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Buyers Flock to New Condo Towers in Royal Oak

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SCALING NEW HEIGHTS: Condos in the sky move Royal Oak another step from homey to posh

October 17, 2004

BY BILL LAITNER

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

High-rise condominiums are old hat in many big cities, including Detroit.

But for decades, few sprang up in the low-rise suburbs.

That's changing.

And nowhere are condos flowering faster than in Royal Oak.

A big draw is the city's walkable downtown. Just one new tower is up so far, but buyers are flocking to put deposits on hundreds of soon-to-be built perches. They'll look out on a mosaic of small restaurants and shops, all within easy strolling distance.

From an 8th-floor penthouse atop SkyLofts - the most recent condominium tower to go up in Royal Oak - Tom December drinks in a daily panorama, south to the Renaissance Center and west to the setting sun.

December, who is single and has a married daughter in Birmingham, is the global vice president of recruiting for Compuware Corp. He said that for years he lived in condominiums that required him to drive everywhere.

Now, he says, "You just walk down and you have 10 places to go for breakfast or lunch, and 15 for dinner."

Near him is the Comedy Castle, for nightclub laughs.

"And the trains blasting by. You'd think it would be unappealing, but the trains are very neat," December says with a wide grin, clearly relishing the energy level of this once-sleepy downtown.

To him, a suburban high-rise has the best of two worlds: a hip and walkable downtown just outside and leafy neighborhoods of well-kept homes beyond.

His home has a loft's typically unfinished ceilings and pillars, and the usual array of exposed pipes, ducts and conduits.

December's unit has a spectacular 25-by-26-foot main room he designed with the help of architect Jim Schneider of Schneider & Smith Architects in Royal Oak. The space combines kitchen, dining and living areas, has two walls of glass and tucks appliances and computer equipment on sliding drawers behind white cabinetry. That leaves a sleek backdrop of white walls and shelving for December's collection of modern ceramics, sculpture and paintings.

He paid about $400,000 for his penthouse unit, then invested another $60,000 in upgrades. A quick elevator trip takes him down to the parking level and his two heated spots; the second one cost him $25,000 extra.

Smaller units sold from the mid-$200s up. But the bigger story is what happened afterward.

When SkyLofts' 68-unit tower on South Main sold out early this year - even before construction was done - the news unleashed a torrent of condominium plans at Royal Oak City Hall.

They include the 88-unit, six-story SkyLofts MarketSquare - from the developer who built December's building. It will be on 11 Mile Road east of Main Street, near the Royal Oak Farmer's Market; the planned opening is fall 2005. Units will cost $260,000 to $540,000.

Developers are attempting to keep prices down in order to avoid the mistake some builders made in Birmingham, where elite condos sit unsold, said Royal Oak Planning Director Tim Thwing.

Royal Oak is by no means the first of Detroit's suburbs to have condo towers, nor the only one planning more.

Birmingham, St. Clair Shores and Ann Arbor all have offered a few elevated views for a long time. Mid-to-high-rise condos are on drawing boards for Troy and Ferndale, too.

The trend to live high over suburbia is well established in other metropolitan suburbs across the continent, including those of Toronto, Boston and San Jose. Last month in the middle of Long Island, most of which has nothing higher than three stories, a proposal was announced for a 60-story luxury condo complex in Hempstead, N.Y., next to the Nassau Coliseum, home of the New York Islanders hockey club.

That's pushing the envelope, says Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor has one residential tower of 26 stories that "sticks out like a sore thumb," Kelbaugh says. He sits on a city task force that advises 12 stories as a maximum, for "design and aesthetic reasons," he says.

But aside from debates about height, the dean - author of "Repairing the American Metropolis" (University of Washington Press, 2002) - welcomes the coming of vertical living to suburbia. By driving less and walking more from a downtown tower, "you're saving time, energy and pollution. You might live with one car rather than two, which is an average savings of $600 a month.

"That alone may mean you can afford a condominium, or a bigger one," Kelbaugh says.

In Oakland County, better late than never. Nowhere has the rush toward high-rise living been so pronounced as the swarm to live high over Royal Oak. More than 300 condominium units are planned for the downtown and new projects are edging ever higher.

Champagne flowed last month at a party to celebrate the ground-breaking for the city's latest development - an 18-story tower going up on South Washington at East 5th Street, at the west edge of the downtown, backing up to an award-winning community theater.

Former Detroit Lion Lomas Brown reserved one of the 78 units in the Fifth Royal Oak, largely to show off a granite-like building material he sells. Brown, 41, his wife and two children will continue living in a ground-level condo in Rochester Hills.

"But if I go to Royal Oak and have a little too much, I'll just stay there," he says with a chuckle.

Brown starred at left tackle for the Lions from 1985 to 1995, but today's he's part-owner of Alu-Lite Technologies Inc., Michigan distributors for Silistar - a synthetic counter-and-floor material made of 93 percent natural quartz.

His 16th-floor unit will showcase lots of it, from foyer floor to bathroom walls, ``in a beautiful red, I think, or maybe our black-mirror look," he says, sounding like any new-home buyer trying to decide.

In keeping with the luxury materials like those Brown sells, the Fifth Royal Oak won't house loft designs. So it won't have the unfinished ceilings and exposed utilities that keep a loft's costs down but turn off some buyers.

Prices will range from $280,000 to $595,000 for units that measure 1,050 to 1,910 square feet and have one, two or three bedrooms. All will have unusual inset balconies. They "don't protrude from the building, so you have a lot of privacy; it's your own space," said John Hanna, vice president of the project.

Penthouse units are to cost $800,000 to $1.2 million, approaching the seven-figure prices that Dr. Michael Flores says sent him away from Birmingham's condominium market. The 46-year-old anesthesiologist is leaving an Italianate colonial in Grosse Pointe Woods where he spent 15 years gardening around his pool. He loved it but says, ``I need to let go of that. I want to travel more, and I want everything at my doorstep."

He'll move to the 17th floor of the Fifth Royal Oak, downsizing from 4,000 to 2,600 square feet. Expect the concrete structure to be finished in December 2005, Hanna says.

His father is the building's developer, Jack Hanna, owner of the 1927-built, six-story Washington Square Plaza Building just up the street.

Where will people park? As in most condo towers, parking will be inside. With shops and offices on the ground floor, the 2nd through 6th levels will be heated parking. That means the lowest residents in the building have a 7th floor view.

Royal Oak Mayor Jim Ellison says the 18-story tower will change the city's skyline dramatically.

``But we're all about being different here," Ellison says with a smile. Too different for some.

Royal Oak residents generally act stunned by the prospect of their downtown becoming a mini-Manhattan. And some worry that the trend is making their town more of a dazzling little city than a family place.

John Davids, 45, an architect with two young boys in the public schools, lives just north of downtown. He says few condominium buyers will have young children, and so they may not support local schools.

``I'm also concerned with the effect it's having on the kind of businesses we have," he says. He recalls how many traditional retailers closed and were replaced by bars and restaurants, including an old family-owned hardware store.

But urban planners say the old-time stores were an endangered species. They point to countless aging downtowns, now emptied by competition with malls, big-box retailers and mail-order merchandising. Bringing more residents to live in a downtown has become a mantra of urban renewal.

Set to start construction soon is the nine-story, 95-unit Main North Lofts.

The building will be in the heart of Royal Oak's downtown, on the northeast corner of 11 Mile and Main - almost adjacent to the Landmark Main Art Theatre.

Main North Lofts is the first of what architect Victor Saroki of Birmingham hopes will be three large buildings at the corner. One might have a supermarket inside and the third could incorporate a new Main Art Theatre.

``We hope it will. The ball is in their court," Saroki says, referring to touchy negotiations between condominium developer Joseph Freed Homes and the theater's owner.

Prices run from $280,00 for a one-bedroom loft to $850,000 for two-story penthouses.

Already, Ryan and Lisa Potter are anticipating their move to the complex from a townhouse just a mile away. They're in their mid-30s and teach at the same middle school in the Farmington district. They've put a deposit on a 7th-floor loft and can't wait to enjoy the view.

Their first home was a house in Commerce Township. They moved to the Royal Oak townhouse in 2002, "because we wanted to get back to the city type of feel," says Ryan.

"We were feeling the sprawl out there, the traffic," he recalls.

Now, they love living just south of Royal Oak's downtown but yearn for more - for the urban feel of a high-rise, and the resulting proximity to more shops, the public library, theaters and the Farmer's Market.

Lisa grew up in a ranch house in Warren. Now, she'd rather live high over Royal Oak, she says.

"Since I can't live in Manhattan, this is probably the next best thing."

Contact BILL LAITNER at 248-351-3297 or [email protected]

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October 17, 2004

What's new, what's planned in a bustling downtown district

BY BILL LAITNER

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

These high-rise condominium towers, all in Royal Oak, are among the newest planned for suburban Detroit:

Main North Lofts: This 94-unit, nine-story building is the first of three towers planned for the northeast corner of 11 Mile and Main Street. Prices for two-bedroom units measuring 1,000 to 1,800 square feet are $280,000 to $500,000; three-bedroom units, with either 1,900 or 2,000 square feet, are $500,000 and $600,000; and penthouses of 2,700 square feet are $850,000. A sales office and model are at 201 E. Eleven Mile, just east of the Landmark Main Art Theatre. Call 248-336-1700, 11-6 Mon.-Sat., noon-6 Sundays; or see www.mainnorth.com.

The Fifth Royal Oak: A 78-unit tower of 18 stories is planned for South Washington at 5th streets, almost abutting the east end of the Baldwin Theatre, a community playhouse. It will be fully finished - not lofts. Prices start at $275,000, and units will range from 1,000- to 2,600 square feet. A sales office and model are at 306. S. Washington, Suite 400, 1/2 block north of the building site. Call 248-591-5432, 11-8 Mon.-Fri., noon-5 Sat. and Sun.; or see www.thefifthroyaloak.com.

SkyLofts MarketSquare: This 88-unit, six-story building will rise on 11 Mile-, three blocks east of Main, near the Royal Oak Farmer's Market. Units will cost $260,000 to $540,000. A sales office is at 409 S. Center Street, behind the developer's first condo tower in Royal Oak -- on South Main between 4th and 5th streets. Call 248-541-5638, 11-7 Mon., Weds., Thurs.; 1-9 Fri.; 11-7 Sat.; 11-5 Sun.; or see www.skyloftsmarketsquare.com.

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