Ann Arbor takes pride in its quaint, small-town ambiance juxtaposed against its exciting college atmosphere. So it’s understandable that residents have historically fought development tooth and nail, including the high-rise construction project known as 601 Forest. With developers now making concessions with regards to the size of the building, residents have scored a minor victory for Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, they picked the wrong battle. While it’s heartening to see cooperation between residents and developers in the creation of a much more palatable plan, the new design still disregards the main problem with student housing: affordability.
The original proposal for 601 Forest, an up-scale student housing development that will be located at the corner of South Forest and South University Avenues, estimated that it would be about 25 stories tall and contain 1,200 units. From the plan’s inception, residents have been up in arms, arguing that the high-rise didn’t fit the area. On Monday, developers responded to concerns by bringing a revised building plan before the Ann Arbor City Council for just 14 stories and between 550 and 650 units, appeasing many concerned residents.
Granted, that’s not to argue that the new plan for 601 Forest is perfect. It has always had flaws. But contrary to the beliefs of many residents, size wasn’t one of them. Building up is always better than building out. Urban density is more convenient and eco-friendly than urban sprawl, and fighting growth skyward while ignoring bigger flaws shows a troubling lack of foresight. Plus, one has to question if a building only one story taller than Tower Plaza would have a measurable impact on the community.
But high-rises cancel out their own usefulness if they aren’t serving the needs of the majority. What should bother students most is the fact that the developers don’t seem to have them in mind — or at least most of them. 601 Forest, like other off-campus high-rises of its kind, offers expensive housing targeted at upper-class students. But Ann Arbor’s problem is not a lack of housing with flat-screen televisions. It’s a lack of affordable housing. And while developers should be catering to this need, there’s no reason for residents to quibble over a single story instead of calling attention to an important flaw.
However, this new plan represents more than an 11-floor concession on a minor point; it represents the ability of Ann Arbor residents to make a difference in their city. While the city government was in a tough position to fight — let alone win — this battle, residents led a successful effort against an undesirable project. Admittedly, the nation’s recent economic woes likely played a role in the decision to scale-back the upscale 601 Forest, but much of the change can be attributed to local outcry. That should prove quite empowering for future projects.
Progress can’t be stopped. As the University and Ann Arbor grow, more housing will become a necessity. It is our responsibility, though, to help guide development — and this concession shows that we have more influence than we think. While proposals like 601 Forest aren’t that common in Ann Arbor, they are more common than plans for more affordable housing developments. Students need more inexpensive options, but if they don’t use platforms like the Michigan Student Assembly and the Ann Arbor City Council to voice this need, developers won’t hear them.