On The Chronicle’s first trip to the Bryant Community Center in December 2008, elected officials, the heads of local nonprofits, city and county staff outnumbered residents at a meeting for the southeast Ann Arbor neighborhood. The reverse was true last Thursday evening, when a room full of neighbors filled every seat, gathering to discuss the challenges they share.
Bryant is one of the few clusters of affordable housing in Ann Arbor. It’s also been hit hard by the mortgage crisis – a foreclosed property in the neighborhood at 2 Faust Court, vacant and boarded up, has been targeted as one of the first acquisitions for the county’s new land bank.
The land bank actually dovetails with a widespread problem that affects nearly all residents, which was the focus of Thursday’s meeting: Inadequate drainage and the chronic pooling of water in crawl spaces, basements, yards and streets. Joan Nassauer, a University of Michigan professor of landscape architecture, has remediated sites with similar problems in Flint, Chicago, St. Paul and other areas. She was on hand Thursday to talk about what Bryant residents might do to address their drainage issues.
What a Land Bank Can Do
Nassauer began by noting that the land bank in Genesee County, where the city of Flint is located, is recognized nationally for its work, and includes more than 5,000 properties. Putting property into a land bank can be valuable because it buys time, she said. In fact, time and community care – having volunteers mow the lawns of foreclosed properties, for example – can be a positive substitute for market conditions. “You’ve gained value by using the time well,” Nassauer explained.
Land banks are a way to take temporary ownership of tax- or mortgage-foreclosed properties, giving local officials more options to deal with blighted areas. Those options might include demolishing a structure, selling it for rehab to a nonprofit like Habitat for Humanity, or turning it into a community garden. Convinced of these benefits, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners authorized formation of a land bank at their July 8 meeting. [See previous Chronicle coverage.]
Property in a land bank might also be used to help remediate environmental problems. Other land banks, for example, have looked at how properties fit into a watershed – if low-lying land could be transformed into a rain garden to manage drainage and stormwater mitigation in an area, that might be the best use for it in a given neighborhood.
Resident Paul Cartman expressed concern about using foreclosed property for stormwater mitigation, saying he wouldn’t want to see affordable housing being sacrificed for that. In the case of 2 Faust Court, it’s not clear if that foreclosed property would even be suitable for addressing drainage problem – it’s on one of the higher elevations in the neighborhood. However, there are other possible options to deal with the neighborhood’s drainage problem, Nassauer said.
She outlined several other projects she’d been involved with in different cities, in which rain gardens and French drains had been used to manage water. While not exactly parallel to the situation at Bryant, they were potentially useful solutions that could be adapted for this neighborhood.
Why All the Water?
The Bryant neighborhood was originally a wetland – developers dealt with that by building drainage ditches (also known as swales) in many backyards. But over time, it’s likely that those ditches have been filled in and aren’t functioning as originally designed, Nassauer said. She asked residents attending Thursday’s meeting whether water problems have gotten worse in the last 5 to 10 years – her question was met with a chorus of “Yes!”
Mary Hinton described how she didn’t originally have a problem with water when she moved to the neighborhood about eight years ago, but over time the standing water got so bad that her driveway started sinking in. She called the city but said they weren’t responsive – until a garbage truck got stuck in front of her house.
To get a closer look at the neighborhood and its drainage issues, last week Nassauer took a walk around Bryant with county treasurer Catherine McClary, who has spearheaded the land bank project. McClary had attended the neighborhood’s December meeting, when the issue of drainage and flooding had been raised. [People attending that meeting also got a firsthand view of the problem – that morning, the roads in the neighborhood were covered with frozen water.] McClary knew that Nassauer had done work with the Genesee County land bank, and asked if the UM professor could lend her expertise locally as well.
On the walk-around, Nassauer was trying to get a sense of the area’s land contours. McClary had provided her with maps of the neighborhood’s soil composition and topography – based on those, Nassauer learned that the northeast corner had clay soil, which doesn’t absorb water well. In that area, you’d expect to find more flooding, she said. What surprised her was that there’s flooding throughout the neighborhood, not just in that section.
Nassauer said she learned from a resident at another neighborhood meeting held last week that when the area was first developed, soil from the northeast sector had been excavated and spread throughout other parts of Bryant, which accounts for the drainage problems. One solution is to punch holes through the clay so that the water can reach the sandy soil below, she said. “It’s like opening the stopper in a bathtub.”
She also noticed that the two streams flowing north out of the neighborhood, and eventually into the Huron River, go under I-94. It’s possible that the culverts carrying the water under I-94 are filled with sediment – if that’s the case, it could be contributing to the problem, she said.
Other Possible Fixes
Paul Cartman, one of the residents attending Thursday’s meeting, said he had talked to Mike Bergren, the city’s assistant field operations manager, and other city staff who’d told him that soil in the Bryant neighborhood was acidic, and had been eating away at the cast-iron water mains. He reported that the city was planning to replace the mains next summer, and said that while they were at it, they might be able to install edge drains along the roads, too.
Nassauer said that would be good news for the neighborhood, and that they should ask two questions of the city: 1) how would the city get the water in yards, basements and crawl spaces to flow toward the roads and into whatever drains might be installed, and 2) what can the city do to systematically deal with the condition of the backyard swales. It was her understanding that the city didn’t take responsibility for those, Nassauer said, but perhaps now was a good time to be looking at that issue.
Joan Doughty – executive director of the nonprofit Community Action Network (CAN), which has a city contract to manage Bryant Community Center and is facilitating improvements to the neighborhood – said that Jerry Hancock, the city’s stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator, had been at last week’s meeting and had spoken about the water main replacement as a possibility, not a certainty. However, she added that sometimes different departments within the city don’t communicate with each other, so it can be difficult to find out what’s really going on.
Her view was echoed by Susan Baskett, an Ann Arbor Public Schools trustee and Bryant resident, who said she’d had the same experience. She suggested enlisting city councilmembers from Ward 3 – Christopher Taylor and Leigh Greden – to be liaisons in getting information. Jean Carlberg, a former city councilmember for Ward 3, said it was certainly possible to get Jerry Hancock and Mike Bergren to coordinate. She asked what it would take to get more information about the swales. Doughty said that the city had been ready to throw away old maps of the neighborhood that showed the original swales, but that one of the residents now had them.
Derrick Miller, director of the Bryant Community Center, said this issue highlighted the importance of the survey they were asking residents to complete. The results will be a key element in proving to the city that flooding is a problem. The four-question survey asks residents where and when flooding occurs, whether their homes have mold or mildew, or bubbling of painted areas, and whether anyone in their home has asthma, allergies or other respiratory issues.
To date, about 140 out of 263 households have completed the survey. CAN has tallied 125 of those surveys so far. Of those who answered the drainage-related question, 91% (90 households) experienced flooding in their yards and/or crawl spaces.
Forty-six survey respondents reported someone in their household suffered from asthma or other respiratory problems – that’s 41% of those who answered the question. That’s an incredibly high rate, Doughty noted, saying they plan to ask the county’s public health office to look into the situation.
Regarding the flood-related question, Cartman said that some people might not respond to the survey because of fear that by acknowledging the problem, they’d then be required to pay to fix it – something that not everyone can afford.
Getting feedback from the community about these issues will be an ongoing effort, Doughty said. ”This is a story that’s going to be continued over the next couple of months. We’ll continue this conversation.”