Don Chisholm's Ann Arbor
He shaped the city's south side--and its music scene.
by Davi Napoleon
From the August, 2017 issue
When you're driving through campus, downtown, or the Briarwood area, chances are you'll pass by an apartment or office complex that Don Chisholm built. He may also be responsible for the road you're on. And if you're going to a cultural event, well, he might have had a hand in that, too.
Chisholm and his wife, Betts (short for Betty), met as U-M undergrads. After finishing his MBA in 1956, he tried U-M law school but left to work at Owens-Corning Fiberglass Company in Toledo. After two years in the army, he returned to Michigan Law and again dropped out for Owens-Corning. But he quickly left that, too. "I didn't like the corporate rigidity," he says, explaining why he gave up a good steady salary to take a chance on Ann Arbor. He worked as a broker with Hobbs-Schmidt Real Estate before partnering with Joe Savarino. They worked together until Savarino's death at age fifty-four in 1985.
With the student body growing, developers like Chisholm and Savarino were buying old homes near Central Campus and tearing them down to build new apartments. In his recent memoir Am I Being Too Subtle?, real estate billionaire Sam Zell recalls partnering with Chisholm as a U-M law student to assemble the site for the Geddes Hill apartments. But the rapid changes triggered a backlash. City council created historic districts and tightened zoning rules, ending redevelopment in campus neighborhoods. Where else could developers go?
Chisholm had done a marketing study of Ann Arbor housing starts for his business-school mentor, Paul McCracken. He learned there had been a lot of housing starts, many unsuccessful. And he set out to avoid failure.
A disproportionate number of renters are students, he knew, and from a student perspective, the center of town is not Main and Huron--it's the Michigan Union. "The only vacant land a mile and a quarter from the Union was on South State," he recalls. He and Savarino picked up fifty-two acres
there. But there was no road through the property, and no utilities so far out.
They convinced the city to build a road from State to Main and assess property owners to pay for it. They paid their share for a stretch of Eisenhower Pkwy., and so did John McMullen, whose property there is now Briarwood. They also worked with the city to widen State and extend water and sewer lines. Soon they had the 320-unit Hidden Valley apartment complex and were buying land from others farther south.
Savarino often spent Monday evenings at the Chisholms' Ann Arbor Woods home. "One day, we got an urgent call from the city clerk," Chisholm recalls. "They wanted a name for the new road off Eisenhower. My wife said, 'You guys are always kidding around and playing games. Why not call it Boardwalk?'" Monopoly also inspired Waterworks Plaza.
In the 1970s, Chisholm diversified. He sold the property that became the Bechtel (777) Building and Wolverine Tower, and helped develop and manage projects including the Burlington office buildings, part of Oak Valley, and Stonebridge, a golf course community with more than 700 homes and condos. Chisholm handled sales and management, and generally owned about 10 percent of his projects.
Larry French helped Chisholm finance Stonebridge, which took fifteen years to complete. "Some who had made financial commitments to it backed away," he says, but "it turned out to be a great, great development." He watched Chisholm and Savarino develop other properties. "They were all quality real estate projects built to be long-term assets for the city, not built to sell quickly."
Bill Martin, a fellow developer, says Chisholm was always honest when things didn't go as planned. And no matter what, Chisholm is "always up, never down, always smiling, always laughing."
In the 1980s Chisholm built downtown's first high-rise condo, Sloan Plaza. "He wanted a first-class building and went to Dick Black [of Hobbs and Black] to design it," recalls builder Joe O'Neal, who partnered with him on the project. There were "surprises from the city, and it kept making it cost more and more," O'Neal says, adding that Chisholm handled the situation diplomatically.
O'Neal found a creative way to promote the building, which was just up the street from what was then the site of the Ann Arbor News. "If they looked out their window, they were looking at our building," Chisholm recalls. "Joe would put a Christmas tree on a crane, and we were on the front page six times."
Chisholm looks younger, but he is eighty-three-years old. In recent years he has stopped developing property and has sold off much of what he owned.
He's not impressed with the student high-rises that have sprouted downtown in the last decade. "Ann Arbor is way overbuilt," Chisholm feels. "It's not the nice town we all moved into." Even Sloan Plaza will soon be hemmed in by taller, blockier buildings.
"We could have built Sloan Plaza higher than it is," he says. "We could have built sixty-two units instead of thirty-two, but we didn't want to." He's troubled also that the new buildings cost so much that only the wealthiest students can afford to live there.
There's a difference, Chisholm thinks, between Ann Arborites who develop property to hold and those who "hit and run" from other cities. "They ask how much money they can make. But they make mistakes because they think we're a big market, and we're a small market," says Chisholm. He thinks they may be surprised when there aren't enough rich kids to fill the ever increasing availability of luxury buildings.
Chisholm's Music Suite
Who's playing Margaret Sloan's Steinway?
Ann Arbor may be small, but it's as culturally vibrant as many big cities. And Chisholm had a role in developing that, too.
His mother, Margaret Sloan, was a concert pianist and piano teacher, and he developed a love for music early on. After his parents divorced, he lived with his mother in a flat over a barbershop in Detroit. When he came home from school, he could hear swing piano coming from their flat. After his mother's death, he found a home for the 1928 Steinway she left him in Sloan Plaza, the building he named for her.
The piano sits in Suite 307, where he holds gatherings and hosts visiting artists. When Van Cliburn came to town, he prepared for concerts on the Sloan Steinway. Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Freddy Cole, Eric Comstock, Diana Krall, Andre Previn, and Cedar Walton are among the pianists who've stayed there. Bassists, drummers, and horn players have enjoyed the suite, too--it might be easier to list the musical luminaries who didn't stay in 307 than those who did.
Chisholm provided extras, too. Pianist Eddie Higgins liked Clamato, so there was always a pitcher of it in the fully stocked fridge. Jazz vocalist Joe Williams and bassist Ray Brown enjoyed golfing, so Chisholm took them to Stonebridge. WEMU music director Linda Yohn says he's even picked up musicians from the airport.
"The only payment he ever asked was for the artist staying there to sign the guest book," says Deanna Relyea, founder of the Kerrytown Concert House. "Everyone who signed was always shocked as they looked through the book, a who's who in both the classical and jazz world."
Chisholm's love of jazz is legendary. He's a founder of the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, funds scholarships for jazz and musical theater students, and encourages others to contribute through his Don Chisholm Friends of Jazz. "I can't say enough about the incredible contributions Don has made to our program and to the jazz scene in Ann Arbor," says pianist Ellen Rowe, who chairs the jazz department at U-M. In 2015, the Jazz Journalists Association gave him their Jazz Hero award.
For his sixtieth birthday, Betts surprised him by flying in Diana Krall to sing. "He's a fan beyond belief," says O'Neal. And Martin says the last time they talked, the first thing Chisholm said was "'Diana Krall is coming for Summer Festival!'"
She gave him a shout-out from the stage.
[Originally published in August, 2017.]
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