“For rent” signs getting rare in Old Town, as once-empty neighborhood’s occupancy rate soars

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Old Town Turner
Old Town Turner Street

Turner Street in Old Town on a quiet, late afternoon in February. Photo taken by Alexis Downie

Visitors travel from all over just to get a taste of the sense of community Old Town has to offer. From restaurants to shops to art galleries, Old Town has something for everyone of all ages.

“You walk in and you don’t feel like an outsider,” said Vanessa Shafer, Old Town Commercial Association Executive Director. “It’s incredibly inclusive, welcoming, and everyone fits.”

But it wasn’t always that way. That vibe has helped turn Old Town from a neighborhood that was virtually abandoned to one where space is getting hard to find.

Starting in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, Old Town began to create an artistic base for what the neighborhood would become. According to Shafer, during those early times, all of the storefronts were empty; everything was kind of down and out. When people decided to come in and begin opening galleries, Old Town changed.

“These galleries started to draw some people into the area, that’s how Old Town organically started to grow,” said Shafer.

It was not until 1996, when Old Town partnered with the Michigan Main Street program, that the neighborhood began to uptick. In that same year, the vacancy rate was nearly 90 percent. Today, Old Town holds a strong 4 percent vacancy rate. Having a 100 percent occupancy rate is one of the goals for the area.

“It’s been the turtle instead of the hare in terms of population growth since 1996,” remarked Shafer.

Sidewalk view on Turner Street in Old Town. Photo by Alexis Downie

Sidewalk view on Turner Street in Old Town. Photo by Alexis Downie

The Michigan Main Street program is part of the national Main Street America program. This program is made up of other small communities around the country who have similar goals to that of Old Town. They work to revitalize communities and commercial districts.

University of Iowa urban planning expert Lucie Laurian believes there are multiple factors to consider that can affect a neighborhood’s population growth. Some of these factors include neighborhood boundaries, ethnic composition, and neighborhood pop change, such as jobs available, crime levels or property values.

“Look at gentrification dynamics,” said Laurian, “Is the neighborhood becoming ‘cool’ for any reason? Over time, this can increase property values when wealthier newcomers move in to enjoy the ‘cool’ amenities.”

When looking at opening a business in a neighborhood such as Old Town, Laurian said population can factor into the decision in some cases, but it depends on the kind of business. A business targeting a local customer base, such as a specialty restaurant, needs to consider local population.

“Grocery chains have a formula based on population and median household income that determines where they open a new store,” said Laurian. “Yes, local demographics matter, however, you have to think about what spatial scale you’re using.”

With the high occupancy rate that Old Town currently has, Shafer believes they are tapped out in terms of space. Once one person leaves, someone comes right in because there are no new buildings.

“As of right now, I don’t see the population of Old Town as it stands growing that much, but just because there isn’t that much space,” said Shafer.

The boundaries of Old Town can vary, however, Shafer says that the overall “feel of Old Town” extends beyond the limits. The Old Town Commercial Association submits boundaries to the state to show the neighborhood. Michigan Main Street also requires boundary lines to be submitted for their program. Old Town’s boundaries for Michigan Main Street are as followed in the map below.

This map roughly depicts the boundaries of Old Town that are recognized by Michigan Main Street. Map courtesy of Google Maps.

This map roughly depicts the boundaries of Old Town that are recognized by Michigan Main Street. Map courtesy of Google Maps.

These boundaries enable Old Town to ask Michigan Main Street for guidance, such as helping with facading grants and other things within the limits. Businesses outside of this section that still consider themselves part of Old Town cannot receive help from Michigan Main Street.

With the occupancy rate and population so high, plans are being made to broaden the neighborhood. Possible low-income housing on Washington Avenue and expansion up Turner Street, as a community, are being considered.

As far as the range of residents is concerned, Shafer says that there is not a demographic that attracts more than the other. Everyone simply works together to make it a wonderful place. Anna Buckner, a resident of Old Town, chose the area specifically for it’s sense of community.

“People are very friendly!” said Buckner. “I often find myself engaging in conversation while walking my dog around the neighborhood.”

Buckner moved to the area in August of 2016 to begin a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Art, History and Design at Michigan State University. Being from out of town, she liked that everything in Old Town is within walking distance from her home in a matter of minutes.

“I think it’s the community feel that radiates from the buildings themselves that make it such a great place to be,” said Shafer.