However, we also know many friends that have had to move out of this state because they couldn’t find jobs.

    Mary, thanks again for the great article.

  17. December 30, 2009 at 2:10 pm | permalink


    That’s a nice perspective but 2002 was a lot different than now. Since 2002, the population that has left Michigan is so large a number that an exodus of that magnitude has never been factored, studied, or quantitated. Add to that the highest unemployment in the nation, and simply (I feel very strongly that) the only way to attract people is to attract good jobs. Good, high paying jobs are important to rebuilding population. Then the city needs to make itself very attractive for companies to not only start-up, but stay.

  18. December 30, 2009 at 5:11 pm | permalink

    There’s a difference between rebuilding population and retaining otherwise temporary residents (mostly students) and attracting employees to new and existing businesses. For example, we could rebuild population by attracting retirees. It would be helpful to put such discussions into the context of our community goals. (Mine is sustainable community — I wonder if we have a consensus for that.)

    What about jobs that you wouldn’t consider high paying, Fred? They can’t all be, and aren’t.

  19. December 30, 2009 at 8:06 pm | permalink


    If you bring in high paying jobs, other jobs will follow (anything from service to assistants to lower level).

  20. December 30, 2009 at 10:11 pm | permalink

    Steve–I cannot subscribe to your goal of a “sustainable community.” Too easy. You can get that with people who work in Chelsea and live in Ann Arbor. It would be a small town but sustainable and meet your goal.

    I would offer an alternative goal. How about THE GREAT research/development/entrepreneurial center of the Midwest. This goal is perhaps a bit modest. It does not seek to supplant Silicon Valley. We can amend the goal later to do that. In my opinion, this is an achievable goal and one that worth pursuing.

    Another opinion: The absolute bottom of “high paying jobs” is $150,000. This is the kind of salary mid-level managers get in the major firms. It seems to me to be a reasonable standard.

  21. By David
    December 31, 2009 at 11:02 am | permalink

    The job discussion pretty interesting. I would agree with Mary that if you want to live in a certain place, don’t care what kind of job you have and are very flexible on salary then moving first and finding a job second can work. However, if you have a specific set of job skills and a specific professional/career interest you are going to move to where you can find a job that fits your criteria. The latter is where one finds the high paying employees as discussed above. There are not a lot of these opportunities in Ann Arbor.

  22. By Dave Askins
    December 31, 2009 at 5:57 pm | permalink

    Re: [6] and [7] I’ve uploaded the .pdf files of the student presentations and provided links to them inserted at the end of the article. They range in size from 10-20MB.