Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Ongoing Greenway drama: Easthope announces intent to kill DDA plan

9. March 2005 • Murph
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After last night’s forum at the library, City Councilmember Chris Easthope apparently told the Ann Arbor News that he plans a resolution for the 21 March Council meeting,

that would set aside the city-owned lot [at First and William] for a larger greenway vision being pushed by environmentalists and others for downtown.

Such a move, would “completely kill” the Downtown Development Authority’s proposed plan to redevelop the west side of downtown with a new parking structure and multiuse, high-rise buildings on three city-owned parking sites, DDA member Roger Hewitt said this morning.
. . .
Easthope said his resolution would also ask that city-owned park maintenance facility at 415 W. Washington St. and the fleet services building at 721 N. Main St. be set aside for the greenway. The city will vacate both facilities for a new building within the next few years. Those buildings are not part of the DDA’s redevelopment plan.

Despite the fact that much of the criticism of the DDA’s proposal at this week’s Council meeting included a view that the DDA was trying to move too quickly with their proposal and with not enough opportunity for public input, Easthope seems to believe that fast, decisive action in the other direction is appropriate. Easthope represents the 5th Ward, which includes the Old West Side neighborhood where Greenway support is concentrated.

See also,
> ArborUpdate, 8 March, Greenway advocates slam DDA plans for downtown parking

  1. Does anyone know on what Commissions Easthope is serving? I know that he isn’t involved in the Parks Commission.
       —Lizz    Mar. 10 '05 - 05:48AM    #
  2. Lizz, here’s Google’s html version of the massive pdf of city boards/commissions/task forces

    A quick search for Easthope shows,

    * Budget/finance advisory committee
    * Cable communications commission
    * City attorney committee
    * Labor negotiation committee

    Nothing that I find particularly interesting in this situation. (With the possible exception of budget.)
       —Murph    Mar. 10 '05 - 03:35PM    #
  3. Easthope is doing what a City Council person should do—supporting his constituency. His biggest problem is that his constituency consists of both the people on the Old West Side who do not want the parking structure at First and William and the merchants on Main St. who do. Politically, though, he must support the people on the Old West Side because they vote in the 5th Ward and most of the downtown merchants do not.
       —Julie    Mar. 10 '05 - 03:53PM    #
  4. In the debate over the DDA’s building project along the west flank of downtown, there’s an urgent need for clearer thinking about what should be our priorities as a progressive city.
    I love Ann Arbor’s park system. It’s a joy to live in a place with so much green space. But it also costs a lot to maintain. And downtown land is urgently needed for better uses—uses more environmentally defensible than a greenway.
    Downtown really doesn’t need more parks. It already attracts plenty of folks with its restaurants and shops and entertainment. And Ann Arbor’s residents who live near downtown have plenty of open space: West Park, North Main Park, Wheeler Park, Wurster Park, Hunt Park, and the Diag—not to mention the Arb and Bandemer.
    The kind of parks that work best in a downtown area are places where you can sit and eat a sandwich-places like Liberty Plaza and Urban Sculpture Plaza. Those spaces could certainly be made more inviting. And the DDA’s plan for a parking structure at William and First includes yet another small pocket park-just what is needed.
    The DDA proposal, which is all of a piece, also includes buildings that will bring more housing units downtown. But local residents are mounting an effort to block this project so that they can hold onto their dream of an Allen Creek Greenway—an enticing but very bad idea.
    There were several reasons Allen Creek was put underground nearly a century ago. Among them was that it was an ugly, muddy, intermittent ditch, given to dry heaves and flash floods. If it was so unmanageable then, what will it be like now that there’s been so much development? Would it really be an amenity to see polluted storm water crashing down an otherwise unattractive gulley?
    But even if I’m wrong about this, and the creek could be redesigned so it would a pristine, lovely waterway, it would still be misguided to stop housing development along the creek way.
    Ann Arbor’s land is precious. So much of it has been developed, or set aside for green space, or gobbled up by the university, that downtown is about the only place left where significant numbers of housing units could be built—and the best place in town to build upwards.
    Yes, conversations about the height and aesthetics of downtown buildings, especially parking structures, are worthwhile debates. But right now the onus is on the city and developers to justify building densely and high—largely because of residents’ misguided concept of environmental priorities. Instead, the burden should be on residents to argue why we shouldn’t build more and higher housing units in every piece of downtown land that’s available.
    Here’s why: 50,000 people commute to work in Ann Arbor every day. And most of those people do so because they can’t afford to live in town.
    In 2003, by approving a tax for a “greenbelt,” Ann Arbor voters made sure that some of the area close by the city won’t be developed so that we could enjoy yet more open space. The taxes and the added amenity of a greenbelt further increase the cost of housing here in the city, and further increase the distances that people will be commuting to their jobs by pushing development farther out from Ann Arbor.
    Parks are wonderful resources. But we live in a city, not a suburb. And cities that are dense are environmentally excellent, because they cut down on the use of cars. What is more environmentally degrading than automobile commuting?
    And what is the environmental responsibility of people who live in a city that creates far, far more jobs than the number of housing units available to the workers who fill those jobs? Our duty is to do everything we can to cut down on those millions of monthly commuting miles driven by people who live in Brighton, Chelsea, Milan, and Jackson but work in Ann Arbor.
    And that means building affordable, dense housing—and the more of it the better—in downtown Ann Arbor. If thousands of people who work at U-M hospital or on campus lived within walking distance, it would ease the daily traffic jams on US-23 and curtail significantly the tons of emissions wafting into the air out of the cars of commuters.
    Sure, some people will always choose to live in suburbia for other reasons. But the primary reason people who work here don’t live here is that they can’t afford to. Yet instead of doing everything we can to make more room for them, some of us want to spend millions of dollars (further increasing our tax burden) to unearth a long-buried creek so that our privileged lives can be even nicer.
    The reasons to question the DDA project are not because it stymies this elitist greenway or because the tall buildings might interfere with some of the Old West Side’s nice views—these are NIMBY attitudes, even if well-intentioned. The more relevant criticisms, environmentally speaking, are why the units don’t include more affordable housing units than they do, and why the city isn’t doing much, much more to build higher, denser, cheaper housing downtown.
       —Michael Betzold    Mar. 10 '05 - 06:45PM    #
  5. Michael,

    Impressive. Formatting looks cut-and-pasted; can we assume this is a copy of a letter you’ve sent to Council?

    (The strikeout is something our automatic formatting does when text is surrounded by ”—”, rather than treating it as an em-dash. Sorry about that…)

    If the Council accepts this plan (and takes action towards making it happen on a reasonable timeline), then, between this and the Y redevelopment, I’d say they’re doing all right towards housing. Much of it is still quite highly-priced, but I think that even creating a lot of high-priced (and a modest amount of affordable) housing downtown won’t be bad. Some of the people pulled into downtown by new housing options will be moving out of housing around the periphery, depressing prices there, and, with proper AATA service, that will be the next best thing to affordable housing downtown. Sometimes I’m willing to accept that kind of supply-side logic.
       —Murph    Mar. 10 '05 - 08:12PM    #
  6. How about Betzold, Murphy, Lassiter, and Leopold for City Council next time around?
       —Brandon    Mar. 10 '05 - 10:20PM    #
  7. Brandon, half the stuff Council has to deal with I’m not interested in (and probably no good at). I’d much rather sit around and tell Council what to do planning-wise, which is why I need to find time to fill out this here application for a spot on Planning Commission. . .
       —Murph    Mar. 11 '05 - 12:33AM    #
  8. If it were only this easy: build lots of high-rise apartment buildings, everyone will move in, trade their SUVs for bus passes, the suburbs will return to fields, and everyone will live happily ever after. But it isn’t this easy.

    Yes, there are some people who do not live in downtown Ann Arbor because of housing prices. However, there are far more who live in the surrounding communities because those communities offer them something: family support, atmosphere, more land, bigger houses, fewer neighbors, no hippie freaks, no students, lower taxes, more water, more green space, easy highway access, fenced yards, shorter commute to Detroit, and so on. I know very few people who would trade in their houses and cars wherever they live for a nice cozy apartment downtown regardless of the price. We live in an area of the country where land is quite cheap and there are few physical barriers to development. You can build all the dense, high-rise apartments and condos in downtown Ann Arbor that you want, but people will still choose, probably overwhelmingly, to live somewhere where they can get more for less money. Apartments and condos are substandard goods here and even small houses do not sell well. I agree that increased density downtown is a good thing, but it must be done in a thoughtful way rather than just “screw the NIMBYs,” add housing, and hope people will show up.

    I can give a very real example of how dense buildings can backfire: I live on Main Street in a small neighborhood within a half mile of pretty much any part of downtown. The housing is mostly small houses and medium-sized apartment buildings. The apartment buildings were built in the 1960s to provide inexpensive housing for downtown workers. At that point, many of the long-time owners sold their houses and moved farther out of town because they did not want to live next to apartment buildings. The remaining homes are about 15% single-family owner occupied and 85% rental. While some of the rentals have long-term owners, many are “flipped” from rental company to rental company for as much as double the price (and high rents) of the single-family owned houses. Because the rents are high, they often sit empty and the rental companies use them as tax write-offs. The apartment buildings are inexpensive and dense, but vacancy rates have soared and many are less than half occupied. The truth is that our neighborhood, which is close to downtown and has many high density buildings, has fewer people living here now than there were in the 1950s.

    If you want people to live in Ann Arbor, you have to give them reasons to live here. Good schools, good city government, cultural opportunities, parking and other transportation, attractive and affordable housing, and yes, parks and greenspace are all criteria for livability of a city. It does not help to have a city government with an adversarial relationship with the residents and while “parks” like Liberty Plaza might work in New York and San Francisco, they have proven to be absolute failures in Ann Arbor.

    For the record, there is no discussion of daylighting Allen Creek. It was researched a few years ago and is not feasible. The Allen Creek corridor is primarily a flood zone that is unusable for housing under current federal codes. This is why the city is happy to make parks out of the two City lots that are being decommissioned. We have to remember that this is a flood prone area and having permeable surfaces that can filter sediment and pollutants is actually quite important environmentally. First and William is the main spot of contention, but frankly, it will make neither a good park (contaminated soil near the tracks) or a good parking structure (too far away, in a flood plain, down a hill, and in an odd spot adjacent to a neighborhood).

    To really reduce the suburban wasteland here, we should be working to make Detroit a more livable city. Detroit is a large city with an enormous infrastructure that is more empty than full and the immediate area employs far more people and has more communters than Ann Arbor does (including many people who live in Ann Arbor).
       —Julie    Mar. 11 '05 - 04:47PM    #
  9. There’s no reason why these things, a greenway and denser development, need to be in opposition. In fact, according to the ecocity concept (EcoCity Berkeley, Richard Register), both can and should happen together, i.e., when you concentrate population in an environmentally friendly manner, there are more “commons” or open spaces available for all. In Berkeley, a key to re-shaping that city was restoration of Strawberry Creek, which had been channelized underground for some time (much like Allen’s Creek). From all reports, although revamping Berkeley is taking longer than expected, response is very positive.
       —Pete Schermerhorn    Mar. 11 '05 - 05:58PM    #
  10. off topic
    I support Murph for Council unconditionally, and would very much like to see Mike consider it as well…
       —Pete Schermerhorn    Mar. 11 '05 - 06:00PM    #
  11. I’m seeing a need to start a counter-meme here: Julie for Council! (She’s in my Ward, so if she runs, I don’t have to. . .)

    I think it’s important to note that downtown is not the only place in Ann Arbor where we should be looking:

    Try Lower Town – was at one point a thriving secondary downtown, is now a parking lot. (Though the Broadway Village plan is underway, and there’s one fewer building on that site every time I go past it; also, the Suzuki Tech Center just sold.)

    Plymouth Road everywhere past Lower Town is exurban wasteland (it’s been my ‘hood for the last five years, so I feel qualified to say so); the new private dorm is going in, but will be suburban apartment-complex style; the Diehl junkyard just got bought for development, though it’s slated for restaurant and office use, and it’s all going to probably end up as large setback, single- or two-story, sea of parking crap. The Draft(still?) Northeast Area Plan calls for this area to develop “neighborhood centers” of locally-oriented businesses, but is watered down enough that this kind of development will be called success under those terms.

    Packard east of State, Washtenaw east of Packard, Eisenhower along its entire length, Main south of Stadium and north of Catherine – these are all areas that I think almost everybody would agree could be improved by well-designed density. (Whole Foods: doesn’t count.)

    Jeff Kahan for Mayor!
       —Murph    Mar. 11 '05 - 07:20PM    #
  12. Interesting comments about the DDA three site plan. I am a member of the DDA Board. What the greenway folks seem to forget is that there is a desperate need for workforce affordable housing in the downtown area, and that is the plan for First/Washigton (site of the old parking structure, which is falling down). Housing cannot be built at First/William because it is in the floodplain – the building across the street is “grandfatherd” in. Also, the Allen Creek drain will be improved by moving it and eliminating the constricted “waist” that occurs in this area – to improve both the quality of the water and the flow. In addition, I think that the city should look seriously at the old county road commission building (415 W. Washington) as space to replace that lost by the new “Y” – for arts. The DDA plan includes not only a park, but the begining of the greenway as well as landscaping on the other side of the railroad tracks. The railroad is NOT leaving, so we have to deal with it as it is. The three site plan was just introduced, and I hope that those of you who find it attractive will communicate that to your Council members.
       —Leah    Mar. 14 '05 - 09:09PM    #
  13. Leah, I agree that the Washington site should be up for consideration as a place to create space for artists, for sure… The building is pretty decrepit (as was the “technology center”) ... and fixing it up enough to “habitable” (in a way that would be acceptable to the city’s lawyers) might prohibit that kind of re-use, unfortunately. That is a possibility I’d like to hear more about, however.
       —Scott    Mar. 14 '05 - 09:19PM    #
  14. Response to Scott – the 415 W. Washington building does not have to be “habitable” because no one would be permitted to live there. But you are right- it would have to be rehabbed to use as studios, dance, rehearsal space, etc. I would think that the city could be persuaded to donate it to a non-profit (these abound in this community) for just such a purpose. Then it would be used year round by people, bringing them downtown. There is an Arts Alliance connected with the Chamber, and the Ann Arbor Arts Council – and other groups as well. At one time the DDA had a committee, headed by Dave DeVarti, to look into this matter, when the Y purchased the Technology Center site. Perhaps you might contact him. And of course, this would be right across from the new Y – a great location! Leah.
       —Leah    Mar. 15 '05 - 12:18PM    #
  15. Leah, are the city yards (415 WW and North Main) within the DDA’s boundaries? As in, is the DDA going to showing up as a bad guy in those discussions as well?

    Having spent some time walking around both sites, there’s definitely some parts of them that could/should be used for structures, while other parts are clearly nothing-but-floodway. Figuring out how to get the best use out of both of those (neither inappropriate construction nor blind insistance on parkland is going to be a fun task.

    Meanwhile, a walk along the A2RR tracks, headed north from 1st/William, suggests some other sites that should really be redeveloped – combine a couple of parcels here and there, redevelop the high ground half of each, and open up the low ground for the greenway. I take it this is the gist of the slow-and-steady greenway assemblage that’s been suggested?
       —Murph    Mar. 15 '05 - 07:27PM    #
  16. Murph – the WW site is within the DDA boundary, but the North Main yards are not. But they both have an impact on downtown development. As to the original greenway, it’s called out in the 1988 Downtown Plan, and what you are talking about makes sense, i terms of develpoment and greenway north of First & William, to the river.
       —Leah    Mar. 16 '05 - 02:07AM    #