By Richard Murphy
I’ve been shopping at The Underworld on South University Avenue for over a decade. It’s closing this month, claiming rising rents and stagnant sales. No doubt it will be replaced by downtown’s third Aveda salon. Harry’s Army Surplus, another place I’ve been shopping at since high school, closed this spring for the same reasons. These are not lone data points. How much of the Daily’s current readership even remembers lining up for midnight releases at Wherehouse Records? Or before Schoolkids was In Exile? I don’t necessarily think Ann Arbor is overrated, yet, but when my friends with the “Keep Austin Weird” t-shirts wistfully remember their hometown when it really was weird, or Boulderites talk about how their town used to be, I can’t help but see similarities.
Of course, the decline of good, diverse, useful downtown retail isn’t the only thing this college town shares with Boulder. There’s also the cost of housing. In order to live within walking distance of downtown and campus, I live in a room of a house shared with eight other people. A former officemate who recently moved to Chicago has an apartment — hardwood floors and all — two blocks from an “L” stop for what my room costs. If my access to fun and useful amenities is decreasing annually, why isn’t my rent doing the same? What am I paying for in Ann Arbor? Others have asked the same question: The artists of 555 Studio, for example, moved from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti (and recently on to Detroit) because no affordable studio space could be found in Ann Arbor. Fleeing artists are always a hallmark of “Cool Cities,” right?
Tonight, the Ann Arbor City Council will have a public hearing on two visions of just what ought to be done for Ann Arbor. On the one hand, the Downtown Development Authority’s “Three Site Plan” considers the economics of development in Ann Arbor and attempts to address some of the factors that are pushing up rents, driving out small local stores and allowing developers to call $350,000 lofts “affordable.” The DDA’s plan would consolidate three downtown parking lots into a structure on half of one of the sites, allowing the city to sell the other two lots to developers — on terms guaranteeing that these lots would become commercial space that independent businesses could afford, and housing within the reach of the average graduate. The other half of the site with the parking structure, at First Street and William Street, would become a park and part of a greenway, a pathway dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists running along the edge of town, connecting housing, businesses and small parks on another and to the larger parks along the river. Additionally, the plan would clean up soil contamination from old industry on the site, improve a rail crossing that meets no standards of safety and shore up an aging underground creek to reduce flooding — with all of these goodies included in the parking structure’s price.
On the other side are the Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway, a slogan-toting band of nearby homeowners who have decided that this looks like an excellent opportunity to score themselves some pork. Sorry, “park.” The Friends are demanding that no parking structure be built and that the site be devoted entirely to parkland. They’ve dismissed the DDA’s park as a “token park,” demanding a “full-scale” greenway instead — a difference of perhaps an acre. They’ve silenced downtown business owners who support the DDA’s plan, mocking or threatening those who openly support it. They seem to have some issues with money: Anybody who supports the DDA’s plan is “in the pockets of the big developers” (my kickbacks must have been lost in the mail), and they studiously avoid talking about where the money is going to come from for their version of the park, let alone all of the other sitework needed. They’re deceptive — simplifying the issues to “parks, not parking structures!” — and they’re just plain mean, openly booing a student who said at a city council meeting that the DDA’s plan would benefit the whole city, while the Friends vision would only benefit their neighborhood.
The council is leaning toward the DDA’s plan, but politicians are weak creatures, and the Friends will be out tonight in force. The council needs to hear a variety of opinions, and students live in this city too. Google the Friends and the Three-Site Plan to find out more, catch up on the discussions at ArborUpdate.com and AnnArborIsOverrated.com and let the council know what you think. No decision will be made tonight, so you can e-mail thoughts to council if you don’t read this in time: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Murphy is a College of Architecture and Urban Planning graduate student and a contributor to arborupdate.com.