The High Life
There is a lot of button-pushing when it comes to high-rise living,
not to mention the buzzing in and the glares shot from doorman if he doesn't recognize you. Of course this isn't Sex And The City and we're
not talking Manhattan when it comes to living it up in the penthouse,
but there are a few places where this lifestyle is alive and well in
Southeast Michigan. And you can find it in a few of our downtowns if
that's what you're looking for and, more importantly, if you can afford
It is most certainly there in the condo spaces of the newly
remodeled Book-Cadillac and Shelby hotels, as well as various buildings
along the Riverfront and here and there throughout Detroit's downtown,
midtown, and New Center areas. But what about north of Eight Mile, or
out past Dearborn? Places like Ann Arbor and Royal Oak and Birmingham
have some living spaces of interest to check out, elevators with dozens
of buttons, and views that'll make you weak in the knees. There's some
high-rise living that some of us will undoubtedly envy. A few luxury
apartments in the sky that might make George and Weezie Jefferson blush.
Yet, there's something else at play here when speaking with the
residents in buildings like the Fifth or the Main North lofts in Royal
Oak, the Tower Plaza apartments in Ann Arbor, or the somewhat smaller
(in height) Merrillwood Arms apartments in Birmingham. Sure their views
range from damn nice to breathtaking, but it's the location that really
brought them to their current living quarters. The concept that the
sprawl of suburbia, where driving everywhere at nearly three bucks a
gallon is not only a burden financially but also environmentally, just
wasn't working anymore.
"This idea of urban living is more apparent these days," says John
Hanna, developer of the 19-story Fifth on Washington Avenue in Royal
Oak. He says that people are looking to have their living quarters
closer to where they work and where they play. "This will continue to
be a bigger and bigger part of America. This idea of the city as a
playground and not taking the car everywhere will continue to grow."
The Fifth, Hanna says, is at 100 percent capacity for its 78 units
and six of its eight penthouses are occupied. (One, however, is his
office. "Yeah I got a pretty nice view," he says with a laugh.)
Craig and Tanya Bell and their 16-year-old son Dane, call one of the
units on the 15th floor home. And when your neighbor (a few floors
above) is Detroit Lions Quarterback Matt Stafford first round pick
and potential savior for the laughingstock Lions it's a pretty safe
bet that you have a nice place. In fact, it's probably a safer bet than
Stafford as a No. 1 pick. (No offense, Matt.)
Craig, who works for a Madison Heights company that deals in the
automotive industry, says they also share the 15th floor with a few
Tigers though he won't give names. He says there are a lot
of singles and young professionals but very few families in the
building. Additionally, he says, there are many second home owners.
The Bells weren't always high-rise dwellers. They had a big house in
South Lyon with a bigger yard. But then Craig's job moved the family out
to Germany, where they were set up near downtown Dusseldorf.
He says the idea of having everything close and available never left
them when they eventually returned to the States nearly two years ago. "We wanted to be as close as we
could get to downtown," he says. "There are grocery stores, 50
restaurants, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Plus the bookstore and the
"We got over the big yard, the big house, and all the sprawl," he
says. "Do you want to spend your time in a car driving around, mowing
the lawn, shoveling snow, fixing stuff? That's not the way I want to
spend my time. We want to hang out and travel."
One street over and a few blocks north is the 9-story Main North
lofts building. It's next to the Main Art Theatre near on the corner of 11 Mile
and Main Street. At one time the biggest building on that corner was
the art house theatre. Not anymore. It now lives in the shadow of the
Main North, where Joann Goldberg lives on the eighth floor.
"To be honest I would have never thought I'd live in a place like this," the talkative 73-year-old retired TV producer says. "I would have never looked at it walking down the street. I've always lived in prewar buildings. It becomes a habit."
Goldberg moved from Manhattan's Midtown last August and had called
New York City her home since 1963. She says she's been meaning to move
out of NYC for the last ten years, then this place showed up. A friend
lives in Royal Oak and mentioned the Main North. Goldberg grabbed the
apartment without a visit. "It looked funky and conventional so I said
why not," she says. "I knew it looked nice
but I didn't know it meant
this," she says, looking east to a horizon blanketed with cotton
ball-like trees. "You should see this in the fall."
The long time New Yorker, however, took no time adjusting to what
might be considered a hamlet town compared to NYC. "This is a downtown,
I can do everything here on foot," she says.
The Main North, like the Fifth, has a mix of people from young med
students to young couples with dogs (and the occasional baby) to
retirees like Goldberg.
In Ann Arbor, the tallest residential building is the Tower Plaza,
standing like a sentinel at 26 stories on the corner of East Williams
"Apartment life is the only life that makes sense to me," says Roger
Green, who's a few floors south of the 26th. "I can't be bothered with
the lawn or the roof or the siding." Green, a former art and
architecture writer for Booth Newspapers and current instructor at the
College for Creative Studies, says the association fee for the upkeep
is steep, but you get what you pay for.
The Tower Plaza has been around for 40 years and the majority of its
occupants are somehow affiliated with the University of Michigan, says
Brian Tomsic, who has been selling and leasing the tower's units for 20
Green's apartment is decorated in a Dutch style called De Stijl
and don't you dare call it art deco, he says. His personal surrounds
are very important to him, which is interesting since the view from 200
feet up made him nervous at first, "but I got used to it," he says.
For Green, not only was the convenience of living in such a central
location "I like going out the front door and walking to get whatever
I want. I hate driving." but the security of the building is a big
piece to it, too.
Between the view, the location, and the security, Green says he
wouldn't have it any other way. "This is easy, convenient, and a high
standard of living," he says no pun intended.
The Merrillwood building isn't exactly the tallest in Birmingham
that distinction goes to the prominent 555 Building but it was at one
time. Paul Johnson, owner and developer of the 40-year-old Merrillwood
building, says the city had to change the Birmingham zoning laws back
in '67 for the building to go up, "and the city is better for it."
"Back then, to a lot of people, the building was a skyscraper,"
Johnson says. Of late, it's been a bit swallowed by the other
developments that are as tall or taller, but still, in the last 40
years the 54-unit building has seldom been vacant.
Dr. Richard Litt lives in the corner apartment on the sixth floor of
Merrillwood. He's been there six months. He moved there with his
teenage son from a "million dollar" house just a few more blocks from
where he is now. He sites economic reasons and downsizing for the move.
Yet, it still fits the lifestyle.
"I'm a downtown person," Litt says. "Living here is like living in
New York, but for a hell of a lot less money. You have to be a person
who wants to be here but there are a lot of potential activities.
Entertainment, shopping, it's all here."
Yet the Merrillwood, unlike the Fifth, the Main North, or the Tower,
has a bit of an older crowd, says Betsey Staab, who lives on the fifth
floor with her husband Paul Hage. "There's a lot of doctors and lawyers
here" Betsey and her husband are both attorneys "but it is getting
younger, people are moving in that are younger," she says, then running
through a list of all the young people that have moved in recently.
"It's not inexpensive," Hage says, with a smirk. "But you pay for it
'cause you are downtown and you want to be downtown. And the view is
great. You see different things, you see a long way. It sounds funny
but it's a nice feeling and affects the view of the city."
There's a fitting exchange when it comes to peering out over a city
from a considerable height in the late, great John Hughes flick Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
It takes place up near the top of the Sears Tower now called the
less iconic Willis Tower. The spry Ferris, his doting girlfriend
Sloane, and his gloomy best friend Cameron skipped a day of school for
an adventure in the city. The three have their faces pressed to the
window somewhere up at the top of the 108-story building. They are
looking down at a city that held then, as it does now, somewhere around
three million people.
It goes like this:
Sloane: The city looks so peaceful from up here.
Ferris: Anything is peaceful from 1,353 feet.
Cameron: I think I see my dad.
Terry Parris Jr. is the utility infielder for Metromode and its sister pubs Concentrate and Model D.
The Fifth - Royal Oak
The view 15 floors up at the Fifth
Tanya Bell in her apartment at the Fifth
Roger Green in his Tower Plaza apartment - Ann Arbor
Green's living room view of Ann Arbor from the 19th floor
Betsey Staab & Paul Hage in their Merrillwood apartment - Birmingham
View of Downtown Birmingham from the Merrillwood apartments
Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here