What makes a street vital? Exploring downtown Ann Arbor's most and least vibrant blocks

Stroll through any downtown and you can quickly identify which streets are hopping with activity and which aren't. Concentrate's Natalie Burg looks at which of Ann Arbor's downtown blocks struggle to attract people and why.
There's nothing quite like walking down Main St. on a summer evening, dodging strolling families and chatting couples, weaving between sections of sidewalk occupied by street cafes and raised flowerbeds. It's the kind of infectious chaos that makes an Ann Arborite's heart swell with joy. Downtown is an undeniably great place to be. 

"It's this intangible feeling we get when we're walking down a street," says Executive Director of the Main Street Area Association Maura Thomson "When you see people sitting together and eating and laughing and talking, you can't help but feel that energy." 

But what happens when you, say, walk far enough north to pass Huron? For an entire block, it just kind of feels empty, like…anywhere. What's the difference? Why do some parts of downtown feel so vibrant, while others just feel kind of meh? 

"To me the, sense of place is about creating a more human experience," Thomson says. "It has to do with things like scale, architecture…sidewalk cafes, which mean people, window displays and trees. If you walk down Main Street, there is a feeling that you are someplace special."

Here, we look at a few of the spots downtown with terrific street vitality, some without much at all, as well as some of the factors that make it them that way. 

One-Ways

If it were possible to stand in the middle of the intersection of Liberty and Fifth Ave. during a busy day, one might notice two things that are striking in combination: A look down Liberty reveals a bustling street, full of street cafes and pedestrians; turn 90 degrees, however, and the sidewalks look very different. They're much less busy. Nothing's really doing for blocks. That intangible something is gone. 

There are a couple of factors at play, but one is the fact that Fifth Ave. is a one-way. As is Division, another less vibrant stretch of downtown. Both have become corridors oriented toward getting vehicles from Point A to Point B rather than inviting, mixed-use streets. 

"Cars are going faster," says Thomson. "That is a factor. But if you look at Ashely St., it's a one-way, but you have more businesses, you have some restaurants and you have more pedestrian-friendly activities going on, it's balanced a little bit more."

So while simply being one-way doesn't doom a street to be a vitality dud, it's certainly a contributing factor. In fact, that's the entire reason State St. was turned from a one-way into a two-way in 2003. According to the archives of the UM's The University Record, the change was made in accordance with a university study that found the change would make "navigation of the State Street area easier and more pedestrian-friendly for visitors, faculty, staff, students and merchants."

More than a decade later, few would argue the affected area—N. State between Liberty and William—is anything but one of the most vibrant areas of downtown.

Active storefront dead zones

The other contributing factor to the street vitality of Liberty and Fifth is what's on the other side of its sidewalks: storefronts -first-floor restaurant and retail- instead of office walls. Stretches of often faceless service buildings between muffle the street vitality of a given area, sometimes for a block, and other times for much longer. 

No street better demonstrates this than Fourth Ave. Standing on the quiet block between the Courthouse Square apartments and the Embassy Hotel feels like you're in a no man's land. Just one block south, however, things are suddenly hopping. And it's not just the physical proximity between the two atmospheres that is notable, but the difference a little bit of time has made. In just three years, a rush of new retail businesses has totally changed the vitality of the block. 

"When you're walking down the street, it's a subconscious thing," says Thomson. "Dear Golden, the fact that she changes out that window displays all the time, and with Literati, they're doing the quotes painted on the brick—all of those things add so much to the experience."

Scale

Oh, Huron. Where does one begin? Sure, Huron is undeniably the quickest route through downtown by car. But not a single block between State St. and 1st St. has an ounce of street vitality. And that's because the entire street is geared toward all those cars, not people.

"Huron is a great example of what makes something not pedestrian friendly," Thomson says. "There isn't a lot of vegetation. You have big streetlights, but you don't have a lot of pedestrian-scale things. You pass a lot of blank walls. There are no sidewalk cafes. There isn't a lot of pedestrian activity at all.

"There's a lot that could be done to make that a more balanced street."

Could Huron be car friendly and built to human scale as well? Certainly. Can one-ways be more vital with fewer blank walls and more restaurant and retail storefronts? Ashley between Washington and Liberty proves it can. 

As Thompson says, it's all about balance. So here's to the spots in downtown that are already striking that great balance to create fantastic street vitality, and here's some encouragement to the areas that could use a little more help getting there. The effort could only make our downtown an even better place to be.

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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