The city of Ann Arbor, much like the student body of the University of Michigan, is eclectic in composition. The University’s Central Campus preserves an architectural style from the better part of the last two centuries, and the areas surrounding campus are extremely diverse in style. The parts of Ann Arbor directly surrounding the U-M Central Campus, commonly referred to as “downtown Ann Arbor,” have continued to attract businesses to their historic storefronts around areas like North Main Street, East Liberty Street and South University Avenue. 

The preservation of architecture and the upkeep of historic buildings are inherent to the identity of Ann Arbor. The ability to physically interact with the history of a city and to observe the period-specific style with which a city’s buildings were built are culturally vital to the city itself. The historic downtown storefronts and homes are a key part of Ann Arbor’s image, but the construction of over a dozen high rise apartment buildings in downtown Ann Arbor over the last sixteen years has clashed with the goal of preserving the look of small and historic downtown Ann Arbor.

However, these old buildings are home to modern people, and the economic development in Ann Arbor has inherently driven the city skyward. This can be seen as a threat to the cultural history of Ann Arbor, as this economic development may change the city forever. But to reject development is to reject modernity. Many small cities in the Midwest aren’t in a position to be critical of it, since they aren’t experiencing much economic growth. Ann Arbor is certainly privileged as it can afford to be concerned with rapid urbanization as opposed to mere survival. Ann Arbor is changing as the needs and demands of people change, and it seems unwise to interfere with positive progress toward a more modern city.

Appreciating history is natural, but the eclectic style of Ann Arbor came to be eclectic because of change, and the changes demanded by our current society are for modern, urban life in downtown Ann Arbor. To truly believe in the importance of having an eclectic downtown Ann Arbor you must understand the constant change and development that has occurred and will occur in attribution to its aesthetic.

Ann Arbor has consistently been ranked as one of the best college towns in America, and its continuity in keeping up with the demands of its residents and students will continue to fuel economic and real estate related development within the city. Adding more beds downtown inherently increases foot traffic and the amount of money being put into the downtown economy. More people and more money downtown are positive growth factors.

The scale and power of the increased demand for housing downtown shouldn’t be underestimated, as nearly 4,800 new beds from apartment and condo developments have been added downtown since 2004. U-M has added 1,080 beds of on-campus housing in the last decade near downtown, and there are some 1,800 more beds currently under construction or being planned city-wide. This demand for housing is the transformation of Ann Arbor from town to city, as the mass urbanization (and subsequent centralization) will continue to fuel economic growth and development.

The city of Ann Arbor has depended on the tax dollars brought on by new construction in recent years as a significant component in the city’s budget, which adds an interesting element to the story. The question that has derived from this situation is whether or not this growth is sustainable for the city financially, as the city is exposed to risk if property values decrease or if demand for housing downtown declines. Additionally, those feeling upset about the fading sense of historic Ann Arbor may feel betrayed by the city’s decision to allow unrestricted growth and development in exchange for property tax revenue.

Ann Arbor is able to provide outstanding public goods like its public education system, city parks and vibrant downtown area at a very high price tag. It seems the cost of running a growing city is the willingness to accept modernity and embrace change. Old walls may have to fall, but the market continues to demand development downtown, and the city of Ann Arbor is dependent on the property tax revenue from these new developments. Sacrificing part of the charm of Ann Arbor has been necessary in maintaining the quality of life within the city. It is a scenario at the intersection of ethics and finance, but to be truly modern and urban is to promote development and change in all endeavors.

Shad Jeffrey II can be reached at shadj@umich.edu.

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