Comments on: Parks Group Weighs Fuller Parking Lease it's like being there Tue, 16 Sep 2014 04:56:38 +0000 hourly 1 By: Will Hathaway Will Hathaway Tue, 05 Aug 2014 15:46:17 +0000 The discussion about the future of Liberty Plaza and the Library Lane/Library Lot which began at City Council has now bounced back to the Parks Advisory Commission. When PAC Chair Ingrid Ault expresses frustration, I can empathize – although not for the same reasons she cites.

Earlier this year, the Library Green Conservancy worked with supportive members of City Council to draft resolution that closely followed the 2013 recommendations from the PAC subcommittee on downtown parks and open spaces. That resolution even spelled out a role for PAC going forward. However, when I spoke at the PAC meeting on February 25 (before City Council considered the resolution), several PAC members raised concerns that there needed to be more process before making any decisions. Parks Department staff voiced concern that there was too much specific direction for next steps. The overall message was that PAC and Park Department staff would prefer more autonomy in deciding what next steps to take with regard to design elements for the park/plaza.

As a result of PAC’s concerns and similar issues raised by some members of City Council, the resolution was modified. The specific references to PAC and Parks Department leadership of next steps were removed.

 Ironically, after City Council’s March 17 vote, PAC commissioners expressed confusion. PAC now saw no role for itself in addressing the many remaining questions about the park’s design. A professed stumbling block was the degree of uncertainty.

 On April 7, City Council addressed one aspect of the uncertainty by designating a more precise figure for the park/plaza square footage at 12,000 square feet.

It should be noted that the PAC’s recommendations are not completely accurate. For example, we’ve learned that the 5,000 square foot civic plaza that PAC cited from the DDA’s Connecting William Street report is too small. The figure was adjusted upward after PAC’s report to 6,500 sf by City staff, but even that figure is too small. In a recent conversation with U-M Urban Planning Professor Doug Kelbaugh, we learned that the portion of Fifth Avenue frontage that is designed for a civic plaza (i.e. it lacks the reinforced footings to support construction above) is actually close to 8,000 square feet. City Council added a mere 4,000 square feet when it designated the full Fifth Avenue frontage for a public park.

Regardless, it appears that City Council’s clarification about the size of the future public open space has not helped matters from the PAC’s point of view. PAC now seems to have adopted a passive role in guiding the park/plaza design, awaiting a proposal from a developer rather than helping to involve the community, including library clients and leaders, in the community dialogue that PAC itself recommended last fall.
 The argument is based on the uncertainty about what the yet-to-be-identified developer may do with the adjacent part of the City-owned Library Lane site.

The new irony is that a planning study that looks only at Liberty Plaza is being advocated by some of the same people who caution against thinking ahead about the public space on the Library Lane site. The immediately adjacent properties in this instance are the Michigan Square Building and a surface parking lot owned by First Martin Corporation. There is a likelihood that these properties will be redeveloped in the near future, indeed, it could be helpful to the revitalization of Liberty Plaza if First Martin were to make physical changes to these spaces. Who knows, maybe First Martin will build an “iconic,” revenue generating building on private land?

Somehow the same arguments don’t apply in what appear to be similar situations. Proponents of planning for redesign of Liberty Plaza are now willing to cast aside their prior concerns about envisioning public open space adjacent to uncertain future development. In their view, while the “sky will fall” if we were to move forward with thinking about public open space on Library Lane/Library Lot, it is perfectly fine to do the same thing on the other side of the block.

The supposed “best practices” principle to which PAC Chair Ault refers is the debatable “rule” that a public open space will only succeed if it is surrounded on three sides – embedded in a commercial development. Again, the example on the other other side of the Library Block calls this belief into question. An adjacent structure can help to generate activity in a public space as long as it has appropriate tenants. When the Community News and the Pantree Restaurant were tenants in the building next to Liberty Plaza, then there was more variety among those using the park. Now that all the adjacent tenants are offices, the activation has ceased. Wrapping a park in new construction is no guarantee because the uses of that building change – tenants come and go. Activation of public open space is a more complex question.

Regardless of the outcome of the primary election today, I hope that we can begin to work together toward a unified plan for inter-connected, public open space on the Library Block. This would be consistent with the PAC’s 2013 recommendations as well as prior efforts such as the 1991 Luckenbach/Ziegelman report and the the 2005 Calthorpe report.

We know that there will be development/redevelopment that results in new construction on the Library Block and the public spaces should be integrated with these new buildings. The way to move this vision forward isn’t by insisting that each site be treated in isolation – it is only by looking at the block as whole and thinking about how to make it attractive to pedestrians that we’ll really activate all the public spaces.