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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.

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 theater."

"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 and Maynard.

"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 years.

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

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