Brownfield redevelopment in Ann Arbor & Ypsi

(Apology in advance:  My references in this post are pretty much all from  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’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?’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,’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.


6 responses to “Brownfield redevelopment in Ann Arbor & Ypsi

  1. Just visiting your page for the first time, via a link on AATA’s Facebook to your post on the TMP. Appreciate your thoughts in both that post and this, but would ask you to elaborate here:

    It’s especially disappointing to me that Ypsi has so far failed to capitalize on one of its biggest assets, its building stock.

    Maybe we just have different expectations (or might I suggest that you are looking at the present tense without digging too far into the past), but a lot of Ypsilantians hold the town’s historic building stock (and District) among its best assets. Even just looking at the downtown over the last five to ten years, you can find a solid dozen or so examples of properties taken from decrepit and largely vacant to fully rehabbed and occupied. Between the 30 years of custodianship by the Historic District Commission, various facade grant programs, State & Federal tax credits, and leveraging of programs like the state’s Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act, Ypsilanti has made tremendous use out of its historic core over the last decade, especially compared to a lot of other cities. (granted, Ypsi had a lot of good material to work with.) The historic south side and historic east side neighborhoods also have a lot of stellar examples of historic “capitalizing”.

    As I said, though, maybe it’s a matter of context. There’s a lot left to do, but you should take a look back in time. Even just in the five years I’ve been paying attention, there have been incredible changes. Looking at the photographic surveys of the historic district from c. 1980, though, you really have to admire the vision and determination of all involved – the work over the past 30 years has been herculean.

    This isn’t meant to sound defensive, though I know it may sound it – I am genuinely interested in what you’re using to benchmark Ypsi and find it disappointing, either in tools & practices or in present condition.

    In the meanwhile, to this:

    [Ann Arbor housing prices] could catalyze long-delayed gentrification in Ypsi

    “I got tired of paying rent in Ann Arbor, so I bought in Ypsi” is a common line among my generation of Ypsiites, so I’d say the 2000s were no impediment to Ann Arbor exile. But gentrification is also a tricky word, and one that many in Ypsi are reasonably concerned about. (I’d say only a few think it has any kind of imminence, but it’s one of those things that, once you notice it, it’s too late to act on.)

    I note that you don’t reference in your post, and would direct you over there for a taste of Ypsi’s take on some of this:

    And, generally, welcome to the world of exploring urbanism through blogging. It’s a practice with a fine pedigree in these parts.

  2. Thanks, Murph. You’ve exposed me as someone who’s still relatively new to the area — I came here from Detroit in 2008. So I have no idea what Ypsi was like even five years ago. Sounds like I have reason to be more optimistic.
    – RE: gentrification: you’re right, it’s a controversial word choice. I’m still training myself to use “revitalization,” which has a somewhat different meaning but is less inflammatory.
    – Thanks for the tip over to — I just added him to my GoogleReader so I can start following.

  3. Well, welcome to Washtenaw!

    The question of revitalization and/or gentrification is one that I think Ypsi is very ambivalent about. Some look at our stats on income, home values, etc, and think gentrification can’t happen fast enough. Those folks, in my opinion, tend to forget that there are a lot of Ypsi residents who can’t afford Ann Arbor home values – however you slice and label “poverty”, “working poor”, “working class”, “starving artist”, “bohemian”, etc., you still end up with a bunch of categories that will get pushed out if Ypsilanti’s home prices and rents start looking like Ann Arbor’s. I’ve never heard an explanation within the “Ann Arbor East” narrative of what exactly happens to this part of our population.

    From your Jane Jacobs, you’ll remember the chapter “on the uses of old buildings”, which stresses the importance of /cheap/ . Whether your need for affordability is related to pre-profitability entrepreneurs, artists, or the just plain poor, maintaining housing and commercial stock at affordable/attainable price points is critical for a good chunk of society.

    I unfortunately don’t have any good answers for how to reliably accomplish “revitalization” without tipping over the edge into “gentrification” and accompanying displacement.

    In the meantime, though, if you want a planner’s eye view of Ypsi, drop me a line. I’m happy to give tours of my fair town.

  4. Pingback: Ann Arbor’s liberal NIMBYism | Motown To Tree Town

  5. Pingback: New infill developments, higher density in Ann Arbor | Motown To Tree Town

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