Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Sierra Club Proposes Greenway Through Ann Arbor

18. October 2004 • Murph
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The Huron Valley chapter of the Sierra Club has proposed a greenway running along the Allen Creek floodplain from Bandemer Park (where US-23 crosses the Huron River) past downtown to Michigan Stadium. An article by chapter co-chair Doug Cowherd on the group’s website and in their newletter suggests that the Allen Creek floodplain should be kept clear of buildings and parking lots in order to control flooding, and that a pedestrian and bicycle greenway, linking larger parks along the route, would be a good use for the area.

Cowherd’s article states,

If you look around downtown Ann Arbor for public open space, you’ll find Liberty Plaza, where the only green is in planter boxes surrounded by a sea of concrete. The University of Michigan diag efficiently redistributes a horde of students at the top of every hour, but discourages relaxation by its scarcity of seating. Both places serve their purposes. But neither is the kind of urban green space that provides beauty and respite from the bustle of downtown life. . . . The Ann Arbor Greenway would consist of a biking and walking path through a series of small “pocket parks� as well as a few larger urban parks; a lovely tree-lined “linear park� system. People would stroll a 3 mile long path that meanders past picnic areas, ponds, sculptures, and play areas. This Greenway would link neighborhoods and the central part of the city with over 300 acres of natural areas along the Huron River, the ball fields and amphitheatre of West Park, and the vast U-M athletic campus.

The plan includes turning three city-owned properties – mainly parking lots – into larger parks along the greenway. One of these is First and William lot that the DDA is currently planning to construct a parking structure atop in order to accomodate further downtown development.

An Ann Arbor News article quotes developer Ed Shaffran as saying the First and William structure is “vital” to increasing downtown density. Shaffran says he thinks a less ambitious version of the greenway will eventually happen as a compromise. The News quotes Cowherd in response as being afraid that alleged supporters will try to twist the greenbelt to their own ends:

“I’m concerned people who say they support the greenway concept are actually trying to turn it into a concrete path between the tall buildings they want to put everywhere downtown,” Cowherd said. “This will make their projects more attractive, but it won’t create the linear Central Park that would be a tremendous benefit to Ann Arbor residents.”

A group called Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway has put up a website to chart progress towards this vision, which mentions an upcoming project meeting on Wednesday (no location stated) and promises to publish a study showing that Ann Arbor doesn’t need a new parking structure.


  1. I have some doubts about the local Sierra Club, which seems more NIMBY than genuine environmentalist at least half the time, but I also believe strongly that Ann Arbor needs a block-sized public park near Main Street. Instead of having summer concerts on top of a parking garage, we should have a place downtown near the restaurants. My vote would be for the surface-level parking lot in front of D’Amatos, a truly wasted space. At the same time there is ample evidence that Cowhert doesn’t support the density requirements that need to be the flip side of the greenbelt initiative. Should be interesting to see the mayor have to choose between the downtown developers and the Sierra Club machine on this one.
       —IMBY    Oct. 19 '04 - 12:31AM    #
  2. “If we don’t act soon, the only land that is available for this purpose will be consumed by wealthy developers who want big buildings everywhere, and this vision will be lost forever.”

    I’m so sick of their characterizations of the big evil nasty developers who are coming to hurt the poor commoners of Ann Arbor, as well as the birdies and fishies. This whole greenway scheme seems like a thinly-disguised tactic to prevent the development of the First and William site. Downtown needs to grow… spend your time protecting real open space on the suburban fringe, not fighting “big buildings everywhere.” I’m starting to think the Mayor isn’t as beholden to these NIMBYmentalists as he once was though, as he’s been a strong advocate (at least in theory) of downtown growth.

    Moreover, judging from the map in the AA News, they want this greenway to follow the railroad tracks. Were they planning on purchasing the RR right of way? I don’t see the Ann Arbor Railroad selling anytime soon, as it is still a viable, working line. Or did they just want to purchase lands parallel to the tracks?
       —Brandon    Oct. 19 '04 - 08:44AM    #
  3. “This kind of relaxed urban experience would draw people to live downtown in places like the Eaton Building condominiums located next to the Greenway route. It would transform the New Urbanist vision of thousands of new residents moving downtown into reality by preserving the human scale of downtown Ann Arbor and adding easily accessible public greenspace. Without these amenities, New Urbanism is merely a rhetorical smokescreen for the construction of more high-rise buildings.”

    Since when are greenways a necessity for urbanism? This town has more parks per acre than just about anywhere I’ve ever seen, including many within walking distance of downtown. I’d argue that in Cowherd’s writing, New Urbanism is just a rhetorical smokescreen for limiting density. I’m not opposed to a small park somewhere downtown, but our greenbelt funds should for the most part be used for preserving good open space outside of town, not NIMBYism. It’s very interesting how the need for a greenway only became apparent to Sierra Club leaders after a parking garage was proposed and neighbors protested. I’m not convinced a parking garage is the best use of the site either, but it is essentially consolidating several city lots on one parcel to open the others for real development, so it seems fair and sensible.
       —Brandon    Oct. 19 '04 - 08:53AM    #
  4. In fact, a really superb article in this week’s New Yorker on New York City as a “green city” makes the point (borrowing from Jane Jacobs) that greenways can sometimes disrupt the flow of urban street life rather than enhance it. Here’s the quotation: “parks and other open spaces can reduce urban vitality by creating dead ends that prevent people from moving freely between neighborhoods and by decreasing activity along their edges.”

    The entire article reads like a refutation of the misplaced priorities of the local Sierra Club, and it makes a strong case that high densities are critical to environmentally sound practices. Public transit only works if a municipality has seven dwellings per acre minimum, etc. On the other hand, responding to Brandon’s point, I would like to see a little more evidence of the mayor’s commitment to downtown density beyond some more condos for upscale Yuppies.
       —Matt    Oct. 19 '04 - 11:51AM    #
  5. Good point, Matt… I guess yupscale density is only barely better than no density at all.
       —Brandon    Oct. 19 '04 - 05:11PM    #
  6. I, too, strongly support greater urban density, and I, too, am very skeptical of the Greenway proposal. A few points, though:

    (1) The Greenway backers expect the Ann Arbor Railroad to go out of business any day now. Me, I’d rather we KEEP railroads rather than discarding them, but admittedly it’s astonishing that the AARR has survived as long as it has.

    (2) Doug Cowherd is neither as mysteriously powerful nor as much of a NIMBY as he is regarded here. It’s fun to personalize issues, but I find Cowherd considerably more reasonable than the actual shout-it-down NIMBYs. Don’t forget the accessory apartments debacle: Cowherd was on our side, and we lost.

    (3) The largely vacant land west of the middle of downtown (north and south of Huron between Ashley and First) is our best opportunity for high density downtown development. Putting that tract into a “greenway” would be ludicrous. The city shouldn’t be allowed to blow this!
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 20 '04 - 05:31AM    #
  7. I hadn’t realized this plan involved replacing the tracks—I thought they were just going to run the greenway next to/along the tracks. If they’re planning on tearing up rail and commandeering the ROW, I’m trebly against it.

    Though I think that ROW is probably safe. I’ve heard rumors that AATA would like to run a commuter shuttle line along the rail ROW (or on the rail?) to get folks downtown from the north and south edges. This fantasy also included constructing the First/William structure with ground-floor retail oriented towards this commuter traffic. If any of this is actually in AATA’s plans, that ROW is as safe from the Sierra Club as it can get.
       —Murph    Oct. 20 '04 - 07:55AM    #
  8. Great topic! a few points of my own, briefly:
    – I agree with IMBY’s assessment of the local Sierra Club – more of a NIMBY organization than anything. They seem to hate development of any sort, to be perfectly honest. The actions of Cowherd alone have persuaded me to not become a SC member.
    – I agree with Brandon that the potential development of the First & William site is the reason why the Greenway is attracting such attention now. The greenway idea has been around for decades, though; I think it first appeared in a Downtown plan in the 1970s or early 80s.
    – I highly doubt they could get the RR right of way. Everything I have heard about the railway indicates that they are not willing to talk planning, not willing to sell, and ignore all planning issues if they can. Problem is, the tracks follow the creek more or less, so you’d have to get rid of the train in order to have a safe, pedestrian-friendly complete greenway. Like Larry, I would prefer that the AARR stay in business (for that commuter shuttle line, someday) than have the greenway take it out.
    – The City of Ann Arbor currently has 147 parks, which total roughly 2000 acres. According to the 2000 Census, there were 114,024 persons in the City. According to the Planning Department, “GIS records indicate there are 17,252 acres of City zoned land as of 1998, which includes roads, right-of-ways, rivers and lakes.” So if we do the math, that means that about 12% of the City is parkland (not including any University-owned property), which doesn’t sound bad – until you compare it to San Francisco (19.8%), Washington DC (19.1%), and Austin TX (38.9%). The numbers also work out to about 17.5 acres per thousand people. NYC is much less, at just 6.2 acres per thousand residents, but it is also extraordinarily dense. Other comparable cities: Austin (27.9) and Madison (28.6).

    Personally I love the idea of the greenway on its face, and as always it is the execution of it that would be troublesome. I would love to see high density housing next to it. I want the railway to stay and be used for a commuter line to Detroit. But then, I’m optimist! :)
       —KGS    Oct. 20 '04 - 09:29AM    #
  9. God, a commuter line? Be still my beating heart! That would be so fucking cool, even if it would be a giant waste of funds from an already cash-hemoraging AATA.
    I would ride it every day, whether I had to or not. Fuck the Link! All hail light rail!
       —js    Oct. 20 '04 - 09:51AM    #
  10. KGS, the rail in question is not the one that would be used for commuter rail to Detroit. AARR runs north/south; the line that runs east/west (that Amtrak runs on Chicago-Detroit and that a new commuter rail would use) is a separate line.

    js, I think AATA is going to be doing a lot better with the free $800k/year that they just picked up from the federal government. (as part of the agreement with the U that lets students ride AATA for free at no cost to UMich.)
       —Murph    Oct. 20 '04 - 11:06AM    #
  11. I was in Indianapolis recently, which is overall not the greatest city to visit but which also had a new greenway/recreation corridor that ran alongside a river through the urbanized area from the suburbs to downtown. Lot of people were out biking, jogging, walking their kid strollers on it, etc. The corridor also had high-density apartments/condos backing right up against it for several miles, obviously brand new housing and probably 50 units per care at least. In other words, the city rezoned for recreation/greenspace and density simultaneously. Seems to be a shocking outbreak of reasonableness. In their own ways, more dense development and greenspaces both promote environmental conservation—why not combine them?

    On the Sierra Club issue, the skepticism/veiled opposition expressed by representatives of the organization about the planning department’s proposed Northeast plan at the meeting a few months ago, plus comments I heard from smart growth activists up there that the Sierra Club has consistently used “parks” talk to oppose even modestly more dense developments on targeted spaces in the NE, and Cowherd’s multiple statements on the record that he does not think the greenbelt has anything to do with density—all this makes me skeptical myself that this group is working for smart growth rather than NIMBY no growth. (Excuse the ungrammatical sentence). They seem stuck in a 1970s environmental mindset, but most environmentalists including the national Sierra Club have moved a lot farther along. I’d like to see some real evidence that this is untrue, starting with an endorsement of the Northeast plan by the local club, which most commentators at the meeting who called themselves environmentalists seemed to believe was a good start but in the end not ambitious enough in creating more housing within the city.
       —Matt    Oct. 20 '04 - 11:40AM    #
  12. My apologies, Murph. I thought they were connecting the lines E-W and N-S, so that the line could go north to Lansing and east to Detroit. I haven’t studied the issue very closely, though.
       —KGS    Oct. 20 '04 - 11:48AM    #
  13. KGS, the current study/plan for an Ann Arbor-Detroit line came out of the study for a Lansing-Detroit line; that study concluded that Ann Arbor-Detroit was the best thing to work on, with Lansing-Ann Arbor coming later, if at all. The webpage for the current project is at

    So, no, you’re right, but it’s not what they’re working on right now; it’s what they were talking about a while back and might pick up again in the future.

    But yes, if they get the A2-Det segment running, Lansing-A2 will be likely to follow eventually, at which point we’d really want that ROW intact. I’m general, I dislike Rails to Trails and other schemes to take over rail ROW’s—it totally eliminates the possibility of ever using the space for transportation infrastructure in the future.
       —Murph    Oct. 20 '04 - 05:04PM    #
  14. Of course, the best use for a rail ROW is for its original purpose. But I don’t think any rail lines are being displaced by trails. Rather, in most cases, rails-to-trails is the only alternative to letting the ROW revert to adjoining landowners, at which point it’s gone forever.

    The Kal-Haven trail (along former rail line from Kalamazoo to South Haven, in southwest Michigan) is one of the nicest biking experiences I’ve had in recent years.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 21 '04 - 04:37AM    #
  15. Apparently, this isn’t a new idea. It’s just getting attention because Cowherd & Co. are pushing it. One thing that is important to note is that all of this is in the Allen’s Creek floodplain. Building large buildings in a floodplain can be very problematic, so this site might actually make sense. Here’s what my former housemate Jim Nicita says:

    When Urban Design Advocates did its prospectus for Allen’s Creek, we recommended that the greenway be approached truly as an urban design problem: that is, it is not just the design of a greenway, but the design of the lower Allen’s Creek valley. Instead of putting up a parking deck here, a building on North Main there, one would take the overall form of this crescent-shaped valley sloping down to the Huron River, and design well-proportioned and positioned buildings (in urban design geekspeak—monuments at the end of visual NS and EW street axes that intersect the valley at kep points) atop the valley’s edge that would accentuate the form of the valley. This architecture—not buildings, but true architecture—would look down upon three different “flows” of activity: a trail with pedestrian traffic, an open channel watercourse (see, and commuter trolley traffic along the now- very underutilized Ann Arbor Railroad (if you think this latter is a pipe dream, I can introduce you to people who have studied the idea and think it is feasible.)
       —Scott T.    Oct. 22 '04 - 07:34AM    #
  16. Scott, I’m all in favor of some strong design thinking on the area to guide development—but Cowherd seems to want to simply crowd out development and turn everything into a park. Some sort of compromise that can both enhance the natural features and provide the most developable space would be nice, rather than demanding that anything outside of a certain extreme is unacceptable.
       —Murph    Oct. 22 '04 - 08:05AM    #
  17. I know Jim Nicita, too—a very good guy and clear thinker—but his vision of the Allen Creek valley assumes the disappearance of the railroad embankment.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 22 '04 - 08:16AM    #
  18. Sigh…. I miss this aspect of Ann Arbor. The Atlanta urban planning stuff is just way too massive to get into. Ann Arbor is about the perfect size to grasp the issues, know the people you are talking about, mobilize, and really do something about it. I had a feeling of importance and progress when I would b.s. online about all this stuff with Murph and Goodspeed…..

    Now that I’m in Atlanta, its really too daunting to wade into this stuff right now, especially without much real education about the specifics. In Atlanta, we have the governor weighing in on County Commissioner races solely defined by NIMBY-ism. Things like a parking lot on one street corner don’t even register. Oh well. Keep on fighting the good fight. I miss it up there sometimes. Well, til it gets cold.

    (ex-Dread Pirate King)
       —Ben - formerly TDPK    Oct. 23 '04 - 10:52PM    #
  19. I was interested in the statistics by KGS (Oct 20) about the relative amounts of parkland in various cities. I think this is really important information to have and it is very relevant to the issues being talked about here. I would like to be able to cite the information. Where can I find the data that was used to make the calculations?
       —RMJ    Mar. 3 '05 - 02:23PM    #