Reinventing the Farmers' Market

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 2004,
August 2004

Author: Grace Shackman

An end to "dead man's alley"?

When the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market opened in 1919, the vendors brought in their produce by horse and wagon and displayed it around the old courthouse. Little could they have dreamed that someday their celebrations would be handled by an advertising agency, or that a national expert would be called in to advise on their market's future. But in the twenty-first century, that's exactly what's happening: the market's eighty-fifth birthday party this month is being planned by Steppe Solutions, and a master plan is being developed by Johnson Hill Land Ethics, (JHLE) with input from David O'Neil, a Philadelphia-based expert on farmers' markets.

In the late 1930s, WPA crews constructed steel sheds for the market in the old Luick Lumberyard between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The market has hardly changed physically since. With vendors' fees covering basic maintenance and the manager's salary, it has operated fairly independently under various city departments, more recently the city treasury, with some additional oversight by a market board.

That changed in 1999, when the city's parks and recreation department took over the market. Parks staff began looking for ways the space could be improved both as a farmers' market and as a community resource. For example, says planner Jeff Dehring, "we could utilize it the times when the farmers aren't here or rent it for other festivities such as Earth Day or music fests." (The market has hosted Earth Day for the past two years.) Besides making better use of the space, Dehring says, renting the market would bring in revenue that could lessen the economic burden on the vendors.

The one remaining house on the market property was razed after its last occupant, Mary Kokinakes, died in 2002. (Kokinakes and her husband had sold it to the city many years earlier, with the provision that they could live out their lives there.) The time seemed right for reassessing the market's situation.

For the last year and a half, JHLE principals Mark Johnson (son of a cofounder of JJR) and Chet Hill (formerly with the city parks department) have been working with project manager Jamie Brown to develop a plan to use the new space. David O'Neil, who is also working on plans for Detroit's Eastern Market and the Toledo Market, has visited twice. Several of his suggestions--based on his theories that customers like to shop in a circular pattern and that markets need a clearly defined entrance--have been incorporated into the phase 1 plan.

Vendors had assumed that the land where the Kokinakes house stood would be used to extend the market's middle "leg." Because that leg ends in the middle of the market unconnected to anything else, some shoppers avoid it--it's been nicknamed "dead man's alley." But instead, JHLE has suggested that part of the house site be turned into a "bioswale," a planted basin used to collect and filter storm-water runoff from the market. JHLE would solve the problem of "dead man's alley" by removing it, using the space for parking, and replacing the lost stalls with a partial row along Fourth Avenue.

The new layout is supposed to encourage customers to circle the entire market, as well as making the market more visible from Fourth. JHLE proposes equipping the new spaces with the latest market amenities--radiant heat, electricity, water, and phone lines for authorizing credit card payments, as well as deeper parking stalls and wider aisles--and says the changes would result in a net gain of six stalls and five parking spaces.

Other suggestions include adding a historic-style brick entry at both ends of the Detroit Street row, rain barrels at downspouts to collect water for farmers' plants, and customer pickup spaces on Fourth and Detroit. The cost for these improvements, estimated at $400,000 to $500,000, would be paid from un-earmarked park funds, with grant matches if possible. The parks staff also plans to organize a "Friends of Farmers' Market" group that would sell bricks to help raise money.

Later phases could include another twenty or thirty stalls along Fourth Avenue to complete the loop. Another improvement, at present still in the realm of dreams, would be to remove the central parking area and turn it into a parklike space--but only if alternative parking can be found. Asked whether the farmers don't need the parking space, Jamie Brown replies that many markets function fine with a drop-off system. He points out that the vendors on the Detroit Street side already drop off their produce--and that area is considered the best location at the market.

A more immediate change will be the arrival of a new market manager. Louise Wireman, who took over from longtime manager Maxine Rosasco, stepped down in July after two years on the job. A Toledo resident (she was formerly in charge of the Toledo Market), she says that at this point in her life she prefers to work where she lives. "I've attained my goals. I improved the operating systems, hammered out ground rules," she says.

Longtime vendors rent stalls by the year, but assigning coveted "daily" rentals can be tense. Wireman says that she reduced conflicts between farmers and artisans over the daily stalls by listing them strictly on the basis of seniority. At press time, the city parks staff was interviewing potential successors.

The next step is to get input from those directly affected--the annual vendors, the daily vendors, the artisans, the neighbors, Kerry town-area merchants, and the general public. The first group to see the phase 1 plan, the annual vendors, were not overjoyed with it. "I like the existing market as it is," says Alex Nemeth, who has been coming to the market for seventy years. He thinks the main objection was to moving the stalls from the middle aisle to Fourth Avenue.

The market's Eighty-fifth Birthday Bash on August 14 (see Events) will include displays explaining the phase 1 plan and asking for input, as well as a booth to "sell" fund-raising bricks. Live radio coverage is planned, and visitors will be able to view archival photos, listen to live music, and take part in old-fashioned activities, such as making Mr. Potato Heads with vegetables from the market. If all goes well, work on phase 1--or some modification of it suggested by the stakeholders--could begin as early as this winter.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Eighty-five years of the market (counterclockwise from lower right); vendors outside the old courthouse on Fourth Avenue; the current market sheds under construction in the 1930s; grower and customer in the 1950s; JHLE's phascil proposal, which includes a "bioswale" and a new, circular layout.