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Work begins on Lower Town

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Work begins on Lower Town

Developers set big goals for project at Broadway and Maiden Lane

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

BY JO COLLINS MATHIS

News Staff Reporter

A 75,000-square-foot athletic club, a steak and seafood restaurant and a 96-suite hotel will be among the tenants in the Lower Town project northeast of downtown Ann Arbor.

Demolition began early this month at the site of the ambitious 6.4-acre project at the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, a shopping area once anchored by a Kroger store.

The Ann Arbor Athletic Club will be an upscale health and exercise facility with a swimming pool and state-of-the-art fitness equipment, said Ken Polsinelli, senior vice president of Ann Arbor-based McKinley, who is lining up tenants for the development.

"To take advantage of the synergy of the hospitals, (the University of Michigan's) North Campus, Pfizer and everything that's happening on the Plymouth Road corridor ... and the north side of town - it's a good fit," he said.

Adjoining the athletic club will be a 96-suite hotel, said Polsinelli, who is in the final stages of negotiating the lease. He declined to name the hotel, but described it as a name everyone would recognize. Blake's Chop House and University Bank have also signed on, he said.

McKinley, a property management and real estate investment firm, is negotiating with a number of other local and national tenants, from eateries to specialty stores.

Just as a new and very different Arborland emerged following its extreme makeover in the late 1990s, developers are planning big things for the $125 million, 500,000-square-foot residential and commercial project.

Strathmore Development of East Lansing is in charge of the project, and is seeking $40 million in state, county and city brownfield cleanup money. The site is contaminated with solvent from a former dry-cleaning business. Developers are also trying to tap public funds because the project will include a parking structure for the city of Ann Arbor, and for improvements to public waters, the sewer system, storm detention system and Traver Creek.

Although the funding deal hasn't been signed, there's been an agreement on all the major terms between the state of Michigan, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the county, the city and the developer, according to Scott Chappelle, president of Strathmore Development.

"All that's left to do is finalize it in written documents," Chappelle said. "There are contingencies we have to satisfy, and then we have to prepare agreements to facilitate the details."

Documents should be finalized in the next month, he said. Vertical construction would begin in June, and is expected to be completed two years later.

The project hasn't met with universal approval. In early August, when the City Council approved a development agreement with Strathmore, council members Kim Groome and Bob Johnson, both D-1st Ward, voted against it, saying they wanted more review time.

Some residents in the area have voiced concerns, too.

"It's a bad plan for the city," Broadway Hill resident Laura Strowe said Monday morning. "It's wrong for the city to get involved with a financially risky project when it has budget problems of its own."

As part of the deal with Strathmore, the city would sell $40 million worth of bonds for the project, repaying them with funds from state, city and county tax revenue the project would generate.

At Strathmore, Chappelle believes the project merits funding.

"This project puts contaminated, under-utilized property back on the tax rolls which will also help facilitate redevelopment of other distressed properties in the immediate area," said Chappelle.

It also provides for an environmental cleanup, an affordable housing component and public parking, he said, as well as retail in an area that needs retail.

Some small businesses that occupied the area being redeveloped, have relocated to Plymouth Park Plaza, a renovated retail strip across the street from the project on Broadway.

The Manna Korean grocery store will soon move into the former location of The Ann Arbor Thrift Shop, which moved last year to new quarters on Washtenaw Avenue near Arborland.

The Cottage Inn pizza shop will move into Plymouth Park Plaza in a few days. Manager Mureed Farha looks forward to the new construction.

"It will be good business-wise because it will attract more people to the area," he said.

Not everyone has been able to stay in the area, however.

Tom Schoolcraft had to close down his business, Select Metals Recycling, at the end of the year to make way for the project. With no available space nearby, he's moved to much larger quarters on South State Road, where he expects to increase his business.

Schoolcraft, 56, grew up in Ann Arbor and remembers fishing and swimming in the Huron River near Lower Town. He said he's going to miss the area, especially now that the new Broadway Bridges project has already improved it so much.

"I'm glad they're doing it," he said of the upcoming project. "It should be a great improvement for the city."

The new bridges have increased traffic through the area, and foot traffic is expected to rise in warmer weather, Polsinelli said. In addition to the office/retail/residential mix, construction will include a center courtyard between three buildings; an outdoor amphitheater and park; and a natural wildflower area that connects to a creek at the rear of the property.

Polsinelli said it's hard to look at the existing structures as they are and envision the area as it will be.

"It's going to be absolutely gorgeous," he said. "It'll be a welcome addition to Ann Arbor."

News staff reporter Catherine O'Donnell contributed to this story. Jo Mathis can be reached at [email protected] or (734) 994-6849.

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Woo hoo! :D I always love hearing about new development projects here. Especially because downtown is secure. Otherwise I would hate it because if the buissiness owners downtown hadn't gotten together to make downtown like a tiny Chicago, it would have lost all of it's buissiness to Briarwood mall and look like most of downtown Detroit (No offense to Detroit, I love that city).

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I live very close to lower town and it's been a tired place for as long as I can remember. Historically, it rivaled the present downtown in importance. It hosted, I believe, a post office of its own and a complex of businesses and services. The only reminder, presently, of those days is the very old building which now hosts the small st. vincent de paul thrift store.

Ann Arbor is an interesting city in Michigan because in some ways it has been very progressive with its planning (negotiating concessions for affordable housing in downtown developments, for example) yet outside of its old downtown there are no pedestrian-oriented shopping areas or services. I would consider lower town a part of downtown, not only because of its historic connection but also because it's a 15 minute walk from main and huron, but all the same I think the city's got an opportunity here to create a lively corner of town. Let's hope they demand better standards for construction and business compatibility than they have been on state street lately...

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I just drove by this area to seee the "demolition" that the A2 News reported back on the 18th of January. In fact, there has been NO demolition of any kind yet. Strange that they would get this story so messed up. I'll keep my eyes open for implements of destruction arriving in the near future, if they show up at all.

- BR

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