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Walking the Line: How Ann Arbor balances old with new

Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library

By Stephen Ostrowski, Deputy Statement Editor
Published September 20, 2011

It could be called Ann Arbor’s odd couple.

On the 200 block of South Main Street, two unlikely retailers rub shoulders: eclectic gift shop The Peaceable Kingdom and a Wireless Zone, retailer of the cellular phone titan Verizon Wireless. The former boasts Sarah Palin action figures, Juvenile Delinquent Mints (“Wild depraved youth with minty fresh breath!”) and other culturally aware tchotchkes. The latter sells cell phone paraphernalia. According to its website, there are 34 Wireless Zone stores in the state of Michigan. There is only one The Peaceable Kingdom.

In premise, the idea that such culturally different brands share a wall is starkly incongruent. But observe Main Street on a crisp September evening when it bursts with night crawlers kissed by the ambient glow of shop lights, and the seemingly oil-and-water union of chain-and-local shops appears to coexist harmoniously.

In a town known for its eclectic character, this blend is to be expected.

"What makes Ann Arbor great is that it combines the character of a college town, a place you come to when you go out to school and fall in love with, with the access ... that perhaps a bigger city has," said Andy LaBarre, vice president of government relations for the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber. "It's a perfect mix."

Navigating economic waters while preserving a city’s identity is a difficult balance to strike — a feat that, according to Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, requires dedicated maintenance and a well-reasoned approach.

“It’s always a challenge to keep moving forward economically while maintaining the culture and character of the city,” Hieftje said.

Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, believes the city’s presence of chain and local businesses has long been well-balanced — labeling this mix one of Ann Arbor’s “great strengths.”

“It’s valuable to think of downtown like a forest or an ecosystem,” Pollay said. “You need old buildings and new buildings. You need big things and small things. You need national tenants who have the big advertising budgets, and you need the small independents to give you an identity. In a forest … it supports itself better by having a variety.”

According to Maura Thomson, the executive director of non-profit merchant organization Main Street Area Association, this identity is integral for attracting traffic downtown.

“Throughout this region I think Ann Arbor has the distinction as being known as the place where you’re going to see and do something different … I don’t think you can overstate the importance of keeping Ann Arbor different,” Thomson said.

A Changing Face

Brick streets, neatly tucked low-rises and a bustling farmer’s market coalesce for a pleasant dose of small town charm. The Kerrytown aura is inescapable.

So to hear Fourth Avenue, home to the neighborhood’s People’s Food Co-op, described as once akin to a “red-light district" is nothing short of surprising.

“In the '70s when malls became the rage, downtown became a shell … You didn’t want to walk down here,” said Ingrid Ault, the executive director of independent business advocate Think Local First.

Hieftje echoes Ault’s sentiments, explaining that major retailers left en masse following the construction of Briarwood Mall in 1973 — rendering the Ann Arbor of the'70s and '80s a “pretty dead place.”

But according to local real estate developer Ed Shaffran, who helms The Shaffran Companies, a firm specializing in historic units, locally-owned businesses were able to take advantage of the void.

“When Briarwood came that’s when all the big boys left,” Shaffran said. “That gave an opportunity for small mom-and-pops and local businesses to establish themselves and nurture and grow.”

Ault credits the formation of the Downtown Development Authority with helping to inject vitality into the city.