(Apology in advance: My references in this post are pretty much all from AnnArbor.com. I try to cite a wider range of sources most of the time but the Ann Arbor Chronicle and other outlets don’t seem to have got around to reporting much on the stories in this post yet. Just wanted to make clear I recognized I’m not exactly adhering to best practices in the following.)
Yes, Virginia, there IS blight in Ann Arbor.
Of course, there’s a vast and very prominent swath of it concentrated immediately south of University of Michigan’s Central Campus, known and loved by UM students and alumni as their very own housing ghetto. In most Midwestern cities, the oldest housing stock is reserved for the poorest and generally allowed to go to hell. In cities like Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, and of course Detroit these mostly nineteenth century homes are the epicenter of an ever-widening circle of blight, and eventually most are abandoned and razed.
There are exceptions to this rule: Grand Rapids has generally done very well by its historic neighborhoods, most notably in Heritage Hill, where the gays and their fellow travelers have lavished love and attention on the neighborhood’s historic mansions. My hometown, Bay City, has what I consider the next best preserved stock of nineteenth century housing in the entire state, and at fire sale prices might I add.
In Ann Arbor, a constant churn of students have filled the demand for the decrepit hulks that fill the student ghetto. This demand has both helped to preserve the battered structures and to keep the price of real estate of any kind in the area head and shoulders beyond most any in the Midwest outside of Chicago, let alone Michigan.
Further out from the old core of the city, though, Ann Arbor has pockets of blight just like any other community: parcels that, for whatever reason, the owners have allowed it to decline and to sit vacant. One of the more notorious cases over the past decade has been the Georgetown Mall off Packard Road south of Stadium Blvd., where among an otherwise prosperous and stable single-family neighborhood sprawls a vacant shopping center, formerly anchored by a Kroger supermarket.
So it was big news when reports began surfacing that Georgetown’s owner was planning to redevelop the site. Lazy blogger that I am, I’ll direct you to Ryan Stanton’s most recent update on the situation.
I often find the comments on AnnArbor.com’s posts valuable in gleaning popular sentiment and highlighting points of controversy, and those responding to Stanton’s update are no exception. First let me emphasize that the type of Ann Arbor residents who make themselves heard on redevelopment proposals are NIMBY to the extreme. Whether it be preserving an old building, holding on to every last inch of the city’s massive parkland, or ensuring a three-story building is not overshadowed by a five-story one, there will be a shrill pocket of citizens who will find a reason to oppose ANY project, no matter how shambolic the condition of the property to be redeveloped. This has had the virtue of helping to maintain that price premium over its neighbors that I cited earlier; it has kept the city’s population well below what it otherwise would have been; and it has contributed to the growth of surrounding communities like Dexter and Saline, while keeping Ypsilanti’s population from declining as rapidly as it might otherwise have.
Consequently, the response to the Georgetown situation is noteworthy: cautious optimism and support from residents and other commenters, qualified by no small measure of scepticism. One commenter captures why:
As the article points out, (Bloomfield Hills developer) Craig Schubiner is the owner of this mall. He has repeatedly announced plans for redevelopment, only to have something go awry. Why is this plan different? And for how many years have the taxes gone unpaid? Have there been any payments? How can we feel confident he will pay the back taxes?… The developer owned this property *while* it was becoming blighted and the parking lot was deteriorating. This was happening when Georgetown Mall still had active tenants. So, the developer himself caused all this blight by not maintaining his own property. And now it qualifies for redevelopment credits because it is blighted?
AnnArbor.com’s editorial today provides a bit more detail on Schubiner’s ‘checkered background with this particular property and others':
In 2008, Schubiner proposed to revive the mall with a project called Georgetown Commons, a concept that would have included a 45,000-square-foot Kroger, a number of other retail shops and 150 apartments. Noting came of that plan. Meanwhile, his $2 billion Bloomfield Park project in Oakland County went belly-up in 2008 and is often pointed to as a poster child of failed real estate development in Michigan.
But the editorial board ultimately seems willing to give him more credit:
We recognize the severe hardships that many developers like Schubiner faced in the economic meltdown of 2008, and we would be glad to see him succeed with this new concept for the Georgetown Mall… Schubiner has demonstrated a willingness to listen to homeowners’ concerns about deterioration of the former strip mall after the Kroger store closed. Blighting conditions have been addressed as neighbors have pointed them out.
They also offer Schubiner some advice:
While city and state officials consider his proposal, Schubiner can help his own cause by listening to the input of neighbors and incorporating their concerns into his final designs. Their primary concerns seems to be whether the number of apartment units being proposed is appropriate, or too dense for the property. Planning standards can help answer that question…
(T)here also is the matter of $277,000 in back taxes owed on the property. New development of the land can’t begin until those taxes are paid. If the developer wants to demonstrate his good faith, as well as his financial ability to undertake a project of this scope, resolving the delinquent taxes would be an opportunity to do both.
Meanwhile, AnnArbor.com’s terrific business reporter Paula Gardner reports on more redevelopment news several miles to the east in Ypsilanti, on West Cross near Eastern Michigan University’s campus. Gardner offers her personal take on why she thinks the purchase is a ‘game-changer':
The buyer is O’Neal Inc., the Ann Arbor construction company that also redeveloped Kerrytown, creating a retail hub for that interesting, historical district on the north edge of Ann Arbor’s downtown…
The plan… suits the market: With so many students nearby, the updated apartments will elevate its portion of the student housing stock.
And giving retailers new, high-profile space to find their niche adjacent to the campus-oriented area adds a new element to the city’s commercial real estate market.
Lastly, the O’Neal company has both the capital and experience to make the project valuable and viable to their portfolio and the community. That can’t always be said about new projects…
Now, with O’Neal’s purchase in the mix, the building at 735 E. Cross stands ready to tip the entire corridor toward improvement.
That’s no small order for a street that for years has functioned well under its potential, considering its place next to one of the state’s largest universities.
Ann Arborites are a gimlet-eyed bunch when it comes to development and redevelopment, so the general optimism greeting both these projects makes them stand out. (It’s a refreshing contrast to the rather desperate exuberance Detroiters exhibit with the slightest mention of any kind of development in their city, which more often than not fizzles before anything actually is brought to fruition.)
I’m especially heartened by the West Cross news, as I am whenever I hear about investment in Ypsi. Gardner’s remark about functioning below its potential could just as well be applied to Ypsi in general, which in my view is by far the weakest of Michigan’s major college towns. (As with Wayne State until very recently, Eastern was just a commuter school, its failure to boost its community compounded by poor management under some of its past presidents, and an underprivileged student population with lousy graduation rates). It’s especially disappointing to me that Ypsi has so far failed to capitalize on one of its biggest assets, its building stock. The heart of Ypsi is filled with some of the oldest surviving buildings in any Michigan city; you just don’t find that density of Greek and Gothic Revival homes north of the Ohio border.
I conjecture that the already high cost of housing in Ann Arbor has been held in check by Michigan’s depression since 2000, and as the rest of the region recovers in the 2010s that cost is going to spiral to new levels. If that does happen, it could catalyze long-delayed gentrification in Ypsi, which is well-connected by bus service to central Ann Arbor and offers housing at a fraction of the rents. It’s a city with a lot of troubles but excellent bones underneath it all, and if Ann Arbor’s prosperity eventually manages to spill over to the east, it could really begin to shine.