Ducking his head as he walked through the doorway, Christopher Taylor, mayor of Ann Arbor, sat down in a recently renovated local cafe, and remembered what the city was like when he first came as a student 40 years ago.
“I remember the old Borders when it was on State Street before it was on Liberty,” Taylor said. “It was a super cozy place that you could go to and feel at home in. I remember getting breakfast at five in the afternoon at Christie’s, which was just a lunch counter that you won’t believe actually existed. Walgreens is there now. I remember Drake’s, which was a sort of bizarre, 1930s candy and snack store where Bruegger’s is now. The scene that these sort of places have become something corporatized is a loss.”
Mr. Taylor has been a City Council member for 12 years; when he was first elected, Ann Arbor was in the midst of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression — the financial crisis of 2008. The city had just simplified zoning districts — allowing for taller buildings — but, during the housing crisis, developers did not build up. As the crisis receded, Ann Arbor’s downtown growth soared.
“[Ann Arbor is] naturally a larger city than it is right now,” Taylor said. “There’s a concept of a college town, and there’s a growing concept of a university city. I think we’re more of a university city than a college town. We’re never gonna be super big — we’re geographically locked — but I think we will be bigger than we are right now.”
The city has clear growth opportunities, and with them come growing pains. Due to stark economic stratification, many workers are left no opportunity but to live farther away from Ann Arbor. During the workday, the city’s population nearly doubles as those workers commute into the city. Not only does this signal economic inequality, but it pumps pollution into Washtenaw County. Dug Song, co-founder of Duo Security, an international cybersecurity company headquartered in Michigan, cited his concern that the city was not capitalizing on potentially massive growth.
Detailing what Duo and other companies look for in prospective cities, Song emphasized development, affordability and transit.
“[These things] either work together to produce a growth that is equitable, or in their absence, they can tear a city apart,” Song said.
Proposed municipal services similar to Mr. Song’s suggestions break the barriers of economic stratification and unleash community interaction essential to our regional economy.
Ann Arbor, with a strong public school system and the University of Michigan, is already the most educated city in the country, according to both Forbes and CNBC. In the past decade, the city has drawn a broad array of talent from all over the world, morphing Ann Arbor into the “university city” that Mr. Taylor spoke of.
Incentivised by the high concentration of talent, this past summer Google poured an additional $17 million into their Ann Arbor and Detroit offices. Business investments like these are becoming increasingly common in southeast Michigan.
Charles Scrase is what his employees at Google would call “googley” — charismatic and open. Scrase has worked at Google for 12 years; his phone is answered by the Google Assistant, an artificial intelligence software which was designed by the company; and he is the head of Google’s North American Customer Service and Ann Arbor site lead.
“Google wants to be where the talent is,” Scrase said. “Google wants to be able to create opportunity in the communities where it’s already invested in. I think that the college town atmosphere is conducive to our culture at Google. We are focused on diversity, education and opportunity, and we create an interesting, open and friendly culture through this. Ann Arbor is a town that people describe as being all of those things.”
In tandem with the talent pool at the University of Michigan, Google has invested in Michigan not only because of what the state has to give, but because current tech hubs are taking too much. San Francisco and its suburbs’ hesitation to zoning changes for more affordable housing, led to chronic societal problems. Not building up pushed San Francisco into a deep grave of homelessness, soaring prices and segregation.
“I was in San Francisco yesterday,” Song said. “What has happened there is a travesty. It’s one of the richest places in the world with tremendous abundance created by the tech industry and beside them, some of the most gnawing and desperate need. It’s horrible to see people laying in the streets, people shooting up, all kinds of bodily fluids and feces. How did this happen? Tech is supposed to be good, not bad.”
Recognizing that the same could happen to Ann Arbor, Mr. Taylor called for additional, density-friendly zoning changes that will allow for expansion and fix the cracks in the foundation of the city.
“We need to increase density in our transit corridors like State Street, Packard and Stadium,” Taylor said. “There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be lots of housing on those corridors. It would be, by the nature of the market, less expensive, and by nature of being on a transit corridor, it is fundamentally accessible by mass transit.”
Mass transit turns the wheels of southeast Michigan. Even with the best educational landscape in the country and improved affordable housing, transit is necessary to effectively move students and employees, and prevent regional resource stagnation.
“To be frank with you, lack of transit and similar problems are primary reasons why we opened up a second headquarters in Austin,” Song said. “I wish Duo could continue to grow with everything here in Ann Arbor, but that’s not that’s not responsible. It’s not going to work.”
A claim amongst anti-development residents is that policy reform will distort Ann Arbor’s identity. However, Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen — a staple of Ann Arbor culture since it first opened nearly 40 years ago — invited the change.
“Because there are so many people coming to [Ann Arbor], there’s always a chance to really interact with people from all over the world,” Weinzweig said. “If we’ve got Hungarian salami, there would be somebody from Hungary. If we’ve got pastrami there was somebody who grew up in New York. I love that. When you have a solid food base, it attracts more food businesses in the same way that tech attracts tech.”
Instead of viewing diversity, spurred by expansion, as something that hurts Ann Arbor’s identity, he sees the change as a manifestation of it. However bland infrastructure projects seem, every new brick and building constructs the necessary foundation from which a robust city culture stems.
“We’ve got to figure this out,” Song said. “This is a fight for the soul of our city. Things do change, but they can still be great.”