Ann Arbor’s Roman Forum: A Rundown of the Library Lot Proposals
An alternate title to this article could have been, Let’s Think Like An Architecture Critic.
Okay, Ann Arbor. I don’t want to freak you out or anything, but we have a real opportunity to make a profound impact on the face and function of our city for a long time to come. The so-called “Library Lot,” just north of the Downtown Library branch and just east of Blake Transit Center, is arguably the most central civic property in the city. The great and terrible news is: it’s up for development.
So, you know. No pressure.
The City of Ann Arbor has put out an Offering Memorandum, a kind of request for proposal, for that lot. Nine teams have responded with bids. The City has rejected four, leaving 5 serious proposals to consider.
But wait – before we get out our torches and pitchforks (those of you familiar with those MLive comment threads resembling sewer ducts know what I’m talking about), think critically with me here for a second.
This lot is a big deal. This issue is a big deal. As engaged citizens of a town in which you take, or would like to take, deep pride and pleasure, I invite you to set a spell, listen to me tell a little story, and then let’s help the City think through the options.
First, let’s meet* the contestants. The links are to the teams’ original proposals, uploaded thanks to MLive. The five proposals are listed below in no particular order.
*I will summarize the proposals, but I strongly encourage every Ann Arbor resident to read through each one for yourself. They’re not that long; it would take maybe an hour to read all them together; and while it can be a challenge to carve that kind of time out of our already-busy schedules, think about the implication: you’re investing an hour, one hour, in a matter that will end up deciding millions of dollars of income for the city and affecting millions of people for decades to come. Instead of feeling like an imposition, let yourself feel heady with the power!
Nickname: The Glare (presented by Core Spaces)
Summary: A combination of retail, office, hotel, and premium residential spaces, in addition to a 3,500sf plaza/park space. Only one of two proposals to project permanent downtown jobs created by the new building (600+). This proposal maximizes the 17 stories for which this lot is zoned by building all the way up to the top, as well as nearly all the way to both curbs.
A pro: Ann Arbor’s downtown is lucky in that its occupancy rate is really high; on the other hand, that means it is difficult for good business to find centrally-located space. This proposal meets some of that demand.
A con: The tiny “plaza” and overtall building that lumbers all the way up to the sidewalk mean that the only people who would really enjoy this building would have to be inside it.
Nickname: The “Bar Louie“ (presented by Adventurous Journeys Capital Partners)
Summary: The nickname derives from another business with a similar model: develop a national brand that includes distinctly regional touches for a development/architectural product with a “polished local” feel. Presented by AJCP, this proposal is part of a national and growing brand called Graduate Hotels. Targeting college towns, this team has had the opportunity to do extensive market and design research on the needs of places like Ann Arbor. This specific proposal is unique in that it includes both event space (multiple modest ballrooms) and co-working space envisioned as an incubator for tech and small business, two markets that are underserved right now and projected to grow significantly in the next 5-10 years. It also includes hotel and cafe space, two green roofs, and a rooftop bar.
A pro: The pros who put this together. They know the market, they know good design, and they know how to combine “less is more” in building design with the “more” Ann Arbor needs in this critical location.
A con: At 6,480 square feet, the public plaza is significantly smaller than the 12,000sf park City Council voted to allocate to the site in 2014.
Nickname: Bringing 5th Avenue to 5th Avenue (presented by CA Ventures)
Summary: A boutique (what they’re calling an “upper-upscale”) hotel and restaurant lounge, combined with residential space and an urban plaza. The other proposal to project the number of new permanent downtown jobs created (700+). An interesting brick, metal, and glass facade. This proposal is unique in its visualization of a two-story plaza on the southwest corner of the site, envisioned as a highly active public space: the second story as a possible platform for performing artists, a possible outdoor screen on the first floor for library-organized viewings.
A pro: This proposed building facade is one of the most visually appealing of the group.
A con: The design is so lofty, even the “public space” is lifted a whole story above grade.
Nickname: Please Ignore the Top Eight Stories (presented by Duet Development)
Summary: The most dynamic programmatic mix, a combination of owned condominiums, apartments, and affordable housing. A financially solid pro forma. It’s clear the team spent most of their time doing financial due diligence, as funding sources and incomes have been deeply and thoroughly researched and presented. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of spending time on the design; the hand renderings are only hazily indicative of the building and seem to ask viewers to please ignore architectural specificity for now, so it’s not yet certain what the City would be committing to aesthetically with this project.
A pro: Brings affordable housing for both workforce, tech professionals, and empty nesters – all critically underserved – directly downtown.
A con: The design is too schematic to evaluate the project’s likelihood of architectural success.
Nickname: The Great Eight-Bit (presented by Morningside)
Summary: Residential + retail, target demographic includes working professionals and empty nesters. Green roof. 12,000sf plaza. At 17 stories/180′ tall, hits the zoning maximum height.
A pro: Emphasizes residential rather than hotel, a great need of downtown. Also very worth noting that this is the only proposal to meet the City’s 12,000sf public plaza allocation for the site.
A con: Plaza looks good in plan, but its depth and narrowness would likely end up being dead space as the most inviting spots (grass/beneath trees) are too awkwardly near the building.
Okay. With all the contenders introduced, and with all of them submitting such thick proposals, how are we supposed to think through the different options? Below are some of my suggestions. I freely invite your own.
Keeping Ann Arbor Great
Ann Arbor has been winning awards for years. Here are some that popped up in May alone:
- ~~ American Institute for Economic Research, #1 Most Desirable Small City to Live and Work In for Millennials;
- ~~ Thrillist.com, #4 in Top 13 College Towns in America for Food / Drink;
- ~~ Livability.com, #13 in Top 100 Best Places to Live;
- ~~ Realtor.com, #3 in Top 20 Hottest Real Estate Markets this past spring;
- ~~ and, sometime recently we were also a top-something place to retire.
That means that students, young professionals, and empty-nesters – everybody, basically – all want to live, eat, drink, work, and retire here. Continuing to score highly on lists like these means continuing to focus on what Ann Arbor already does well: thinking local. Fostering creativity. Recruiting and keeping innovative businesses. Enticing services and retail to locate centrally. Providing a dense, bustling, fun downtown. Supporting civic entities and events like the Ann Arbor District Library system and FestiFool. The City just completed a study concluding that the arts have a $100 million impact on the city – that is, let’s do that again, ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS – and we should be guarding and supporting organizations and people like Performance Network, the Violin Monster, Sonic Lunch, and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival as though our livelihoods depend on it. Because make no mistake: they do. James Howard Kunstler, sort of the Lewis Black of urban criticism, says that if we don’t do a good job of defining space, we create “places that are not worth caring about”. That is the exact opposite of what we do here, but it is well to remind ourselves of this fact.
Hotel/downtown occupancy rates
In fact, Ann Arbor has been doing such a great job at being great that lots of us are feeling the pinch. Detroit and Ann Arbor have each been referred to informally as the next Silicon Valley, and there’s no doubt that tech growth here has been significant; now, tech businesses and tech workers are finding it increasingly difficult to find space; scarcity even pushed Google out! There are also not enough hotels, but one could argue that that demand is already being met by the spate of new hotel construction around town. Businesses across the board are struggling to find place, especially as they’re growing out of their existing spaces with the re-energized economy; while Ann Arbor has a uniquely strong diverse portfolio of service, professional, and retail business, vacancy rates are at their lowest in 12 years, and if we’re going to continue to court small and locally-owned businesses, we must build some place to put them.
In a city named after its trees and consistently nationally recognized as one of the most environmentally-minded communities in the nation, it behooves whoever wins the responsibility to build and manage this site to do so in the most ecologically responsible way possible. At this point in the RFP process, it’s too early on for any of the teams to be specific about their sustainability strategies, but the teams, the City, and we should keep the spotlight on this area early and often.
By the Numbers
Ryan Stanton of MLive broke down the financial implications of each proposal with admirable straightforwardness and simplicity. His summary reflects the following:
The Glare: purchase price, $10M; new annual tax revenue, $2M
The “Bar Louie”: purchase price, $8.5M; new annual tax revenue, not projected
5th Ave: purchase price, $5.1M; new annual tax revenue, not projected
Please Ignore: purchase price, $4.38M; new annual tax revenue, $300K; projected new downtown annual spending by new residents, $2.5M
8-bit: purchase price, $2.5M; new annual tax revenue, $1.25M, over half of which would be dedicated to city K-12 schools
Writing on tall buildings, the late and incredibly great architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that “[i]n its most familiar and exhilarating aspect, [the tall building] has been a celebration of modern building technology. But it is just as much a product of zoning and tax law, the real estate and money markets, code and client requirements, energy and aesthetics, politics and speculation. Not least is the fact that it is the biggest investment game in town. With all of this, and often in spite of it, the [tall building] is still an art form.” We have looked at different bottom lines. What about the eyeline and the skyline?
Urban and Civic Experience
According to this wonderfully hyper-granular review of the vitality (or lack thereof) of Ann Arbor’s downtown blocks by Concentrate Media, the Library Lot stretch lacks the “intangible something” of more fun, active, inviting blocks. All the more reason, then, to make sure that this one-way stretch, primarily a thru-way for people in cars trying to be anywhere but there, becomes a destination in itself. Ashley is a one-way street, too, but it’s viewed as more of a success because it has “some restaurants and…more pedestrian-friendly activities going on.” So how do the candidates stack up according to this criterion?
The Glare: hasn’t New York already conclusively proven that the glass box has had its day, and that that day is over? The public space leaves everything to be desired; it’s clearly an outdoor atrium to the hotel and retail, and not even really pretending to be civic space. Looking up from the ground, how could this central, visually unavoidable building possibly bring appeal and distinction to Ann Arbor’s skyline? And not just the skyline; all 17 stories crowd right up to the sidewalk, leaving pedestrians craning our necks and giving passersby no reason to stop. The majority of us would only ever experience this building from the outside, and that experience would frankly not be that great.
The “Bar Louie”: The design is deceptively simple, reduced only to its necessary components and, at15 of the possible 17 stories zoned for the site, is the 2nd-smallest proposal. The part of the building fronting 5th is being scaled proportionally to its Earthen Jar neighbor, a modest height and relatable experience for passersby. The facade’s material palette of glass, metal, and brick is pleasing, somehow simultaneously familiar and new. It is sensitive to its site, nestling among its neighbors of the transit center, library, and family restaurant without overwhelming any of them, and yet providing a substantial amount of square footage for the program within. It’s a slick solution to a number of Ann Arbor’s unique challenges, and carries a potentially hefty ongoing financial benefit as well. Professor Douglas Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, says that its “civic space [is] well proportioned in both plan and section. The restaurant and hotel lobby frontage will activate the plaza. Its green rooftops are an asset. Also, the architecture seems appropriately contextural, well composed, human-scaled and a good balance of brick, steel glass for Ann Arbor. The proportions of the the plaza in the Bar Louie proposal are good, as the wing that protects to 5th Ave is both narrower and lower than other schemes.”
5th Avenue: This design does a better job of mediating between street-scale proportions than some of the proposals, tucking a tall building behind an extended lower wing that touches the street at a height that’s more comfortable for pedestrians. Although the facade’s color, material, and design palette are lively, they are also a bit disjointed. Reading the team’s description of their design process, it becomes immediately evident why. The entire justification – material, facade development, even program placement – can be summarized thusly: “This is how other people are solving similar problems, so we will copy their solutions, which means – and we know this in advance – that you will have an aesthetically dated building before we’re even done constructing.” This team has done a good job of programming for civic use of the public space, but urban planning in building after building, block after block, city after city, stete after state, has demonstrated that separating “public” space from ground level by raising it, by as few as four steps let alone an entire story, immediately deadens that space. No matter how planners “program” the space, the public does not go up there (and even on the first floor, who is voluntarily going to sit beneath stairs?), effectively rendering half the public space DOA. It’s a shame that the architectural liveliness of this design wasn’t paired with a more productive program and truly valuable civic space. Professor Kelbaugh, an expert on mixed use, walkable, transit-oriented projects, says of the design, “…its grand stair may be too dominant, and one wonders whether second floor retail will thrive.” There is also essentially no green space planned in this plaza, just a “nature bandaid”, as Kunstler calls it, on 5th, meaning that occupants of the space are necessarily either spending money to be there as spillover seating from the restaurant, or just passing through.
Please Ignore: Despite this uniquely homegrown team – nearly every player on it has long been an active contributor to the Ann Arbor community – somehow the plaza design ignores the fact that the sidewalk does not stop at its site but extends all the way to Liberty. A more organic and pleasing transition would help activate this potentially exciting and inviting public space. The program is perhaps the most audacious in supplying three housing solutions in one building that are sorely needed right now, and in that sense this proposal stands out as the building this city needs. It is difficult to assess this offering further since the design is truly schematic; but the whole proposal shows tremendous promise, and one hopes that the architecture will catch up to the high levels of resolution and quality of the rest of the package.
The Great Eight-Bit: With a lively facade and active, albeit awkwardly proportioned, plaza, this building has the opportunity to be a good building-citizen. But the best spaces – an extended terrace, a green roof – are clearly reserved for building occupants, meaning that the vast majority of people who enjoy this building will be on the inside of it, and the vast majority of people who encounter this building would not have much to enjoy.
These are just some criteria by which to think about this site and just the proposals that have been offered. The best solutions will prompt reflections on Ann Arbor’s present and position us best for the future we want, rather than focusing solely on the expediency of development and a fast cash injection. It is by no means a comprehensive list of criteria. What else would you want to see considered?
What’s at risk if we get this wrong? Ada Louise Huxtable once again: “The city’s oppressive impersonality increases, while services suffer and civility diminishes; amenities disappear or are traded off for questionable substitutes. Architecture, in this context, is only a game architects play. Art becomes worthless in a city brutalized by overdevelopment.”
As urbanist James Kunstler encourages, let’s think not like consumers, but like citizens. As a citizen of Ann Arbor, a place that is really something to be proud of, what is your own vision for your city? The 403 E. Huron mistake? Or a new addition to the skyline and civic center that makes you that much more excited to tell folks about your home town? In the end, says architect Daniel Libeskind, “Life is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics. It’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.” He’s talking about life, and architecture; but he could easily have had us in mind when he said it.