Architectural Criticism



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    Rome had its Forum. Ann Arbor has its Library Lot.

    Jessica A.S. Letaw
    Jul 10, '15 12:55 AM EST

    An alternate title to this article could have been, Let's All Think Like Architecture Critics.

    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+).
    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: 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 active brick, metal, and glass facade with a two-story plaza on the southwest corner of the site.
    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, 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:

    That means that students, young professionals, and empty-nesters - everybody, basically - wants 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, among many others. 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 (an urban critic who's really funny when he gets outraged) 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; heck, downtown 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 with the re-energized economy they're growing out of their existing spaces; 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 it behooves the teams, the City, and us to keep the spotlight on this area early and often.

    The Glare and The Bar Louie: no strategies specified yet, but general goals and industry-standard tactics set out in very specific language

    5th Ave: not addressed

    Please Ignore: issue acknowledged but no strategies specified yet

    The Great Eight-Bit: specific strategies named (appliances, plumbing fixtures, lighting, materials, building systems), but no overarching goals of operating cost reduction stated

    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/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, currently 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.  And 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.  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 passersby is being scaled proportionally to its Earthen Jar neighbor, a modest and relatable height as the experience of passersby.  The material palette of glass, metal, and brick is pleasing, 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 uniquely Ann Arbor challenges, and carries a potentially hefty financial ongoing benefit as well.

    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 more conventional height.  Although the palette and facade 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, state 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 the 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.  Douglas Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and 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 proposal ignores the fact that the sidewalk does not stop at its site, but extends past the Earthen Jar all the way to Liberty.  A more organic and pleasing transition would help activate this potentially dynamic and exciting public space.  It's difficult to assess this offering further since the design is truly schematic; but the program shows tremendous promise in incorporating three different kinds of sorely-needed housing, and one hopes that the architecture will catch up to the level of resolution and quality of the rest of the proposal.

    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, rather than focusing solely on the expediency of development.  Huxtable again: "a building is only as good as its resolution of the complex structural, social, and symbolic factors involved."  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, one last time: "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.

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About this Blog

Architectstasy is a resource for the current, past, and projected built environments of Ann Arbor, SE Michigan, the U.S., and occasionally the world. Jessica A.S. Letaw and invited critics present critical readings of the city's trajectories that are situated within architectural discourse as well as news that is pertinent to residents and citizens.

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