The University Record, September 7, 1999

Town-gown group strives to maintain State Street area vitality

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

U-M faculty and students are working with city officials on ways to revitalize the State Street area while retaining its special character. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
A pot of geraniums isn’t the answer. Nor is just changing the traffic configuration. But by mixing a couple of the city’s development organizations with three U-M schools, the resulting eclectic mix may be able to come up with just what the State Street Area Association is looking for--revitalization without changing its existing character.

Beginning in 1998 and extending into 2000, the State Street Development Project is measuring the vital signs of the area loosely bounded by Huron, William, Thayer and Division streets, hoping to retain and renew the area’s vitality and its function as a gateway to the University through the Diag.

“State Street’s wearing out,” says Robert Beckley, professor of architecture and one of the project’s leading investigators. “And just planting geraniums isn’t the answer.”

Lawrence Molnar, representing the Business School’s Business and Industry Assistance Division, says the stakeholders in the concerned area are as eclectic as the area itself—customers, University employees, residents, merchants, property owners, the University and the city. The area is home to more than 6,000 entertainment seats in the State, Michigan and Mendelssohn theaters, as well as the Power Center for the Performing Arts, Rackham Building and Hill Auditorium.

Structured, facilitated focus groups of 15–20 people convened from the pool of stakeholders elicited a wide range of concerns as well as perceived opportunities for change. On-street customer surveys also have played a major role in the study. And those surveys aren’t conducted just on football weekends or during the art fairs, but at differing times of the day, the week and year.

Probably the most surprising result of the study so far is the response to 1,400 surveys sent to Ann Arbor residents representing various parts of the city. The investigators received a return of 55 percent, considerably higher than the usual 10 percent or fewer responses to such surveys.

“This is a positive indicator of interest and cooperation,” Beckley says. “The city’s residents have strong feelings about the State Street area.”

One of the goals of the project is finding an appropriate retail mix for the area—attracting new retailers while keeping locally owned businesses and the character of the area.

Stakeholders also have expressed concern about traffic patterns in the area. “One-way streets move traffic quickly across town,” Beckley says, “but here we want to move traffic into the area.” Whether the ideal traffic patterns will be two-way streets that slow down traffic, small buses moving people from downtown to the State Street area, better signage and directions to the area and its available parking, or deciding whether cars or pedestrians take priority, input from all the stakeholders is essential before final recommendations can be made regarding any changes.

Students from the School of Business Administration, School of Public Policy and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, as well as some participating in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, continue to amass and analyze background information for a final report due to the State Street Area Association in February.

A preliminary assessment finds among the strengths of the State Street Area its high pedestrian population, the surrounding cultural event venues, its service as a major gateway for Central Campus, and the diversity of the area, which includes housing, entertainment, retail and office space, and services.

In addition to confusing and difficult vehicle access, other concerns that have been identified include difficulty in identifying and entering available parking structures, poorly maintained and littered sidewalks that impede pedestrian flow, insufficient lighting, several underutilized and vacant properties, and the lack of a grocery and/or variety store.

In addition to recommendations related to the major concerns, the final report will include investigation results that address the amount of time individuals spend in the State Street area and the purpose of their visit, gender, age, student vs. non-student, income levels, where individuals are from, suggestions for improving and preserving the area, and the goods and services individuals would like to find in the area. The report will have a section on mixed-use zoning from a housing and commercial perspective and information on cities similar to Ann Arbor that have successfully integrated housing and commercial entities.

The 16-month, $130,000 study is is funded by the Downtown Development Authority, the State Street Area Association and the University. Recommendations will have a strong influence on the $1.5 million in improvements committed by the Downtown Development Authority to the State Street area.