The possibility of a farmers market on Ypsilanti’s Water Street

Over the course of the past week or so, I’ve posted twice about the 38-acre vacant lot at the heart of downtown Ypsilanti commonly referred to as Water Street. In the first post, which was written in response to news that Family Dollar had expressed interest in building on the site, I outlined my objection to the bargain chain being the anchor around which this development project, which very well could define our City for next several decades, takes shape. And, in the second, I held up Grand Rapids, where they’re investing in infrastructure to serve their local food entrepreneurs, and not just pinning their hopes on an out-of-state bargain chain that pays minimum wage, as an example of economic development done right. Well, the resulting conversations were very interesting, as you might imagine. This was especially true of the comments which explored the possibility that Water Street could be a suitable home for a year-round farmers market, like the one presently being constructed in Grand Rapids (only perhaps somewhat scaled down). And, tonight, I’ve decided to move a few of these comments (slightly edited) up to the front page, in hopes that they might spur additional conversation on the subject.

The first comment comes from Jean Henry, the former owner of Ann Arbor’s Jefferson Market, who, at present, leads environmental sustainability initiatives at Zingerman’s.

On a very basic level I love (the idea of a year-round, food-centric facility on Water Street). My understanding, right now, is that we are maxed out on farmer’s markets, though. There simply aren’t enough farmers to supply any more markets. They are spread too thin. Farmers can’t farm and simultaneously be at 5 markets a week. To do so would mean that they would need to hire someone to tend the stand, and then everyone would complain about the increased price of the food being sold. That said, from what I understand, farmers like the big markets. So, if this one were to intentionally take the place of existing Ypsi markets, and maybe house a food hub, so that distribution could be done on-site as well, then it could work. I suppose a feasibility study would bring all this to light. I think, in general, proposing something grand and inspiring and forward thinking, and then asking the question “Do we need it?” in a non-anecdotal way, via a feasibility study, will bring you the solution that you seek. I’m pretty sure you don’t need a dollar store. Those giant businesses have a high-margin model where mistakes can be afforded. (i.e. They can open and close and the brand keeps on going.) Food does not. Almost anything you would want on Water Street does not. And so it will be hard to pull off. It will also be very hard to fund. But the chances of it sticking around and working for the good of Ypsi for the long haul are much greater. Even if you didn’t pull it off, the process of the City (by which I mean its citizens) visioning what it wants, determining what it needs, and trying to pull it off, would be really useful for Ypsi. At minimum you would all learn a lot. The future of Ypsi is really up to the citizens. If you all could get something bigger scale started, maybe the City, and groups like Eastern Leaders, could follow (rather than trying to lead) and assist. Then you’d really be on your way to having the City you all deserve. Water Street is a really great piece of property. Despite the troubles, it has incredible potential. As does all of downtown Ypsi.

And, a little while later, Jean added the following.

Waiting for offers (as was the case with Family Dollar) is almost always a bad idea. Maybe Ypsi just needs to try a little harder on its own behalf. I don’t mean just the government, I mean all of you. Funding IS possible. It would just require a lot of work. A public/private partnership, all stakeholders engaged, outside investors… even tax breaks in the short term for a larger tax base in the long term. There are lots of progressive redevelopment models out there, but none are easy, and local models are almost non-existent. The major stakeholders and an active citizenry need to be on board. And to get to that you need a great vision – which I think Mark has begun here. Rather than assume what is and isn’t possible (which I also did in my earlier comment, admittedly), I think it would be great if people could start to weigh in on what they CAN do. What alliances can be formed? What funding mechanisms exist? What are Ypsi’s strengths rather than its limitations? You actually have tremendous capacity in terms of an engaged (if somewhat cynical) citizenry, progressive thinkers, people that understand city planning and hybrid corporate structures, a major university, a predominantly thriving (by MI standards) county, AND a really beautiful piece of property on a riverfront downtown with an Olmsted-designed park corridor, within a mile of a major freeway and rail lines. I don’t know if you all realize what an unusual municipal asset that is. There are so many people at the universities, in county government and in economic development in the wider metro area who could help you all realize a great vision. But first you all need to stand tall and say, “We have something of value and we want to work hard collectively to make the most of it.”

A great model for sustainable development (and the hurdles one faces – the path has not been at all easy, and the formerly giant project has scaled down considerably) is the North Charleston Noisette project (in North Charleston, South Carolina). I spoke to the developer, John Knott, a few years ago about Water Street and he was interested in talking to someone in Ypsi about it. (I don’t think that ever happened.) I think the scale of it was appealing to him, relative to the behemoth that he took on. Also, I know at one point Eastern Leaders was looking at the whole corridor behind Water Street to 1-94 for economic development, so there really is a bigger potential package than just Water Street. There are people out there who know how to do this work. And they can tell you what is possible. Your sense of constriction originates, at least in part, in a tiny tax base. The city lines are simply drawn too tightly around downtown. I really believe to overcome that sense of constriction you need to look to the surrounding area for help and be prepared to believe and demonstrate that you are worthy of investment. You will also need to be very clear about what you want. Ypsi’s potential is so obvious to me. I really hope you guys take another stab at the Water Street windmill.

And, this comment comes from Amanda Edmonds, the director of Growing Hope, the organization that, among other things, runs Ypsi’s existing Downtown Farmers Market.

A few comments on both farmers’ markets – and saturation points – and a public market on Water Street. I’ve spent considerable time thinking and working on both!

So, as for farmers’ markets, my view is that we are at a saturation point for small neighborhood or small-community markets in Washtenaw County, particularly in places where food access and transportation aren’t big barriers for people. I wouldn’t say we’re at a saturation point nation-wide – there are many communities where there’s no good access to a market, or other fresh, healthy, local food options – and I’m really pleased with where we are in Michigan overall, mostly because we are a leader in the country when it comes to markets that accept EBT/SNAP. I’m proud that our Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers’ Market (DYFM) was the third in Michigan to accept EBT (back in 2006 when we started – and props to the Ypsi Food Co-op for helping provide the capacity to make that happen), and that this year 103 markets across the state accepted EBT. Many of the markets across the state doing EBT spent the day together last Monday in Turkeysville, MI reflecting and figuring out what’s next – all thanks to the amazing leadership of MIFMA (the Michigan Farmers’ Market Association) which is a lean organization that deserves much of the credit for our markets rocking out in Michigan. The total season EBT sales for markets across the state may top $1 million this year– which is only a small percentage of overall EBT sales, but it’s growing at an amazing rate. The DYFM topped $18,000 in EBT sales alone in 2012 – and that’s just during a four hour block on Tuesday afternoons in downtown Ypsi from May through October… So, the fact that more markets are being supported in areas where food access is difficult, is amazing. And it’s great that communities are creating markets as central squares and community gathering spaces.

The challenge is in what it takes to sustain a market. It costs us a lot of money, and we fundraise for to make our market what it is. Markets are not financially self-sustaining, particularly when they, like the DYFM, offer EBT and other programs/incentives that support food access, healthy eating education, support for small business development, et al. We’re going to see – and already are, in some ways – a boom and bust in markets who don’t have the capacity – or the ability to raise the funds to build capacity – to keep afloat. A lot of market managers are volunteers, and that becomes challenging when you’re basically running a bank on the back end (via token systems), and as a result you have a lot of turnover, which makes it hard to provide consistency to the many small businesses (farms, bakers, et al) who are relying on you for their income, and to the customers who are relying on you for their food. So, one thing I think we need, and are going to start seeing, is some consolidation of markets so that we can have well-run farmers’ markets with the efficiencies that come from that. Not one mammoth market monopoly, but just thinking about how to clump some markets under single entities that can provide shared marketing, vendor coordination, etc… There are also opportunities for winter markets. We go inside the Corner Brewery in November and December, and have a long waiting list of vendors who would like to be in this smaller space. As more growers are doing season extension, and there are more cottage food vendors, etc, we need opportunities for more permanent market space and indoor opportunities for all, or part, of the winter.

And, that leads me to Water Street… Since some of us were at the International Public Markets Conference (put on by Project for Public Spaces) in Cleveland in September, I’ve started thinking more about a public market on Water Street. While I’ve dreamed for years of the vacant Smith Furniture building being such a space (something like North Market in Columbus, Ohio), that seems like it’s not going to happen any time soon, and, well, Water Street is available… and a public market adjacent to the proposed Recreation Center would be a nice, complimentary use. The Royal Oak market is a pretty simple structure – a giant pole barn, really. It doesn’t have to be as fancy as the Grand Rapids market, but it could be built out in stages. We could, for instance, develop our local kitchen incubator (which still in the works) in a smaller phase-1 site, and then eventually move it over. We could host our farmers’ markets there as well as have permanent stalls… And, it can be events space.

I’ve been working through how and when to facilitate community visioning around this and other food-system-based economic development in Ypsi – if people want to be involved they can get in touch with me… Look also for an open house info session for people interested in being involved in an Ypsi Kitchen Incubator that Growing Hope will be hosting in December on behalf of Washtenaw County Community & Economic Development…

And, later, Amanda added the following stream-of-consciousness addendum.

When I refer to a public market, I’m not talking about open air market, but a year-round space that can accommodate farmers’ markets, as well as permanent stalls… Royal Oak has a fairly simple version. North Market in Columbus, Ohio is one of my inspirations. A shared use or incubator kitchen could also be a part of it. A community event and/or performance space could be accommodated as well… I’ve visited many of these types of markets, at a variety of scales, in communities of different sizes. I think it’s the next step for us. I think it – the property/building – should be privately or community-owned, and then we should have a nonprofit and community partners as users/tenants/etc… Or, we could have an entity like a CDC as an owner…

[note: During Tuesday’s City Council session, it was decided, after a 4 to 1 vote, to move forward with the proposal from Family Dollar. This would not, however, preclude us from considering other parcels on the site for such a public market.]

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  1. Posted November 26, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    The top image, taken earlier this summer, is of Clementine and some friends digging in the brownfield that is Water Street. The bottom image is an concept piece showing what the Water Street property could look like in the future. It was created by the University of Michigan architects working on the Rec Center project.

  2. Posted November 26, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    And this is why you two are who I’m meeting with ASAP.

    It’s all happening! Ypsi <3

  3. Rustbelt Revival
    Posted November 26, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    I still think we should just launch a kickstarter to buy up all of Water Street so that we can decide what to do with it as a community, instead of making rash decisions under debt-pressure. We have a unique opportunity to do something different with that amazing property, and I think that the existence of the Water Street Trail/Border to Border trail, the City Tree Nursery, and the impending Park & Rec Center proposal show that we are moving the right direction. Water Street is special– prime access to the Huron River, the Trail & Waterworks park, Riverside Park & Frog Island, walking distance to Downtown & Depot Town. It’s a true oasis in the middle of the city. I would like to somehow honor that by bringing a more positive form of development to the property.

    On the point of market over-saturation, I disagree that there is an over-saturation of farmer’s markets in Ypsilanti. Most growers & producers I know would welcome a year-round market with open arms, even if it were in addition to the 2 markets already in existence. Plus, the other two markets are good & all, but the Tuesday market hours are prohibitive to many & the # of vendors/selection at the Saturday market has declined in recent years. Something similar to the Washtenaw Food Hub may be cool, although just the distribution center/market part, as I don’t think that the Water Street land will be suitable any time soon for growing food on. With that said, the County is going to put in an incubator kitchen in Ypsilanti, so maybe we could encourage them to look at Water Street.

    & although I appreciate Jean’s sentiment, I take issue with this part: “Maybe Ypsi just needs to try a little harder on its own behalf. I don’t mean just the government, I mean all of you. Funding IS possible. It would just require a lot of work…But first you all need to stand tall and say, “We have something of value and we want to work hard collectively to make the most of it.”” I think we are saying those things & have said them over & over, & the fact that we organized to create the Water Street Trail & so many other things show that we have been putting that work in. The problem, however, I think has to do partly with the aggressive ‘no tax’ campaign run by Eller & Pierce that resulted in a ‘no’ vote on the Water Street millage ($$ that would have bought us some time to withstand a Family Dollar)…
    All the hard work & activism in the world may not change the stigma that still hangs heavy over Water Street for some & that’s why we need to take matters into own hands & raise the funds to buy the property!

  4. Ben
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    This sounds amazing. I feel so inspired right now. I love the idea of it near the fitness center. I love how it could be an events venue, with all that open space in front of it. When I was working more at the Canton library I’d stop by the Canton Farmers’ Market and they have a set up where it’s mostly outside, on a large green (like Water Street) and (I have heard) in the winter it is inside a big barn. We could build a barn, right? Amish build them with no machinery! I am all for it.

    Let me also say this, to complicate my stance. After talking with Teresa in the line at Beezy’s, while I really hate the model of Family Dollar, the building will be on the front of the property, which I actually do appreciate. I was worried it would look like a Washtenaw Ave shopping center with automobile orientation and parking in the front but the BUILDING ITSELF is not that bad (though I wish it were more than one story). Teresa mentioned it was actually similar to the one from the second developer’s plan for Water Street, the one from ’06. Hopefully if Family Dollar leaves we could USE the building for something inspring and YPSI!

    Heck, if we don’t get the Farmers’ Market building off the ground, worst case scenario, it could be IN the Family Dollar. :p

  5. race police
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I thought we already established that advocating on behalf of a farmers market over a Family Dollar was racist, as black people want cheap junk more than fresh food. Councilman Robb, Richard Murphy, and the rest of Ypsilanti’s black establishment, aren’t going to like this one bit.

  6. Tommy
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Anyone ever been to the Little Five Points area in Atlanta or South Street in Philly? That is my vision of what Water Street and downtown Ypsi could be. Artsy, edgy, funky, cool. A place to hang out, watch people, have a good time.

    I realize the financial burden that this albatros has become, but a Dollar Store? Doesn’t add anything of substance.

    Close your eyes and dream about what the entire area from EMU, down Cross Street, thru the Park, over to Water Street, up Michigan Ave. could be.

  7. Mr. X
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Not to complicate things, but I think some of this depends on the Freight House, and how it’s utilized in the future. Does anyone know what the plan is? Will it serve as a year-round farmers market, like it used to?

  8. Eel
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    If we have to have a chain on Water Street, I’d prefer a Flavor Flav fried chicken restaurant. Perhaps we could lure him away from Detroit.

  9. Rustbelt Revival
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Last I heard from the some of the vendors at the Ypsilanti Depot Town Farmer’s Market, the Freighthouse has recently become more amenable to the return of the year-round indoor farmer’s market to the space. Not sure of specifics, or what that means in terms of timeline, however. But, if you all want to support your local growers & producers most directly, & support the type of community we all want to see flourish, the Downtown Ypsilanti Winter Farmer’s Market is *today* (& every Tuesday until December 18) inside the Corner Brewery from 3-7pm. Plus, it’s happy hour the entire time at our very own amazing green brewery.

  10. anon
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    the city (meaning us) owns the freighthouse, is that correct? if so, then the citizens of ypsilanti should vote on what it’s used for.

  11. koosh
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    if we’re going to vote, i vote monorail.

  12. Elliott
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Weren’t Steve Pierce and Brian Robb going to build a minor league baseball stadium on Water Street?

  13. Jean Henry
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

  14. roots
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting, Jean – amazing story.

  15. Dan
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink


    you really think this is what Ypsi (a city of 20,000, with 2o%+ below the poverty level) needs?

  16. kjc
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Dan, your disregard for Ypsi has been stated ad nauseum. go back where you came from already.

  17. tommy
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Dan – One of the coolest places around. A hip place that people go to from the surrounding area. The area around the L5P ain’t Grosse Pointe. A melting pot of hipness. Does Ypsi need this? No. Does it need a Dollar store on a piece of land that could be the centerpiece of a rejuvenation? No.

    I’d rather see nothing rather than a shit hole useless Dollarama.

  18. ypsijav
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Can someone provide any info on the asking prices and/or desired tax revenue for pieces of Water Street? It would be nice to have some sort of realistic picture of what could happen there and what sort of ideas are feasible, instead of just providing a jumping point for Growing Hope and Zingerman’s PR bullshit.

  19. Posted November 28, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    @ypsijav: a little math-y handwaving for you, by way of saying, “It depends.”

    The city’s bond payments peak at about $1.5 million / annually. Net out some acreage for the trail & interior streets, call the site about 30 developable acres, or about 22 if we build the rec center. So that’s $50,000/acre annually ($68,000/acre with the rec center), if we want the property to pay its costs.

    The property is in the DDA’s TIF district, so development there pulls in a little over 25 mills toward the bond payments (this step is actually a lot more complicated, but I won’t get into it), so every $2,000 of development value ($1,000 of taxable value) = $25 in revenues. This means that development value of $4,000,000/acre would effectively cover the city’s costs over time ($5.4 million/acre with the rec center), assuming land sale cost of $0/acre. (Actually, these values would give the city a net surplus, because $1.5m/yr is the peak of a bell curve sort of bond payment schedule…)

    By way of comparison, the Maurer’s various downtown loft/storefront rehabs (and Beal’s plans for Thompson Block) are all in the ballpark of $5-7m/acre, though they’re each smaller than an acre on their own, and also required tax incentives to get built, so aren’t paying tax revenues yet.

    Any money we get up front in land sale value brings down the required yield to hit a particular annual target, but a lot of developers will prefer lower up front costs and higher payments later, based on their financial models. Additionally, if we decide that a particular development has social or indirect economic benefits beyond its tax revenue, we might not seek the highest possible sale + tax value.

  20. Dan
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    no problem kjc.

    Back to your regularly scheduled hipster circle jerk. Back to tommy et al., enlightening the very diverse readers about how the city needs a community area catered to the relatively wealthy and unproductive portion of it’s community. Make sure to install multiple two-seater bike racks in your the new “hip” and “funky” hangout. it’ll be sure to draw the masses from as far as Depot Town or maybe even Normal Park. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the citizenry looking for cheap household wares and food will just have to walk to the next closest discount retailer. But im sure they are happy to do so, while paying the absurd tax burden levied on them for this “funky” paradise of art and “chilling” that is much needed.

  21. Demetrius
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Dan – sounds like you are the one who could use some “chilling.”

    I think an all-organic detox cleanse, along with regular drum-circle sessions and a nice full-body reiki massage would, like, totally bliss you out …

  22. ypsijav
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    @Dan, could you please describe in more detail the homogenous group of the wealthy unproductive hipsters you imagine to comprise the readership? It’s very fascinating.

  23. Dan
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink


    i said “relatively” wealthy. meaning they arent part of the 1/4th of the city that lives below the poverty line. My main point is that the community is a VERY small part of Ypsi, albeit a vocal one. the majority of Ypsi would prefer a cheaper grocer than a hipster loitering area.

    But since you asked, and I don’t want to generalize, but, “in general” they have disposable income (often from their parents, e.g., a family law firm, etc). usually spend that disposable cash at hipster bars on overpriced beer and eclectic sounding vegetarian fare. They like to brag about how they live in a “diverse” neighborhood, but want to only allow shops that alienate the people they consider different or diverse.

    but yeah, the city needs to cater to them. thats the goal, right?

    anyway, i’ll go back to my hole and leave you and kjc et al. alone to virtually masturbate to similar ideologies with no differing input. I’m sure the constant whining here will eventually turn into real change for the city.

  24. Posted November 28, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really have data on it, but I think that the mean age of mm readers is like 38.

  25. Thom Elliott
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Nice to hear from you Dan, hope things are going well in A2. Ypsilanti is fine, thanks for your interest. Your contribution to this website and your analysis are much appreciated, your outsider perspective is so refreshing. I’m glad you still find time to share your profound insight, and your clearly seasoned socio/anthropological expertise. I just don’t know what I’d do without your keen eye for Ypsilanti zeitgeist. Thanks again, I’m sure everyone will take what you say to heart, throw away their hipster glasses, donate their ironic unicorn sweaters, stop living off of their wealthy family law firms that everyone has, and buy more PVC cooking utensils, pot holders, processed food, and inexpensive soap of low quality. Thanks for telling us what’s best for us, you’re a real prince.

  26. Posted November 28, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I think he lives in the Township.

    I just burned my unicorn sweater.

  27. Posted November 28, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I never knew my parents had a law firm.

    I wasn’t actually aware my father ever worked at all.

    This is great news.

  28. kjc
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Too bad we can’t get some business like Crazy Wisdom to move in. They pay a whopping $8.50 an hour and the average employee gets about 15 hours a week. The most recent position they hired was for 13 a week. You only need two more jobs to make a living.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] of Michigan Avenue. And, who knows, maybe they even buy the adjacent lot so that they can operate that Water Street farmers’ market we’d dreamed of.Is it a long shot? Absolutely. Anything could happen on the site. The Family Dollar could thrive. […]

  2. By Water Street Flats… What are your thoughts? on January 21, 2014 at 9:39 am

    […] Ypsilanti heading in a more sustainable direction. I’d envisioned a co-housing development, a year-round farmers’ market, an expanded food co-op, a thriving public arts park, and space for locally-owned businesses. There […]

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