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High-rise city is envisioned

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High-rise city is envisioned

Computer model would add over 20 tall buildings to downtown

Wednesday, 28, 2004

BY TOM GANTERT

News Staff Reporter

A task force studying ways to get more residents in downtown Ann Arbor is looking at a computer model that would add more than 20 high-rise buildings, bringing 2,000 more residential units and 5,000 more people to the central city by 2030.

But many of the 70 people who attended the Downtown Residential Task Force meeting Tuesday questioned the impact of the increased development and expressed worries that it may destroy Ann Arbor's small-town charm.

Residents spoke passionately for 80 minutes about parking, lack of infrastructure, traffic, and the possible negative impact on surrounding neighborhoods after a 40-minute presentation. Currently, the downtown has about 2,800 residents in a 66-square-block area.

"I don't want to see five more Tower Plazas," said resident Margaret Wong, referring to the downtown's tallest building, a 26-story condominium complex. "I support more density downtown. But it has to be achieved with a lot of sensitivity and in a measured way.

"Sustainable livability is a huge issue we just started to nibble at tonight."

The Downtown Residential Task Force was created after discussions about the Greenbelt millage last fall focused on limiting suburban sprawl and the city's reputation for resisting higher-density housing.

The task force handed out a fact sheet that said expert projections had 78,000 new residents coming to Washtenaw County by 2020.

Those people have to live somewhere, Greenbelt critics said. The task force mission was to explore how to overcome barriers to attract more downtown residents. It will submit a final report to the City Council June 7.

Tuesday's presentation at city hall highlighted one vision put together by the eight-member task force, which includes an urban planning expert, downtown business people and representatives from the City Council and Planning Commission.

A computer model had most of the 9-, 12- and 15-story office and residential towers off Ashley Street, and several similar buildings off Huron Street. It would add 5 million square feet of residential, office, retail and parking space.

Task Force Member Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning, said one of the taller buildings would be built every year over the next 25 years.

It said the benefits of increased density downtown would mean a larger tax base, potentially lower home sale and rental prices, increased use of alternate transportation and more customers for downtown businesses.

Kelbaugh said he expected strong opinions, and that the task force was looking for input.

"We need to rethink a few things," Kelbaugh said. "But that was our intention. It has enriched our understanding of the problems as we take the next step."

Several residents who voiced concerns were in favor having more people live downtown.

But they wanted more detail and explanation of potential impacts.

Resident Pat Ryan was the harshest critic, chastising the task force for not supplying more details.

"This was a remarkably superficial effort," Ryan said, criticizing the task force for changing downtown to bring in 5,000 people. "That is ridiculous."

Two others complimented the task force.

Some had concerns that the computer model couldn't address.

"If we are not creating those places that are vibrant and beautiful to live in, no one will live there," said resident Conan Smith. "We've got to focus on neighborhood design. I'm all for more density. But it has to look and feel like Ann Arbor."

Jerry Lax, the former interim city attorney, said the task force has to look carefully at who will pay for all the construction envisioned.

Lax said that if cost and economic barriers aren't considered "much of the good work will be for naught."

But some residents questioned the need to add more people downtown.

"I don't know that we all voted for higher density when we voted for the Greenbelt," said Vince Caruso of Ann Arbor. "I don't know we necessarily want to be like Manhattan."

But resident Kristen Schleick said she thought it was good to have more residents downtown than contributing to urban sprawl.

"More density downtown is necessary," Schleick said as she left the meeting. "We're expecting a great deal more in the population, and I'd rather have them downtown."

Mayor John Hieftje attended and said the residents' concerns were "exactly what we wanted."

City Council Member Wendy Woods, D-5th Ward, a task force member, said the council can act quickly on some of the recommendations if they find strong support.

Tom Gantert can be reached at [email protected] or (734) 994-6701.

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