column/with poll: Is Ann Arbor still a small town?
Photo illustration by Courtney Sacco | AnnArbor.com
Is Ann Arbor still a small town?
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years telling new staff members at AnnArbor.com that the answer is: Yes.
People in Ann Arbor tend to recall its history. We share memories, as witnessed by reaction to my column from last week on the Top 5 stores where I still wish I could shop. We encounter people we know when we randomly go somewhere in town. And we remember relationships: We honor the people who’ve treated us well and reputations are slow to heal from slights (I’m speaking mostly from a business perspective here).
But two things started to change my perspective on that answer.
The first was a drive in full sunlight on South Main Street. As I headed north past Michigan Stadium, I caught a view of the city that took my breath away.
It was Ann Arbor’s skyline from that perspective, which allows shorter buildings to be seen even as the new high rises and other new construction and even University of Michigan Medical Center creep into view.
The breadth of the town from that view drove home to me just how much the city has changed over the past decades.
And it reminded me of how much it still stands to change as new construction is proposed in town. Three new high-rise projects haven’t even started construction, and two more are taking shape right now. One, The Varsity, is growing to its 13 stories outside of my 7th floor office window, and every week or two at least one colleague remarks: I can’t believe how fast that’s coming along.
These buildings last forever, creating a contrast that leaves me (and my non-engineering oriented brain) to conclude that their speed of change — as they emerge from a vacant lot to completed building in a matter of months — is somewhat of a miracle.
The second event that changed my perspective on how small a town Ann Arbor remains is our coverage of the first anniversary of Mott Children’s Hospital at U-M.
This is a facility that many in Ann Arbor may never visit. (I’m hoping I don’t, despite an injury-prone son who prompted multiple visits to its predecessor).
Yet it represents a large portion of our employment base and a large part of our national health care reputation, generating thousands of visits from patients and their families from around the country.
And its physical presence, for someone who rarely wanders near the hills of the medical campus or gets a clear view of the city skyline, is stunning: It’s a $754-million, 12-story building with a second 9-story tower.
What happens inside is even more remarkable: It’s a world-class medical facility with a global reputation. It's huge, physically and figuratively.
I value the changes — like the expansion of Mott — and growth that I’ve seen in Ann Arbor during my 20-some years here, but I will admit: Living in a place that still feels like a small town matters to me.
And while I’m watching the changes here on our skyline, I’m also asking myself: How long will Ann Arbor be a small town?
Paula Gardner is Community News Director of AnnArbor.com. She can be reached by email.