Ann Arbor's future: 5 tough questions with Jeremy Wheeler

Affordable housing for young adults. Maintaining independent retailers downtown. Thoughtful development. The growing Ann Arbor identity crisis. These are issues that have been on artist Jeremy Wheeler's mind -- and the minds of many others. Are we a city that is growing too unaffordable for creatives and young families? Are local artists and musicians unsupported by the community that used to embrace them? 

They're big questions, and in order to find the right answers to them Wheeler is asking Ann Arborites to "Dream Big." In a 10-page comic editorial in The Ann last month, Wheeler made clear his deep love for the community while also posing some tough questions about where we're headed. Rather than hem and haw about each issue separately and suggest moderate answers for incremental change, "Dream Big" challenges readers to think about the whole picture: Who do we want Ann Arbor to be in the future? And how will each of these issues help determine that? When it published, he says, many young adult residents reached out to him to say they agreed and were worried about similar issues, but had never voiced their opinion before. 

We chatted with Wheeler to dig into some of his concerns, as well the very issue of those important local voices not being heard.

Concentrate: Do you think it's a significant problem that Ann Arbor's younger adult residents aren't engaged with local government? 

JW: Possibly. I think that it will be interesting to see where it goes, how [the city] moves forward with some younger people…getting involved, which they are definitely are now. 

But as far as the people that I know… it is hard to fill a civic role when you are just having such a hard time trying to make it. It is not easy to live in Ann Arbor. If you are a server at a restaurant, all your money is going to go to rent, and that doesn’t mean that you are even living downtown. It’s hard to show up to government meetings and open a dialogue for people who are just working their butt off to exist here and to enjoy the city that we live in. That is certainly one of my issues. I am not really as involved because I’m hustling all the time. 

You write in your comic, "It's these kinds of things that give me hope that we're not too tied forever too nostalgia. The flipside of that we [sic] become too modern and lose our identity." What do you mean by both of those points?

We’ve certainly seen what a push against development did to the town when things were really kind of starting to boom even just ten years back. You can only push so much and then it will actually have a negative impact, because people who have good intentions will just throw up their hands and just be like, "Well, screw it." 

I think that we saw was a direct result of trying to be so nostalgic to what Ann Arbor was while not really grasping the fact that it will grow. There will be growth, whether you like it or not. It is happening all over the place, we are not the only city that it’s happening to.

But, the flip side is, there is no discourse on what’s being built and what things look like, and this place ends up looking like a bunch of modern art buildings growing together amongst two- or three-level buildings. They make up a large percentage of downtown and have for a while now.  

You mention opportunistic landlords raising rent to be more in line with some of these new, cushy boutique apartments. But isn’t that demand for downtown living what is causing the rising prices? And doesn’t an increase in the supply of apartments mean that eventually prices will fall when the demand is finally met?

This isn’t Aunt Maggie or Uncle Jack who has a couple of houses that they are renting out to college students. These are, I don’t know if you call them firms, but these are people who own a bunch of different rental properties, and they know what they are doing, and they are taking advantage. There are a lot of different places around the nation where we are seeing this happen. It is not what people expected when they put in higher income housing. They thought it would take off the pressure of like the smaller rental properties when in fact it just does the opposite. 

This is one of the reasons we talk about ADUs, the accessory dwelling units that Santa Cruz pushed through in their government. Your article on that is the thing that opened my eyes to that initiative, which sounds like is definitely going to be in the conversation moving forward probably in the next year  [in Ann Arbor].

You mention wanting, among other things, for industrial areas to be redeveloped for the use of artists and musicians, for us to have more right-sized music venues, more affordable commercial space for independent business owners downtown and for more middle-income employers to come to town. How do we do that? Is this a job of the citizenry, of the city council — who is it that is in charge of making sure the right people invest in the right kind of businesses?

That is a great question and I would love to know the answer as well. All these places are closing, and all of these downtown buildings are being sold, and then right after they reassess the taxes go up, which means that only the chain can afford to move in there. That’s a huge problem. I would love to know what government could do or what private citizens could do for there to be a little bit more support for a new interesting business that would be good for Ann Arbor. 

Possibly one of the things is just having a more open dialogue with whoever owns the buildings right now, and instead having them sell the buildings, having them be in contact with people who might do something positive and interesting in that building, so maybe they could still have it at the price that the previous rental tenants had. 

What was your goal in writing "Dream Big?"

I just want people to talk more. I think we have such a cool melting pot of different people in Ann Arbor: intellectuals, creative class, students, tech. I think that we can move forward if people talk to each more.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

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Below is a slideshow with some older photos of Jeremy, some outtakes from the shoot for this story and some shots from The Bang! party this month (The Bang! is the monthly dance party that Jeremy has been part of for the last 13 years). The song "Brooks Street" is a funky little disco love letter to Ann Arbor by Psykedisko - Jeremy, Ryan Howard (from City Center and Drunken Barn Dance), and Morgan Daniels. To quote the song - "Everybody's in The Deuce is getting loose."

All photos by Doug Coombe
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