North Zeeb Commons
A Midcentury Modern landmark at Zeeb Rd. and I-94 is targeted for redevelopment.
by Patrick Dunn
From the March, 2020 issue
Celebrated Midland architect Alden Dow designed the 1963 building for University Microfilms, Inc. Founded in 1938 by future U-M regent Gene Power, UMI created miniature film records of everything from rare books to academic dissertations. But while the business successfully transitioned into the digital era as ProQuest, its former showplace headquarters has stood vacant for a decade. Now it's likely to be demolished to make way for a mixed-use development called North Zeeb Commons.
MAVD, the Vlasic family's real estate investment and development firm, purchased the seventy-acre parcel in 2012 from Superior Capital Partners. Three years earlier that firm had purchased National Archive Publishing Co., formed by former ProQuest management when that company divested some of its assets in 2005. Roughly thirty acres are zoned for office and industrial use, with the rest zoned for agriculture.
MAVD founder and namesake Mike Vlasic referred questions about the company's plans to vice president and chief operating officer Jeff Harshe. Harshe says the firm originally planned to develop offices on the site, similar to its 350 S. Main building downtown and trio of South State Commons buildings just north of Eisenhower.
"We've worked with potential users on that, but we just haven't been able to get the traction that would warrant doing it with success [at the Zeeb Rd. site]," Harshe says. MAVD was looking to build 250,000 to 350,000 square feet on the site, Harshe says , but "we just don't see the demand" for that much office space.
The North Zeeb Commons plan calls for a smaller office building, shopping, and a hotel on the western edge of the property along Zeeb. The proposal being considered by the Scio Township planning commission would rezone the remaining office and industrial acreage as a "planned unit development" for multifamily residential.
"We want to have a relatively modest amount of each of the segments, instead of overloading it with one," Harshe says. "We think that's a nice balance for the area."
However, the four
existing buildings on the site are not part of the plan. "They're not in good shape," Harshe says. "They're poorly maintained, dating back to before our ownership."
A disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, Dow carefully integrated the UMI headquarters into the surrounding landscape. That made it a landmark in its day, but hard to work around now. Harshe says the main structure "is kind of a cool building, but it's functionally very difficult to use, both in terms of how it's designed and where it sits on the site." Harshe adds that it's served by an old boiler that was inoperable even before MAVD purchased it. And, he says, "even if it were perfectly well preserved," its central location on the site would make it difficult to design a new development around it.
MAVD's Ann Arbor projects have emphasized a thoughtful, context-sensitive approach with the company involved for the long run instead of just making a quick sale to investors. (The Observer was a tenant in Vlasic's Market Place building in Kerrytown from 1991 to 2013). Harshe says 300 N. Zeeb will be "a little different" from its other projects, largely because of the residential component. He says MAVD will develop the office and likely the retail parts of the project and be involved in them for the long run, but will partner with another developer for the residential portion.
"We're sticking with what we know best, and we're allowing other people to do portions of it where they know more than we do," he says. "That's pretty consistent with what our philosophy has been."
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