Know Y: A Place For Us?

It was somewhere between the silverfish infestation and being barged in on by jocular maintenance men when my roommates and I realized – it was time to get out of the student ghetto. The paint peeled, the carpet was unsightly, and when the dryer was running, the walls would rattle while we re-enacted Dennis Neubacher weather reports. Still, we loved the location of our cute Kerrytown bungalow and dismissed the times when it reared its alter ego as yet another halfway house in the undergrad projects.

In all honesty, it was the claw-foot bathtub and the cobblestone street that sealed the deal for me. Call me old fashioned, but I always go for charm over practicality. My last place ended up being a complete disaster (thanks Craigslist!). Don't trust a skinny chef and don't rent from a hot landlord. Life lessons.

And yet, tolerance for poor quality housing wears off rather quickly as soon as you land yourself a 'real job' and a respectable paycheck.  That 'real job' is at Google Ann Arbor, where I've been for nearly three years. Since graduating from Michigan State University, all I'd been hearing was how badly the state wanted to retain its young talent. Governor Granholm paid our office a visit in 2007 after we opened up shop and the welcome was incredibly warm – though tinged with an 'everything is riding on you' overtone. So it was crystal clear that the state wanted our business. But was it prepared to provide the quality of life for the demographic that Google's workforce represents? My thoughts here are my own, but the answer to this question after three years is – sorta.

We are a growing company. Yeah, I said it. We're hiring again, and as we grow and attract more knowledge workers to the area through tech start-ups, we need to make Ann Arbor a town that young people would come to without Google's presence.

This installment of "Know Y" kicks things off on the topic of housing options, but in future articles I hope to provide more examples of adaptations the city should make if it's going to sustain the young professional.

Here's the crux of the problem; with most of us in our early 20s to late 30s, we fall outside Ann Arbor's demographic check boxes. We are not students, we are not young families (most of us – though that's changing), and we are not senior citizens. We have no current affiliation to the university. We are working professionals and, dare I say 'yuppies' in the public lexicon. Where were the options for us to upgrade our living situation if we want to be downtown?

Our list of demands for living in A2 didn't seem that long. "Covered parking!", declared fellow Googler, Kaila Crowley, "That's a luxury in the North." Cost per square foot was a priority for another co-worker, Jordan Chapman. "That was a great selling point for my place. I got a lot for my money."

Other commonalities for an ideal housing situation surfaced the more I asked around:

  • Monthly rent between $600-$900
  • Close proximity to work and social scene (walking/biking distance)
  • Option to live alone affordably
  • No 'cookie cutter' condos – we want places with character
  • Flooring that has not seen the ravages of six years of lost beer pong tournaments

I was ready to accept the fact that my Kerrytown house and experience with other rental properties were outliers. Surely my colleagues had much better digs.Turns out, they did. But to find them 'at home' I had to drive to Briarwood, or Geddes and Huron River Parkway, or Ypsilanti. These areas were hardly 'No Mans Land', but they might as well have been.

When I first moved to Ann Arbor, I found a nice one-bedroom of reasonable price in Arbor Village apartments on W. Stadium. It was a 5-minute drive into town – chump change on the odometer. But that 5 minutes nudged the place just over the line that differentiates 'downtown living' from 'hermetic inertia' – where you find yourself holed up in your apartment instead of rallying the energy to drive yourself back into town. The percentage of nights spent in is far higher for those living on the city's fringe, and that does nothing for your social life.This seems to have translated into a lot of inter-office dating as Google people spend all their time either at work or in the boondocks - excuse me, I mean, 'at home'.

Samira Lama is a fellow Googler who moved from Bay City to work at Google.  She says, "Village Green's amenities fit my lifestyle, [but] the location prevented me from exploring as much of the city as I had hoped in my first year."

If city planners and developers were trying to create large communities of anti-social 20-somethings, bravo.

Complexes on the fringe are where many of my coworkers settled in their first year at the company – having no awareness of how isolated they might find themselves in their freshly-painted, newly furnished condos. Later, we learned that where we wanted to be was right downtown, in the thick of things. So some of us moved. And then, if we found a nice place all to ourselves, we quickly invited people over. Not for a housewarming party, but to read eulogies for our life savings. "Here lies the money Kate had put away for retirement. It would have gone on to support her through her twilight years, but she just had to have the Main St. loft with a breathtaking view of the Huron and customizable amenities."

Single apartments downtown were (and still are) exorbitantly priced for entry-level incomes. Instead, we find a place we like and pack it to the gills with roommates. This works out nicely, but can often recreate the 'Animal House' feel on days where you'd love to have the place to yourself. Still, you have the rest of downtown as your jurisdiction in this scenario, with lots of places that cater to the young professional lifestyle.

Or do you? I see things every day that lead me to wonder if the city can hear us over the roar of the student population. Case in point: McKinley opens up new storefront space beneath the mecca of working 20-30somethings, 201 S. Division. As the first clothing racks were rolled in I remember thinking American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Bivouac, or Gap must be drooling. The racks were soon followed by bench-made shoes, the finest in gentlemen's clothing, a sign that announced 'Renaissance' as the new tenant, and the sound of my dismayed jaw hitting the floor. Why not place the new skate park by the senior center?

I would be naïve to dismiss the fact that the battle to densify the downtown area has been raging on for years now.  I just didn't understand the perspective of the developers who could be making (what I thought would be) a great profit off young professionals, but instead kept building student high rises.

Peter Allen (of Peter Allen & Associates – a local development firm), helped shed some light on the situation. "Nobody's built anything in two years because of the economy, and Google is the first company to bring in this type of knowledge worker."

Peter showed me three properties he's looking to develop, and it was clear that this was a guy who 'gets it' for the knowledge worker market. The renderings he showed me for his place at 1250 Main (right on the river) is exactly what my colleagues would love to see made available. Lots of natural light, old restored building, view of the Huron, downtown but removed from the university.

Another is Kingsley Lane Lofts at 111 W. Kingsley, which Peter had ready to go until Pfizer pulled the plug on its Ann Arbor operations. "When we lost Pfizer, that was 2,000 research scientists with $80K salaries. Ann Arbor is reasonably immune to the recession, but property values went down 30-40% and we're only now on our way back."

Fair point. Pfizer was a huge loss to the community. But this put a different thought in my head – the developers had the 45+ yr old research scientist at $80K a year in mind as the standard model for their properties. No wonder Liberty Lofts were $3,000/month.

I asked Peter if it were totally unreasonable to think about bringing that price point down under $1,000/month.  "No, it's not unreasonable, you just have to adjust for the size of the unit in that case. If you get the stakeholders involved early on, good design will be approved."

Okay, so Peter and other developers are starting to recognize the weight of this opportunity. Meanwhile, I need housing, so I can't help but more closely examine another option – purchasing a home. The newlyweds among us have gotten steals out of the collapsed housing market and government tax incentives.

Paula Pleiman, a realtor for eight years in the Southeast Michigan region told me, "It is without a doubt, hands down, the best time in history to be a first-time home buyer." 

Who can argue with that? "How long does it take you to save $8,000?" Paula asked me. "It takes me a long time, and the government is giving this away if you've got decent credit and 3.5% to place on a down payment."

And she's right. She's right along with all the other wise adults of the suburbs.  But I've seen Revolutionary Road, and it scares the crap out of me. I alternate between the dream of putting in new kitchen counter-tops and the nightmare of realizing that I could have spent six months wandering Buenos Aires for the price of them.

I'm highly resistant to the idea of putting down roots right now, and I don't think I'm alone in this sentiment. Until this changes, I'm staying right here while former classmates join 'The Great Migration' to cities like Chicago or San Francisco. If Ann Arbor wants to keep up with them, we could do without the silverfish, for a start.

Kate Rose is a MSU grad and native Michigander. Her day job is at Google; her views here are her own. This is her first article for Concentrate but expect more. Send feedback here.


Kate Rose in the dark underbelly of Ann Arbor-Ann Arbor


Kerrytown Neighborhood

Samira Lama at her crib-Ypsi-Pittsfield Township

Google's Newest Neighbor-Ann Arbor

Samira Lama at her crib-Ypsi-Pittsfield Township

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  Yee haw.