A new University study aimed at revitalizing the declining retail atmosphere of the South University Avenue district has students and staff working to rebuild one of Ann Arbor”s key commercial districts.
“The South University area has undergone significant changes over the past several decades,” said Prof. Lawrence Molnar, research program director at the Business School and overseer of the study.
“What was once a thriving and diverse retail center has become an area characterized by fast food outlets, many business closures, high turnover and increased use of retail space for office and commercial tenants,” he said.
The group conducting the study includes three graduate students from the school of Architecture and Urban Planning and seven undergraduate students from the University Research Opportunity Program. The study, requested by the city of Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, mirrors the Business School”s successful study of the State Street area, which resulted in a $5 million redevelopment project.
“The research so far has been primarily done from existing sources to give us a clear picture of the history of the area and the current infrastructure,” said Andrew Bergang, project manager of the study and an Architecture graduate student. “In the future we will go in the field to conduct focus groups, do surveys and hold stakeholder meetings.”
Molnar said he expects “the study will give us more knowledge about what the customers, merchants, residents and property owners like and dislike about the area, and what they envision as the optimal future of the area.
“Based upon this knowledge, specific recommendations for activities and processes to achieve that vision will be provided and implemented by the appropriate organizations,” he added.
Rick Buhr, owner of Good Time Charley”s, agreed that the area has seen better times. Pointing out the fact that there is a dearth of retailers, he said there is currently “no reason for local people to come here and there”s no reason for out-of-towners to come here.”
Buhr added that restaurants, which typically pay higher rents than retailers, are more attractive to landlords. Also, the lack of adequate parking has not helped in recent years.
Bergang noted that the group intends to “create an overall strategic plan for the next 20 years that will ensure the area will be a viable, healthy, commercial district that appeals to all segments of the population.”
UROP students working on the project have been pleased with the experience thus far.
“I definitely believe the project has allowed me to enhance my business education,” said LSA freshman Savina Singh.
“I have found all my long hours in class really paying off for what is now a real-life application of solving economic problems,” she said.
Molnar said he expects to conclude the project at the end of this year with a public presentation of results and the publication of a final report. Research on the South University area began in September.
Singh added that she hoped to see “greater economic success and stability of businesses in the area. If we can accomplish this, South University will represent a newly developed “downtown” with a welcoming atmosphere for both residents and visitors of the area.”