Before most of us ever studied at the University, there lived an Ann Arbor institution at the corner of State and East Washington streets. Olga’s Kitchen served a variety of foods at moderate prices to a frugal student population. However, a disease has hit Ann Arbor’s heart. The blocks of State Street between East William and East Washington used to represent the apex of student culture. Now, they price out anyone on a student budget.
A mere two years ago, when Starbucks attempted to introduce its franchise into the community the corporation was met by protests. In the end, Starbucks was victorious, and was able to take up residence at State and Liberty. The indignation has disappeared since then; no one seems to mind the influx of pricey establishments. A sense of apathy has come over the students as State Street undergoes a transformation into another corporate Main Street.
Today, the old edifice of Olga’s has been transformed into rubble. On its former site, the Farbman Development Group plans to erect a 71,845-square foot mixed-use space. It will include a ground floor of commercial space and 42 loft-style apartments in an eight-story building.
The original proposal was simply to build one floor of commercial space. However, the Ann Arbor Planning Commission and City Council requested the site be built up to its fullest abilities. The city’s push toward mixed-use development on State Street is encouraging, especially because it will place housing within walking and biking distance of shopping and entertainment. New development of this kind benefits the entire community.
But few, if any, students and middle- to low-income Ann Arborites will be able to afford to live in the new luxury apartment complex. The loft-style apartments will attract high-income residents whose presence will further State Street’s push toward exclusivity.
It would be somewhat more tolerable if this growing epidemic was limited to one three-block stretch. In truth, it is part of a much greater and ever-increasing problem of a lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor. Students, as well as many University employees, can no longer afford to live here and must commute from other towns in Metro Detroit.
According to the 2000 Census, the median owner-occupied unit in the city of Ann Arbor costs $181,400. The actual cost to the buyer is likely to be considerably more. In areas of the city closest to the University, the median cost far exceeds $300,000.
The lack of low-income housing has been a problem long-acknowledged by the city and the University. Over the years, such solutions as the construction of low-cost apartment buildings and capping prices on houses in certain districts have been proposed, though not much has come to fruition.
Today, as alumni return to capture the campus of their memories, they see a duller State Street than the one they left. Before the problem becomes irreversible, the University and the city must take proactive action to rectify the situation. They must work to maintain a student- friendly University environment and to retain and renew the bohemian atmosphere that has defined Ann Arbor for decades.