Place Matters

Gauri Thergaonkar and Giri Iyengar have lived in downtown Ann Arbor's Armory building for eight years, and Thergaonkar, a former Ford Motor Company
engineer-turned- Zingerman's Deli retail manager, often walks around the corner to Monahan's Seafood Market in Kerrytown to buy fresh fish.

"What am I cooking for dinner tonight?" she'll ask owner Mike Monahan, enjoying a familiarity she can't imagine herself finding at, say, the nearest Kroger.

"That's the magic of community," she said. "You form that network; you form those connections."

Thergaonkar, 36, and Iyengar, 40, both earned engineering degrees at the University of Michigan and both landed good jobs with Ford Motor Company after they graduated. Despite a commute that took 45 minutes on a good day and two hours on a bad one, the couple chose to make their home in Ann Arbor because of that small town feeling amid big-town amenities.

Where you live says a lot about how you'll live. That's why more and more young people are settling in or near downtowns like Ann Arbor's – choosing their lifestyle first, then finding a job that will support it.

Ann Arbor isn't the only community in southeastern Michigan that attracts the creative and the place-oriented. Birmingham, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Midtown and downtown Detroit all have features that attract the "place first" crowd.

But some subtle differences – like a highly educated population and the omnipresent University of Michigan and the 43 miles that separate it from Detroit – help it carve out a niche as a place of its own.

Give the people what they want

The common thread in communities that are now drawing the entrepreneurial, 25-40-year-olds, says University of Michigan architecture and urban design professor Christopher B. Leinberger, is walkable urbanism.

"From an urban planning point of view it means a place where, within a quarter-mile to a half-mile radius, you can get pretty much everything you need and maybe even walk to work," said Leinberger who's also director of the graduate real estate development program at U-M and a scholar at the Brookings Institution. Leinberger lives in Washington D.C., where he says the number of walkable urban areas has grown from two to 17 (with another 10 evolving) since the Metro went in 30 years ago.

"In order to get a walkable community you need density, and in order to get more density you need a regional mass transit system," said city of Birmingham planning director Jana Ecker, who grew up in Toronto. "It just boggles my mind that an area this size doesn't have mass transit."

At every turn Ecker, 37, encourages the city to add features that put activity on the street.

In his 2006 book, Zoned Out, U-M urban planning professor and department head Jonathan Levine looked at the urban extremes of Atlanta and Boston, where 30-40 percent of the population wants to live in walkable urban areas. Another 30 percent will tolerate them, and the final 30-40 percent wants driveable suburbia.

Applying those numbers to the Detroit Metro area, Leinberger says, it's easy to see the demand for walkable city living far exceeds the supply. And where baby boomers sought good jobs first and settled, in some cases, for living in a place they simply tolerated, their kids have different priorities. For 30-40 percent of the population jobs just aren't the biggest draw anymore. Places are.

"In my personal experience, when any of us make a decision we fold in five or 10 different factors and we weigh them differently depending on who we are," said Leinberger, who's in his mid 50s. "Our kids use a similar decision-making process, but they weigh place more importantly."

In the market

Putting a high priority on place is nothing new, says Kim Clugston, vice president and senior loan officer at Bank of Ann Arbor. What is new in Ann Arbor is a real estate market that's opened to people who aren't making physician's salaries. With the average home selling for $248,000, the city has become affordable to 30-somethings pulling down 40-something salaries.

"They're not buying McMansions; they're not maxing out their credit cards," Clugston said. "They have very good credit and very little other debt, which is good, and they're able to get in now with very little money. …If you have two people making in the 40's they can, this year, buy their first house in Ann Arbor."

Some of Clugston's clients have included new Google hires, and many, she says, work in or are interviewing for technology jobs. They're young; they're confident, and they want to be able to bike to work. And if they're coming in from the west coast or the east coast, Ann Arbor is still a good value.

Mat and Clara Cahill moved to Ann Arbor from San Diego (when) because Clara had enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan. Mat says they could afford three times the house here that the same money would buy them in San Diego. And although Mat, a forester, came to town without a job, he heard about the area's emerald ash borer problems on one of his first visits and it wasn't long before he decided to launch his own business, Druid Tree Care.

"I figured you can't go wrong with place called Ann Arbor," he said. "Once you start meeting people and talking to people here everyone is pretty receptive to what you're doing as a small, local business. People are fairly supportive. I've had people say they chose my business because they wanted to support a small, local business."

Brad Anderson, a website developer in the Kardia Lab at the University of Michigan, moved to Ann Arbor with his girlfriend, Kim Keller, in March. They were living in Indianapolis and Keller, a U-M alum, was eager to get back to Ann Arbor.

Anderson liked its friendly, midwestern attitude and its level of environmentally awareness. With peak oil looming, he likes being able to bike to work. He found a job that appealed to more than just his technical skills, working for a lab where science, technology and religion intersect as part of U-M's life sciences and society program. "I never thought there'd be a position like this until I moved up here," he said.

What's your passion?

And if Ann Arbor filled Thergaonkar and Iyengar's need for community when they were at Ford, it became an even more obvious choice in 2003 and 2004 when they both left Ford, capitalized on their love of good food and wine, and traded vocation for avocation.

Thergaonkar parlayed her involvement with the local slow food movement into a job at Zingerman's Delicatessen. A year later Iyengar left Ford without a job. He found work as the wine manager at Eve, a French-inspired fine dining restaurant in Kerrytown, two blocks from home. After eight months he became retail manager at Everyday Wines, which is also in Kerrytown. He's currently launching a wine import business, U.S. Wine Imports, in Ann Arbor.

In both cases the pay cut was drastic – a drop to about 20 percent of their Ford salary, then a slow climb back to about half what they were making as engineers

Thergaonkar jokes that she lives her life within four blocks, and if she and Iyengar didn't have to venture outside of downtown to buy certain necessities - like toilet paper ­- it would probably be accurate.

The neighborhood feeling reminds Thergaonkar of her childhood neighborhood in Bombay, India – the familiarity with people you see every day, the neighborhood grocery, the continuity of old, established businesses.

"This is a place that had the feeling of community," she said. " I think Giri and I were sort of both seeking the same thing - that sense of having neighbors…I feel like this is my neighborhood; these are my people. I realized that I never really missed it until I got it back."

They visit friends in Royal Oak, Dearborn and other satellite communities of Detroit, but never come away wanting to move there.

"Every time we actually considered doing anything different, it was 'Where do you want to be when you walk out the door?'" Thergaonkar said.
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times. Her previous article for metromode was Accent Reduction Institute.


Walkability in Ann Arbor

Gauri Thergaonkar


Gauri Thergaonkar selects fish at Monahan's Seafood Market

Giri Iyengar

Gourmet cheeses at Zingerman's

Photographs by Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved

Dave Krieger is managing photographer of Model D and a major metromode contributor
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