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An Auburn Hills revival: Main business district sees $55 million in projects and construction

A small stretch of Auburn Road in Auburn Hills is being built out with a raft of new apartments, office and retail space.

The main business district between Squirrel Road to the west and stretching a few blocks to the east has about $55 million in new buildings under construction or completed recently across seven projects.

In all, something like 400 new apartments and nearly 50,000 square feet of office, restaurant, retail and commercial space is underway or done, adding to the density of the area that began to take shape in its current form nearly 20 years ago in 2002, when the city’s Tax Increment Financing Authority spent $18 million to improve the streetscape and infrastructure of the area around the Auburn/Squirrel intersection.

Several years ago, the city turned its focus to bringing more residents to the downtown, which consists mostly of single-story retail buildings. A few two- to four-story buildings were outliers, up until recently.

“Over the course of the years what we’ve heard is that we need more foot traffic for some of these retail spaces to grow and expand and create that destination place,” said Brandon Skopek, assistant to City Manager Tom Tanghe.

Developers are capitalizing on a host of factors along Auburn Road to bring those new residents.

Among them: Renewed interest in walkable communities where things like coffee shops, restaurants and shopping are just a short stroll away; and major employers in the area, including Oakland University, Stellantis (formerly FCA USA LLC), Volkswagen of America and now fast-growing United Wholesale Mortgage, which is just a short drive along South Boulevard in Pontiac. Inc. is also building a massive new distribution facility not far away on the former Pontiac Silverdome site.

“Auburn Hills is well known for technology and attracting not just national, but international, tenants from all over the world,” said Jacob Bacall, head of Farmington Hills-based Bacall Development LLC, which is building the $20 million Fountain Circle of Auburn Hills, which has 258 units to be completed by the fall. “That certainly was on our mind when we invested.”

One developer invested in a pair of apartment projects to meet what he saw as unmet housing needs.

“It’s long been overlooked from a residential housing perspective,” said Michael Wayne, partner at Auburn Hills-based Detroit Riverside Capital, which is building a pair of new apartment developments, the Jordan 3250, a $9 million development with 48 apartments and 6,400 square feet of retail space, and The Brunswick, a $4.7 million project with 20 apartments plus commercial and office space.

“With this push from the city for more residential housing options, people realize that it’s a pretty nice place to live as well,” Wayne said.

For Robert Gibbs, an expert on downtowns and an urban planner who is principal of Birmingham-based Gibbs Planning Group, the proof is in the numbers.

Within a 10 minute drive of the business district, there are more than 100,000 workers, he said. In addition, within 10 miles, the average household income is $110,000, more than double the national average. That, Gibbs said, makes the area prime territory for new housing, shopping and other development.

And while the city rebuilt its historic town center square as part of its downtown planning process and put in some flexible zoning rules, he believes more restaurants are needed and the storefronts, with dark, tinted windows, were built in more of a suburban style than they should have been.

“They’re a little on the boring side,” he said.

In addition, there isn’t much room for the core downtown strip to be expanded.

“It has some artificially low restraints on building heights and parking requirements, and those are artificially repressing the market,” he said.

The Downtown Development Authority area, with its base tax capture year established in 2014, is much larger than the existing business hub. It stretches some 215 acres. The majority of that acreage sits north of Auburn and east of Juniper Street, running nearly up to M-59 and stretching east to Adams and the city’s border with Rochester Hills.

In addition to increasing its focus on bringing new residents to the downtown, Skopek said the city has been buying up properties when it makes sense and then seeking the right developer to bring them to more productive use.

And through things like planned unit developments, the city and developers are able to have some flexibility on projects working within the existing downtown zoning framework, Skopek said.


Posted By: Crain’s Detroit Business on May 16, 2021.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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