Monday, June 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Campus Towns: Hyde Park and Ann Arbor

posted by chicago pop

West Side Books, Ann Arbor
The Quintessential Campus Town Institution

One of the most frequent questions for those who have lived or studied in, or simply passed through Hyde Park for any length of time, is why it does not more closely resemble other campus towns they have known. Certainly, not all campus towns are desirable models. I can think of a number of larger state schools in the Midwest that have expanded in the form of parking lots and drab student housing to consume the old American village that once surrounded it.

This isn't the case with Ann Arbor, Michigan. To the immediate northwest of the University of Michigan campus sits a roughly 10-square block area that makes up the "old downtown." It is a remarkably diverse commercial district adjacent to a major American university. It has upscale dining, it has ethnic quick eats. It has a cupcake shop, and a Chinese bakery specializing in fresh steamed buns and at least two chocolate shops.

It has fancy boutiques, whimsical ones, and non-profits that run storefronts for a variety of causes.

Robot Supply and Repair
Front for 826michigan, a Non-Profit Tutoring and Writing Center
Founded by Dave Eggers in San Francisco,
Opened in Ann Arbor 2005

The Workantile Exchange
A "Co-Working" Office Cooperative, With Cafe in Front

It has half a dozen bookstores and a comic book store, and its bars, restaurants, and independent cafes nearly all offer sidewalk seating.

Sidewalk Dining in Downtown Ann Arbor

The Monkey Bar

It has a garden supply store, a contemporary furniture store, and a brand new gym fronted by a juice bar. And as far as I could tell, it has only one Starbucks.

Most importantly, old downtown Ann Arbor is a pleasure to walk around and explore. It seems to pull together most of what past surveys and workshops say people want in Hyde Park: lots of dining, lots of al fresco seating, independent retail, and boutique shopping.

Retail Diversity: An Interior Designer's Studio, A Workspace Co-op, and Ethnic Cuisine

It manages to sustain a core of local enterprises that does not resemble the Banana Republic/Restoration Hardware/California Pizza Kitchen real estate "product" that is so common in new retail development. In the midst of all this, there is room for alternative or non-profit operations that use their business to fund other operations.

Of course, Hyde Park is a neighborhood in an economically distressed region of Chicago, and relies on a single large employer of around 12,000 people to drive the local economy. Ann Arbor is a city in its own right, with a Big 10 research university that itself employs around 38,000 people, while also hosting a cluster of tech and biomedical employers, all of which keep Ann Arbor's median household incomes higher than their Hyde Park equivalents. And as interesting as Ann Arbor's downtown area is, it is relatively low-density, and there are no major drug stores or supermarkets within walking distance. Since 2005, however, the city has embarked on a major effort to rezone downtown and outlying areas to encourage greater densities.

A Thriving Commercial District
Recently Added Density Around the Edges
"Since 2005, when Ann Arbor began rethinking building heights and downtown density, that small area of the city [downtown] has been in the spotlight." --

So Hyde Park is not completely at a disadvantage with regards to Ann Arbor. In the last two years, a number of positive changes, some small and some large, have taken place. There should be room for still more, assuming people understand what is required to bring them about.

Adding More Residential Density to Downtown Ann Arbor


Yael said...

Ah, yes. Moving here from 7 years in AA (plus 4 undergrad years there a decade earlier) was a really tough transition. Have since lowered expectations and come to appreciate HP for what it is, but HP's lack of ability to support and sustain nice, independently owned stores/restaurants/etc... remains puzzling and frustrating.

AA has taken some economic hits recently--Google closed shop there, as did Pfizer, I believe. And still AA thrives.

Have recently heard more tales of folks unable to find reasonable rent in HP and moving their businesses to other neighborhood (most recent instance is a bakery that will be opening in Bucktown instead of HP). And then there's the Dixie Kitchen fiasco. Annoying puts it mildly.

Am slightly encouraged by a couple of new developments here: Artisans 21 has been a nice addition to that block of 53rd St--shaping up to be a decent block of businesses. The outside seating at Leona's is nice to see... But it's hard to think of waiting another 2 years for the university to START on its Harper Court depressing over there these days.

Zig and Lou said...

Nice post Chicago Pop.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I can see the frustration (and feel it too) when it comes to Hyde Park and development. College students, contrary to popular opinion, aren't that broke, and even if they don't have a lot of money, their parents perhaps do.

Hyde Park should be a SLAM DUNK in terms of retail. So, why are general retail and services often lacking in Hyde Park?

The University's (and Antheus' to a somewhat smaller extent) redevelopment plans are good ones. Harper Court is a dump that should have been redone years ago. Same with Village Center. These should have been torn down and redeveloped when we had the chance, during the boom years. The building planned for the parking lot across from Piccolo Mondo is gorgeous, but again, it probably won't happen for a long time given the current financial climate.

The person who owns the corner where Tiki Lounge and Cedars used to be held that vacant property for years, waiting for a "better deal". They finally tore down the old building, but nothing seems to be planned for that space.

There's also a big vacant lot just next door to Z&H. It's been that way for as long as I've lived in Hyde Park.

I hate to say it, but I think Jack Spicer has a point when it comes to emptying buildings and leaving them vacant for years. The Dixie Kitchen thing was kind of a fiasco.

We do have some diamonds down here. There's no shortage of bike shops (Tati for custom stuff, Bike Doctor for general retail, Blackstone... not gonna mention that other guy :-)), even with the loss of Dixie Kitchen we still have abundant restaurants, the grocery store scene is good now with the bigger HPP and "new" TI. The night life is improving with places like Noon Lounge. We need a 24 hour diner and some retail like a scooter shop, clothing geared towards college students and young people in general.

The main problem is that when we do have plans to redevelop, the plans grind along at a snails pace and nothing gets done for years, if not decades. Whenever any change is proposed, we get letters to the editor from paranoiacs who are always convinced its the next coming of Urban Development.

I'm so completely sick of hearing about Urban Development. Paranoia and a love of "good old days" Brezhnevesque stagnance is keeping this place from realizing its true potential. Fortunately, we have plenty of empty storefronts, vacant lots, crumbling lakefront revetments and empty, worthless hospital buildings to remind us every day that we're silly and backwards.

chicago pop said...

I think it's good to visualize what's possible for HP, even if the scale of HP and AA are somewhat different. But I do think that the particular mix of AA's downtown is something that a lot of HP'rs would like.

But they have problems too; unlike HP, they don't even have a major supermarket in the district; we have 3 major drug stores, they don't have any. It's a very car-centered city, and aside from a jaunt downtown, you have to drive to do anything.

Which makes it all the more interesting that the downtown is as cool as it is. A lot of it chalks up to a larger base of white collar professionals at the University and in the tech/biomed shops (though some of these have left) nearby. Incomes are higher on average than in HP. And racial diversity is lower -- this has always been a factor that challenges small retailers in HP trying to sell to as wide a market as possible because tastes vary from group to group.

I also think the MAC revolution will sneak up on Hyde Parkers: there's a lot that could turn up once the Shoreland and Del Prado go online. Those are long term projects that will have long term effects, and they will inexorably shift the dynamic in a favorable direction (i.e. away from the people who don't want anything to change).

chicago pop said...

Further thought, following from the above: one thing that has hurt Chicago in comparison to Ann Arbor, it seems, is that there has been no way for tech-related business spinoffs to incubate locally. Fermi and Argonne are way the hell out in the suburbs. Not that we could have had a particle accelerator under the Midway, but just *something* nearby. The kinds of synergies that you get in places like Stanford's Industrial/ Research Park (the forerunner of Silicon Valley) depend on the University being in close, almost physical communication with nearby institutes and research-related firms.

It's hard for that to happen in a neighborhood that is not a blank slate, and from which you have to go so far out to get open land.

Not that it couldn't happen; in fact, it could, and it could be vertical, the way the latest science buildings on campus have been vertical. But it would mean allowing it to happen in the areas around the University, with all the challenges that this poses.

Chicago_mom said...

Hmmm, interesting comparison. But has anyone else noticed that if you travel 20 minutes from Hyde Park, you are in downtown/near north/west loop etc. Chicago, and if you travel 20 minutes from Ann Arbor, you are....20 minutes closer to Detroit? I think the proximity of serious competition (in retail, in culture, in intellectual options, etc.) makes a huge difference in what we can aspire to around here.

This is not to defend our tired neighborhood's lack of density and economic development--only to point out that even if (when?) 53rd Street is a vibrant retail corridor, Hyde Park may never attract and support the admittedly very attractive mix of retailers Ann Arbor does.

catuca48 said...

Interesting post & discussion. I often ponder this question, looking at HP in relation to any number of places. The one big difference I can think of…is race. Most of these other communities are pretty homogeneous (majority Caucasian)with higher income levels and surrounded by more of the same. HP itself is diverse, and has a number of different market segments. Let's hope that because we finally have an African American as President of the United States who happens to be from Hyde Park, national retailers will begin to look at the south side a little differently!

chicago pop said...

chicago mom argues that the proximity of serious competition (in retail, in culture, in intellectual options, etc.) makes a huge difference in what we can aspire to around here.

I think that's a good point, Chicago's neighborhoods have always competed to some extent with the central business district. But I'm not sure it makes the *huge* difference you claim. It doesn't explain Wicker Park/Bucktown, which are even closer to the Loop, or the other little retail clusters on the North side. And historically, at least before WWII, HP had it going on in a major way. So it is/was possible.

chicago pop said...

...and then, of course, in terms of intellectual options, all it takes is one major employer dedicated to pursuing just that niche, and you can support an entire quasi-ward on the South Side...the problem is, we need more than just intellectual options...

Elizabeth Fama said...

We need tax incentives and streamlined permit processes for large businesses to locate in the empty lots in neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park. The investment firm my brother works for just moved their entire operation (and all employees) to Austin, TX, where there's no personal income tax or corporate tax. That place is booming.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for keeping up the good fight for HP! I go nuts shopping local and picking up garbage for a while etc., and then I just burn out. Your blog re-energizes me each time I read it. Thanks for writing this. Keep giving us ideas re what we can all do!

Anonymous said...

By the way, you are so right. Lord knows lower taxes would help! Cook county is a crazy expensive place to run a business!

susan said...

We are always comparing Hyde Park (unfavorably) to the very very coolest places-- Ann Arbor, Bucktown.... But when we compare it to a more typical place, Hyde Park isn't so bad. Compare Hyde Park to the (not high crime but just boring) neighborhoods of McKinley Park or Mt. Greenwood. If you want college towns, compare Hyde Park to Urbana. If you want to be very happy, compare Hyde Park to Binghamton, NY.

chicago pop said...

Yes, some HP organization should sponsor group trips to see SUNY-Binghamton as a way to help us feel good about ourselves. Really, though, I'd be happy to post something on the U of I Champagne-Urbana. They've got some interesting issues.

Zig and Lou said...

With regard to the vacant lot east of Z&H, our plan for the lot was a seasonal, outdoor restaurant.

The lot owner would not meet with us. Not interested. He has the Clear Channel billboard lease and he is fine.