A Plan For The City
Ann Arbor during the 1920's experienced more than the cosmetic changes associated most often with the "jazz age." True, the University students sported "zoot suits," drove rickety jalopies, performed the "Black Bottom," and drank homemade hootch at the football games. But it was a controversy over the construction of a gas station at Washtenaw and South University during the winter of 1921-22 that determined the future shape of the city.
Prior to World War I, the University and the city had asked Olmsted Brothers, the famous New York Park Planning firm, to recommend how Ann Arbor might profitably direct its growth. The report was completed in the spring of 1922. It emphasized Ann Arbor's attractiveness as a residential city, free from the slums and congestion of other cities. To preserve a pastoral atmosphere, the Olmsteds recommended that areas outside industrial and University districts be rigidly "zoned." They insisted the city retain its spacious feeling. The West Side was designated as the location for factory sites and homes for workingmen. The area east of Washtenaw and south of Geddes, designed with winding streets to discourage traffic, was seen as the place for "suburban and country homes," a "beautiful district."
Ann Arbor was a showcase for the Olmsteds' ideas. In a town dominated by a University and a nine-month calendar, much of the war-spawned industry found it unprofitable to change over to peacetime production and faded away. Large expenditures in the 1920's for capital improvements by the University and city kept the cost of living high, hindering the establishment of additional manufacturing enterprises. Better roads, however, enhanced Ann Arbor's already good reputation as a residential community for higher income groups who could afford to live in, or near, the city.
In this light, a gas station in a residential area was a serious break with tradition. On March 6, 1922, council passed a limited law governing the location of buildings. It required the permission of surrounding property owners and council before a gas station could be placed in a residential or educational area. That fall developers opened Ann Arbor's first apartment house to house University staff and married students. Probable construction of another at Hill and Washtenaw elicited a public demand to limit apartment building.
At the same time, the University had to destroy much of old fraternity row along State Street to construct the new Law School. Given the pressure on existing housing, fraternities and sororities were increasing in numbers and membership. With property values rising around the central campus, the University wanted the city to grant fraternities and sororities freedom in relocating.
In March 1923 council passed the city's first comprehensive zoning law. The Olmsted recommendations and the University's needs were reflected in its attention to the location of gas stations, apartments, and fraternities. Under its provisions, apartments, together with rooming and boarding houses, were restricted to the area immediately around the University. Retail trade, including gas stations, and "commercial and industrial" developments were confined to separately defined zones. Private homes, including fraternity and sorority houses, had freedom to locate in the University area or in the first-class residential district. The zoning law, together with the influence of the Olmsted report on future council actions in approving housing plats, governed the city's subsequent growth.