ANN ARBOR, MI — After several years of talks about how to activate downtown’s Library Lane parking lot, Ann Arbor officials are revisiting past ideas.
Food trucks and food carts, as well as artisan pop-ups and musical performances, are a focus again.
City Council voted 10-0 last week to direct City Administrator Milton Dohoney to investigate the costs, operational needs and feasibility of regular programming of the city parking lot next to the downtown library for such uses.
Council asked Dohoney to report back by April 1 and to examine the challenges and benefits of partnering with an external or nonprofit entity to manage the programming if there are significant barriers to city operation.
Adam Zemke, chair of the city’s Council of the Commons advisory group, appeared before City Council Thursday night, Nov. 10, to make the case for the idea.
The Council of the Commons in July 2021 identified food trucks as the top way to start activating the city’s future Center of the City downtown central park space, but the idea was put on hold due to concerns bringing in food trucks could hurt downtown restaurants struggling amid the pandemic.
Mobile commercial activation of spaces is not a new concept and has been around for well over a century, said Zemke, who points to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market as one example.
“Mobile activations, particularly those around food and pop-up vendors, are not in conflict with brick-and-mortar locations. In fact, they are complementary,” he said, citing a 12-year study.
They promote equity and entrepreneurship by providing low-cost entry points to people who want to start businesses, Zemke said, mentioning local restaurants that spawned from the former Mark’s Carts food-cart venture downtown in the last decade, including The Lunch Room, a vegan eatery that has grown into the Detroit Street Filling Station, North Star Lounge and The Lunch Room Bakery and Cafe.
The resolution to explore options for Ann Arbor’s Library Lane parking lot was sponsored by Council Members Erica Briggs, Lisa Disch, Julie Grand and Jeff Hayner.
It cites a 2018 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stating food trucks offer a net positive to the restaurant industry and can be a vehicle for economic growth and foster development of minority-owned businesses.
Council Member Ali Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, noted the downtown restaurant he owns, Jerusalem Garden, is just steps away from the Library Lane parking lot and he’s not threatened by the prospect of food trucks.
“I welcome them,” he said. “I think it’s synergy. If you’re concerned about a food truck, you probably got a lot of other issues that you need to concern yourself with first.”
The issues facing the restaurant industry now are labor shortages and high inflation, Ramlawi said, indicating he’s doing 30-40% less business than he would if the labor market was where it used to be.
“This is the toughest business to be in — the toughest business,” he said. “It’s a labor of love.”
He encouraged a holistic approach to activating the site, pairing food trucks with events to draw people.
“If we just put a few food trucks there, they’re not going to succeed,” he said.
Ann Arbor voters approved the Center of the City downtown central park concept in 2018, but the city has yet to implement it, spending the last four years discussing options for short-term activation while contemplating the possibility of longer-term physical changes to the city-owned spaces on the block, including the Library Lane lot and Liberty Plaza.
The feasibility study City Council authorized is an important and needed next step for activation, Zemke said.
“Activation planning matters,” he said, noting members of his advisory group traveled to Detroit to meet with the Downtown Detroit Partnership and tour urban parks managed and activated through the public-private partnership.
The Detroit partnership is addressing the needs of all users to ensure everyone is safe, that equity is paramount and that no one is feeling pushed out, Zemke said.
“We learned that folks like the DDP work to guide planned activation throughout the year and activate organic, casual-use space to do so,” said Zemke, who cited other examples from Royal Oak, Plymouth, Grand Rapids and Traverse City.
Ann Arbor’s downtown business community is still in recovery from COVID-19, but the city can begin to explore the topic, said Briggs, D-5th Ward, noting the idea being floated is something that’s happening in downtowns across the country.
“I’m hoping that we can explore this and see where it goes,” she said. “I’m sure there will be challenges ahead.”
Hayner, D-1st Ward, said he doesn’t think there would be a lot of poaching of restaurant customers by food trucks.
“It’s all for the better that we have more things happening in our community, and this is one way to get there,” he said.
He mentioned trying a sandwich from Ginger Deli when the downtown restaurant had a stand set up along Liberty Street during a Sonic Lunch summer concert.
“And had I never tried one from essentially their food table, I would have never known how awesome they were and started going there,” he said. “And so I think that local restaurants have an opportunity to participate in this as well.”
Grand, D-3rd Ward, said bringing in pop-up vendors is temporary and easily reversible if there’s a better use of the site in the future. But right now, it’s a surface parking lot “and we’ve got to be able to do better than that,” she said.
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