University of Michigan39s North Campus Research Complex the former Pfizer campus Ann Arbor Michigan

University of Michigan's North Campus Research Complex (the former Pfizer campus), Ann Arbor, Michigan

Vacant Pfizer Complex Finds New Life as Office, Laboratory

About six years after Pfizer first announced it would vacate its 2-million-sq.-ft. office and laboratory campus in Ann Arbor, Mich., the property, now called the North Campus Research Complex, has replaced all of the 2,000 jobs lost in the drug company’s exit from the city.

The University of Michigan, which has adjacent property, bought the massive 173-acre campus and its 28 relatively new buildings for $108 million in 2008, a year after Pfizer announced its exit due to a 10-percent company-wide drawdown before the recession. About 60 percent of the buildings, about half office and half laboratory space, are now in use, according to complex Executive Director David Canter.

“The university uses about 90 percent of the buildings that are occupied, but the rest is reserved currently for commercial companies,” he says. “We’re looking to increase commercial use to up to 25 percent on the campus.”

The 2,000th worker recently hired at the complex is a former Harvard University researcher, Zhong Wang, a stem cell and epigenetics researcher leading a team specializing in heart cells. However, the complex has also brought in commercial firms such as Boropharm and Lycera, as well as the Venture Accelerator (VA), which offers assistance and transitional space to University of Michigan startups.

There’s also been other office entities that have signed on to use the property, such as the Veteran’s Administration’s Ann Arbor Healthcare System, which moved onto the campus to work more closely with the more than 400 colleagues at the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation at the complex. Canter says more than 130 VA researchers are examining ways to manage veteran health issues, and the local bio-medical community is able to examine data from the large databases provided by the VA. “The VA has very large data sets that can be analyzed, this is research that is synergistic with the university,” he says.

It was a struggle to even get the property back from being an empty wasteland, Canter says. Firms such as Forest City held walkthroughs at the property, but the recession hit at just the wrong time, and there wasn’t much redevelopment interest. The city, home to the state’s largest university, had weathered the recession better than most Michigan communities, but had lost about 12,000 jobs–and has only gained less than half of those back today.

The complex is an example, however, of bringing a decimated site back to productivity. Also, Canter says, there is increased interest by retail developers and owners, with stores and other commercial opening recently to support the workforce at the campus.

“One only has to go to a small town with a big factory that’s shuttered and empty, as a constant reminder of what has been,” Canter says. “If the property is able to come alive again, there’s a sense of vitality with a property being used productively. I think there’s a sense of community again, a feeling that we’re doing okay.” 

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