This new Ann Arbor nonprofit is building civic engagement through architecture tours

During a recent Building Matters Ann Arbor architecture tour, the tour guide brought up an Ann Arbor City Council agenda that included items about sidewalks and water quality. The date? 1892.


"The more things change, the more they stay the same," says Building Matters executive director Jessica Letaw. "After 127 years, we're still dealing with those issues."


That long-term perspective on both architecture and community is purposefully baked into Building Matters. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit's mission and vision statement says that in 100 years, staff expect Building Matters to have become "central to Ann Arbor's sense of self" by "helping residents understand themselves better" and "bridging the gap from consumption of space and buildings to active engagement in them."


Letaw says the nonprofit grew out of her interest in the built environment and her love for Ann Arbor. She ran a thriving architectural consultancy firm and was also doing community work, but knew she needed to make a decision about where to focus her energies. Her passion for community work and civic engagement won out, so she closed her consultancy firm to start Building Matters.


"I love Ann Arbor, and I really believe in our community and our potential here," she says. "I could have started a (for-profit) tour business and it probably would have been very successful, but that wasn't getting at the heart of what I wanted."


She wanted Building Matters to be not just a tour company but "a community resource that would build shared vocabulary and literacy around the built environment."


Building Matters started work on that mission by offering a series of tours this autumn, just a little over a year after the nonprofit was officially incorporated. Over three weeks and about 15 tours, a few dozen participants took a tour called "From Farm Table to Council Table," focusing on the historic area on Catherine Street between Fourth Street and Division Street.


"Just the sheer amount of delight and amazement people responded with was somewhat unexpected," says tour operations manager Theresa Leslie-Robinson, noting that most of the participants were longtime Ann Arbor residents.


Leslie-Robinson says Building Matters guides can introduce "weightier subject matter" – for instance, historical debates over sidewalks or water quality issues – on the tours, letting people draw their own conclusions.


"By fusing some of those urban planning and sustainability issues into the tours, it really helps people then go back to their own kitchen tables and dining rooms and contemplate it," she says.


Both Leslie-Robinson and Letaw say attendees have commented that the tours made them see their hometown in a whole new way, once they understood the history of the buildings and gained some vocabulary for discussing buildings and architecture.


That's exactly what Letaw was hoping for. Residents tend to be deeply interested in buildings and new developments, but they don't always understand everything that goes into a project. She says these issues aren't intrinsically hard to understand, but they aren't automatically included in public education or public discourse, either.


"It's not one of the things we learn in school. We don't learn about buildings, their parts or materials, and don't learn to talk about buildings other than that they exist," Letaw says. "They don't have a vocabulary about street experience, programming, and materials."


Looking toward the future for Building Matters, Letaw says plans are in the works to offer a much wider variety of tours in 2020. Staff are hoping to produce at least five "stories" for tours next year, covering different kinds of buildings and different parts of the city and including bus tours in addition to the walking tours.


This year, the tours were part of the Ann Arbor District Library's summer game, providing a sort of "visual architectural treasure hunt" that could earn participants a Building Matters badge. Letaw would like to expand that program and maybe offer a whole set of Building Matters badges next year. Letaw envisions future collaboration with the University of Michigan or other partners, and says "lots of things are percolating" for 2020.


A long-term possibility for the organization is to act as a think tank for the city of Ann Arbor, Letaw says. Other cities, including New York, engage with similar organizations like the Van Alen Institute. These think tanks can analyze data and clarify building patterns that emerge from that data to help inform public policy.


Building Matters' board recently doubled from five to 10 members, with one more to be added before the year is out. Letaw says that makes it a great time of year to do some long-term strategic planning, examining the ways Building Matters could play an even bigger role in shaping the future of Ann Arbor.


"Buildings are complicated, and development needs time to come to fruition and mature. Getting folks thinking productively about the present means having a better understanding of history," Letaw says. "We don't know where we're going until we know where we've been, and don't know what the next 100 years will look like until we understand what the first 200 looked like."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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