Family Dollar on E. Michigan Ave?


Ypsi has had a lot of discussion lately about whether it would be appropriate to sell an acre of city-owned land on East Michigan to a developer to build a standalone "Family Dollar" dollar store. Much of the conversation has involved turning up noses about a dollar store "not setting the tone we want" or "not being the kind of development we want" or the like.

In that context, I was tickled yesterday to step out of a meeting and notice the street in front of me.

Most in Ypsi (including me) would love to see the Water Street property built out with a multi-story lofts-above-retail format--something like the Stadium District development in Lansing:

Photo by Lansing CVB via creative commons license

This is the type of development that a dollar store is said to "set the wrong tone for". But not two blocks away (such that the two could easily both fit within our Water Street property) within the footprint of the Water Street property, there's this:

This demonstrates a few things. First, to the emotional arguments being made in Ypsilanti, it shows that a Family Dollar on East Michigan is not a nuclear bomb that irradiates the surrounding area with a sense of downmarket pathos, obliterating any chance of higher taxable value development. (From assessing records, the FD moved in in 2005; the lofts opened in 2008.) What's also interesting, though, is the fact that the FD is located in a brick building constructed in 1926--from closer to the building, you can see some pretty nice detailing in the brick--and is located right on the sidewalk, with parking to the side, on a street lined with rain gardens, bike racks, etc: a dollar store can be compatible with a downtown/neighborhood landscape, and with historic buildings. The importance of design comes through on the negative, though, as well: the sidewalk presence is made a liability here, rather than an asset, by the fact that most of the original windows have been bricked up, making a pedestrian on that side of the street feel enclosed and constrained rather than drawn into the building or down the street.

Now, to be clear, I think the Ypsi proposal is fairly "meh". My preference--as one lone Ypsilantian--would be to hold out for development with more built value, and hence more tax revenue: building higher value, more-building-per-acre stuff later will ultimately have a much higher financial yield for the city than building standalone retail buildings now. Alas, we as a community do not currently seem to have the courage to state our long-term interests and seek out development that serves that interest (however long that may take).

What we should be doing is:

  1. Decide what we want to see on the property,

  2. Set regulatory standards (ordinances) codifying that desire, and,
  3. Stick to the ordinances--tying our hands and giving up any discretionary power to turn down proposals that meet what we've asked for.

If we can't state our desires as a community in a way that we can commit to even long enough for a single developer to give it to us, then we don't really have any grounds for turning down anything--and we're going to scare away all of the developers who might be able to bring us the high-value projects that we claim to want, because those are the projects that are the highest risk for developers, and the last thing they want is to invest a lot in putting together a proposal that the community's going to tear apart. If we as a community can't commit ourselves to anything that's not a "just okay" retail box, well, bring on the box.