Students express concern, new high-rise in South U

Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 9:55am

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File Photo/Daily

 

Ulrich’s Bookstore removed their iconic sign from their South University Avenue storefront this Wednesday in preparation for a new high-rise apartment building directly above the shop.

According to its website, the bookstore will be moving temporarily to the corner of South University Avenue and Church Street, next to The Brown Jug, when construction commences. Ulrich’s’ current lot will be demolished in the construction, along with several neighboring buildings, although Espresso Royale and TCF Bank will stay standing.

With those structures gone, development company Hughes Properties, in conjunction with Hobbs + Black Architects, plans to create a new building to be known as The Collegian North. It will stand roughly 150 feet tall, with space for 55 new apartments and four ground-floor commercial tenants, according to MLive. Ulrich’s is expected to move back in once construction is complete.

“We look forward to being able to continue to serve the University of Michigan community for many more years to come (eventually in a brand new building)!” the company states on its website.

The Collegian North is just the beginning of a series of developments Hughes Properties would like to make to the South U district.

On Monday, Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously to approve the project.

This unanimous decision comes as a surprise to some, considering there are already four high-rise student apartments in the area. University Towers, which was built in the 1960s, has been joined in recent years by Zaragon, Landmark and the ArborBLU apartments.

However, Councilwoman Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) said in an interview there wasn’t much need for debate on the issue since the city's Design Review Board made some changes to the original design.

“What’s really great about this particular project is that it went through the Design Review Board, and part of the reason it wasn’t controversial is that this particular developer was responsive,” Grand said. “He actually went back and made changes based on those recommendations.”

She also said this high-rise is different from some of the other apartment buildings because of its space for commercial businesses on the ground floor. Grand thinks this will help The Collegian blend into its surroundings better.

“When you look at the surrounding area and the taller University buildings, and then see this one that’s not very imposing, at least at the street level, that feels more palatable to people,” Grand said.

Councilman Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) agreed with Grand, saying the Council is also hopeful the new real estate will give the South U district a necessary economic lift.

“It’s our history that retail has struggled in the area,” Westphal said. “More people living in that immediate area will certainly give the district a boost.”

Indeed, South U businesses seem to be happy about the change. Maggie Ladd, who has been the executive director of the South University Area Association since 1998, told MLive last year she welcomed the new buildings.

"The character of South U is changing and will continue to change, so we're going to see more development there," Ladd said. "I think the change is good."

Students, on the other hand, are not accepting this change as readily as the businesses. Recent University graduate Sara Otto wrote a public Facebook post last month to voice her concerns about yet another luxury high-rise apartment near campus.

“As I get ready to graduate, it saddens me that there are plans to redevelop yet another block on South U and turn Ulrichs into ANOTHER luxury student apartment building,” Otto wrote. “See that tiny building in the corner of this picture? That's Espresso Royale. This has been kept on the down low but it's time students know about what's happening to their campus.”

In contrast to Ladd, Otto then said in an interview she worries another high-rise will alter the campus culture in a bad way.

“I think part of the reason students are attracted to Ann Arbor is that it’s such a quaint college town,” she said. “This totally destroys the Ann Arbor a lot of students have come to know and love…  I feel like South U has a very unique vibe to it and I think it contributes a lot to what makes Ann Arbor Ann Arbor.”

Otto has lived in both Landmark and ArborBLU during her time on campus. Her experiences in the buildings have made it clear to her that there is no demand for another luxury apartment building.

“Last time I checked, there were no students struggling to find luxury apartment housing in the area,” Otto said. “The apartments send out emails searching for people to get leases from them. If there’s not that student demand, then there must be some other reason, and that leads me to believe the developers are more concerned with profit than what’s good for the student body.”

Otto’s main concern, though, is the lack of student awareness of the issue.

“I was telling all my friends and they were all surprised to hear about it,” she said. “How does no one know about it? How does the city allow this to happen when the student body doesn’t even have a clue?”

Grand, who serves as the liaison to the City Council’s Student Advisory Council, said students’ concerns are certainly valid, but the City Council hasn’t heard much of them.

“It’s very unusual that we hear any input from students on development,” she said. “We got one email after the fact. If we are approving developments that are affecting students — well, we only have so much control because it’s a private landowner, but we certainly do want to be creating buildings that, if they’re intended for students, will be used by students.”

From her vantage point, there aren’t many drawbacks to the new development on South U. Grand sees the situation as a win for all involved.

“We are starting to see that with increased competition… more students moving in towards campus, some neighborhoods turning over towards family, and like in the case of Landmark, some decrease in rent,” Grand said. “So maybe that increased competition is starting to turn things. I can’t promise but I do feel some optimism about that trend.”