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Strategic Rules for a Lively Downtown and Livable Neighborhood

Peter Allen, Adjunct Faculty Member, University of Michigan Department of Architecture and Urban Planning; Real Estate Developer, Peter Allen & Associates, Ann Arbor


Peter Allen, University of Michigan Department of Architecture and Urban Planning adjunct faculty member and founder of Peter Allen Associates in Ann Arbor, emphasized the importance of attracting young, talented individuals to revitalize the downtowns of Michigan.  Peter brought along Matthew Neagle, a millennial “Googler,” who moved to Ann Arbor when Google recently opened their offices there.

Matthew began his presentation by recapping his day.  He rode his bike to work and then to the forum.  While at the office, a coworker gave him a cup of fresh strawberries that she had bought that morning at the Farmer’s Market while on her bike ride to work.  This, he stated, is the lifestyle that appeals to millennials.

After growing up in Saginaw, Matthew left Michigan thinking he would never move back.  However, he is now living and working in Ann Arbor after having lived and worked all over the United States—and in six other countries.  Three things brought him to Ann Arbor: job availability, proximity to family, and Ann Arbor’s “city life.”

Google’s challenge in attracting employees to Ann Arbor is simply that it is lesser known.  Google’s selling points include a vibrant downtown, the University, available and attractive park and recreation facilities, easy access to nature and a variety of festivals.  Google finds that once in the Ann Arbor area, employees tend to move closer to downtown.  They are attracted by the fact that they cannot go anywhere without running into other “Googlers.”  The ease of getting together and the ability to string activities together without having to “get in the car and go somewhere” is very attractive.  For them, the less car use, the better.  And last but not least, it is necessary for Ann Arbor to maintain affordable, attractive housing.

Citing Chris Leinberger of The Brookings Institute, Peter reviewed how cities have been historically, how they got where they are today and what they might look like in the future.  He sees the pendulum swinging from the era of the big mall pulling all the life and vitality away from downtown to a time where downtowns will again be the center of activity for communities.  After Briarwood Mall was built 20 years ago, downtown Ann Arbor looked like many other cities with a lot of vacant buildings and not much foot traffic.  Now it is coming back—something that takes three economic cycles (20 years).

Applying the “long tail theory” to real estate over those three cycles, first we saw funky entertainment, then rental housing (remember millennials want to rent, thus we need to keep an affordable housing strategy), followed by “For Sale” housing and finally commercial retail.

Lou Glazer’s research found that MKWs (millennial knowledge workers) move to neighborhoods seeking excitement and atmosphere, less so than the actual housing.  A critical mass of independent local retailers needs to be established—part of the “third place” development.  “Third places” are the social outlets millennials seek when not at home or work.  Mass transit/light rail are also essential.

Based on the Ann Arbor experience, Peter has developed a tool kit.  He suggests:

  • developing a deep bench of volunteer and nonprofit organizations,

  • nurturing committed civic entrepreneurs and risk-taking real estate developers,

  • creating a visionary city government,

  • developing extensive multi-modal connectivity,

  • connecting parks, greenways and natural resources to the downtown and to each other,

  • developing affordable life-long learning opportunities,

  • believing in local diversity as a core community value,

  • encouraging mixed-use development,

  • providing financial support for culture and the arts,

  • fostering a mix of unique local and national retailers, and

  • enhancing the role of the public schools.

Fielding a question about the importance of architectural design, Peter stated, “Great design will double the profit margin on a project by enhancing the ‘wow’ factor.”  Responding to the plight of Berkley where several projects have fallen through due to the greed of one property owner, Allen responded that there is no easy answer.  He suggested involving the property owners when developing the master plan and that the city be strong-willed in following the plan.





If you have any questions, please contact: 
Colleen Layton, or Arnold Weinfeld, .




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