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Ypsi's Massage Mechanics expands, moves from Depot Town to downtown

Massage Mechanics is moving from its former digs in Ypsilanti's Depot Town to a bigger, brighter location at 7 S. Washington St. The move adds to the number of businesses that have moved to fill out storefronts on Washington in the last year or two.


Massage Mechanics co-owner Andrea Gruber says she "fell in love" with Ypsi when she was attending Eastern Michigan University for her bachelor's degree. After graduating, she enrolled at the Ann Arbor Institute of Massage Therapy and talked about her dream of owning a massage business in Depot Town with colleague Becky Smith.


A few months later, a building opened up for rent in Depot Town. A week after that, in April 2011, Gruber and Smith had leased a one-room storefront in the building, which they shared with an auto mechanic. (Smith has since retired from the business.)


Gruber says the name reflects that beginning, as well as the business's philosophy.


"Our goal for the business was to bring massage to the everyday working person," Gruber says. "We aren't a spa. We wanted to market ourselves as the place you go for stress relief and addressing chronic pain. The name and logo were a play off the mechanic shop and to convey this goal."


The staff quickly outgrew that first one-room shop and moved across the street, quadrupling its available space and hiring two more massage therapists.


Gruber says the business grew year over year, largely due to its staff's commitment.


"Our staff encompasses a wide variety of pressures, styles, and techniques, and we try very hard to pair each client with a massage therapist that best suits their needs," Gruber says.


What started out as two massage therapists has grown into a business currently featuring seven massage therapists, two office staff, and growing partnerships with several movement therapists, as well as one spiritual consultant, Gruber says.


Massage Mechanics will celebrate its new space and its seventh year of being in business April 6 with a "wellness funhouse."


"We will be providing information and demonstrations for our new small group yoga classes, raindrop therapy, and Thai massage," Gruber says. The event will also include a chance to sample various wellness products and get a tarot reading by staffer Emily Weir. "We wanted to put together a party to celebrate this and show off our new space, with live music and refreshments."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Photos courtesy of Massage Mechanics.

Chelsea Alehouse to move to downtown Chelsea, expand brewpub offerings

The owners of Chelsea Alehouse Brewery will be moving into the heart of downtown Chelsea this spring and changing their business model to emphasize a variety of new offerings in their brewpub.


Chris Martinson, who owns the business with his wife Aubrey, says the public space in the new location at 115 S. Main in Chelsea is about the same as in the current location at 420. N. Main St., Suite 100. However, the move will provide about 30 percent more non-public space. That will allow Chelsea Alehouse to expand its kitchen and provide a more diverse menu.


The new customer space will also feel "cozier," Martinson says, with hardwood floors and exposed brick giving it more of a pub feel than the current location's warehouse atmosphere.


Martinson says he had always wanted to be downtown, but it didn't work out six years ago when he was establishing the business.


"Chelsea has a really busy downtown, and we're only a five-minute walk from downtown, but we find that people who might be downtown for the farmer's market don't venture down to where we are," Martinson says.


The new location is across the street from the Common Grill and shares a back parking lot with the Purple Rose Theatre. Martinson says he expects that being "right in the mix" downtown will attract new walk-in business.


With the five-year lease on the brewery's current space running out, Martinson says it made sense to move and make some operational changes the Martinsons had been planning all at the same time, including switching from a microbrewery license to a brewpub license. That change reflects a lower legal limit to the brewery's production volume, and prioritizes on-site business over distribution.


"We will still make our own beers that people love and come in for, but we'll also have beers on tap from other breweries, along with wine and cider and spirits," Martinson says. "We really want to expand what we do with beer education and be able to bring in different beers and do more tastings."


Those tastings will focus on Michigan and regional breweries, which is in line with Chelsea Alehouse's core mission to focus on local ingredients when possible, Martinson says.


"We want to have events that highlight how beer is made and the different styles," he says. "We could bring in maybe a variety of lagers or New England-style IPAs from five different breweries for a tasting."


Live music by local musicians will continue at the new location, with bluegrass band Thunderwüde performing on Wednesdays and jazz on Sundays, but Martinson also thinks the new space might lend itself to experimenting with different types of music.


The current location will close in late February, and the owners are aiming to open the new space sometime in April, after remodeling is finished.


Updates will be available on the brewery's website and Facebook page.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

Photo by Doug Coombe.

5 surprising takeaways from Swisher Commercial's annual report on Ann Arbor real estate vacancies

Ann Arbor real estate firm Swisher Commercial released its 2017 Year-End Vacancy Report Jan. 2, indicating that the total market vacancy rate in the Ann Arbor area was about 7.2 percent for 2017. The report breaks down categories further by type of office space and specific areas of Ann Arbor, and there were a few surprises in the data.


Read on for five main takeaways from Swisher's year-end report.


1. Ann Arbor loves its "flex space."


Flex space is defined as commercial space that includes a mix of uses, typically office space up front, with vehicle storage, laboratory, or shop space in the back. Flex vacancy rates decreased from 6.5 percent to 4.6 percent in 2017.


"Flex buildings really took off in Ann Arbor in the 1990s," says Swisher Commercial agent Bart Wise. "There was a big boom, particularly in the south Ann Arbor market." Interest in these flex spaces remains strong.


2. Ann Arbor's downtown is still tight on space, but has some "breathing room."


The report indicated that the downtown area moved from 2.1 percent to 3.6 percent vacancy in 2017. However, this wasn't due to companies vacating their space but rather to an increase of 26,000 more square feet of vacant space, Wise says. He notes that downtown continues to have the lowest vacancy rate in years.


Tech companies are driving that trend, because tech companies seek highly-skilled software engineers, and when an employee is highly skilled, they have choices about where they want to work, Wise says.


"Downtown has become a very desirable space, so companies who want to attract the best employees are locating downtown," Wise says. He adds that it's not just amenities such as bars and restaurants that attract the talent, but architecture figures into the equation as well.


"Buildings downtown tend to have architecture and other design elements such as higher ceilings and brick walls that are interesting and desirable," he says.


3. North Ann Arbor has the lowest vacancy rate.


While downtown does have a very low vacancy rate, the north side of Ann Arbor has the lowest rate overall. The vacancy rate on the north side fell from 3.1 percent to 1.6 percent in 2017, even though it had the second-highest number in terms of square footage of all areas surveyed.


"That north market is occupied by companies that are very stable," says Wise. "There might be other markets where they gained and lost tenants, but the north market tended to gain and not as often to lose tenants."


4. "Class B" office spaces picked up in 2017.


Office buildings are considered "Class B" when they're somewhat smaller and older than new and shiny "Class A" buildings. The low vacancy rates in the Ann Arbor area have spurred a number of business owners to seek out these second-tier office spaces, Wise says.


"In comparison to recent years, we saw significantly more activity in these moderately-priced, smaller office suites," Wise says. He notes that this increase might not be noticeable to someone focused solely on square footage, but the trend was evident based on the number of these types of transactions Swisher handled in 2017.


5. The east side of Ann Arbor saw the most dramatic changes in 2017.


The vacancy rate on Ann Arbor's east side decreased from 16.6 percent to 9.7 percent in 2017. Still, Wise says he would call this "steady" rather than "booming". He noted that, based on conversations both with other Swisher agents and with friendly competitors, the first few months of 2017 were full of activity, but commercial sales slowed down later in the year.


The full report is available here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

Photo by Doug Coombe.

Behind the scenes of the plot to save the Blind Pig

When it was announced this past February that the Blind Pig was for sale, a lot of local music fans worried that the legendary Ann Arbor music venue would soon be torn down and replaced with condos. Given that the neighboring Kiwanis building was also for sale at the same time it wasn’t hard to imagine.


What nobody knew then was that a plan was already in play to bring investors on to not only save the Blind Pig but to also invest in the building and business itself. On December 6, music fans breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that Nutshell CEO Joe Malcoun, Blind Pig talent buyer Jason Berry, and an investment team had bought the building and planned to maintain it as a venue with the same staff.


Concentrate sat down with Jason Berry and Joe Malcoun to talk about how the deal came about and their future plans for the Blind Pig.


Concentrate: Jason, how did you connect with Joe?


Jason Berry: About five years ago [former Blind Pig owner] Betty [Goffett] started talking about retirement. I was concerned then that the Pig would become condos, so I went to [Q+M Agency president] Al McWilliams as I often do. I said, "Hey Al, do you know someone who would want to buy the Pig but keep it the Pig?" And he literally pointed out the window and said, "You could go talk to Joe." He's like, "I'll text him." And then he texts Joe, and Joe's like, "Yeah, man."


Joe Malcoun: I think I was just like, "I'll be right there," and showed up to the office. So that was the first time we met. Basically I said, "I would totally be interested. Go find out what the deal is." And you went and talked to [Blind Pig general manager] Faith [Wood].


JB: And from Faith's perspective the timing was all wrong to even approach Betty about ownership.


JM: So we just said, "Okay, well, that's not gonna happen now." But Jason had already expressed to me some of the challenges of no longer being able to take full advantage of his booking relationships and not being able to do booking outside of the Pig. I'm a huge music fan, and just being involved in something like that was super appealing to me. So we basically put together a booking and promotion agency called Good Show where Jason goes out and books with other venues and I just financed it.


JB: I was basically allowed to keep doing my thing like I would have normally because Joe was like, "I got you." It's great because now we're in this ownership place and it's all coming back together – Good Show and the Pig.


JM: Yeah, and the Good Show thing basically just kept our relationship alive and focused on this. As it became clear that Betty was ready to move on, we already had the partnership in mind. So Jason brought with him, obviously, all of his expertise of being the promoter of the Pig and the relationships that come with that, but then also the relationship with Faith, who is key to the operations of the rest of the bar. I was able to bring in partners to raise the money. So that's basically the bare bones of the partnership.


I don't want to take too much credit here though because ultimately I think the fact that Betty was committed to finding a buyer who wanted this was what made it happen.


JB: Yeah. She definitely was.


C: So who are some of the other partners in the deal?


JM: There's a couple of layers to it. Honestly, because it's a business and a real estate transaction, it created lots of complexity in the deal structure, more so than I'd ever been a part of.


First I went to some real estate investment partners of mine, Jason Costello and Bennett Borsuk of Cabrio Properties here in town. I said, "Hey guys, this isn't exactly a real estate deal. What do you think?" And, to their credit, they didn't say no. Honestly. I told them the other night, "I still can't believe you guys stuck it out with me through this." Because this is pretty far off of what they normally do. They learned how to deal with a liquor license and how to deal with setting up all of the back-end systems for operating a bar.


So we're kind of like the managing partners, in a sense. We're the ones who kind of did all of the work to get the deal done. And then, through our shared networks, we brought a whole other group of investors to the scene, some of whom just want to be financial investors, and quiet. But many of them are there to participate, some of them very passionately.


C: So about how many investors are involved?


JM: A little over a dozen. I've never been involved in a capital race where I saw so much interest initially. Many known people through the community initially were like, "Yes, I'm really interested in being a part of that." As you get closer you always expect people to fall out when it's time to actually write a check. There was a lot of that, but it was really fascinating to see the people who came together on this. It's a very unusual cross-section of folks. And that's one of the cool things. One of my friends, Pete Katz, is general counsel over at Duo Security. He just wants to be a part of it and he's gonna be there to help us with legal. Rishi Narayan from Underground Printing is gonna help us with merch. Noah Kaplan from Leon Speakers is gonna redesign all the sound.


JB: Not only will the sound be better in here but you also won't hear it outside.


JM: We’re also going to rebuild the stage, and the music budget is maybe the next biggest thing ... – being absolutely open for business with local music. Jason believes in that deeply – investing in local music again, and developing those bands so that they bring bigger and bigger crowds, and they one day grow up and they can refer back to their experience at the Pig. That's super important. [We're also planning on] diversifying some of the programming a bit and hopefully extending the brand outside the bar at points.


C: Meaning?


JM: Well, if we want to do a festival in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor doesn’t have a big music festival. There’s no reason why it shouldn't.


JB: It used to.


JM: The cool thing is we now have this group of investors who are all really well tied into so many parts of the community and can make the thing happen. I think it's just really a matter of Jason doing the hard work to get the bands together.


JB: It's just us being us. Nothing new, really. Just letting it grow as it will.


JM: Ann Arbor has the ability to punch out of its weight class. We do that in every industry, like in my industry, tech. We punch way out of our weight class, and we should be doing that in music. The Blind Pig is our best opportunity to do that.


Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer. He met his wife at the Blind Pig during the Bang! on New Year's Eve.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

New recording studio opens in Willis church

Two Ann Arbor tech entrepreneurs and musicians have combined their passions to open a new recording studio, Willis Sound, in an 1880s church in Willis.


Ben Lorenz and Jason Magee are the owners of Ann Arbor software firm Human Element, and they've played in notable local bands including the October Babies and Restroom Poets. They knew the full-time musician life wasn't for them, but they still wanted to be involved in the music industry. The two had been recording private projects at a studio in Ann Arbor and they wanted a recording space they owned, rather than leased, so they could modify it for their needs.


Lorenz says that if you ask a group of musicians where they'd like to record, many times they'll say a church would be ideal.


"The acoustical space is geared toward being open and having a wonderful reverb sound in the main sanctuary," Lorenz says. "So many positive, serious experiences have occurred there, and that energy gets into a space. When you walk in, you feel it and can vibe off it."


They started talking about buying a church and found a realtor who took them on a tour of three potential studio sites.


"We walked into this place, and knew this was the one," Lorenz says.


Despite the church's great aesthetic and acoustics, the basement was full of mold and the wiring had to be completely redone in order to accommodate the studio's high-end recording equipment and musical gear. Renovations took more than a year and a half, and the studio finally opened up for business in July.


The owners plan to treat it as a gathering place for local musicians. They recently hosted a grand opening that combined an open house with a swap meet where musicians could trade and barter instruments, microphones, and other equipment. About 200 people toured the space that day, Lorenz says.


Lorenz and Magee market the studio as "full-service." That includes access not only to rehearsal, recording space, and high-end equipment, but also video capture of all recording sessions.


"The heartbeat of the recording studio is the ability to do two-inch tape, analog recording, like they used to," Lorenz says. "We also have an API 1608 console, a really nice analog console, and that sets Willis Sound apart from most recording studios in the area."


Also available are a Steinway grand piano, a Hammond organ, and classic drum kits most aspiring musicians can't afford to buy, Lorens says.


Another amenity that makes the recording space unique is a house on the same property as the church where musicians can stay overnight. Lorenz says this type of studio exists on the East and West Coasts, but there's no recording studio like Willis Sound anywhere else around southeast Michigan.


"Our idea was to get a band into a situation where they could focus on the music and on their bandmates and have a recording vacation," Lorenz says. "It's been used several times already. A band will come in, spend a night, connect, and hang out, and then go in the next day and cut a record."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Willis Sound.

Black Ypsilanti Historical Signage Project moves toward spring kickoff

Organizers of a collaborative project to install historical markers commemorating Ypsilanti's black history are hoping to schedule a big kickoff event for spring of 2018.


The goal of the Black Ypsilanti Historical Signage Project is to develop signs highlighting African-American contributions to Ypsilanti's history and install them at various locations around the city. The project started when the city of Ypsi received a $10,000 Community Tourism Action Plan (CTAP) grant from the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, the city soon realized that would not be enough to hire designers and historians to work on the project.


The city partnered with Engage @ EMU, Eastern Michigan University's outreach organization, and won another $10,000 grant through the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development.


Jessica Alexander of Engage @ EMU says the project aims to encourage "historical tourism" by spotlighting Ypsi's community and its stories. Organizers developed several broad themes, ranging from the history of the Parkridge Community Center to the Civil War and the Underground Railroad to black protests.


Organizers sought community feedback during a number of public sessions in 2016 and 2017. There will be three more public meetings for residents to provide feedback on Jan. 11, 18, and 25 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St. in Ypsi, is the location for the meeting on the 18th, but locations have yet to be confirmed for the other two dates.


So far organizers have finished four signs, and hope to have three more done before a spring ribbon-cutting ceremony. Challenges have included deciding which historical movements to focus on first, getting permission from landowners to place the signs, and keeping the community informed of progress on the project.


Jermaine Dickerson serves as graphic designer for the project. While he has lived in Ypsilanti since 2009, he says he wanted to make sure his designs reflected lifelong city residents' desires and aesthetics. He worked closely with historian Matt Siegfried to gather historical data and use community feedback to inform his creative choices. Dickerson says his goal was to create "an Afrocentric aesthetic that reflected the bold nature of the project."


"What we're trying to do is create an experience that Ypsi's black community would want to be a part of," Dickerson says. "I wanted to make sure their voices were being heard and their story was being told."


Caroline Sanders of Engage @ EMU says these seven signs are a "first phase," and if additional funding can be found, more signs could be created during a second phase.


"This is an exciting opportunity to make people aware of the important contributions black citizens made to Ypsi and its history," Sanders says.


More information on the project and a map of proposed sign locations can be found at

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

State Theatre to reopen after $8.5 million renovation project

A 10-month, $8.5 million renovation project at Ann Arbor's iconic State Theatre gives a nod to the theater's movie-palace past while updating the facility for a modern audience.


The theater, located at 233 S. State St., will host a grand reopening Friday, Dec. 8, with a full slate of movies starting on Saturday, Dec. 9. Ann Arbor native and filmmaker Qasim Basir is scheduled to come to town for the reopening, and a special engagement of Basir's film Destined, shot in Detroit, will run from Dec. 8-13.


Renovation efforts were focused on the balance between restoring many of the building's original Art Deco touches — designed by renowned Michigan architect C. Howard Crane and opened in 1942 — while also creating more legroom and making the building more accessible to those with mobility impairments.


"I am personally thrilled to be honoring C. Howard Crane, an under-appreciated Detroit-based architect," says Russ Collins, executive director for the State and Michigan theaters.


Renovations included updated movie projection and sound systems, increasing the number of screens from two to four while providing more legroom, and adding a full-sized elevator, escalator, full-service cocktail bar, and completely renovated concession stand.


Recreating the original 1942 carpet was one of the most challenging aspects of the renovation.


"It was this cool, spacey Art Deco design that was removed in the 1970s or early 1980s," Collins says.


Photos gave a general idea of the color and pattern, but it wasn't until a patron offered the theater a 12' x 18' piece of the original carpet that designers were able to confirm the exact colors and size of the pattern.


Collins says the most exciting part of opening the theater again isn't the aesthetics, but the wide range of films the State and Michigan theaters will now be able to offer their customers.


Collins says that, with the exception of a few obscure formats, the theaters will now be able to "show any kind of celluloid film cinema ever made."


Theater projectors can slow down the speed of the film to make sure silent films are projected at the right speed. The theaters will be able to handle 35mm film, 3-D movies, and all other kinds of films, from blockbusters to archival footage to art cinema.


Collins says other big cities like Los Angeles have the ability to show many different types of films, but not all "under one roof."


"Together, the State and the Michigan will be the most outstanding set of cinema screens capable of a wide variety of archival and exhibit content unrivalled in the rest of the country," Collins says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Images courtesy of the Michigan Theater.

Seeking to unite Ann Arbor and Ypsi, "Bridging 23" series to host third event Dec. 2

The Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) and the Association for Youth Empowerment (AYE) will host their third "Bridging 23" event, aiming to build relationships between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti community members, on Dec. 2. The free event takes place from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the 14A District Courthouse, 4133 Washtenaw Ave.


The events grew out of the vision of founder and organizer David Abramson, who passed away just before the groups put on their first event in April. Abramson heard Belinda Dulin, DRC's executive director, talk about peacemaking at a community event, and thought it was a concept that could apply to the division between Ann Arbor and Ypsi along US-23.


Dulin says peacemaking is a process that brings people together to have important but uncomfortable conversations in a nonjudgmental way that's about finding shared values and connectedness.


"The highway divides the community in intense and unique ways," Dulin says. "We wanted to bridge that and identify what we have in common."


Jeff Gabrielson, a volunteer with AYE, says this kind of community division has been addressed in the past in Detroit with a series of community forums called "Bridging Eight Mile."


"We were committed to bringing people from inside the city of Detroit and outside the city of Detroit together, and David saw 23 as the same kind of dividing line as Eight Mile," Gabrielson says.


The point of the community forums is not to specify a topic such as public schools or affordable housing, but to bring people together, facilitate discussion, and let the community drive the conversation about what needs to happen next, Dulin says.


Participants sit in a circle and are invited to share their values and the personal experiences that shaped them. Values that come up over and over again build the foundation of the rest of the dialogue. As people begin to know one another, they begin to trust one another, and that trust makes it possible for community members to work together on shared goals.


At the second event in August, participants discussed what kind of community they live in and what kind of community they aspire to be in, as well as who wasn't in the circle of discussion but should be invited to future conversations.


"We talked about what changes can happen and what we can do individually or collectively to effect positive change," Dulin says. "The magic of it all is that, just by listening to each other's story, we see barriers start to melt away, and when those barriers melt away, we begin to see how we can build that bridge over 23."


One major benefit of the discussions is making participants aware of resources available to them that they might not have known about, Gabrielson says.


Concrete actions or initiatives coming out of the conversations are driven by participants, not by facilitators. After two sessions, many friendships have been made, and one participant suggested having a unity march from Ann Arbor City Hall to Ypsi City Hall. Another participant admired the peacemaking circle idea and introduced it at her place of worship for business meetings.


Dulin says the format of the Dec. 2 event will remain the same, but the conversational prompts will change a bit, focusing on next steps, including celebrating what has been accomplished and talking about how participants can give each other additional support.


Additional information and tickets are available at the Eventbrite page for the December event.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

County's first hyper-energy-efficient "passive house" to break ground in Ann Arbor

Webster Township-based Architectural Resource is set to break ground on what is expected to be the first Washtenaw County home to meet the stringent energy-efficiency requirements of the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS).


The architectural firm is hosting a Visible Green Home seminar on passive home technology from 9-11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11 at the Builders and Remodelers Association, 179 Little Lake Dr., followed by a noon groundbreaking at the construction site, 4567 Boyden Dr. in Ann Arbor.


Michael Klement, an architect with Architectural Resource, says that to understand the idea behind passive homes, one can envision two buckets, one for energy gain and one for energy loss, on a seesaw, with the goal being to get those two sides to be as balanced as possible.


He says the first and most important step is minimizing what's in the energy loss "bucket."


"The way most houses are built today, we build whatever we want, and then add a furnace as big as needed to take care of the energy demand," Klement says. "This certification looks at that in a completely different way, making reducing the energy demand a fundamental design principle."


He says a PHIUS-certified house uses about 80 percent less energy than a standard house built to code.


During construction, the building team works on minimizing energy loss primarily by creating an extremely airtight "thermal envelope," whether that means building walls that are half an inch thicker than required by local building codes, or eliminating studs that conduct energy from the inside of the house to the outside.


As far as the "gain" bucket, builders look to renewable energy sources, most often solar cells.


Klement says his team has gone through a rigorous computer design program to make sure the project hits five metrics related to heating, cooling, and the use of renewable energy sources. That process has gained the project the status of PHUIS+ 2015 "pre-certification."


"We have an opportunity to really reconsider our relationship with the natural world and our responsibilities to future generations," Klement says. "We're really excited about this approach to building and this project in particular as one possible answer to that challenge."


Klement says the seminar is almost sold out, but Washtenaw County residents who are curious about the home will have other opportunities in 2018 to tour the home while it's under construction. Updates and future tour dates will be available on the Visible Green Home tour series website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Renderings courtesy of Architectural Resource.

Trio of events invites Ypsi residents to discuss gentrification, economics, and racism

A three-part event series is delving into the connection between gentrification, economics, and racism and how those issues pertain to the current state of Ypsilanti.


The second part of the Gentrification, Economics, and Systemic Racism series took place at Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, from 6 to 8 p.m. The panel discussion was moderated and organized by lifelong Ypsi resident Bryan Foley, and featured chief storyteller for the city of Detroit and author Aaron Foley, Ypsi mayor pro-tem Nicole Brown, Ypsi human relations commissioners Ka'Ron Gaines and Amber Fellows, and Ypsi resident Steve Pierce.


Bryan Foley says he wanted to host the event series because he believes many Ypsi residents don't know what's happening in local politics and city officials have a tendency to ignore those who are paying attention. His goal is to encourage civic engagement by starting a community conversation that allows residents to make themselves heard and listen to what others have to say.


"We’re just here to talk and to discuss. We’re not here to beat up on the mayor. We’re not here to beat up on council members. We’re not here to beat up on the city administration or staff," Foley says. "However, we are here to hold them accountable, and to let them know that we have a voice, and a voice cannot be discounted."


The proposed International Village development on Water Street was a focus of the second part of the event series. Four members of city council, including Brown, were in attendance to directly answer the many questions about the development, like why no one investigated the funding source behind city staff's controversial trip to China in advance.


The panel and audience discussed a forthcoming community benefits agreement, which would require International Village's developer to follow certain guidelines, like hiring local contractors and construction workers. Councilperson Lois Richardson assured a few audience members who were concerned the community benefits agreement was being drafted behind closed doors that the city attorney is only in the process of working on an ordinance that will allow councilors to work on the agreement alongside residents.


On Sept. 11, Foley hosted the first part of the event series, which focused on the history of Ypsilanti. Discussion topics at that session included how escaped slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad found a safe haven on Ypsi's South Side and how their descendants are worried about being displaced from the neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations. He says he was prompted to host two more events after that because there were still many unanswered questions and uncharted discussions after the first event. The third part of the event series will be held sometime in November.


"The city of Ypsilanti has a very rich history," Foley says. "Ypsilanti’s motto is pride, diversity, and heritage. And what we’re seeing is we’re willing to sacrifice — in my opinion — the city of Ypsilanti wants to sacrifice its heritage for pride and diversity, and that’s very troubling."


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Brianna Kelly.

Ypsilanti city council approves purchase agreement for International Village project at Water Street

Following six hours of public comment and deliberation among officials, Ypsilanti City Council voted Tuesday night to enter into a purchase agreement on the proposed International Village project for the city's troubled Water Street property.


Mayor Amanda Edmonds, mayor pro-tem Nicole Brown, and council members Beth Bashert and Dan Vogt voted yes; council member Lois Richardson voted no; and council members Pete Murdock and Brian Robb abstained from the vote.


Before the vote, council members shared numerous questions and concerns relating to the project, many of which could not be resolved at the meeting. Because of this, Richardson urged her fellow council members to support her motion to delay or postpone the vote on the purchase agreement until the beginning of October. The motion failed to pass, with only Murdock and Richardson voting in favor.


Tuesday's city council meeting took place at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place, instead of at City Hall, 1 S. Huron St., due to the number of residents who were expected to attend. More than 100 residents were present for the meeting. Less than half of them stuck around until the final vote was cast shortly before 1 a.m.


About 40 residents took to the podium to share their opinions on the project. The majority of those residents expressed concerns about the International Village. Many of them were against using the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship to foreign investors who contribute at least $500,000, as a funding mechanism for the project.


Chinese-American developer Amy Xue Foster, president of Troy-based International Village Advisory, LLC, was present at the meeting, but she didn't lead the presentation on the project. Instead, project manager Wayne Hofmann of Spence Brothers presented most of the information shared by the development team at the meeting.


The proposed International Village would be a mixed-use residential and commercial development with an emphasis on housing Chinese international students. The development would include 1,100 units spread amongst various apartment complexes, as well as a hotel. Hofmann said the units will be between 800 and 1,600 square feet and will rent at a rate of $1.40 to $2.10 per square foot, for a minimum rent of $1,120 per month.


The minimum total project cost is $325 million and the EB-5 program is expected to fund 40 percent of the project's cost. The target for investment through the EB-5 program is $130 million from 260 foreign investors, who would be required to create at least 2,600 jobs.


The vote provides the latest potential resolution to the city's lengthy struggle to develop the costly property and follows a more recent debate about including affordable housing in the development. On Monday night, more than 100 residents attended a special meeting to solicit public input on the International Village as it pertains to the issue of affordable housing. During the two-hour public comment period, there were 44 three-minute arguments from residents, some of whom spoke twice. A handful of residents voiced support for the International Village project, but the majority spoke against it.


Since the purchase agreement was approved, the city and the developer are expected to begin negotiations on a development agreement, with the goal of approving it by the end of the year. That process is expected to stoke further debate over what proportion of workers hired for the project must be Ypsi residents.


On Thursday, Edmonds, Brown, economic development director Beth Ernat, and police chief Tony DeGiusti will travel to China in an effort to build international relationships and promote Ypsi abroad.

Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos by Brianna Kelly.

Special meeting on Ypsi's International Village proposal, affordable housing draws over 100

A large crowd of concerned citizens showed up for a special Ypsilanti City Council meeting during which residents were invited to weigh in on the proposed International Village project for the city's troubled Water Street property as it pertains to the issue of affordable housing.


More than 100 residents packed into the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place, in Depot Town on Monday night. The meeting was changed from its originally scheduled location at City Hall, 1 S. Huron St., due to the number of residents who were expected to attend.


The special meeting was scheduled after the city's Human Relations Commission on Aug. 28 passed a recommendation for City Council to hold a public meeting on the International Village proposal and affordable housing. City Council narrowly passed the resolution on Sept. 5. Affordability advocacy group Defend Affordable Ypsi launched a concerted effort to encourage residents to attend both the Sept. 5 and Sept. 18 meetings.

A Troy-based development company named International Village Advisory, LLC, headed by Chinese-American developer Amy Xue Foster, has proposed a mixed-use residential and commercial development with an emphasis on housing Chinese international students on Water Street. The developers plan to spend at least $250 million on the project and to attract foreign investors who can obtain a visa through the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program if they contribute at least $500,000 toward the project.


At the beginning of the meeting on Monday night, three members of the Human Rights Commission gave a presentation on why it was imperative to hold a public input meeting on the International Village project before City Council makes a decision. Commissioner Amber Fellows, a key organizer for Defend Affordable Ypsi, rattled off numerous statistics painting a picture of the city's housing-insecure residents.


"Until the city and county choose to center low-income renters and longtime residents who are vulnerable to displacement, then officials cannot say that they are concerned about affordability in any meaningful sense," Fellows said. "We are Ypsilanti. We can do better than this, much better."


Public input lasted two hours and featured 44 three-minute arguments from residents, some of whom spoke twice. A handful of residents voiced support for the International Village project, but the majority spoke against it.


Most residents who didn't support the project pleaded with council to hold off on making a decision. They argued that the International Village is a controversial project and the public hasn't been given the opportunity to share input on a decision that will affect the whole city.


"We need to be talking and brainstorming about how we can get all of our needs met when we're up against such a beast," Jeff Yoder said. "This means that the most vulnerable in our communities need to be absolutely at the center of all economic discussions. They're the ones who are the true measure of our economy's health."


A few well-traveled residents argued that Chinese developers have caused serious problems in other countries, like Namibia and Jamaica, where land is being bought up by rich foreigners. Several other residents argued that the city plans to cater to wealthy Chinese elites at the same time when longtime Latino residents are actively being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).


"I have to say the idea of there being an International Village doesn't seem like the worst thing ever at first blush, but the idea that we in Ypsilanti would be complicit in the selling of citizenship to the highest bidder when some of our poorest neighbors are being deported is pretty appalling," Liz MacGregor said.


Many of the residents who expressed support for the International Village project argued that it doesn't follow the pattern of gentrification because no one currently lives on the Water Street property, so no one will be displaced.


"Years ago, in another lifetime in New York City, I was a tenant organizer and I fought gentrification," said Eastern Michigan University history professor Mark Higbee. "Now, when you gentrify, that means pushing people out. If it's an empty 30-acre lot that the city of Ypsilanti – stupidly, in my opinion – spent millions of dollars on and we won't have paid off until 10 years from now, then it's not really gentrification if somebody builds new housing there because no one else has been moved out."


Some residents added that they're suspicious of city officials' plans on Thursday to travel to China to build international relationships and to promote Ypsi abroad. The trip will be funded by the Wayne State Chinese Students and Scholars Association.


City Council members declined to make comments at the meeting on Monday night. They're expected to speak and vote on a purchase agreement for the International Village project at another meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.

Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos by Brianna Kelly.

With firehouse solar installation, Ypsi continues rise as national solar power leader

Ypsilanti has become a solar leader in the last decade, going from no solar energy production to one megawatt and rising.


The most recent project that put the city over the one-megawatt mark was a 50-kilowatt solar installation on the roof of Ypsi's fire station, completed in April with a mix of volunteer and professional labor and a combination of city and private funds.


With the new installation, Ypsi now narrowly beats out San Francisco for the 17th highest solar production per capita nationwide, according to statistics compiled by Environment America. Ypsi has the highest solar production per capita in Michigan by far.


Independent power producer Chart House Energy worked with advocacy group SolarYpsi on the firehouse project, taking unique advantage of tax credits in the process. Nonprofits and municipalities don't pay taxes and therefore can't take advantage of tax credits, so Chart House Energy owns the equipment and will lease it to the city for six years. At that time, the city will buy the equipment from Chart House at fair market value.


Chart House president Rob Rafson says there will continue to be a disparity between Ypsi and Ann Arbor in terms of solar power production even though Ann Arbor is a bigger city with a "green" reputation. That's due to the fact that some municipalities (like Ypsi) consider solar installations industrial property and don't tax them, while others (like Ann Arbor) consider them personal property and tax installations at a high rate.


"There is legislation being written, and they're looking for a sponsor, to correct that inconsistency in the application of personal property tax rules," Rafson says.


In the shorter term, the city of Ypsi expects to make back the $31,000 it invested in the fire station project, because the solar installation is expected to provide about 70 percent of the energy the station needs.


As the federal government is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and scaling down the Environmental Protection Agency, Rafson says projects like the Ypsi fire station and conversations about renewable energy are more important than ever.


"Some studies show that government and utility installations will help us achieve about half of what we need (to mitigate global climate change), but the rest of us need to do the rest of the work," Rafson says. "In addition to these kinds of installations, we need to put in LED lights, turn off switches, and develop more energy-efficient habits, because if we don't, devastating things will be happening in the world."


In other sustainable energy news for Ypsi, Eastern Michigan University recently announced the installation of a 55-ton turbine in its heating plant, allowing the university to be nearly 100 percent self-sufficient in producing heat and power.


A more detailed account of the fire station installation can be found here. A YouTube video shows the installation in progress.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

Photos courtesy of SolarYpsi.

Blake Transit Center receives LEED Gold certification

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority's (AAATA) Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor is now LEED Gold certified by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).


The popular third-party designation is given to buildings that meet criteria, as judged by a review committee, for conserving water and energy, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


Opened in March 2014, the 12,000-square-foot, $8 million center features locally sourced build materials, as well as energy-saving lighting, heating and cooling, water, and snow-removal systems.


AAATA maintenance manager and Blake Transit Center project manager Terry Black says the construction and recent certification represents a tremendous group effort by AAATA, its project partners, and the community.


"TheRide is committed to helping achieve a more resource-efficient, just, and ecologically sustainable community," Black says. "We are conscious that, as our footprint in the community grows, we must also strive to grow sustainably."


Much of the center uses LED light fixtures, with light sensors controlling exterior lighting and motion sensors for office spaces that reduce electricity usage. The center's water system includes rainwater collection for nonpotable uses, including flushing toilets. The site also features a heated driveway and sidewalk to melt snow and reduce road salt discharged into the stormwater system.


Sustainability efforts extended beyond constructing the new building to getting rid of the old one. Black says metal and wood from the previous transit center were salvaged and reused when possible, and concrete was crushed into stone for future use.


"We established a proper procedure to ensure that all the materials from the old transit building were sent to a recycling facility, where they were sorted and separated to be repurposed accordingly," Black says. "These steps ensured that all the materials did not end up in a landfill, but rather, were reused as much as possible."
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Photo courtesy of AAATA.

Designs released, WEOC contribution announced for EMU Strong Hall renovation

A contribution from the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium's (WEOC) Early College Alliance (ECA) program has brought Eastern Michigan University (EMU) one step closer to a summer renovation of its science complex.


Superintendents from all nine school districts in Washtenaw County were on hand for an April 19 ceremony that included EMU receiving a $200,000 check from WEOC, as well as the release of conceptual sketches of renovations to Strong Hall.


The renovation project is projected to cost $39.5 million, with about 75 percent of that funding coming from the State of Michigan's capital funding plan and 25 percent from EMU. The $200,000 from WEOC will offset the university's share of funding for the project, which aims to renovate the entire 80,713-square-foot building.


Strong Hall houses about 25 percent of the university's science classrooms, including a weather simulation lab and several physics labs as well as the departments of astronomy and physics and geology and geography.


The university plans to close the building and begin renovations this summer, including modernizing classrooms, labs, lecture rooms, and common areas, as well as infrastructure upgrades to the structural and electrical systems.


"It's not just bathrooms and water fountains. Most of the money and the focus of the renovation is on lab space, with a very instructional intent," says Dave Dugger, executive director of WEOC.


Dugger says WEOC's board and staff collectively decided to recognize EMU's commitment to WEOC's ECA program by giving back to the university. The ECA program allows students in Washtenaw County high schools to earn up to 60 college credits at EMU at no cost to students or their parents.


"That's a heck of a deal in today's world, with rising tuition," Dugger says.


The ECA program is funded through a portion of each school district's foundation allowance. About 430 students are currently participating in the ECA program, and enrollment is open for next year.


Dugger says Eastern has been an "extraordinarily willing" partner in the ECA program, but it isn't participating entirely out of altruism.


"We find about 30 to 40 percent will go on to other universities, but still around 65 percent on average remain at EMU," Dugger says. "It's a feeder mechanism for Eastern, and really, it's a win-win-win situation."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Dave Dugger photo courtesy of Dave Dugger.

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