Last month, an Ann Arbor institution announced it was closing. The owners of Dascola Barbers on East Liberty Street decided the rising rents of the State Street-area were too steep. With the departure of Dascola Barbers, only three businesses in the area have been open for more than two generations Van Boven men”s clothiers, the Caravan gift shop and Arcade barbers.

A December letter to the editor in The Ann Arbor News best describes Dascola”s depature:

“What a sad testimony to the changing character of our town that a thriving, family owned business like Dascola”s can”t afford to pay the increased rents. Ironically, despite the increase in rent the area itself seems to be in decline with vacant storefronts and dirty, unkempt sidewalks and streets. Perhaps Dascola”s will be replaced with yet another ubiquitous coffeehouse or other soulless chain retail establishment with virtually no attachment to our community. What a shame.”

Twenty years ago, the State Street-area didn”t have New York chain restaurants like Cosi and Famous Famiglia. Decker Drugs had a pharmacy and Drake”s Sandwich shop was a lunch-time staple. Border”s was still a small bookshop rather than a big-box retailer and Jacobson”s department store anchored the area.

But times change and so has Ann Arbor. The State Street area was one of two student-oriented shopping districts for the University of Michigan campus. But during the 1990s, the nature of the area began to change and with it, on a broader level, students as an important constituency

A desirable place to live

Right outside the back door of New York Pizza Depot on East William Street is a chain-link fence. On the other side of that fence is a long abandoned McDonald”s restaurant. On the Maynard Street sidewalk is a large sign announcing the coming of the Collegian, an eight-story tower that will have retail, office space and luxury condominiums. Although when structural steel will rise from the site is still unclear, as advertised on National Public Radio and in Crain”s Detroit Business and The Wall Street Journal, the Collegian will boast two $1 million-plus penthouses with unequaled views of the Diag.

Obviously, students will not live at the Collegian.

Maurizio Grillo, proprietor of New York Pizza Depot, isn”t concerned that a huge building will eventually rise behind his business. Right now, the construction preparation is a little unnerving since he has lost use of the alleyway behind his business. But he isn”t concerned that the tower might drive up property values and the rent of students who are his primary customers.

“People will come because of the quality of our food. The students will always come,” Grillo said.

But will that always be the case? Ann Arbor is the city it is today because of the University and its students. If the University never moved from Detroit in 1837, Ann Arbor would be just another small town on the periphery of metropolitan Detroit.

Because of the University and the culture it supports, Ann Arbor is becoming a more popular place to live for the well-to-do and educated upper-middle class of southeast Michigan. This was formally marked two summers ago when it was discovered that the Ford family was abandoning its traditional Grosse Pointe Farms stomping grounds for Ann Arbor. And although the Fords did not choose downtown Ann Arbor as their new home, many suburban Detroit elite and professionals have.

Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the University”s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, believes Ann Arbor”s urban characteristics and town-gown relationship make it a popular place for the newcomers and the traditional University community that has been in Ann Arbor for the past 165 years.

Kelbaugh, who lives in downtown Ann Arbor, himself sees developments like the Collegian and a similar tower proposal at East Washington and South State streets as projects that will add vitality and variety to the city”s urban core.

“What makes Ann Arbor so great is it is relatively compact and dense,” he said adding that the University”s campus to is a physically intimate environment without the buffers of playing fields and parking lots. That relationship is rare.

“There is a vibrant dialectic between the sanctuary of the campus and the hustle and bustle of the adjacent city,” he said.

Ignoring students” role in city could harm Ann Arbor, University

Such a close relationship between the University and the students who live in the neighborhoods surrounding campus makes it imperative to keep students living close to campus.

“The last thing we want to do is become a commuter university,” he said. And if students are displaced from their traditional neighborhoods, the effect on the University and the city could be dramatic. “It”s such a different culture and milieu.”

Although there aren”t any visible conspiracies to oust politically-disenfranchised students from their traditional but often neglected neighborhoods in order to make way for a gentrified neighborhood for the upper-middle class professionals of metro Detroit, rising student housing costs are always a sign that it could happen.

Although Kelbaugh does not believe that is on the horizon, he said cost could be a major factor in the future of student neighborhoods. “I hope there are desirable student neighborhoods that remain affordable,” he said. “These neighborhoods may get gentrified, also victims of their own success.”

When the University released its report on the undergraduate experience last semester, it outlined plans to build more residence halls, therefore reducing the dependence of its students to live in the neighborhoods that surround campus.

Part of the reason students attend the University is because of Ann Arbor. Student life is highly decentralized. Unlike some campuses where unions or residence halls form the foci of student life, in Ann Arbor, it happens at off-campus houses, fraternity houses, State Street coffee houses and apartments in the student “ghettos.”

It”s a fact, but it”s something that the University hasn”t clearly recognized.

Former President Lee Bollinger championed his “Master Plan” where the physical environment of the University campus was analyzed and picked apart. The purpose and use of every inch of University space was considered, from bus routes to entertainment venues to the walking paths of freshmen. But if you page through “Master Plan” reports prepared by the world-famous architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, the off-campus student neighborhoods are misunderstood. Their contributions and vitality to the overall health of University culture is not recognized.

It”s an interesting, but unknown territorial quandary, and students are left in the middle with nobody to represent their interests. And since the University and the city has not formally recognized this grey area, it is difficult to forecast where Ann Arbor is going.

When outgoing seniors graduate this April, they will expect that the environment and culture that makes the University and Ann Arbor special to remain. But if the city and University don”t recognize the importance of student neighborhoods, what makes the Ann Arbor unique could be destroyed.

On Wednesday: Part II: Rising rent, students as a diminishing political constituency, their ineffectual leadership and lack of interest in neighborhood affairs.

Michael Grass is the Daily”s editorial page editor and an LSA senior. He can be reached via e-mail at

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