Un-paving paradise: Plan to develop surface lots would reduce sprawl

Published July 17, 2005

Surface parking lots, long a hallmark of urban sprawl, may become a rare sight in downtown Ann Arbor if City Council approves a plan to allow development on the city’s surface parking lots and replace the lost spaces with parking decks or underground parking. The plan would bring in new businesses, new housing and more revenue for the city through taxes and parking revenues. Trading in these lots for a denser, more developed downtown area is a positive move that the council should support.

While Ann Arbor has never been too concerned with the appearance of its skyline, aesthetics do matter in maintaining a welcoming city that attracts visitors and makes its residents proud. Even the most ghastly of 21st-century architecture would be an improvement on the black and yellow asphalt fields dotted with towering light poles that are strewn across downtown Ann Arbor. Greenway proponents will likely take this argument further and demand that many of these lots instead be converted into parks, but in doing so they are overlooking the important benefits that development would bring to both the city and Ann Arbor residents.

Ann Arbor’s high property values and rental rates are tightly linked with the high demand for limited retail and residential space in its downtown area. Small businesses struggle to afford prime locations downtown, and many have been pushed out of the city altogether. And just as students feel the housing crunch acutely when they sign leases for the following year, inflated property values affect other renters equally, if not more. Renter populations are largely composed of low-income households, and high rents only pull on already stretched budgets. The increased supply of retail and residential space brought about by developing on these lots would be an important step toward bringing down rental rates and making Ann Arbor more affordable.

Agreeing to develop on surface parking lots, however, is only the first step in ensuring the responsible development of these parts of Ann Arbor’s downtown. As City Council considers the best use of this prime real estate, it should approve the construction of high-rise, multi-use buildings. Furthermore, it should ensure that these new buildings allocate space for low-cost housing with small unit sizes. Although similarly sized downtown areas around Detroit, such as Royal Oak, have given in to the temptation of concentrating new construction on obscenely priced condos and townhouses, Ann Arbor should instead aim to make the city affordable for people of all incomes, including those who cannot afford $500,000 lofts.

The development of these surface lots represents a unique opportunity for Ann Arbor to undo some of the poor city planning that led to the construction of the lots. City Council should not only quickly approve the conversion of these lots to residential and retail space, but should take care in overseeing the development of these areas. It may be a difficult fight, with pressure coming from all directions to build high-value housing, but the council should keep in mind the welfare of those who don’t have the money to pay soaring rents or the political connections to do anything about it.