Committee Starts Downtown Park Research

Ann Arbor park advisory commissioners discuss vision, needs for urban park; next steps might include hiring consultant to help with work

Ann Arbor park advisory commission’s downtown parks subcommittee meeting (Feb. 5, 2013): Following up on an informal request from the city council, a subcommittee of Ann Arbor’s park advisory commission began work to develop recommendations on the need for downtown parks.

Ann Arbor park advisory commission, Mike Anglin, Alan Jackson, Julie Grand, Ingrid Ault, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Mike Anglin, Alan Jackson, Julie Grand, and Ingrid Ault at a Feb. 5, 2013 meeting of the park advisory commission’s downtown parks subcommittee. (Photos by the writer.)

Much of the discussion on Feb. 5 involved setting a process for their work. As a first step, the group agreed to read background material from a variety of sources, including the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, elements of the city’s master plan, and reports by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s Connecting William Street project.

They also discussed the possibility of hiring an outside consultant. The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces was cited as one option for a consultant.

Several commissioners stressed the need for strong public engagement, and they will likely ask for specific input from groups like Library Green, downtown merchant associations, the Ann Arbor District Library and others.

This meeting followed an extensive discussion at the Jan. 15, 2013 session of the full park advisory commission. [See Chronicle coverage: "Parks Group To Weigh In On Downtown Need."] And on Sept. 18 2012 PAC passed a resolution urging the council to seek additional evaluation on locations for a downtown park. That resolution came in the context of Connecting William Street, a DDA project undertaken at the request of the council to help guide the future use of five city-owned downtown properties.

The goal of this PAC subcommittee is to draft recommendations that the full commission can consider and approve, which could be delivered to the city council in about six months. Members include Ingrid Ault, who is serving as the subcommittee chair, PAC chair Julie Grand, Alan Jackson, and Karen Levin. However, any park commissioner can participate. So the Feb. 5 meeting was also attended by Tim Doyle, Bob Galardi, Graydon Krapohl and councilmember Mike Anglin, an ex-officio member of PAC.

The subcommittee’s next meeting is set for March 5 following the commission’s land acquisition committee meeting, which begins at 4 p.m. at city hall. The next meeting of the full park advisory commission is Tuesday, Feb. 26, also at 4 p.m. in the city hall’s council chambers. All of these meetings are open to the public and include opportunities for public commentary.

What’s the Vision?

Julie Grand began the discussion by reviewing the group’s charge and noting that the main recommendation to the city council will be whether Ann Arbor needs a new downtown park. She ventured that a first step for the subcommittee would be to refine what other issues their recommendations would address.

But city park planner Amy Kuras suggested that developing a vision of a downtown park or parks system should drive the process. Rather than starting with the question of where a park should be located, she said, commissioners should determine the desired purpose of a downtown park.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, added that if commissioners do recommend that a downtown park is needed, they should also make recommendations about how the park would be used, what it would look like, how it would function, and what programming would be appropriate for it.

Commissioner Alan Jackson wanted to explore possible ways that a downtown park could be used to involve the community – with public art displays, for example. He noted that the Library Green group has suggested the possibility of a temporary park on top of the Library Lane parking structure. Smith reported that the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces has had some success in creating temporary uses for public spaces in other cities. Bob Galardi described the concept as “pop-up parks.”

Jackson also felt that recommendations should include how to maintain a downtown park. He noted that if there are issues like the problems at Liberty Plaza, “then that’s somewhat of a deal-breaker.” Smith agreed, saying that the council would want to know what kind of plan is recommended to address those concerns.

What’s the Vision: Liberty Plaza

Chronic problems related to Liberty Plaza – at the southwest corner of Division and Liberty – have been raised at previous PAC meetings, and were part of a presentation that mayor John Hieftje made to commissioners last summer. Staff had drafted a memo at that time outlining some of those issues, and proposing a way to deal with them. [.pdf of Liberty Plaza staff memo]

Liberty Plaza again came up at the Feb. 5 subcommittee meeting. Tim Doyle asked for more information about the plaza’s history, and why it was established there.

Amy Kuras gave some background, saying it was created in the 1970s in conjunction with the adjacent First Martin building. A gas station previously had been located on the 0.26-acre site, she said, and the plaza was designed in part to accommodate barrier-free access to the lower level of the First Martin project. The plaza also abuts another city property at 312 S. Division, where the Kempf House Museum is located.

Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, Amy Kuras, Colin Smith

Park planner Amy Kuras and Colin Smith, manager of the city’s parks and recreation unit.

Doyle said he knew that the plaza is considered unsafe, but he wondered what the problems were specifically. Alan Jackson cited issues of drug-dealing and defecating in public, and said that it’s a place where “street people” gather. He reported that his daughters describe the area as “scary.” First Martin spends considerable resources on upkeep of the plaza, he said.

Ingrid Ault added that First Martin spent several thousand dollars installing security cameras to monitor the plaza. Doyle asked whether it’s regularly patrolled by city police. It is, Smith replied, but he noted that when people are dispersed from Liberty Plaza, the problems they create simply move elsewhere.

Ault observed that similar problems occur in the pocket park at the south end of the surface parking lot at William and Ashley, across from the Ann Arbor State Bank. There’s a bench at that location that’s a hangout for people who drink, she said. When the staff does an inventory of downtown parks for the subcommittee, she said, that research needs to include how these parks are used – including “undesirable” uses. Ault noted that when seating was added in the Liberty and Maynard area as part of streetscape improvements, it resulted in kinds of behavior “that we weren’t hoping for.”

Karen Levin wondered how difficult it would be to change the public’s perception of Liberty Plaza. Kuras noted that when there is programming at Liberty Plaza – like the popular Sonic Lunch concerts sponsored each summer by the Bank of Ann Arbor – the plaza is “transformed.”

Smith pointed out that programming is essential for the success of any downtown park.

There will always be an “undesirable” segment of the population that will congregate somewhere, Doyle observed. He said he wasn’t sure how to deal with it, but that it’s a problem all cities face. However, just because there’s a problem at Liberty Plaza doesn’t mean the same problems would exist at other downtown parks, he said.

Gathering Resources

Colin Smith recommended that commissioners do some background reading of existing materials related to downtown parks. Smith felt that the information would help commissioners make recommendations that are better informed by the considerable amount of research and other recommendations that already exist.

Those materials include:

Alan Jackson suggested including materials from the Library Green as well. That group is advocating for a public commons on top of the Library Lane underground parking structure on South Fifth Avenue, which is currently used for surface parking. Alan Haber, one of the Library Green organizers, has spoken several times to the commission during the time of their meetings reserved for public commentary.

Smith proposed creating a page on the city’s website specifically devoted to this downtown parks project, akin to the site for the city’s North Main/Huron River corridor project. These background materials could be posted there, he said.

Information on the Project for Public Spaces website could be another useful resource, Smith said. He floated the possibility of hiring this nonprofit group to help the subcommittee draft its recommendations. That might include holding workshops with commissioners, or getting advice about the development of downtown parks based on past PPS projects. Commissioners directed Smith to contact other municipalities that have used PPS, to get a sense of whether the nonprofit was effective in its work.

Bob Galardi suggested that before bringing in an outside consultant, commissioners should be very clear about what exactly they want a consultant to accomplish. They’d need to brainstorm about the type of advice they want to receive.

The parks staff will also compile an inventory of existing downtown parks and open space, with a map and description of each location. Ingrid Ault urged Smith to include all “pocket” areas that serve as gathering places, like the bench at the south end of the surface parking lot at William and Ashley. She also wanted the inventory to indicate whether there are problems at certain parks, like Liberty Plaza.

Julie Grand wondered what qualified as public gathering space. Would that include a private location, like the plaza where Mark’s Carts is located?

Smith indicated that private land wouldn’t be part of the inventory, but areas that should be included are the plazas in front of city hall (at Huron and Fifth) and the federal building (at Liberty and Fifth, where the post office is located), as well as land on the University of Michigan campus.

Public Engagement

Commissioners also talked about the importance of public engagement as they develop their recommendations. Tim Doyle described it as an opportunity to involve both residents as well as businesses that are located downtown and that might benefit from a park. If it makes Ann Arbor a more attractive place to live and visit, then everyone benefits, he said.

Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, Colin Smith, Bob Galardi

From left: Parks and recreation manager Colin Smith and Bob Galardi, a park advisory commissioner.

Doyle also said it would be useful to collect all of the public commentary that has been given on this issue so far, whether that’s via written communication or from speakers who attend PAC meetings. Julie Grand noted that public commentary is included in The Chronicle’s articles on PAC’s monthly meetings, and could be easily gathered from those reports.

Grand also suggested using the city’s online A2 Open City Hall, which allows users to give open-ended responses to questions, to select priorities, and to give votes of support to comments left by others.

Alan Jackson noted that there have been complaints about the public input process for the DDA’s Connecting William Street project, and for the Ann Arbor District Library’s previous effort to build a new downtown library. Since there have been a recent succession of failures in public input, he said, it’s all the more important for PAC’s recommendations to include a strong public engagement component.

Ingrid Ault disagreed that the DDA’s process was a failure, saying that it had been open and transparent. Jackson replied that these are failures if they’re perceived as failures. He said he wasn’t attacking anyone, but that it’s important to be sensitive to this issue – even if you don’t think it’s a valid perspective.

Grand observed that PAC and the parks staff have a solid track record of seeking public input, pointing to the process of developing the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan. Amy Kuras, the city’s park planner who handled the PROS project, said that even so, these issues are “fraught” and they need to make sure the public engagement process is done well.

Colin Smith suggested bringing in representatives from interested groups to talk to the subcommittee and give input. Those groups might include Library Green, the Ann Arbor District Library, the DDA, downtown merchant associations, and the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy, among others. The Connecting William Street project includes an exhaustive list of such groups, he noted, so there’s “no point in re-inventing the wheel.”

Bob Galardi, who also served on an advisory committee for Connecting William Street, wondered whether a group like the Project for Public Spaces could help with the public engagement process. He indicated that it’s difficult to gauge how much input is adequate. “No matter what we think we’ve done, it’s very hard to do it sufficiently,” Galardi said.

Next Steps

The group reached consensus to spend the next few weeks reading background materials. Ingrid Ault agreed to chair the subcommittee. Graydon Krapohl volunteered to help, though he joked that an acronym for Navy is “Never Again Volunteer Yourself.” [Krapohl is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps.]

Tim Doyle asked about the timeframe for delivering these recommendations, saying the subcommittee was “under the gun” to complete its work within six months. Colin Smith pointed out that “you’re not going to turn into a collective pumpkin after six months.” There is no formal charge or directive from the city council, he added, although councilmembers have indicated that they’d like PAC to weigh in regarding the need for a downtown park, in the context of the Connecting William Street project.

Smith also noted that the recommendation doesn’t have to be a fleshed-out plan. In fact, the recommendation could state that the city needs to conduct a more formal study, he said. So the recommendation would simply pave the way for more work.

The subcommittee also set its next meeting date – on Tuesday, March 5 following PAC’s land acquisition committee meeting, which begins at 4 p.m. After that, the subcommittee will convene on March 26, and subsequently plans to meet every two weeks. All meetings will be held at city hall and are open to the public.

The goal is to present recommendations to the city council by this summer. As a first step, the subcommittee will develop draft recommendations to bring forward to the full park advisory commission for discussion and approval. Grand indicated that detailed updates on the subcommittee’s work would be provided at PAC’s monthly meetings. The next PAC meeting is on Feb. 26 starting at 4 p.m. in the council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron.

Present: Ingrid Ault, Tim Doyle, Bob Galardi, Alan Jackson, Graydon Krapohl, Karen Levin, Julie Grand, and councilmember Mike Anglin (ex-officio). Also Colin Smith, city parks and recreation manager, and park planner Amy Kuras.

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  1. By Barbara Murphy
    February 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm | permalink

    Another useful report would be from the Mayor’s Committee on the Allen Creek Greenway, Chaired by Peter Pollack.

    The report is available on-line, with illustrations and maps.

  2. By Eric J
    February 6, 2013 at 5:30 pm | permalink

    Any new downtown park will become another hangout spot for bums and beggars. Put the money into getting some cops back on patrol instead. And real cops please, tough male Chicago Bears linebacker types, not 100 pound girls in cop costumes.

  3. By liberalnimby
    February 6, 2013 at 10:49 pm | permalink

    A public survey done for the 2011 Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan (part of the city’s master plan), asked respondents to rank priorities for park acquisition. “Urban plazas/urban green space” ranked #5 out of 7 areas, behind “Land along the Huron,” “Land to connect parks,” “Natural areas,” and “Neighborhood parks.” The report states, “Many respondents commented that the City had enough parkland and were concerned that additional acquisitions would compromise and compound existing maintenance issues” (p. 82). Nowhere else in the document is the need for a new downtown park mentioned, aside from information about the Allen Creek Greenway.

    So can we please first ask ourselves: What has changed in the past two years? Why the sudden flurry of activity about “a downtown park”?

    1) After some botched attempts at generating development interest, the city council wisely charged the DDA with developing vacant city land downtown, and the DDA (as directed) reached out to the community for ideas for this land that was more specific than (but not contrary to) established community planning documents.

    2) Sensing an opportunity, a well-funded and well-organized group has begun asserting their position that city staff, PAC, planning commission, city council, a majority of city residents, and the city’s master plan all got it wrong: we not only do need a new downtown park, but we need it on the Library Lot (at least one that is larger than the plaza that is already planned in one corner of it). And by the way, any public process that does not affirm their narrow position is definitely “not listening.”

    3) We now have a critical mass of council members who are willing to ignore a) the community vision established in the PROS plan, b) the advice of a land use economist hired through the DDA, and c) the millions of dollars in infrastructure that taxpayers have already invested in having a BUILDING built on the Library Lot.

    And what is the city’s answer to this? Pander to the folks who don’t want anything built! Take more time! Form more committees! Get more input! Ask the Project for Public Spaces if we should have more public spaces (I wonder what they’ll say!).

    Who is standing up for the broad coalition of residents, staff, and consultants who have already spoken on these issues? Not city council, clearly. As a taxpayer, this waste of consultant time, staff time, and most of all, downtown land disgusts me.

  4. February 7, 2013 at 11:04 am | permalink

    I think many Ann Arbor residents believe that Ann Arbor has too much park land. This is a myth. When measured in relation to its population, Ann Arbor has a relatively modest amount of parkland.

    According to the City’s web site, Ann Arbor has about 2,090 acres of parks. [link] With a population of about 114,000, that means we have about 18.33 acres of park per 1,000 residents.

    Note how our parks compare to other communities:

    Los Angeles – 8 acres per 1,000 population
    Ann Arbor – 18.3 acres per 1,000
    Portland – 26 acres per 1,000
    San Diego – 31 acres per 1,000

    The figures for LA, Portland and San Diego are based on a report in the September 28, 2010 New York Times. [link]
    The Times article compared the amount of parkland in those communities in the context of efforts to add to the amount of parkland in LA. That city is considered to have far too little park space.

    When we speak about our parkland, I think we need to acknowledge that in spite of the overwhelming support for acquisition and maintenance, we are still under served. It is time that we spend more of our green space resources on parks within the City. The downtown area has less parkland than any other area of town. It is time to address that deficiency.

  5. February 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    Here is the link to the PROS plan: [link]

    The figure on p. 82 quotes the question asked as follows: “The City currently has a dedicated millage to purchase park land. How important do you feel it is for the City to purchase the following types of park land?” Urban plazas/urban green space scored about 380 combined “extremely important” and “very important” out of about 750 (the graphic is hard to read and the underlying figures are not given). While other categories got a higher score, that is still a high number for purchase of land (not conversion of an existing city property to parkland).

  6. February 7, 2013 at 4:02 pm | permalink

    Which group is better funded, Library Green or the developers that are circling?

  7. By fridgeman
    February 7, 2013 at 4:52 pm | permalink

    I’m glad to see that the “Liberty Plaza” issue appears to be acknowledged openly as a serious risk to the viability of any future downtown green space.

    From the reporting I’ve read on previous discussions of downtown green space – especially the library lot – it seems like advocates have glossed over this issue.

    It is a very real concern for families, seniors, etc.

  8. By fridgeman
    February 7, 2013 at 4:56 pm | permalink

    Comment #2 is beneath the level of discourse I’ve come to appreciate as part of the Chronicle experience.

    Some of the best cops in the city are our female officers, who also do a great job dealing with the type of folks that #2 mentions.

    Linebacker style policing is not always the best way to get results.

  9. By Timothy Durham
    February 8, 2013 at 2:07 am | permalink

    Jane Jacobs- for her landmark book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities-” studied city parks (among other civic issues) in an attempt to identify what it was that made the good ones work and the bad ones not work. What she found was that a successful park or plaza must bring together all sorts of people for a wide range of purposes, criss-crossing it at all hours of the day and night. It must be surrounded by shops of all sorts, residential buildings, schools, day cares, public buildings, etc. Even pubs and bars so that there are eyes on the park after dark.

    Right now the “Top of the Parking” lot has very little of that. Any successful plaza there would need to also include some small business access to the periphery or it will likely fail. Businesses that attract customers, walk-in traffic, not only law offices or a hotel. The Diag is a perfect example- it is ringed with school buildings and all sorts of small businesses that have people criss-crossing it at all hours. It feels perfectly safe and accessible at any hour of the day or night. That’s not to say you can’t get mugged there.

    I believe the city would do well to subsidize some small business stalls surrounding this Library Green space. City parks don’t work as only destinations (like Delhi). They are best as way-stations on the way to/from something nearby. A place to stop for a break, to eat, people watch for a while.

  10. February 8, 2013 at 7:35 am | permalink

    I think #9 is right. I’d like to see us demolish the ugly Federal Building and put a park there.

  11. February 8, 2013 at 9:07 am | permalink

    I applaud the Parks Advisory Commission for taking a serious look at all the issues related to downtown parks and plazas in Ann Arbor. I think Amy Kuras is absolutely right – there should be “a vision for a downtown parks system.” Part of the problem at Liberty Plaza is its isolation as the only park space in the downtown (Yes, I know that some people contend that the Diag is a public park…). We’d like to see a system of interrelated, downtown public open spaces and a coordinated plan for maintaining and securing them.

    The Library Green group, of which I am a member, has revived an idea that has been around for generations – predating the relatively recent documents cited in the anonymous comment #3 – the goal of recreating Ann Arbor’s lost town square. This isn’t some opportunistic idea conjured up to block a particular development proposal. The Library Green’s push for a public open space on the Library Lot is not “narrow.” Rather, we seek the kind of open, inclusive community dialogue that it seems like the Parks Advisory Commission is working toward [link]. Those who claim that the “Connecting William Street” (CWS) process was “open and transparent” should look at it more closely if only to ensure that we never repeat that mistake. For those who want to better understand how the DDA’s CWS process is flawed, the Library Green put forth a detailed critique: [link to .pdf].

  12. By Timothy Durham
    February 8, 2013 at 9:48 am | permalink

    Amen, brother. What a monstrosity.

  13. By Bob Martel
    February 8, 2013 at 5:13 pm | permalink

    #9 is quite right. I’m reminded of downtown Plymouth, MI. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a resource like that in our midst?

  14. By fridgeman
    February 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm | permalink

    Plymouth’s town square is nice indeed, but I see two key differences with our situation here:

  15. By fridgeman
    February 8, 2013 at 5:29 pm | permalink

    Sorry, hit ‘submit’ too quickly…

    Plymouth’s town square is nice indeed, but I see two key differences with our situation here:

    1. There are many more residential neighborhoods within a short walk of downtown Plymouth, so that townsfolk and their families can easily get to the town square and enjoy it. (Ann Arbor has a few on the west side, but north, east, and south are all surrounded by UM and student housing)

    2. Plymouth has a negligible homeless population compared to Ann Arbor.

  16. By Carol
    February 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm | permalink

    Comment #11 hits the nail on the head. Check the links and learn. And #9 also makes salient points. There is a need for a space to congregate, relax, enjoy in the midst of downtown. And let us not take forever with a zillion committees and reports, and let us not hire consultants whose reports we will pay for and then ignore. We can figure this out by studying the situation and listening to those who have already studied the pros and cons, and then we can do it.

  17. By liberalnimby
    February 8, 2013 at 10:49 pm | permalink

    Good comments. If I may continue your list:

    3. Plymouth’s Kellogg Park is on their Main Street, in the historic core (the town grew up around it), and is therefore surrounded by their best shops and restaurants. In contrast to Library Lane, it does not face alleys, the sides and backs of buildings, or a bus station. It is comparable to how the campus evolved around the Diag.

    And I would second the demolition of the Federal Building, but that doesn’t look likely anytime soon.

  18. By DrData
    February 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Re #8 Jack Eaton on parkland per capita:

    I think a more useful indicator would be some sort of primacy measure that takes in the distribution of parks by size. A city might have a zoo, which is really large and then just a few other parks. I wouldn’t want to rate that city’s parks per capita the same as a city that had 50 parks.

    Likewise, I think one gets more bang for the buck with linear park, with might be 50 feet wide and 20,000 feet long as compared to that same configuration as a square. Almost all parts of that 50 foot width will be traversed. Some parts of the Arb are probably never walked on except by squirrels and stray dogs.

    That said, I think cities need all sorts of parks.

  19. February 10, 2013 at 12:24 pm | permalink

    Re (18), Dr.Data, I agree that acres of parkland per 1,000 residents is a crude measure. I would suggest that it is merely a starting point to dispel the misconception that Ann Arbor has too much park space.

    Within the context of how much parkland we have, we must also consider the various uses. Nature areas can be quite large, but offer only limited recreation. Active uses have less impact on environmental protections. We need a good balance. We should not allow that discussion to proceed while failing to recognize the need for more parks space.

  20. By Eric J
    February 18, 2013 at 9:01 am | permalink

    Commenter #8 probably does not like the word “bum” but there sure are a lot of them around town these days, counted 30 in the downtown library Sunday before last, Saturday the police were there twice to deal with flipped out or OD’d ones.

    Perhaps we should refer to them as unfortunates.

    Take a couple home if you like, try to improve them, but first lock up the liquor cabinet, hide your money, jewelry, and tau beta pi pin.