Is it still possible to save the Ypsi-Arbor sign, and should we try?

ypsi_arbor_bowlAs readers of this site know, the giant “Ypsi-Arbor” sign, that has been standing watch over the demilitarized zone between our two cities since 1964, is up for sale. [For the background, I’d suggest that you read our previous discussions on the matter: Part 1, Part 2.] The good news is, nothing’s been finalized yet. The bad news is, the highest bid is already $4,845.00, with 16 days left to go.

While it’s conceivable that the leading bid was offered by a local person of means who is attempting to acquire the historic sign with the intention of turning it over to the Ypsilanti Historical Society, I don’t think we can count on that. Unfortunately, I also don’t think that we have a lot of options are at this point, as the owner of the sign has already dismissed the idea of donating it to the city, and as bidding has already begun. I’d initially thought that, with a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, we might be able to band together and buy it ourselves, but, as the bid is already approaching $5,000, I don’t know how realistic that is. While I think that $5,000 would have been doable, I’m not so sure about $10,000 or $15,000, and, even if we could raise that kind of money, I wouldn’t want to be in a position where we were bidding against someone who might want to donate the sign to the city.

Before we go any further, I just wanted to reiterate why it is that this think this sign is important. Here’s how I introduced the subject in one of those earlier two posts:

…The Washtenaw Avenue corridor is the most traveled thoroughfare in our County, and this is easily the most distinctive feature on it. In a sea of fast food chains and endless strip malls, it stands out, exuding character, and, at least symbolically, bringing our two cities together. As cities nationwide are descending into a homogeneous mess of lowest common denominator crap, I think it’s imperative for us to stand up and protect the things that make our community unique, and give us a sense of history and place. I don’t know how we can stop this sign from being sold, as the the majestic wheels of Capitalism are already in motion, but, if we don’t at least try, I think we’re pretty fucking pathetic…

In one of those earlier posts, I’d also suggested the possibility of stopping the auction by creating a tiny 20′ x 4′ historic district in the Township, which would encompass the footprint of the sign. The following came in response, from former Ypsilanti city planner Richard Murphy:

…Typically, by the time something historic is in danger, it’s way to late to save/preserve it. Preservation requires a little bit of forethought. Creating a historic district or designation requires process, public hearings, and all that other good government stuff.

That said, there is an option theoretically available. Washtenaw County does have its own Historic District Commission, which covers all the municipalities that don’t have their own (Cities of A2, Ypsi, Saline).

Under the County’s preservation ordinance (like all such ordinances), the County Board of Commissioners may establish an emergency moratorium on pending work that “will cause irreparable harm to resources located within an established historic district or a proposed historic district”. I won’t claim to have scrutinized their ordinance carefully enough to say exactly at what point a district is considered “proposed”, but I expect it could be “proposed” by resolution of the BoC.

That means the next step for this approach would be to call up friendly neighborhood County Commissioner (and enough friends across the County to hit all the Commissioners) to ask them to propose a historic district for the sign and put a moratorium on its modification or removal to allow time to go through the historic district study process. I don’t think there’s any way the County BoC would consider such a thing without the consent of the Ypsilanti Township Board, so people who are Township residents ought to talk to their Board members as well.

I’m not wholly convinced this is the route to go — it is about the only method that would allow for preservation of the sign in place (rather than purchasing it and having the property owners telling you to get your sign off their land), but historic preservation standards (nationally) tend to frown on moving things around, so there would need to be some creativity in setting it up if you wanted to be able to move the sign aroudn the intersection. There would also need to be some zoning work done, as I expect the sign is currently non-conforming, and, of course, some kind of trust put in place and funded to keep the sign maintained, insured, lit. (Technically, if the sign were in a district, the property owner could be compelled to maintain it, but that doesn’t seem like the best relationship to set up for respectful preservation…)

As far as County Commissioners go, it looks to me like the sign is in the district of Wes Prater, so I imagine that we should start with him. Here’s the beginning of my note to Commissioner Prater. If you feel inclined, I’d encourage you do the same. (I’m still waiting on a response.)

Commissioner Prater, I’ve recently been made aware of the fact that the iconic “Ypsi-Arbor” sign that presently sits at the intersection of Washtenaw Avenue and Golfside, in your district, has been put up for sale. I’m prepared to contribute toward the purchase of this historic sign, as I’m sure that others in the community are, but, before I do that, I’d like to know that you’re inclined to help protect it, and keep it in its current location. Specifically, I’d like to know whether you would support the creation of a historic district for the sign, placing a moratorium on its modification or removal…

So, in the meantime, while we’re waiting for a response, and watching the bids come in, I’m not sure where this leaves us… Do we want to initiate a Kickstarter campaign? (If so, I think I know people who could help.) Or, would our time be better spent either identifying high net-worth individuals who could step in and purchase it for us, or seeking to somehow stop the sale from going forward? Might there perhaps be a Michigan attorney with an interest in historic preservation who might be willing to donate his/her time to such a cause?

A Facebook group has been started by individuals interested in exploring ways to protect the Ypsi-Arbor sign. If you’re so inclined, please join. Or, better yet, write to Wes Prater. His email address is:

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  1. Edward
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    I like the idea of joining with a number of other local people to buy it, but I think we missed our chance. If we were going to do that, we should have talked with the owner beforehand and worked something out. I don’t like going into an auction, where we don’t know how much we might need, or who we’re bidding against. As you mention, the person now with the high bid could be someone intending to buy it for the city. Granted, that’s probably not the story. It would be great if the Township would step in and delay the auction, pending a discussion on the sign’s historic value, but, given actions taken by Township leaders in the past, I don’t see that happening.

  2. Kim
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Has anyone tried contacting this person?

    The Washtenaw County Historic District Commission is always accepting applications for potential Local Historic Districts. For more information, please contact Melissa Milton-Pung at or 222-6878.

  3. K2
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I’d hate to see it go somewhere else. Let’s face it, though, we live in a lame city that doesn’t respect history. We let the historic paper mill get torn down, and now this. I think it might be time to move to Vermont.

  4. Christine M
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m still in for $100 if anyone gets it together. I’m maxed out on time with Ballet, Little League and Orchestra – and private school and one other thing, no two other things…ugh too much volunteering too little time.

  5. LAKE
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Demilitarized zone. I like that.

  6. Posted April 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I’ve received a response from Wes Prater. He says it would be up to the property owner to pursue the historic designation.


    I agree with most of your concerns. It would benefit the Community, long term. Getting there would be difficult, because you would have to persuade the property owner to make application to become a Historical District for the sign.

    Wes Prater

  7. Kyla Bannowsky
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    The high bid is still $4,845 with 10 days to go.

  8. Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Ypsi plays a very minor role in my life. I really don’t like the town at all. The only time I go there is to take advantage of Mark’s coupons, but unfortunately he stopped that very effective program to get Ann Arborites to Ypsilanti.

    Despite this, I had a very vivd dream about the Ypsi-Arbor sign. It had been sold and was being packed in to cryogenic storage like in a weird science fiction movie. My dream quickly turned into a nightmare of blood and death.

  9. DG
    Posted April 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    This is the only thing, I believe, that connects our two cities, graphically, or otherwise. I know that many of us use the phrase “Ypsi-Arbor”, but do any businesses use it? Even if this sign weren’t almost 50 years old, and an important example of period design, I think it would be significant for that reason. If Prater won’t do the right thing here on his own, or the other members of the Board should compel him to.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] I mentioned in my last post about the Ypsi-Arbor sign, I wrote to Washtenaw County Commissioner Wes Prater and asked him to intervene, stop the auction, […]

  2. […] with considerable knowledge of public planning came forward with local legislation that he thought made the case for its protection, and, following his advice, I took the matter to Washtenaw County Commissioner Wes […]

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