Landline Creative Labs: The next step in Ypsi's renaissance?

Since Ypsilanti's SPUR Studios closed abruptly last year, Ypsi filmmaker Donald Harrison has been just one of many local artists seeking an affordable new workspace.

"I think for somebody who does independent work it's just psychologically healthy to go somewhere outside of your house to work," Harrison says. "I like the idea of being in proximity to other people who are motivated and creative…I don't need, necessarily, to collaborate with anybody there. But that potential and that possibility and just the social aspect of it is appealing to me."

For Harrison and others, that search has been somewhat frustrating. Space of any kind in Ann Arbor is increasingly expensive, and new Ypsilanti office space aimed at creatives has yet to arise in SPUR's place. But a new project spearheaded by two key players in the Ypsilanti community could change that. Blogger Mark Maynard and Wurst Bar co-owner Jesse Kranyak are in the process of purchasing a 9,000-square-foot Ypsilanti building with the intention of renovating part of it as creative office space under the name Landline Creative Labs

The building at 209 Pearl St. originally housed Bell Telephone Company offices (which prompted the Landline name), and later apartments. Its interior was damaged by a fire in 2014 and it's been largely vacant since then. With the exception of Frank D's barbershop, which has remained in operation on the first floor, the building's interior is still in bad shape. Garbage is scattered around, utility infrastructure is badly damaged and there are only bare, charred wooden studs where walls stood.

But it's easy to see where small apartments, or telephone company offices, once were–and easy to see how, with some renovation work, cozy studio spaces could arise as well. Maynard and Kranyak saw that potential in the building, so they submitted a letter of intent last year to purchase it from current owner Hedger Breed. Maynard says he wants to focus on renting studio space to graphic designers, web designers, videographers and potentially other kinds of artists, rather than the tech startups that predominate in Ann Arbor. Three prospective artist tenants, including Harrison, have already expressed interest in studio space at Landline.

"We keep trying to lure startups here," Maynard says. "Why not focus on what we have, which is the creatives, and do it really well? Then…I do think startups will follow."

Seeking a site

The Landline project came about after almost five years of on-and-off searching by both Maynard and Kranyak. The two explored multiple buildings throughout Ypsi, including a run-down church and the former Savoy/Club Divine building downtown. But the burned-out building on Pearl was the first they found that struck a balance between affordability, ample square footage and structural soundness.

"Foundation-wise, it's probably the only building we've been through without a wet basement," Kranyak says. "We've been through buildings in Ypsi that have rivers basically running through them."

Though the two have considered a diverse assortment of buildings, Kranyak says the plan for their prospective space was always roughly the same: a combination of low-cost studio space, living space and retail operations. The duo's plan for Landline is to first renovate the second floor to provide nine studio spaces whose rent would start at $150 per month. The second floor would also include an apartment for Kranyak, and the duo hope to later add two more studios and a restaurant and/or bar on the first floor (the barbershop would continue as is). Kranyak says he initially pushed to convert the space into all residential lofts, but Maynard convinced him otherwise.

"It doesn't really help Ypsi out too much to have maybe six more residents come in," Kranyak says. "But if you have nine office spaces with younger professionals in here, it really changes the energy of downtown. It brings it up a little bit."

The two partners became friends shortly after Kranyak, an EMU alumnus, moved back to Ypsi in 2011 to open the Wurst Bar. They bonded over a shared passion for the Ypsi community, and the mutual admiration between them is obvious. Maynard expresses respect for Kranyak's management skills, and Kranyak for Maynard's community influence. Kranyak says he expects Maynard will handle the marketing end of the project while Kranyak focuses on the construction end.

"My back is going, so I'm too old," Maynard says. "I'll sit and take pictures of him and blog about it. 'Look what Jesse's doing today!'"

The road ahead

There are still plenty of hurdles to clear before local creatives can start moving into Landline. Maynard and Kranyak are awaiting an appraisal of the property in order to get final approval on their financing. They're also seeking an Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act (OPRA) tax incentive from the city of Ypsilanti, which would freeze property taxes on the building for up to 12 years. As long as both of those go through, Maynard says rehabilitation of the property could begin as soon as the end of this month. He estimates he and Kranyak would immediately put $200,000 into renovating the second floor of the property, with later first-floor renovations costing an additional $250,000.

"We're raising the value of this property by at least $400,000, closer to $500,000," Maynard says. "That's a good thing for the city, so hopefully they see the point."

Maynard describes Landline as the latest step in an ongoing transition towards general rejuvenation in Ypsi, partly driven by a growing concentration of creative talent. He says Ypsi's Shadow Art Fair (which he cofounded) and popular First Fridays "art walk" events are key indicators that creative talent is on the rise in Ypsi, and non-residents are willing to come into town to engage with it.

"A lot of it is beyond our control," Maynard says. "It's not because of what we did. It's just because Ann Arbor is so fucked in terms of affordability that…artists are moving here. And now that the schools are getting a little better, I think it's primed to really take off."

So what happens when it does? Maynard expresses some concerns about gentrification further down the line. He jokes that he hopes Ypsi won't draw attention from the likes of Reza Rahmani, who has recently earned Ann Arborites' ire for scooping up downtown real estate and replacing several long-running local businesses with chains. But Maynard says the key is to lead by example, to develop Landline as both a resource and inspiration for Ypsi newcomers.

"There are people who know something good is happening here and something interesting is happening," Maynard says. "It's just a matter of time before it gets out. You just hope you can do it gracefully."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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