The word hit downtown like a bomb in mid-November: the city had lost its lease on the 222-space “Brown Block” on Huron between Ashley and First. What its owners justly call “the prime piece of undeveloped property in the city if not county” was finally facing development.

But not on December 1. “It’ll stay a public parking lot,” says Darren McKinnon, VP at First Martin Corporation, the lot’s owner. Though First Martin decided not to renew the city’s lease, “we have someone [else] to run the lot for us,” McKinnon says. “Initially the rates will be the same. Our intent in the short term is to run it so that people won’t notice the difference.”

Beneath that unchanged surface, however, downtown’s landscape will be transformed. The block took its name from Bill Brown, the ebullient businessman who ran car dealerships there for decades before and after WWII. As Ann Arbor’s mayor from 1945 to 1957, McKinnon points out, he also “built the first municipal parking garage in the country at First and Washington. There’s still a garage there” under the Ann Arbor City Apartments.

When car dealerships moved out, the lot was converted to public parking. Brown’s heirs continued to rent it to the city after his death in 1970, as did First Martin after buying the property in 1992. The city paid about $34,000 monthly to lease the Brown Block and a smaller lot at Fifth and Huron that’s also used for parking, and waived property taxes on the parcels.

After twenty-five years, why did First Martin decide to end the arrangement? “Everybody knows the economy’s been hot and development around town has been strong,” McKinnon says. In September, the company let the city know that it would not be renewing the leases.

City administrator Howard Lazarus emails that they’re cool with First Martin’s plans–up to a point. “The City will work with the owner during the [three-to-six-month] transition so as not to cause an immediate problem for residents, local businesses, and commuters. However, the owner is at risk for all compliance issues and costs, including the eventuality that the Planning Commission and Council may not provide the requested approvals” to use the lots for parking.

They may not–but it’s hard to imagine why, since no one wants to lose that parking. “That lot is very important to the Main Street merchants,” McKinnon says. “That’s why we want to keep it the same it always has been short term.”

Long-term, though, Ann Arbor may never be the same–and not just because parkers will be using the Brown Block on borrowed time. It’s the largest redevelopment site in the city’s history, and whatever is built there will profoundly reshape downtown. What that might be, though, First Martin won’t say.

“We are not able to speak to our long-term plans except to say that we’re a development company and our goal is to develop that property,” McKinnon says. When that time does come, expect an even bigger bombshell.

from calls & letters, January 2018

“There is a bit more history that could have been included in the Brown Block story,” emailed former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw after reading our December Inside Ann Arbor article on First Martin Corporation’s decision not to renew the city’s lease on downtown’s biggest parking lot. Before First Martin bought it, Laidlaw says, developer Dick Berger “was heavily promoting a hotel and conference center on the Brown Block. He had lots of folks scared. Bill Martin stepped in and bought the block from the Brown family. Then he leased the block to the City. Bill was a hero. Of course, no one could expect First Martin to lease it to the City forever.”