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.
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.
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.
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:
- The recommendations and supporting documentation from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s Connecting William Street project. [.pdf of CWS recommendations presented at Dec. 5, 2012 DDA board meeting]
- The city’s downtown plan and central area land use plan, which are elements of the Ann Arbor master plan. [.pdf of downtown plan] [.pdf of central area land use plan]
- The city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan. [.pdf of PROS plan]
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.
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.
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.
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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