Ann Arbor community leaders make case for mixed-use arts housing

Core members and Artspace representatives tour Ann Arbor as part of the 2022 feasibility study. (Artspace)

ANN ARBOR – Ann Arbor’s housing landscape is constantly evolving and is a hot button topic for some.

While development is plentiful throughout the city, one group of community leaders is exploring the possibility of bringing a mixed-use housing complex to town with a focus on the arts.

It would be the first of its kind in Ann Arbor, and the second of its kind in Michigan.

Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer for the arts, has already developed a mixed-use arts campus in Dearborn, Michigan.

Who’s leading the effort

Local entrepreneur Dug Song and co-owner of Synecdoche architecture and design firm Lisa Sauve first met with Artspace representatives in 2021. They then formed a core group with other community leaders to help facilitate a feasibility study with the developer, which was funded by The Song Foundation.

Core group members include Song, Sauve, Artspace Board Member and Ann Arbor resident Devon Akmon, Michael Appel of Avalon Housing, Jennifer Goulet of Wonderfool Productions, Amina Iqbal of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Audrey Patino of Avalon Housing and Ryan Tobias of Triad Partners.

Watch: A4 goes inside Synecdoche Design Studio

“Artspace came in in February of 2022 to tour existing cultural projects, see some potential development spaces and meet with more community partners to see what organizations we have on the ground, what type of network of people are interested in a project like this,” said Sauve.

According to Artspace, it uses the following elements to assess the viability of development in a given community:

  • Project concept
  • Alignment with community goals
  • Arts market
  • Potential sites
  • Funding and finance
  • Local leadership

Artspace held focus groups and public meetings with 100 artists and arts organizations members to gauge feedback on the project. Through the discussions, Artspace also decided to expand its considerations beyond Ann Arbor’s borders.

“This study was originally focused on Ann Arbor, but as we began the conversations, we quickly realized the porous borders with Ypsilanti and the interconnectedness of the artists’ live/work opportunities and thus, expanded the study to encompass Washtenaw County,” reads the Artspace feasibility study.

What would the project look like?

According to Sauve, the development would be classic mixed-use.

“(It would include) ground floor commercial space primarily catered to and addressing shared needs of artists in the creative community,” said Sauve, who added that the complex would also have art studios and workshops for resident artists.

There could also be gallery space for both residents and the greater community to utilize.

In terms of the apartments, many would be affordable housing units similar to the Avalon Housing model which accommodates those in the 60-80% of the Area Median Income range, said Sauve.

To draw from an existing example, the developer’s City Hall Artspace Lofts in Dearborn is an affordable live/work space with 53 units for artists and their families. The building features work studio spaces, space for nonprofits and creative businesses and an art and tech lab for residents.

Next steps

Following its feasibility study, Artspace determined there is “sufficient capacity in Washtenaw County to underwrite an arts market study, predevelopment, and capital funding of an affordable mixed-use, artist live/work project with private funders potentially having more of an interest in funding a project in Ann Arbor.”

The developer found that both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti could support an Artspace development of 40 units or more.

Through its experience in three Michigan markets, Artspace officials also said the developer has gotten a “head start in identifying and navigating potential state, regional, and local funding sources.”

Upon completion of the feasibility study, the next step would be to do an arts market study for which the core group is currently exploring funding opportunities.

As part of an effort to refine the project concept, the market study would gather data on market demand, create a list of interested creatives in need of space and secure financing.

As part of the study, area residents would be asked to complete an online survey. Artspace would then generate analysis and recommendations informed by the responses it receives.

The core group would conduct all survey outreach and Artspace recommends young, diverse creatives and city leadership help spearhead the effort.

“What makes Ann Arbor unique is a lot of the creative community and culture that exists here,” said Sauve. “At the end of the day, we have a housing crisis. When we think about how we’re maintaining some of the aspects of our community, I think there’s a lot of people on different sides on how Ann Arbor is changing relative to development. I see Ann Arbor relative to culture -- we’re losing some of that because culture makers can’t afford to live here.”

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.