Old Ypsilanti pushes back against the new

Brianna Kelly
Special to The Detroit News

Ypsilanti When Frank Fejeran, a former Ann Arbor executive chef, opened Ma Lou’s Fried Chicken in the downtown at the beginning of March, some residents dubbed it “gentri-fried chicken” on Facebook.

The grumbling centers around the belief that he’s a product of Ann Arbor because he was a fixture in its bustling restaurant scene — and the fact that he’s viewed as a white chef selling food perceived to be popular among African-Americans.

But Fejeran — who has lived in Ypsilanti for about 10 years — is quick to point out that he’s actually half-Asian and has been eating fried chicken for as long as he can remember.

“At the end of the day, to me, it’s just food,” Fejeran said. “I mean, do you only eat pasta cooked by an Italian? Do you only eat sushi rolled by a Japanese guy? No, it’s food.”

Some Ypsilanti residents are concerned the establishment of new, hip or upscale businesses will signal a change in the city that could bring an influx of wealthier residents from nearby Ann Arbor.

They’re worried about housing becoming more expensive, and that people who have been priced out of Ann Arbor will move to Ypsilanti for cheaper rent — and push out existing residents.

The opening last month of two Ann Arbor-based businesses — babo, a health food shop, and Tiny Buddha Yoga — in Ypsilanti prompted some local debate about what their presence could mean for the city. The businesses share a storefront in Depot Town on East Cross Street.

Supporters of babo and Tiny Buddha Yoga are happy to see a vacant space occupied by two successful female business owners —Sava Lelcaj of Savco Hospitality and Risa Gotlib of Tiny Buddha Yoga — while opponents believe they represent the wealth and privilege of Ann Arbor.

“All we can do is go out there and do great business and treat people well,” Lelcaj said. “And, in time, we’ll be part of the solution and not part of the problem, as we are in some folks’ opinions.”

Bee Roll, owner of Beezy’s Café in Ypsilanti, is an outspoken critic of gentrification who’s bothered by “the unwitting effect of whitewashing to make the area more palatable to clientele” and “perpetuating the cycle of dependence on outside money saving our town.”

She believes more focus needs to be placed on community health rather than economic wealth.

“We need rent control, affordable housing and services that cater to the people who live in the community,” Roll said. “We devote money and resources to advertising in order to stimulate economic activity, and are beholden to use funds in ways that lack real meaning to the community it serves.”

Andrea Plevek, director of Washtenaw County’s Office of Community and Economic Development, said the agency is “looking to invest in strategies that lift the incomes and opportunities for all residents.”

She said her office would like to see “a balanced share of households” to encourage a diverse economy that can “support economic growth for all across the county.”

Housing worries

The shift in retail isn’t the only trend that concerns some community members.

Artist and songwriter Jim Cherewick said he might have to leave Ypsilanti after about 14 years because his rent on his one-bedroom apartment is going up $50 per month in September, to $560.

“I always manage to find a place at the last minute, but the increased rent in Ypsilanti is kind of making it slim pickings,” he said.

Mark Maynard, a longtime Ypsilanti resident whose blog hosted an online debate over gentrification, believes “the real problem is that people are being priced out of Ypsi.”

“There’s a rising tide, and not everyone is on it,” he said. “I think people are concerned about that.”

A 2015 report analyzing housing affordability and economic equity in Washtenaw County determined that “housing cost increases are going to so outpace income gains that affordability will be a real challenge in the future as regards both housing and transportation expense.”

As housing costs in Ann Arbor continue to climb, working families employed in Ann Arbor will be forced to relocate to Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, further weakening the municipalities’ economic situation, according to the report.

The report, commissioned by the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, concludes that Ann Arbor needs to prioritize the construction of rental properties for low- to moderate-income residents.

The county has put out a request for proposals to build a mixed-income housing development on a parcel on Platt Road in Ann Arbor, said Teresa Gillotti, the office’s housing and community infrastructure manager.

At the same time, the report said Ypsilanti needs to partner with organizations that can help the city stabilize its housing market to counteract the “cycle of foreclosure, disinvestment, abandonment, flipping and distress.”

Areas of focus for Ypsilanti include single-family homeowners who need help repairing and maintaining their properties, especially in areas that are predominantly populated by African-Americans or other minorities, Gillotti said. The housing market has been slower to recover in those neighborhoods, she said.

To Maynard, a countywide approach to housing issues makes sense.

“What happens here (in Ypsilanti) depends on what they do (in Ann Arbor),” he said. “The more expensive property gets, the more people are going to come here. The more they limit public housing, the more those people will come here.”

Still, home price statistics seem to show less reason for concern about affordability in Ypsilanti, at least in the short run.

In March 2016, the average sale price of a single-family home was $408,294 in Ann Arbor, compared with $148,654 in Ypsilanti, according to the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors. In March 2017, the average sale price of a single-family home in Ann Arbor rose to $482,591, while it dropped slightly to $141,728 in Ypsilanti.

Fitting in

Maynard and his business partner, Jesse Kranyak, recently bought, renovated and set up Landline Creative Labs in the building at 209 Pearl St. to rent space to creative professionals and foster relationships between them.

He believes local ownership can ease concerns about gentrification by giving homeowners and businesses owners more control over their buildings and encouraging them to invest locally.

“I think you need people that actually care about the place they live. I suspect we’ll have more people buying property in Ypsi, and I think the likelihood about them caring about the community probably lessens with the amount of distance they live outside the community,” Maynard said.

Lelcaj, Gotlib and Fejeran said they understand the concerns about gentrification but argue they have set up shop in a responsible way. All three said they have created jobs, hired locally and didn’t push other businesses out.

For the most part, Ypsilanti’s residents and businesses owners welcome new businesses, but they expect a certain level of community involvement.

Fejeran said Ma Lou’s sponsors local events and donates 100 percent of the proceeds from its merchandise and desserts to charity. Lelcaj said she and Gotlib plan to collaborate with organizations and get involved in community events.

“At the end of the day, you share your passion and your love and your vision with the community, and they’ll accept,” Lelcaj said. “They just want to be convinced and we’re going to convince them.”