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Posted on Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Don't push the panic button: Ann Arbor's downtown is evolving, not floundering

By Tony Dearing

Worrying about the fate of downtown has a long tradition in Ann Arbor.

In 1938, the introduction of parking meters had some predicting doom for downtown. In 1970, the doubling of parking rates -- from 10 cents an hour to 20 cents -- caused similar consternation.

These days, we’re hearing worries again. In an article last weekend, business reporter Lizzy Alfs examined the recently high rate of turnover for downtown restaurants, as well as concern in some quarters about aggressive panhandling, parking issues and a perception that foot traffic is down in the central city.

But let’s not push the panic button here. While we’ve lost some well-known downtown establishments over the past year, we see a downtown that remains more vital and viable than those departures suggest.


Statistics from the parking system show more people are coming to downtown Ann Arbor, not fewer.

Joseph Tobianski I

When we assess the current state of downtown, it reminds us of what Yogi Berra once said about a famed restaurant. “Nobody goes there anymore,’’ he said. “It’s too crowded.’’

We find a similar irony in the complaints from people who say they’ve stopped going downtown because, according to them, it’s too hard to find a parking spot and you have to wait too long for a table at a restaurant. How bad off can downtown be when that’s the gripe?

If anything, statistics from the parking system show more people are going downtown, not fewer. Based on use of downtown parking ramps and surface lots and go!pass ridership on buses, there were 700,000 more visits to downtown in the past year than five years ago, according to the Downtown Development Authority.

Yes, it’s tough to do business right now, but that’s true everywhere, not just downtown. The economy remains sluggish, online shopping poses new competition, and customer preferences have changed over time. Individual businesses, and downtown as a whole, have to change with them.

The Parthenon restaurant has been a fixture in downtown for 40 years, but its owners didn’t want to go through another renovation and have made the difficult decision to close. The space won’t sit vacant, however. The popular Cafe Habana will move to that location, creating the opportunity for the Blue Tractor brewery to expand into the spot where Cafe Habana is now. That’s sounds to us like a downtown that is evolving, not floundering.

Even in a difficult economy, there are opportunities. While the @Burger on East Liberty Street was short-lived, the Five Guys Burgers that opened a few blocks away on South State Street has been well-received, and we’re hearing some good buzz about plans for Grand Traverse Pie Co. to open shop in the vacant @Burger space. Again, that suggests there’s an underlying vitality to downtown that can support the right concept.

Like many people, we’re concerned about the mix of retail and restaurants downtown. The central city needs both, and retail has struggled in particular. Now that the 16 Hands gallery has moved from Main Street to Kerrytown, there’s a sign offering its former space for rent, but with a pointed note that says “Non-food/beverage inquiries only.’’ We understand that sentiment, and support efforts to keep a good variety of businesses downtown.

We also understand that complaints about parking are perpetual to downtown environments. But compared to major cities, parking in downtown Ann Arbor remains available and affordable. The DDA recently raised parking rates downtown, a move that merchant groups ultimately accepted. We were more concerned about a proposal to extend enforcement of meters into the evening hours. If the DDA brings that idea back up, which we expect it will, it needs to listen to merchants and understand the potential impact on them in this difficult economy.

We’ve also written recently about aggressive panhandling, which waxes and wanes downtown. At a time when the budget picture is looking better for the city of Ann Arbor, we’re glad to hear Mayor John Heiftje talking about hiring additional police officers this year to provide downtown patrols. That should help reinforce a sense of safety downtown.

Still, we resume a call we made last year for Ann Arbor to adopt a “downtown ambassador’’ program that’s been successful in other cities. These uniformed ambassadors, usually financed through a special assessment district, walk the streets, helping visitors, answering questions and, when necessary, acting as the eyes and ears of police when issues arise involving panhandling or public drunkenness. We think this approach would benefit visitors and merchants alike.

It’s not wrong to worry about downtown. We need to pay attention to the central city, and keep it healthy. But we also need to keep our sense of perspective. Ray Detter, chairman of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, pulled out some old newspaper articles recently that chronicled past warnings of downtown’s demise -- all premature.

While many other cities in Michigan suffer with downtowns that are moribund, ours remains a destination for locals and out-of-towners alike. It has weathered past challenges well, and no one should write it off now. Keep coming downtown, people. There’s a parking spot for you, and if you have to wait for a table, remember that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. A lot of downtowns only wish they had that problem.

(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflects the opinion of the Editorial Board at



Mon, Feb 6, 2012 : 5:39 p.m.

the only people who complain about finding parking are suburbanites used to looking for spots as close to a business as possible so they don't have as far to walk. most people who enjoy a city setting have no problems using one of the many parking structures and walking a few blocks to get where they need to go. that's part of the pleasure of downtown ann arbor... the walking. get over it.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 7:57 p.m.

Parking is way too expensive. I was back in The Village on Kercheval in Grosse Pointe and parking is .50 an hour. While I LOVE to shop local, I tend to go to businesses that have parking space i.e., Downtown Home and Garden, Lewis Jewelers, Stadium Hardware, Knight's Steakhouse, Knit Around, etc.


Mon, Feb 6, 2012 : 6:10 p.m.

It's supply and demand. If the spots are filled, then rates go up. If you want to bring in people downtown, then you need more parking spots. Hence, the parking garage project currently underway. Just lowering rates without adding more spots will not bring in any more people.


Mon, Feb 6, 2012 : 5:02 p.m.

snark, if the goal is to keep people out of the downtown area, they may be to low. If you want to draw people in(and not just on weekends), they may be to high.


Mon, Feb 6, 2012 : 4:10 a.m.

I don't know. It could indicate that there are not enough parking spots.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 9:54 p.m.

The fact that the ramps are often full (on weekends, anyway) indicates that the parking fees may even be too low.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 7:56 p.m.

If the down town is going to be attraction only, the attractions are going to have to be stellar. We have a favorite restaurant and tried to go there last night for dinner. Between the time it takes to get through traffic and getting caught in lines to get into parking lots and the lack of parking at that time, we packed it in. We were hungry, didn't expect for it to take over 45 minutes to get through traffic or to find a spot and we gave up and left. It just wasn't worth the hassle. We may try again in the summer or work out an arrangement with our restaurant so we just pick up a take out orderand go some place less stressful.

Richard Retyi

Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 5:54 p.m.

There are tons of things to do in Ann Arbor and usually you can park at any one of the giant multi-level lots to access State, Main, Liberty, etc... If you include Kerrytown and South University in this discussion, Ann Arbor is a pretty vibrant place. Sure there are empty storefronts right now (Borders is the biggie) and small shops going out of business, which is sad, but there's plenty of character, not just big chain stores. The Cherry store on Main is amazing. Nearby Vault of Midnight gets better and better. The Cupcake Station is a great stop. Acme, the Marks Carts area, Frita Batidos, Get Your Game On, tons of places to get a drink - and then Kerrytown, which is a short walk away. I've lived in Ann Arbor since 2004 and I can't think of a time when there have been more options for an afternoon walk, an evening out or places to take out of towners to show off.

Dog Guy

Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 4:16 p.m.

Formerly I bought shoes, music, shock absorbers, movies, shirts, art, wiring, hardware, dental care, dinner, gifts, books, musical instruments, office supplies, new Fords, groceries, tires, furniture, tools, appliances, paint, and (free) lightbulbs in downtown Ann Arbor. Now downtown is a dinner destination for people who live outside of Ann Arbor and have spending money left over from not paying Ann Arbor's confiscatory property taxes. I live in Ann Arbor and cannot afford to deal at overpriced downtown businesses, especially that big tin shed on Huron St. with the bent signpost by the curb. Believing in downtown evolution, rather than creationism, requires ignoring the petty Oz god behind the curtain.

Andrew Selinger

Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 4:08 p.m.

Luckily Mayor Hieftje and the DDA understand that the best way to fundamentally improve the downtown is to increase the number of residents downtown. As that starts to happen, parking complaints from people in the suburbs will be increasingly ignored.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 3:52 p.m.

I was downtown Saturday morning. Parking was hard to come by, and there were lots of people on the streets and in the stores. Nice to see!

Alan Goldsmith

Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 3:03 p.m.

"It's not wrong to worry about downtown. We need to pay attention to the central city, and keep it healthy. But we also need to keep our sense of perspective. Ray Detter, chairman of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, pulled out some old newspaper articles recently that chronicled past warnings of downtown's demise -- all premature." Mr. Detter is no more than a rubber stamp for projects backed by the DDA including the City Center Water Fountain, where he was a member of the subcommittee that pushed through that fiasco. "Old newspaper articles"? You mean when this town had a real newspaper and real journalism?


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 1:30 p.m.

Well said Mr. Dearing. Could not agree more with one exception. DDA please extend meters to 9PM in order to discourage people from locking those spots up for the entire night. The most convenient parking needs turnover for quick trip convenience. The first two posters just don't get it and never will.

Tony Dearing

Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 5:18 p.m.

Just to be clear, we are not advocating for enforcing the meters in the evening. In this economy, with the challenges facing downtown business, we're quite apprehensive about that proposal, and we're relieved it's off the table for now. But on-street metered parking really is geared toward shorter visits. If you're coming downtown to eat dinner and see a movie or a show, the odds of finding a parking spot on the street right in front of or near your destination are pretty slim, regardless of whether the meters are being enforced. Most people who come downtown for the evening are going to park in one of the ramps, and that's what they're intended for.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 3:49 p.m.

We certainly don't want people blocking a parking spot all evening while shopping downtown, spending money at a restaurant, stopping for ice cream, having a beer and generally spending money in support of our local businesses. We need to make sure we get the customers out of the way so the employees of these businesses have a place to park. It is of the utmost importance that we discourage patrons from staying downtown the entire night. Hopefully they will stay no more than 1 hour to pick up whatever it is they came downtown for and make sure they don't have enough time to spend any more money than absolutely necessary. The nerve of people who might want to park for 2-3 hours and see a show at the Michigan Theatre. If theatre patrons want to have dinner, we have to make sure they stop at McDonalds before hand, or order a pizza once they get home.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 3:05 p.m.

Thanks Mr. Dearing. Very valid point regarding parking needs of employees. I completely agree. However, I hope people can think outside of the box a little instead of simply killing the idea of extending enforcement hours. It is the only way to discourage people from blocking those high demand spots all night. There are those that will accuse the DDA of a money grab. If that is a problem, the DDA can come up with a revenue neutral idea. There are a few simple solutions to this issue that I and others have suggested over the years on this page. A good idea is to allow business owners to validate their employee's parking at no cost to the business owner. Very easy to do. Another idea is to make an entire garage, such as Ann/Ashley, in a remote end of town a free garage. Supply/demand. You want free parking? You gotta walk for it. But to come out so strongly against extending meter hours is simple minded. There is no other way to disincentivize something that is already free and unlimited to begin with.

Tony Dearing

Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 2:10 p.m.

That issue definitely will come up again. The DDA has made it clear that while it's dropped the idea of enforcing meters after 6 p.m. for now, it plans to resurface the issue, probably later this year. In my mind, the real issue is how to handle the parking needs of downtown employees who work into the evening and night. That's the biggest unresolved parking issue in downtown, and it seems to me that the solution has to address the needs of those employees directly.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 1:07 p.m.

"if you have to wait for a table, remember that's a good thing" I'm the DDA and I approve of this message.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 12:53 p.m.

I love these articles that tell us not to worry only because these things have happened before. Don't worry about a depression. We got out of the great depression. It only took 11 years. Don't worry about parking rates. Rates have doubled before. Don't worry about all the restaurants closing. They have all closed before. Don't worry about aggressive panhandling. We have had spikes in panhandling before. This is garbage.


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 4:32 p.m.

More are going than coming. This article says we just have to take it. Businesses are leaving so the solution is to increase parking rates? Spend more on art? Build a new bus station when the old one is just fine and people don't really want to ride the bus anyway?


Sun, Feb 5, 2012 : 1:31 p.m.

In what way have you presented ANY facts that argue the position off the writer? Downtown visitors INCREASED ((hardly a depression). The fact is, it is doom and gloom lovers like yourself that can not see the forest through the trees. Businesses have always come and gone. That is not unique to downtown. Stores come and go at Briarwood as well. They come and go in EVERY city, in every country in every economic situation ever. SO WHAT. Downtown Ann Arbor is doing just fine. Those that do not think so should head back to their township and live in their house that looks exactly like their neighbors.