First & William to Become Greenway?

Council to consider resolution to preserve parcel as "open space"

Coverage of Ann Arbor city council’s Sunday night caucus is The Chronicle’s mechanism for previewing council meetings for the following Monday. In light of another cancellation of council’s Sunday caucus this week, we’re previewing a “Chronicle’s Choice” item from Monday night’s agenda.

Parking lot at First and William streets in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The parking lot at First and William streets in Ann Arbor – behind the split-rail fence and in front of the tree line. This shot is taken from Liberty, looking southeast with First Street in the foreground. (Photo by the writer.)

This week we focus on a resolution that’s being proposed by Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Mayor John Hieftje, calling for the preservation of a city-owned parcel on the northeast corner of First & William – the parcel would become “open space” and be rezoned as public land. The site currently serves as a surface parking lot with 108 spaces, administered by the Downtown Development Authority.

The idea of establishing the parcel as a green area is not at all new, but the specific timing of the move warrants analysis. Why now?

Remember the 3-Site Plan?

The First & William parking lot was one of three sites proposed for development back in 2005 as a part of the DDA’s 3-Site Plan. The 3-Site Plan also included First & Washington and the Kline’s Lot – on the east side of Ashley Street between William and Liberty. The concept underpinning the 3-Site Plan was that parking could be decoupled from development – build a parking structure at First & William and free up the other two sites for development without the constraint of building on-site parking.

But instead of pursuing the 3-Site Plan, Ann Arbor’s city council opted to create a Greenway Taskforce to explore the possibility of incorporating the First & William lot into a greenway along the Allen Creek creekshed.

What about the other two parcels? The First & Washington site has a currently approved site plan for City Apartments – a combined residential/parking development by Village Green. No similar progress has been made on the Kline’s Lot.

In some respects, the resolution on the city council’s agenda for Monday night is a reduced version of a resolution brought in 2005 by Chris Easthope, who then represented Ward 5. Easthope’s “Greenway Resolution” would have established as “greenway parks” the following three parcels in their entirety: First & William city surface parking lot; 415 W. Washington St. city yard; and 721 N. Main St. city fleet services yard.

When council voted, the “Greenway Resolution” foundered on the phrasing “in their entirety.” Some councilmembers thought that one part of the First & William parcel – the strip on the west side of the railroad tracks – might suffice as a greenway-type amenity, with the remaining land developed.

Note that the three parcels in the “Greenway Resolution” are not the same three parcels as in the 3-Site Plan. But the proposals have one site in common: First & William.

What Does Monday’s Preservation Resolution Do?

The resolved clauses of Monday’s resolution to preserve the First & William parcel as “open space”  read as follows:

RESOLVED, At that time as the City has accomplished the remediation of First and William parcel, the parcel shall be preserved as open space and zoned Public Land.

RESOLVED, The City Administrator shall continue to seek additional funds for the remediation of the First and William parcel;

RESOLVED, Prior to the completion of the remediation of the First and William parcel, the City Council shall seek a mutually beneficial adjustment to any parking agreement with the DDA that includes the First and William parcel;

As Judy McGovern reported back in May for The Ann Arbor News, the city has received $200,000 to investigate underground pollution at the First & William site. In that article, McGovern attributes the sentiment to Hieftje that the ultimate goal for the site is for use as a park.

This resolution appears to be a step in that direction.

Why Now?

That’s actually a question that an Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy board member had when The Chronicle called her. Margaret Wong said she’d been alerted to the resolution only on Thursday, when a friend saw the item on the agenda.

Wong reported that she planned to address city council on Monday, hoping to encourage councilmembers to amend the resolution to give it some teeth. As it’s written, she said, it’s not clear what mechanism will be used to convert the parcel – it’s currently zoned C2-B (commercial). To become a public park, she said, her understanding was that the Park Advisory Commission might need to include it in the Parks, Recreation & Open Space (PROS) plan.

But at least one greenway advocate did have a heads-up on the resolution. Joe O’Neal, who founded the nonprofit Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy, was apparently apprised of the resolution in general form late last week, according to Wong.

Analysis: Defense Against an Environmental Lawsuit?

The city of Ann Arbor faces the possibility of an environmental lawsuit over plans to construct an underground parking garage offering more than 600 spaces at the Fifth Avenue “library lot.” Part of the basis of the possible lawsuit is that an increase in parking supply leads to increased vehicle miles travelled (VMT), which results in increased carbon emissions.

If the city of Ann Arbor could show that the underground parking structure did not appreciably increase the parking supply – because of reductions elsewhere in the system – that would work to undercut the contention that the new parking garage would increase parking supply. Reducing the number of parking spaces in the parking system by the 108 spaces at the First & William lot would help the city make that argument.

The possibility of taking surface lots offline as a result of the added parking capacity provided by the underground structure was a part of deliberations by both the city council and the DDA board in considering the site plan and bonds for the parking garage. The resolution to be considered on Monday provides a specific example of that strategy.

Implications for Liberty Lofts Commercial Space?

The First & William lot lies just across the street from the Liberty Lofts “greenhouse” space, which Morningside – the building’s owner – has to date unsuccessfully marketed to commercial tenants. In March, the Historic District Commission turned down Morningside’s request to demolish two houses along Second Street – a request made in order to add more on-site parking to the west of the building (the First & William lot is on the east side of the building, and across the street).

A lack of sufficient parking was cited by Morningside’s Ron Mucha, speaking to the HDC, as one barrier to marketing the site. But in their deliberations, HDC commissioners cited the abundance of close-by parking as one factor they said worked against Morningside’s contention that more on-site parking was necessary to market the “greenhouse” space.

With the reduction of close-by parking, the marketability of the site won’t be enhanced.

Added Challenge for DDA-City Parking Agreement

The most recent figures from the monthly parking report for May 2009 put revenues from the First & William lot at $8,368. Totals from May 2008 were $10,520. As a rough estimate, then, the First & William lot generates around $100,000 per year in revenue to the DDA.

In the context of the negotiations that unfold over the coming months between the city and the DDA over a parking agreement, the removal of $100,000 per year of revenue to the DDA will make those negotiations incrementally more challenging.  The city of Ann Arbor has planned for a DDA contribution of $2 million from the parking fund to the city general fund in FY 2011 that the DDA is not bound to make, based on its contractual obligations under the existing parking agreement. That agreement specifies $1 million per year for 10 years, with the provision that the city can ask the DDA for as much as $2 million in any given year as long as the amount does not exceed $10 million over 10 years. For each of the last five years, the city has received $2 million from the DDA.


  1. By sal
    July 6, 2009 at 9:11 am | permalink


    Fine analysis of a complex issue…done over a holiday weekend at that. Thank you.

  2. By Laszlo Gunderud
    July 6, 2009 at 11:53 am | permalink

    I look forward to more green space in the downtown area. With all of the living space being added, these residents will need a close green spot to have a quick picnic! The other thing they need is more access to groceries – perhaps a delivery oriented mini-Kroger or mini-Buschs would be helpful in that space Morningside has been trying to lease out…

  3. July 6, 2009 at 1:21 pm | permalink

    Excellent history and analysis. With regard to motivation (“Why Now”?), conspiracy theorists might note that the city has been silent for a number of months about the fate of 415 W. Washington. Greenway advocates (including me) would like to see a substantial part of that property undeveloped so that the floodplain is not encumbered with structures and a public path (greenway) could be included. You’ll recall that the RFP process did not end in an award and the committee is presumably still pondering the possibilities (among which is another Morningside development). One of the members of that committee is currently running against Mike Anglin for the 5th ward council seat.

    Carsten Hohnke was once on record in support of a relatively benign resolution of the 415 W. Washington question, and he has a number of constituents with strong feelings about that property. His support of a First & William park might be a first move to facilitate a change in position.

    I have no information to support this idea, just a habit of seeing some of the programmatic effects of decisions.

  4. By Kris
    July 6, 2009 at 8:46 pm | permalink

    The underground pollution is going to be the wild card as pollutants have been found in all surrounding areas and this has long been an industrial area of the city (not to mention chemicals that would have been washed into the creek from other areas).

  5. July 6, 2009 at 9:09 pm | permalink

    “Reducing the number of parking spaces in the parking system by the 108 spaces at the First & William lot would help the city make that argument.”

    Politically, yes. Legally, not so much. (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer.)

    A reduction in existing spaces actually would do nothing to change the city’s responsibility per the Michigan Environmental Protection Act to consider alternatives to the proposal to build the underground parking structure. It also wouldn’t change the fact that the city still hasn’t done a parking demand analysis.

    In terms of simply being truthful about their intentions, city council could identify the additional 547 or so existing spaces that they anticipate being replaced by the new structure. If the structure truly were intended to be replacement parking, its size would have been tied to the number of spaces expected to be removed from the system at other sites. The reality is that the decisions about the size of the structure didn’t include such considerations, neither by the DDA board nor city council.

    Politics aside, I still believe that parking demand will soon begin to decrease (if it hasn’t already) and that we may be able to lose the spaces at First and William (and more in the future) and still not need to add additional spaces, partly by better managing the remaining ones. The onus is on the city to demonstrate otherwise.

  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    July 7, 2009 at 10:55 am | permalink

    According to the Ann Arbor News article, the cost for clean up of the site is estimated to be $3 Million, with no funding in sight at this time.

  7. By jack sprague
    July 7, 2009 at 12:00 pm | permalink

    Given that the city needs the revenue from both the downtown merchants and non-retail business in the area, removing surface parking in the area seems horrid. I’m at a loss for such an active move to discourage revenue growth in the city center.

    Perhaps the Ann Arbor tax receipts are doing well enough that supporting the merchant community can be a tertiary concern. I’m just not used to that condition. I’ll have to look at the budget reports.

  8. By UMGrad1234
    July 7, 2009 at 12:33 pm | permalink

    Folks, own downtown retailers are fighting a much more complicated battle. They’re competing not only against the MALLS, where there is seemingly unlimited parking, but rather the INTERNET. Online retail continues to grow despite the recession ( This piece speaks frankly about the growth and that it will come at the expense (literally) of bricks and mortar shops.

    Until the DDA, Council and downtown merchants do a real honest-to-goodness objective study of their customer base, and how it is shaped/impacted by parking, we ought to stop spending $50 million at a pop for garages. We have people who own retail demanding that we all pony up millions for their “customers” to park. In Ann Arbor the math is always the same: more parking=more customers and a “vibrant” downtown. This gobblegook is being crammed down the throats of the taxpayers.

    Read the DDA minutes posted in late-2008, and you’ll read Roger Hewitt report to the DDA board that parking revenues are FLAT and that demand is about what it was last year. Then, he marches right over to City Council to testify in favor of the library lot garage based on (yes) INCREASED demand for parking.

    A second way to get a handle on parking needs would be to force Council and the DDA to post information on how many of the spots in our publicly-owned parking garages have been given over to developers, or businesses such as Google. Google got all their spots, for instance, but still hasn’t created the number of jobs promised when the spots were so graciously handed over. An unappealing number of the $55,000 per spots in the new library lot will be handed over to that developer, as well.

    U of M built the new Arthur Miller theater on top of a large parking lot in North campus, and was then poised to build two 600-car garages in a quiet city neighborhood near the hospital. If our downtown lots are filled with the cars of U of M commuters and students, and retail shoppers (as if) are really being inconvenienced to the point they won’t shop downtown, how’s about our city push U of M to build student parking on the 600 acres of bucolic manicured grounds they own on North Campus? Could that free up, say, 25 percent of the spots in our garages? More?

  9. July 8, 2009 at 12:19 pm | permalink

    Getting rid a surface lot in the city core is, in my opinion, a giant mistake. As noted above, it removes $100,000 from the budget of the DDA. When tax revunues are way down it’s my understanding that the DDA is a supplemental source of income in some ways for the city. That’s the first point. The second point being, why is it the city’s dream to make it as difficult as possible for a downtown retailer? As a retailer I can tell you that customers complain to me each and every day about parking. A surface lot is especially prized. Some older people, or women alone at night, prefer a surface lot for either access or safety concerns. Why not leave it as is? Putting green space in the city core is a waste of space – Ann Arbor is absolutely loaded with greenspace, much of it well within walking distance of downtown. (Allmendinger Park and West Park spring immediately to mind). If all of downtown is stripped of parking and turned into cute little parks there will be no tax base to support it. Buisness is not a dirty word, it’s a necessity. I know we live in a company town (U of M) which is academically based but we also need local businesses, and there needs to be some practical and reality based foresight.

  10. By Tom Whitaker
    July 12, 2009 at 7:34 pm | permalink

    Regarding [5]: “If the structure truly were intended to be replacement parking, its size would have been tied to the number of spaces expected to be removed from the system at other sites. The reality is that the decisions about the size of the structure didn’t include such considerations, neither by the DDA board nor city council.”


    I just went back and re-read the Chronicle coverage of the Council debate from the mid-February meeting where the underground structure was voted on: link to Chronicle article

    There were some questions from Councilmember Briere about new parking spaces being added and about the age of other parking structures in the system, but other than that, just about all of the arguments for the structure were based on the perceived need for ADDITIONAL spaces, not replacement of existing ones.

    Note also Tom Crawford’s response to Briere’s questions about the DDA’s ability to pay off the bonds and how they would have to increase rates across the board just to make the payments on the bonds.

    Just sayin’…