The Good The Ugly & The Hideous

939.2Downtown’s New Buildings

The good, the ugly & the hideous

by James Leonard

posted 12/31/2008

“Why are so many of the buildings going up around town so ugly?” asks Joan Lowenstein. Standing in City Hall’s cramped main entrance, the not-yet-former city council representative isn’t afraid to name names. Her “ugly” buildings include the Corner House Apartments on State and the Ashley Terrace condos on Huron (shown)—she calls the latter a “ziggurat wannabe.”

Lowenstein is not alone. We heard plenty of criticism when we asked six local architects to evaluate downtown’s newest buildings, from Corner House to the planned addition to City Hall and the embattled 601 Forest student high-rise.

Three names immediately suggested themselves—Carl Luckenbach, Mike Quinn, and John Mouat—and those architects in turn suggested three more: Marc Rueter, Roy Strickland, and Bob Beckley.

Silver-haired and acerbic, Carl Luckenbach designed the jaunty Forest Street parking structure and the innovative Pittsfield and Malletts Creek branch libraries; he’s now working on a new downtown library. Measured but incisive, Mike Quinn of Quinn Evans is best known for major preservation projects like the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment—but his firm also has the contract to design the city’s new police-courts building. John Mouat’s firm, Mitchell and Mouat, did the gracious Fourth and Washington parking structure; his insight and cautious reticence reflect his experience as a longtime member of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board.

Luckenbach recommended Marc Rueter, “a very thoughtful and good designer.” Quinn pointed out that without the opinions of Roy Strickland, the context-minded director of the U-M’s program in urban design, and Bob Beckley, the sharp-tongued just-retired dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, readers would lack the views of academic architects.

We asked them to evaluate the major buildings that have gone up downtown in the last five years. Collectively they described the good, the ugly, and the hideous of Ann Arbor’s ongoing building boom.

Nobody likes Corner House

Carl Luckenbach calls Corner House Apartments “everybody’s favorite whipping boy.” Opened in 2004 to the disdain of architects and the delight of State Street area merchants, the building has seven upper floors fully occupied by 180 mostly student residents, while its retail street level is booming with the Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar.

“That building has two big problems,” says Luckenbach in his light-filled second-story office across from the Federal Building. “The windows on the upper floors are too small, and the windows on the main floor are too dark. On the other hand, this relative degree of self-effacement suits the building’s use. With students and a saloon as the tenants, we’d probably rather have it fade into the background.”

“It suffers from a lack of proportion between the parts and the whole,” says Marc Rueter in his garden-level office on Fifth Street around the corner from Jefferson Market. “Classical twentieth-century modernism says a building ought to have a bottom, a middle, and a top. But with Corner House Lofts what you have is a squashed bottom, a banal middle, and a timid top.” (Like the other architects, Rueter still refers to the building by the name it went by when the city planners reviewed it.)

Speaking from behind dark-tinted glasses, Bob Beckley declares, “It’s ugly—and there’s so much more they could have done to make it attractive. Balconies would have been nice. But instead it’s just ugly.

“However,” continues Beckley, sipping a latte in Sweetwaters, “there’s a place for ugly buildings, for background buildings, for banal buildings in the urban landscape, and I suspect that in time Corner House Lofts will disappear from sight.”

After considering the building for a minute, Mike Quinn says, “Like University Towers [on South University], the architect attempted a classical revival facade—equally unsuccessfully, in my opinion. Tower Plaza [on William] tried the same thing, but yet somehow they were much more successful.”

“From my point of view as an urban designer,” says Roy Strickland, “density and concentration in the center of Ann Arbor is a good idea. Taller, denser buildings bring more life to the street and more ¬people, more safety, more commerce in general, and more retail in particular.” Of Corner House itself, however, the best Strickland can say is “It’s a mild-¬mannered background building.”

Or, as John Mouat succinctly dismisses it over coffee at Cafe Zola, “Let’s say that building is clean and simple and just leave it at that.”

Unlovely as it is, Corner House has been successful enough that two similar student-targeted high-rises are currently under construction on opposite sides of the Diag. But until we showed them renderings, most of our architects couldn’t picture either one. That’s understandable: neither is scheduled to open until May 2009—though 4 Eleven Lofts, at Washington and Division, is closer to completion than Zaragon Place, the ten-story building that replaces the venerable Anberay Apartments on East University.

Despite its unfinished state, Zaragon Place already has venomous critics on the local blogs. Jon Zemke describes it on Metromode as “a plain brick box to store university students,” while Parking Structure Dude on Arbor Update makes the ultimate invidious comparison—“Zaragon Place makes Corner House Lofts look like the Dakota.”

Beckley agrees with Parking Structure Dude’s basic outlook—“It looks like it’ll share a lot of the qualities of Corner House Lofts”—though, he hedges, “it’s a little too early to tell.” Luckenbach is uncharacteristically sanguine but for a reason: “Neumann/Smith [the firm that designed Zaragon Place] is well respected and Joel Smith is a friend of mine, so I have hopes for it.”

Judging from what he’s seen, Rueter is quite positive: “It’s got a strong base [and] an interesting top, and the masonry block has strong feeling to it.” Like Metromode’s Zemke, though, Rueter says he was “sad to see the old building go.”

Across campus, Rueter has qualified hopes for 4 Eleven Lofts: “The base is too weak, though the middle is kind of nice and it does have nicely sized windows.” However, he takes issue with the street frontage: “[City planner] Jeff Kahan wanted to see retail right on the street, but I’d like to see a ten-foot setback.”

After seeing renderings, Beckley softens his opinions on Zaragon Place and 4 Eleven: “They are better than the average apartment complex built in Ann Arbor. Why? They have articulated facades that break their bulk up, they have identifiable front doors, and they respect the street edge. The renderings of 4 Eleven especially show the building in its context—suggesting the architect didn’t just pull this project from a drawer and paste it onto an Ann Arbor street.”

Measured Mike Quinn considers 4 Eleven Lofts “to be one of the more successful urban design responses to a twenty-first-century Ann Arbor. The ten-story height of the structure definitely challenges the scale and sense of the surrounding urban streetscape, and in a perfect world, seven or eight stories would be preferable. I appreciate the use of brick and the change of materials to break up the sense of massing and reduce the sense of scale to be a better neighbor to surrounding structures.”

What about the most recent, the biggest, and the most controversial student rental project—601 Forest? The high-rise at Forest and South U aroused fear and loathing as it wound its way toward approval by the city, dwindling in the process from twenty-five to fourteen floors. It turns out the architects have mixed views on the two versions—but are united in their distaste for the building kitty-corner across the street, the eighteen-story University Towers.

“As originally proposed, [601 Forest] was too big for that part of town,” says Luckenbach. “The original mass was way too immense,” agrees Quinn. “Tower Plaza is a skyscraper at twenty-seven stories. But South University and Forest is a more residential part of downtown, and the original design was too large. And I’d have to say University Towers was a negative influence in that regard.”

“Like Corner Houser Lofts, its big virtue is that it brings students closer to campus,” notes Beckley, “and fourteen stories is appropriate for the neighborhood—although twenty wouldn’t have been bad. It depends on the quality of the building. University Towers, for example, is now part of the landscape, but it is an ugly building.”

Rueter votes with the consensus: “University Towers is a bad building, though the height doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the building itself. As for the new building, it’s hard to know what it’ll be like until it’s built. But having another big building there could be a good thing if it mitigates University Towers.”

Judging the condos

Before the current rush to build student rentals, condos drove the housing boom. Downtown has added three major owner-occupied projects in the past five years.

The architects are divided on the smallest of the three: Loft 322, the five-story building with the galvanized steel facade on Liberty between Fifth Avenue and Division. Many like it. Some don’t. But however they feel about the rest of the building, all the architects hate the main floor.

“That giant garage door is absolutely hideous,” says Luckenbach, summing up the common view. “It gives that building the worst relationship to the sidewalk of any building built in Ann Arbor in the last ten years.”

Quinn concedes that “the on-site parking next to the sidewalk is unfortunate.” But otherwise he defends Loft 322. “The scale is really good,” he says. “The facade reads well from the street, and I like its honest contemporary character.”

Rueter, too, defends the building: “From a planning point of view, the call for downtown living is a good idea in general. And though I’d hate to see all of downtown look like that, one or two buildings here and there are okay.”

Only Beckley says he actually likes the building: “I like the way the balconies break up the facade. The scale is good, with good use of modern materials. I even considered living there at one point.” But even Beckley admits that “the problem is the ground floor. Denali [the developer] made an honest effort to alleviate it, but he had to put the parking on the main floor. What he should have done is put retail in front and parking behind it.”

On the other hand, everybody in the group loves Liberty Lofts, the refurbished factory off Liberty just west of downtown. “It’s a great use of that building,” says Beckley, “and it’s really interesting to walk past. With all those windows, there’s always something to see.”

“It’s a great example of adaptive reuse of an industrial building,” says Quinn. “They respected the history of the site but turned the building into a contemporary living space. I understand it was challenging working in a historic district, but I was pleased to see they were allowed to put balconies on.” Like Beckley lauding Loft 322, Quinn pays Liberty Lofts an architect’s ultimate compliment: “That’s where I’d buy a condo.”

Rueter, Mouat, and Strickland all praise Liberty Lofts in nearly the same language—“successful job,” “good job,” and “quite successful,” respectively—and even the stern Luckenbach is comparatively positive: “It’s pretty much okay. It’s a perfectly legitimate conversion of an industrial building to a residential building.”

The only thing that divides opinion is what should go in the large windowed space on the building’s north side. “It’s a really gorgeous space for a farmers’ market,” enthuses Quinn. “The retail should be a food store for the Old West Side,” agrees Rueter, “and the [People’s] Food Co-op is often mentioned as a possibility.” The rest concur—except for the often-contrarian Beckley, who sees “a furniture store like Crate and Barrel.”

The latest condo project to open, and probably the last for a while, is Ashley Terrace at the corner of Huron—Lowenstein’s “ziggurat wannabe.”

“Another ugly building,” laughs Beckley, “a carbuncle on the landscape. But think of number One North Main. It, too, is an ugly building, and it has receded in our vision. However, [Ashley Terrace] is not a nice building to walk past, not a building you’d want to walk past. It was like that with number One North Main, and now that whole stretch of Huron is like that.”

Luckenbach has a theory as to why Ashley Terrace looks the way it does: “The developer squeezed pennies on that project.” Rueter agrees: “It’s another example of a budget-driven building—and from the looks of it, the money was taken out of the top. But look at the corner on Ashley and Huron. It’s too weak. It’s large, but it’s not detailed enough for its size.”

“I’m comfortable with the scale,” says Quinn, “and although the articulation could have been stronger, the building does have base, middle, and top. Dealing with the rather steep change of grade on Huron was a challenge, a challenge not everyone would say they met. Plus while the facade has a kind of precast, Tinkertoy quality to it, we have to remember precast concrete can be a very viable and useful tool.”

“That building is a condo,” sums up Strickland from his Park Avenue office in New York, where he’s spending his sabbatical, “so the move was to make the building more stylized, to use the precast concrete panel system in a way that says, ‘I’m expensive. Live here.’”

A popular office and a debatable City Hall addition

Amid all the condos and apartments, new office buildings have been scarce lately. But one office building all the architects like is 201 Depot, the sleek white office on stilts just down the street from Casey’s Tavern. “I have to give it to [developer Bill] Martin for being a little adventurous,” concedes Luckenbach. “And I admire the gesture of putting a railroad car on tracks in front of the building.”

“It’s cool,” agrees Beckley, “and the nod to history of the site is important. It’s the kind of architecture you admire, which is sometimes easier to criticize than architecture you hate. But although some say the design looks like something you might find at an auto dealership, I don’t agree.”

“It’s a real good addition to North Main,” gushes Quinn. “It’s absolutely the right scale. The planning for the floodplain, the ‘stilts,’ is excellent. And the railroad car just hits everybody who sees it right between the eyes.” Even the normally reserved Mouat is emphatic: “I like it,” he says, striking the table gently with his fist, “and the railroad car is terrific, the sort of thing that keeps things fun.”

In Rueter’s opinion, 201 Depot is “Neumann/Smith’s best building in Ann Arbor. It’s not an Ann Arbor building, but it’s functional and responds well to the site. And it embodies one of the central truths of our business: you can’t have good architecture without a good client.”

If that’s the case, what about the Ann Arbor Municipal Center, the controversial expansion of City Hall? All the architects agree that the grueling approval process shows the citizenry’s deep ambivalence about spending $47 million in a crashing national economy. But opinion on the planned building is mixed.

“I don’t understand it,” says Luckenbach. “I don’t understand what drives its design. I don’t see it having a strong civic image to it.” In Beckley’s opinion, “City Hall should be an iconic building that shouldn’t blend into the landscape, and this one doesn’t. I like the design myself, though I don’t know if it will complement or be in competition with City Hall when it’s built.”

Mike Quinn’s firm designed the police-courts building. “We’ve come up with a strong, contextual design that fits the existing structure,” he says. “We’re keeping the scale at five stories to fit the urban fabric of Ann Arbor. Depending on the function, it’s got either a more open or a more private facade, and it’s got a far more welcoming entrance.”

Rueter isn’t entirely convinced: “The building needs a strong civic presence, and I’m not sure from the renderings if this design has it.” But because he believes Quinn Evans “are good architects,” he’s willing to suspend judgment until he sees the finished product.

What’s next for downtown?

Asked about the architectural future of downtown, Bob Beckley at first sounds pessimistic. “It takes a good client to make a good building,” he says, recalling Rueter’s earlier remark. “And I’d give Ann Arbor and the university a C in both those categories.

“However,” he continues, “I have to say great strides are being made downtown in adding buildings and adding density. And thanks to the good work of the DDA and especially [executive director] Susan Pollay, I think the future looks very good for Ann Arbor.”

“In five years, there’ll be ten more significant projects downtown,” Mike Quinn confidently predicts. “But people will still drive down Liberty or Main and feel that this is the city they know.”

As usual, Carl Luckenbach is the most pessimistic: “All these buildings—Corner House Lofts, Ashley Terrace, and so on—suffer from a market that doesn’t really value good design.”

DDA board member Mouat, on the other hand, is more optimistic than most. “The future is exciting,” he says. “We’re a very progressive city and a great place to live, and we need to keep it great.

“I’m not for ‘grow or die’; there are quality-of-life issues to consider. But some places evolve and others go in another direction. When I moved here in 1974, the downtown was dead. But now Ann Arbor is a beacon in Michigan, and we have to maintain and enhance it so it stays a place people want to come, especially people in their twenties and thirties. They’re the future, and if they’re not here, they and the future will be somewhere else.”    (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2008.]

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