When Jenny Wu learned she would have to sell the Lucky Kitchen’s Central Campus location to make room for an apartment high-rise, she wasn’t surprised.
It has been common knowledge among the small business owners along South University Avenue, Wu said, that large property developers — attracted by rising rents largely paid by students — are seeking to acquire real estate near Central Campus to erect new apartments. The change seemed inevitable.
“We heard over the years that this was happening, and it was just bound to happen to us and we just didn’t know when,” Wu said. “We were surprised though to be the first ones to be approached, so we really didn’t have any choice.”
Originally founded in 1993 near North Campus and expanding to East University Avenue in 2001, Lucky Kitchen has become a staple of the University of Michigan community, winning accolades as students’ choice for the best Chinese food on campus.
Recently, however, Wu and several of her neighbors — including the owners of Pita Pit and Mia Za’s — were compelled to sell their downtown lots to the Missouri-based Collegiate Development Group for a 13-story, 91-unit project targeted at student tenants.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of housing units in structures with at least 20 units in Ann Arbor has increased by 32 percent from 2010 to 2015, nearly quadruple Ann Arbor’s overall housing growth of 9 percent. Of the 4,132 housing units added to the city in the past five years, 73 percent of these units have been in buildings housing 10 or more people.
Many of these housing units are in the numerous high-rise structures newly erected near campus like Sterling Arbor Blu, Landmark and Foundry Lofts.
One of the main incentives for real estate developers to construct more high-rise apartments — high rent — also does not seem to be abating. In the past five years, median rents in the city have increased 14 percent to $1,075 per month, according to the Census Bureau.
Collegiate Development Group, which is also in the process of constructing a 229-unit apartment off of South Main Street, did not respond to requests for comment.
The insurgence of new residential high-rises — often displacing other businesses and public spaces — has not been without resistance from both long-time Ann Arbor residents and students.
A proposal to sell a vacant lot adjacent to the downtown Ann Arbor District Library to a high-rise developer drew a year-long petition drive by local residents, many of whom wanted to have a public park built in the space, aiming to force the decision onto the November ballot. In June, 5,779 signatures were submitted to the City Clerk but were rejected several weeks later due to insufficient valid signatures.
At September’s Board of Regents meeting, David Schafer, Central Student Government president, told the board one of his priorities for this semester is coordination with the city government to alleviate growing off-campus housing costs.
As well, during this summer’s primary election for City Council, several candidates unsuccessfully challenged incumbents with platforms including skepticism of greater urban residential development.
Local attorney Eric Lipson, who ran against City Councilmember Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4) in the Democratic primary in August, said poorly planned and zoned high-rises come at the expense of existing residents by crowding out green space and leading to excess traffic and parking congestion.
“I think the majority of city residents don’t want to see excessive development that impairs the quality of life in town,” he said.
Lipson noted, however, that not all high-rise developments have met pushback from residents, comparing the relatively positive community reception to the Zaragon West building on 402 Thompson St. to a chillier reception for the Foundry Lofts tower on 413 E. Huron St. He said he thinks Zaragon was not opposed by most residents because it blended into an already dense area of downtown with adequate infrastructure. Meanwhile, Foundry Lofts drew ire from citizens because of its direct adjacency to a low-density historical residential district.
“There are certain areas where there are serious mistakes in the zoning,” Lipson said. “Foundry Lofts was a disaster for all of the homes to the north of it … It’s shading buildings, it's causing trees to die and it's having a serious impact beyond the expectations of when the zoning was changed.”
Many of Lipson’s points were echoed by local resident Ray Detter, leader of the Downtown Area Citizen’s Advisory Council, which advises local government on downtown planning issues. Detter said downtown development would ideally allow for mixed residential and commercial use as well as economic diversity in residents, meaning he supports what he calls “good” developments such as the Liberty Loft condos off Second and Williams Streets.
“We’ve always wanted to encourage as much diversity in the downtown area as possible, both in types of people and income levels,” Detter said. “We were rather surprised by the fact that so much of the development in the city has been moving in the direction of students.”
Detter charged that the increase in student high-rises has been straining the limited land supply of downtown, as well as driving away other residents who cannot afford the rents charged by luxury student apartments.
“If you’re a person such as an artist, not making much money, where would you move?” Detter asked. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford $1,200 a bed. In the remaining space we’ve got downtown, what should we have? We’re always in support of more housing. But what should the housing be, who should it appeal to and how should it be designed?”
City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said concerns over increasing residential density is not unique to Ann Arbor.
“There’s been a lot of complaints about density in the city. These complaints could be transposed to nearly any other city in the U.S.,” Briere said. “Nobody seems to be really happy about more housing being built in the city, and to some extent we all share that concern because more housing means more people means more wear and tear.”
Briere, who is the council’s liaison to the Planning Commission, noted that the city government does not have the power to directly limit new development, outside of enforcing pre-existing zoning and building codes.
“Private property rights are very strongly supported by local government because they’re required by statewide government,” Briere said. “It’s difficult because sometimes people think what that we are going to stop a development, but mostly our job is to allow development but within constraints.”
For students on campus, the advent of new housing has brought both negatives and positives — especially when it comes to projects that displace businesses, like the South U. developments.
LSA senior Julian Tabron said he thought increased density was necessary, but added that he has been disappointed by the trend of small businesses being pushed further from campus to make space for new housing, particularly Lucky Kitchen.
“I’ve noticed a lot of restaurants on South U and East University shut down in recent years,” Tabron said. “It’s just crazy.”
LSA senior Sydney Ohl said she was disappointed by the closure of Lucky Kitchen’s Central Campus location due to its sentimental value — she dined there on the day she first moved to Ann Arbor as a freshman — though she understood the demand for more housing.
“Of course we need places for students to stay,” Ohl said. “But it’s really unfortunate it has to come in the way of small businesses, especially ones students really enjoy having around.”