Ann Arbor Area Community News
The Ann Arbor News today runs articles on both the private dorm planned adjacent to North Campus and the planned replacement of Frieze with a University dorm—both projects have been referred to as “North Quad” at some point, and both seek to provide students with apartment or suite-style residence. University, City, and developer are in agreement that the housing market can support the 1400 new beds that the two developments will create.
One major difference between the two projects, though, is the character of the surrounding neighborhoods. The University’s dorm, planned to replace the Frieze Building at the corner of State and Huron, would put students within easy access of the State Street and Liberty Street business areas, as well as being closer to classroom buildings than most of the existing dorms. This project fits into the City’s vision of increased downtown residential density, and local businesses are happy. From New dorm’s impact generating worry:
Roger Hewitt, the owner of Red Hawk and Zanzibar, two restaurants just a block or two down State Street from the new dorm, said the project injects more life in the downtown area and will encourage private residential development aimed at an older crowd.
The University’s project will include no parking at all, leading residents of the Old Fourth Ward to worry that students will swamp that neighborhood’s street parking. Traffic concerns have been one of the major concerns with the private dorm on North Campus as well, with the Broadway neighborhood worried that student traffic will destroy the character of their street. What the News doesn’t mention in their article on this development, Private dorm will open first, and what the City seems to have almost completely neglected is the role of surrounding uses in determining traffic patterns. In a September 19, 2002, meeting of the Planning Commission (pdf) at which this project was discussed, Jena Carlberg was the only Commissioner to mention non-car accessibility, and then only in passing while praising the proposal’s inclusion of only 245 parking spaces for the 900 predicted residents.
While the proximity to commercial uses seems to be a major consideration in advocacy for turning the Frieze into a new dorm, the North Campus development has no pedestrian-oriented commercial uses at all in the vicinity. A quick survey of the area surrounding the Murfin-Plymouth intersection shows two gas stations, a junkyard, an auto repair shop, a Ryder truck rental, a car wash, and two auto-oriented strip malls. While the strip malls do include such student staples as pizza, liquor, tobacco, video rental, and fast food, the area is much more heavily oriented towards commuter traffic taking Plymouth in from US-23 than towards any notion of serving local neighborhood needs.
The City Planning Department’s Draft Northeast Area Plan (pdf) calls for “mixed-use neighborhood retail centers”, which would feature office or residential uses above storefronts, buildings fronting on the sidewalk, and minimal off-street parking. “Auto related uses,” the plan notes, “such as gas stations, auto repair shops and car washes should be prohibited.” (Chapter 6, Page 12) The plan does specifically target (pdf) a few of the auto-oriented land uses in this cluster: the truck rental should be replaced with “office uses”, and the plan says that “a neighborhood commercial zone. . .would be more appropriate” for the site the gas station/junkyard/repair shop cluster occupies. (Chapter 10, Page 11) The plan does not criticize the rest of the auto-dominated uses, however, and even goes so far as to show picture of the Courtyard Shops, the single-use, mostly single-story, parking-lot dependant strip mall on the north side of Plymouth, when discussing the qualities of a good neighborhood commercial area. The picture is, of course, carefully cropped to avoid showing the parking lots, or the fact that the “sidewalks” the stores front on are not actually on the street, but internal to the development. The University is aware that placing students and pedestrian-oriented commercial areas close together is highly desireable, to the point of including no parking in their new development—why shouldn’t this lesson be considered on Plymouth Road?
The City has said that the lack of progress in increasing density in the downtown area is due to the fact that the downtown area master plan is outdated, and needs to be revised to include new priorities, such as density. The Northeast Area Plan, however, is brand new, and won’t even take on the task of providing 900 new students (and the thousands who already live within a quarter-mile radius, in Bursley, Baits, the Highlands, Willowtree, the co-ops, and other multi-unit residences) with walkable commercial areas. If the Northeast Area Plan’s definition of “neighborhood commercial area” is representative of the way that the City will approach “downtown density”, it’s probably safe to say that very little progress will be made in the foreseeable future.
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