BY: JON ZEMKE | DATE: 8/28/2007
ANN ARBOR, MI – Think of a progressive trend, and Ann Arbor is probably at the forefront of it.
Environmental awareness, check. Developing a strong downtown, check. Fostering a young, creative class, check. Incubating new economy startups, check. Embracing diversity, check. A2 is an example of how things can go right in Metro Detroit for businesses, government and people.
“Ann Arbor is extremely well poised to grow with the 21st Century knowledge-based economy,” says John Bebow, executive director of The Center for Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based, think-and-do tank. “Google came to Ann Arbor because of its knowledge worker base. It has an incredible downtown. It has available space, unlike other major cities, and relative affordability that makes it a great place to move to from the coasts.”
Nothing represents this better right now than the city’s thriving downtown, an eclectic entertainment district filled with students, townies and tourists.
It’s also the place that holds the most potential for the city. Rejecting sprawl, Ann Arbor has chosen to build up rather than out by establishing a greenbelt program and encouraging taller developments in its downtown core.
There are a slew of new skyscrapers in line for downtown. Condo developments like Kingsley Lane and Ashley Terrace are rising in places once dominated by surface parking lots.
The idea is to encourage more people to live downtown, making it a 24-hour destination. Establishing this type of cosmopolitan vibrancy will attract more investment into the area. And it seems to be working. A number of tech firms are moving into city. Google began moving its AdWords headquarters to the McKinley Towne Centre in downtown last year and plans to create up to 1,000 high-paying, new economy jobs there.
“We’re thrilled to be located downtown,” says Grady Burnett, head of online sales and operations for Google AdWords. “It’s a great location for us. People want to work close to places they can shop, eat, and enjoy their time out of the office. We’re finding that lots of Googlers are taking advantage of being able to walk or bike to work, too. Downtown Ann Arbor offers those perks as well as a location that’s central to talent – the proximity to universities throughout southeast Michigan is ideal for Google’s growth.”
Connie Hagopian is one of those people taking advantage of downtown. The former housewife and mother of three grown children lives in a 5th floor penthouse in Liberty Lofts, an old factory converted into one of the city’s premier residences at the edge of downtown.
The roof deck lets her look down on the rooftops of the adjacent Old West Side neighborhood, a former German enclave filled with stately Victorian homes. When not relaxing in her home, she is out enjoying downtown’s numerous amenities that are literally a hop, skip and a jump away.
“I like to walk. I’m a walker,” says Hagopian, who has lived in the city for 40 years. “I can even walk back to my old neighborhood if I wanted to. I can really enjoy Ann Arbor more than I could ever before. It’s just nice.”
The People’s Republic
Ann Arbor has a lot of nicknames. One of the more fascinating is “The People’s Republic of Ann Arbor.” It is often used as a punch line for jokes about the city’s liberal tendencies.
One thing that stands out, however, is the city’s environmentalism, making it one of Michigan greenest areas, literally. It has put solar panels into its Farmer’s Market and advocating against using bottled water. It’s also encouraging developers to incorporate green techniques into their projects.
Tierra Place, an 8-story skyscraper set to break ground in downtown next year, promises to be the greenest building in the city. Ann Arbor-based PMA Consultants wants to show that details like using 65 percent less energy than the conventional Michigan building, getting 10 percent of its energy from renewable resources and utilizing all of its storm water run off can be easily achieved.
The city is also pushing for transportation alternatives as big as commuter rail lines to as small as bike lanes to lessen congestion and pollution. It is also switching its bus fleet to hybrids and its street lights to LED to save on energy costs. All of these initiatives and individual efforts make Ann Arbor’s reputation one of the greenest around.
The University of Michigan
One can’t speak about Ann Arbor and not mention the University of Michigan. It’s the elephant in the room that essentially makes Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor. The university’s students and staff influence the city as much, if not more, than the city influences them. The university’s campus defines the city’s architecture with buildings like the Law Quad and public spaces like the Diag.
Projects like the university’s North Quad and constant expansion of its landmark hospital are constantly breathing new life into the city, bring in new people and inspiring new innovations.
Experiencing Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor is truly a city to be experienced. Ann Aborites will wax poetic about the joys of walking to Washtenaw Dairy for a scoop of Mackinaw Island Fudge Ice Cream or eating a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes at Angelos or chowing down on a kitchen sink at the Northside Grill or playing catch with your dog at one of the city’s numerous parks. Then there’s tailgating on a football Saturday at Pioneer High School, canoing the Huron River and dodging stoners during Hash Bash or nudists at the Naked Mile.
Ann Arbor is a great place to eat. Wonderful, eclectic restaurants line the Main Street, Kerrytown and State Street areas, including Grizzly Peak, Stucci’s, Seva, Amer’s, and, of course, the world-renowned Zingerman’s.
For evening entertainment, art films rule at the Michigan and State theaters. National music acts perform at Hill Auditorium, or try The Ark or Blind Pig for smaller shows.
This is a college town, so there will be bars, from undergrad faves like Scorekeepers, to easygoing pubs like Arbor Brewing Company. There are grungy spots, such as 8 Ball Saloon underneath the Blind Pig, or elegant yuppie refuges, like Cavern Club in a wine cellar-like basement next door. After all of that drinking there is always Ann Arbor’s late-night, greasy spoon staple, Fleetwood Diner.
Of course you can’t talk about entertainment in Ann Arbor without bringing up the University of Michigan’s sports teams. Michigan football, the granddaddy of them all, packs more than 110,000 fans into Michigan Stadium each football Saturday. One of college football’s biggest shrines even promises to get even bigger with the planned renovation that will further expand the Big House in the next few years.
It’s these experiences and the eclectic mix of people who inhabit and visit Ann Arbor that make it what it is, far from a ho
hum suburb and more cosmopolitan than your average college town.
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