Two years ago, the city-owned market seemed on the verge of adding a new, winterized building. Encouraged by a $175,000 grant from the DDA, City Council approved the project in August 2016.

But instead of breaking ground that fall, Ed Lynn says, a letter went out delaying it “because the approved budget of $875,000 wasn’t enough. The estimates to build the building … were closer to $1,375,000.”

Some longtime vendors were fine with that—they’d complained that the building’s small stalls would serve only boutique growers and prepared-food vendors, leaving them out in the cold. But to Lynn, it was a chance to rethink a plan that had struck him as ill-conceived from the start. He wanted to go back to basic questions like “What is the future of a farmers market?” and “What does ours look like in ten years?”

Before retiring, Lynn headed Ford’s European office for business and management. There, he and his wife, Barbara, discovered how much they enjoyed an urban life and shopping on foot. They chose a spot less than a block from the farmers market to build their retirement home in 2011. “We buy all our food on foot,” Lynn says, from the farmers, the People’s Food Co-op, Sparrow Market in Kerrytown, and Zingerman’s Deli; Knight’s Market on Miller marks the edge of their shopping universe.

But Lynn says he’s noticed the farmers market isn’t as busy in its peak season as it was four or five years ago. True, Fifth Ave. is under construction, but he wonders, “how much is it farmers are finding other farmers markets? It seems to be a lot slower.”

Besides the new markets in Ann Arbor and nearby towns, he points out, there are the two Argus Farm Stops that sell directly from growers and producers. Amazon is delivering food, and Kroger is talking about it. “What is the future of the farmers market?” he asks. “Does anyone know? If not, why put all that money into it?”

Since it was built in the 1930s, the market’s central arm has been cut short on the Fourth Ave. side. The city bought the house that stood there many years ago on a life lease, and demolished it after the owner’s death.

So when the market wanted to add winterized space, that was the obvious place to do it. It was designed to connect the short arm—sometimes called “Dead Man’s Alley” because it gets much less traffic than the longer arms along Detroit St. and next to Kerrytown—to a new entrance on Fourth Ave.

But to Lynn, the obvious place was the wrong place. “What were they thinking?” he asks.

“They’re trying to put in a flat floor at the most uneven part of the site—that Fourth Avenue part has to be jacked up.” The new entrance would be impeded by steps, and growers would have to haul their apples or potatoes up a zigzag ramp. “And there are no bathroom facilities attached,” he adds. “If you need to use a restroom, you have to go outside and down to the [market] office.”

He joined a market advisory committee, “but they were already cemented to what they were going to do,” he says. “I asked if this was a done deal. ‘Yes,’ it was.” 

Concluding that “it was not useful to firebomb the meetings,” he instead started working out his own alternative plan: “Just double the width of the main walking paths” along Detroit St., he says. “That’s where people want to shop.” That area is less sloped, and it’s next to the market office, and “cheap, cheerful, lightweight” plastic curtains could add protection in cold weather initially, he says, with the option to add roll-up doors later. That would not only be cheaper, he says, but it “allows you to stay flexible and expandable for the future, since no one can know what the future of farmers markets will look like.”

“In the end,” says Lynn, “the building they proposed was too expensive.” But the real question he hopes people will ask is, “Is this what this site needs?”