Can Pinball Pete’s Coexist With New Skyscraper Or Face Closure?

The owner of Pinball Pete’s, Ted Arnold said the news about the possibility that the building his business currently calls home might be replaced by a 17 story apartment building was just as surprising to him as it was to anyone else. But how likely is it to come to pass? And if it does, can Pinball Pete’s – the basement arcade icon long beloved by Ann Arbor’s children, college students and old guard stay in business?

“We had no notice, no communication,” Arnold said. “Actually, somebody from the Michigan Daily came down into the arcade and said ‘Hey, do you know about this 17 story building that they’re gonna develop and put your arcade out of business?’ We said ‘No we don’t.’”

This is not the first time that Pinball Pete’s has been threatened with closure. Arnold’s business started when he was a kid in the Lansing area, pooling money together with friends to buy a pinball machine, where kids in the neighborhood would come to play games. The City of East Lansing soon showed up and told them that they were operating a business illegally in a residential zone, so they decided to make a real, professional business with it.

They had seven locations at one point, surviving the video game world’s transition from brick and mortar arcade’s, to counsel’s, to the current online dominated era. His other location is in East Lansing. Arnold said that after conferring with his landlord, he has had one zoom meeting with the developers.

The developers, Georgia-based Landmark Properties, hosted a public meeting in the basement of the public library December 5 to listen to the public’s concerns and wishes. This meeting is one of a series that they have pledged, which is more than what is required by the city.

“As with any redevelopment project, it takes time, and right now we’re only at the beginning of a multi-year process. We don’t have all the answers yet. For example, we know Ann Arbor loves Pinball Pete’s, and we are devoted to keeping it in the city. We are in conversation with the owner and landlord to find a solution that supports Pinball Pete’s continued success, either in its current location or elsewhere in Ann Arbor,” Landmark Properties said in an emailed statement. “In an effort to create transparency about the process, we wanted to share this information now, and we look forward to sharing additional details as the project progresses. As we refine plans and architecture, we promise to work closely with the city and the community to create a space that’s sustainable, walkable, and enjoyable for all.”

But not all are convinced. Dozens of speakers at Tuesday’s listening session expressed support for Pinball Pete’s continued existence. They pointed out that as the city keeps finding new ways to get even more expensive and the arcade provides what many referred to as a “third space” where people could exist outside of their homes and not have to pay exorbitant costs to socialize in the community. Demolishing it, supporters argued, risked removing a key element of Ann Arbor’s culture.

Supporting Pinball Pete’s

“I think overall the culture, the ambience of South U, has just become void of any sort of personality. It’s high rise after high rise,” Kellie Bambach said. In years past, Bambach said she frequented the area as a student, but now “I have no reason to go down there. So, the more housing developments that are put down there, to me, just closes off an area of own that has any purpose for actual residents.”

Image Credit Myefski Architects & Landmark Proprties
Photo from Myefski Architects & Landmark Properties.

David Porter, a U of M alumnus, takes his 31 year old son, who is living with severe autism, to Pinball Pete’s to have fun. Rather than be overwhelmed by the flashing lights, garish colors and frequent noises, his son goes to have fun at the games. “With certain games we can give him $2 and it will last him two hours.”

The architect for the project, John Myefski, and his company, has designed a number of buildings around Ann Arbor, including the Hub, next to the Graduate Hotel. He said that some changes have already been made from an earlier meeting. This includes altering the location of the tenant-only parking structure to allow more street front retail space to be retained. The need for more parking was also questioned by some, pointing out that one of Ann Arbor’s largest parking structures is nearby. The developers said that they were in preliminary talks to utilize some of that space for their future tenants, but emphasized that the talks are very early.

Myefski deferred questions from Current to the developers, who did not respond to emailed follow up questions nor multiple attempts for an interview to answer follow up questions. The landlord did not respond to requests for comment.

It is also no secret that Ann Arbor is facing a housing cost of living crisis. A number of the speakers spoke about how they are former Ann Arborites, who only moved to Ypsilanti or elsewhere because they were priced out, but still go to Ann Arbor frequently and would continue to live in town if they could only afford it. Concerns over housing expenses were mirrored by multiple people pointing out that it was getting harder and harder to find places in Ann Arbor that didn’t involve spending money – restaurants, or bars – and there were fewer safe spaces for children and adults who don’t want to be near alcohol.

“Back in 2018, I was struck by a motorist and survived traumatic brain injury. Despite the severity of the medical event, I was very able bodied and had all of my mental faculties about me, so I had a lot of free time, [which] was filled initially by drinking. Then, once I got over the alcoholism, Pinball Pete’s a very important role in giving me a place to go, that was fun, diverting and gave me a sense of connection to this town, that wasn’t centered around alcohol,” attendee Eddie Verdonk explained.

Verdonk said that he was struck by one of the developers saying “he was so surprised by the amount of turnout definitely indicated to me the disconnection the developers had for the Ann Arbor community. With that in mind, I don’t know whether or not these listening sessions are meant to placate people long enough to get to where the developers get what they want in the end, or if they are actually committed to investing in Ann Arbor, not only as a source of profit, but also as a community, which is where this discord definitely comes into play.”

Supporting more housing options

Landmark’s proposed new project would bring 217 rental apartments to the area if built. The developers have presented the argument is that by increasing the number of apartments in the area they will contribute to bringing the overall cost of housing down because more supply in housing stock will lead to an overall lowering of housing costs.

Not everyone is against this project. Porter suggested embracing the existing businesses, suggesting the name “Pinball Pete’s” as the name for the eventual apartments. Questions about the feasibility of this idea were not answered by the developers nor the architect.

Legally, the City Council does not vote if the city is legally obligated to approve if the plan matches zoning. If the usage is permitted by the current zoning laws, it generally has to be allowed.

“I’m here to speak in support of denser development in that neighborhood. I think that it’s really important to build more housing and denser buildings,” Maggie Frye, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, said. When asked if the developers are listening to the community, Frye said: “It does seem like they’re committed to moving Pinball Pete’s, which is the solution that I support. I am cautiously optimistic that through the process of meetings with the planning commission and the council that they will be supportive of keeping it in Ann Arbor.”

The company is proposing bringing rental-only prices and said that it is too early to predict rents for this building. They are the same firm behind buildings like the Standard, recently completed at the southeast corner of William and Main, where studio apartments can go for as much as $2,500 per month. Across downtown, they also are part of Foundry Lofts, where a loft can start at $2,799 for a studio, and sharing a room with three other people for a four bedroom unit can cost as much as $1,739 per person per month.

“I honestly think that as mad as I am about Pinball Pete’s being relocated or destroyed, just not being thought about in the consideration for this project – I am very upset about the fact that the housing crisis is very real in Ann Arbor. Big companies and developers see, like they always do, more expensive luxury apartments as the solution, when it is only taking away from land and infrastructure that could be used by students who aren’t the richest of the rich, and people who actually live in Ann Arbor, because you’re not fixing the housing crisis, you’re creating more unlivable housing,” Kamini Playle, a sophomore at the U of M, said. “The supply and demand thought is great, but if people can’t actually afford to use that supply, then the demand is not going to change. The people who can afford to live in luxury housing already do.…[By] increasing the supply to just one group of people, you’re completely marginalizing the rest of the community.”

What about the other surrounding businesses?

Also at issue is the post office that is also located in that building, the Galleria. If it is forced to close, some students said that they would be negatively impacted.

“I was glad to see that there is some initiative to have it stay there, but I would like to bring up other points about relocation and the affordability of local student housing,” Alana Carlo-Pagan said. “It’s location is what makes it so intrinsic to campus life. In my case, I’m living with neuropathic pain, but I am an artist and I know a lot of other artists who rely on that small post office, as opposed to the big one, that is near here, to actually get their projects in on a timely mater, just in terms of their own health, or just because they have busy schedules. They need to take into account what that does to both businesses like Pinball Pete’s and small, student run businesses.”

A spokeswoman from the United States Postal Service said they have not been contacted by anyone concerning developments at their 1214 South University Avenue location as of December 6.

Construction logistics on such a densely populated site were also brought up by Emily Blunt, a teacher at a nearby early Towsley Education House near the proposed site, if it does go ahead.

“There’s actually a building going up right behind us and also across the street from us. So just the logistics of how things are handled during construction is definitely a concern for us. And then there’s the logistics of where all of these Amazon trucks would go, food delivery, because we have families that come and go during the day, that also need access to our school. So having that clogged up every day is also a hardship for where our location is,” Blunt said.

As for the project itself, Blunt said “its hard to be against it because I definitely think it’s already moving forward. But I think it is definitely good for the development team to be aware of the needs of the community, which includes the students, businesses, us – just so everybody can hopefully have a say in how it is built.”

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in Ann Arbor. I think the community has realized that its not an everyday situation to have an arcade like ours in their town. I was a little surprised by the support. It was wonderful,” Arnold said.

When asked about the future of if his arcade will say open, or in its current South U location, he said “We don’t know. We don’t have any information yet. The landlord is a good friend of mine and he wants to work with us. And I think the developers may have a little different opinion as to what they can or can’t do. I guess we’re going to just going to have to try and see where it ends. We don’t have enough information yet.”

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