Ann Arbor Planning with the PROS

Planning commissioners give input to parks master plan

Ann Arbor’s master plan for parks gets updated every five years, a massive undertaking that takes about a year to complete. City parks planner Amy Kuras outlined the process at an October 2009 meeting of the park advisory commission, noting that she’d be seeking input from a variety of groups and the general public on the Park and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan.

Forest Hill Cemetery

Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor. Planning commissioners pointed to cemeteries and the University of Michigan campus as adding to the downtown greenspace, in addition to city-owned parks. The discussion prompted one commissioner to quip: "Bring a basket to the casket!"

One of those focus groups took place at a working session for planning commissioners earlier this month, where Kuras asked for feedback on a range of topics, including the possibility of changing zoning to better protect parkland – an issue raised during debate about the proposed Fuller Road Station.

Also discussed were the role of parks and open space in the downtown area, and whether the city should acquire land for an Allen Creek greenway. And commissioners weighed in on the city’s practice of asking developers to contribute land or cash in lieu of land for parks – developers of Zaragon Place 2 will likely be paying the city $48,000 for that purpose, for example.

The nearly two-hour discussion touched on a whole host of other topics as well: How far should the city go in crafting public/private partnerships, like putting cell phone towers in parks? Beyond a traditional playground, how can the city become more kid-friendly – with amenities like fountains, or objects to climb on? Are pedestrian malls really an awful idea?

The city is soliciting more general public input on the PROS plan in several ways: via an online survey, email that can be sent to, and a series of public meetings. The next meeting is set for Tuesday, June 29 at 7 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm Barn, 2781 Packard Road. The current 232-page PROS plan (a 10MB .pdf file) can be downloaded from the city’s website.

The goal is to have a draft of the plan ready for review by October. The planning commission is one of several city groups – including the park advisory commission and city council – that must vote on the final document by year’s end. It also gets forwarded to the state for approval. The plan, which includes a detailed inventory of the current parks system as well as plans for its future, is typically required when seeking state and federal funding.

At the June 8 working session, Kuras posed six questions to planning commissioners. Those questions and responses from the group form the framework for this report.

Public Land Zoning

Question: There has been much discussion of late because of the Fuller Road Station that there should be a special category of park zoning that would be more tightly regulated than just PL (public land) zoning. What are your thoughts about changing the zoning to reflect more stringent rules concerning development on parkland?

The issue of public land zoning has emerged in two ways, Kuras told planning commissioners. Jayne Miller, the city’s former community services director, started an initiative to “clean up” zoning in Ann Arbor by rezoning city-owned property as public land (PL), which gives the city more flexibility in determining uses for the land. Even when land is designated as parkland – as is the case for the site of the proposed Fuller Road Station – it’s still zoned as public land. Kuras said a suggestion from the park advisory commission was to look at whether the city should have a separate category of zoning for parkland.

Public Land Zoning: Commissioner Discussion

Calling it an interesting idea, Erica Briggs said that having a parkland zoning designation would give people some level of comfort that the land would be used exclusively for parks. She realized it would create some challenges for the city, however, and said she’d be interested in hearing from Kuras about what those challenges might be. Kuras said the staff wasn’t sure yet what a parkland designation would entail – that’s one reason they were soliciting feedback.

Kirk Westphal said he was in favor of having clearer expectations outlined for how land could be used. But he noted that because of the city’s charter amendment requiring the city to get voter approval if it wanted to sell parkland, it’s already very difficult to repurpose parkland. That makes him wary of putting further restrictions on the types of land use. Westphal worries that they’ll lose flexibility.

Tony Derezinski, a planning commissioner who also represents Ward 2 on city council, noted that this issue had emerged at the June 7 council meeting. They had discussed and approved, on first reading, a change in the list of uses outlined for public land – replacing “municipal airports” with “transportation facilities” in Chapter 55 of the city code. [Council subsequently approved the change at their June 21 meeting.]

Council had debated whether to use a more generic term like transportation facilities, or to enumerate more specifically the types of transportation facilities that could be included, Derezinski said. They had unanimously settled on the more generic term, he said, nothing that planning commission had made that recommendation. It gives the city more flexibility, he said. [See Chronicle coverage of the planning commission discussion at their May 4, 2010 meeting.]

Diane Giannola said it was too limiting to zone the land as parkland. The purpose of public land is to be mutually beneficial for the entire community, she said, noting that’s the case for the Fuller Road Station, which benefits the broader community. Versatility is important, she said.

Jean Carlberg asked whether designating land as parkland – even though it’s zoned as public land – actually protects the land in any way from being repurposed. She had originally thought those protections were spelled out in the PROS plan, but when she looked for it, she didn’t see any reference to it. “That part I found troubling – I assumed it was here but it’s not, that I can see.” It’s important for the public to know what the legal status is for parkland, she said. Generally, Carlberg said she was in favor of public land zoning, but if land is designated as parkland, then the protections for that need to be defined.

Kuras explained that the PROS plan includes a section outlining different categories of parks – such as neighborhood parks or historic sites. Some of those categories, like the natural areas and preserves, have a higher level of protection than others, she said.

Evan Pratt said he looked at the big picture – it ends up being a city council decision. And in the worst case scenario, every year there’s the opportunity to vote for five or six of the 11 council positions. If you don’t like decisions that are being made by the council, you can elect others to reverse those decisions, he said. He understood why people are concerned, but added that sometimes things get stirred up without basis. He recalled a situation when land near a subdivision was to be rezoned, and residents somehow concluded that the intent was for the city to put a road through there. Carlberg suggested that the city provide more descriptive notices for neighbors, which might help clarify what the rezoning means.

Bonnie Bona said she wasn’t sure that zoning was the right place to differentiate between public land and parkland. Even the change in city code language to replace “municipal airports” with “transportation facilities” is simply to make clear what the city is doing, she said – the change wasn’t necessary to allow the city to use the land in that way. The council makes that decision. It’s not clear that the city’s master plan or the PROS plan have any legal bearing – the plans are intended as guidance, Bona said. She agreed with others who view flexibility as important. She also noted that parkland gets acquired for all sorts of reasons, both admirable and political.

Wendy Woods agreed with Bona, also noting that council can ultimately do whatever it wants. She said having better descriptions of land uses in the PROS plan would be good, though she added that few people actually read the plan.

Giannola pointed out that if parkland is given a special zoning designation, someone has to decide which parcels would get rezoned as parkland. She wondered who would make that call, and how those decisions would be made.

Downtown Open Space Planning

Question: Staff has started to discuss ways to plan for open space in the downtown. Given that downtown has a different character and constraints, what do you think the approach should be to a downtown open space plan? What kind and sizes of parks are appropriate, given the size of our downtown?

Kuras told commissioners that parks and planning staff have struggled with this issue, and are trying to decide whether there needs to be a separate open space plan for the downtown area. She gave the example of Main Street, saying that in some ways, it’s where people go to recreate.

Downtown Open Space Plan: Commissioner Discussion

Derezinski noted that the cost of land downtown is a major aspect of the discussion regarding open space and parks. The debate right now is focused on the city-owned Library Lot site, he said, and what development might go on top of the underground parking structure being built there. All of the proposals involve some sort of plaza. Derezinski also pointed to the city-owned 415 W. Washington property – is that a good place for a larger urban park?

Giannola said that urban open space can be within walking distance of downtown – it doesn’t have to be in the core area. Woods noted that West Park – 23 acres south of Miller, between Seventh and Chapin – is within walking distance of downtown.

Carlberg said their discussion seemed to be leading to a conclusion that they need a separate open space plan for downtown. It’s important to look at both daytime and nighttime uses, she said. Carlberg also raised the issue of cost. The former downtown YMCA site, now owned by the city and used as a surface parking lot, is worth several million dollars – that’s a lot for open space, she noted. And since there aren’t a lot of downtown residents, who would they be creating a park for, and what kind of a park would it be? She said she didn’t think parents would bring their children to a playground downtown, for example. Kuras noted that, in fact, the staff has received feedback that some people would like a playground in the downtown area. Carlberg wondered whether they would actually use it, if there were a playground nearer  to their home.

Pratt didn’t think having a large amount of open space downtown made sense – it’s not good planning, he said. He noted that the University of Michigan has a tremendous amount of open space on its campus. Rather than complaining about them not paying taxes, Pratt said, he uses their campus like a park. If anything, the city could look for ways to include more pocket parks. There are also temporary gathering places created when the city closes down its streets for festivals, he noted.

Pratt also maintained that the secret to successful open space in urban areas is programming. Perhaps the PROS plan should include more discussion of programming, he suggested. Derezinski said he used to think it would be good to close down Main Street for a pedestrian mall, but he got “slapped around” by merchants, who told him it created dead space. Woods noted that when the streets are closed periodically, it seems to work well. Derezinski agreed, mentioning that city council had approved street closings for six different festivals at its June 7 meeting.

Bona speculated that density was an issue – pedestrian malls worked in Europe because lots of people lived nearby, but that’s not yet the case in this city. She liked the idea of looking for small parks and programming. What would it take for a pocket park to be successful? Liberty Plaza, at the corner of Division and Liberty, isn’t considered a success, she noted.

Like Pratt, Bona said she uses UM land for recreation. There is also considerable greenspace in the downtown on land owned by churches, she said. Unless you look beyond just city land, sometimes people forget how much greenspace already exists.

Derezinski said there are “great graveyards” that provide greenspace in the city as well, which prompted Woods to imagine a possible Chronicle headline: “Don’t Worry About Greenspace – Go to a Cemetery!” Derezinski added a possible subhead: “Bring a Basket to the Casket”

More seriously, Woods suggested looking at the tops of buildings when considering open space – that has potential, she said.

Briggs made some comments that shifted the discussion a bit. When people talk about downtown parks and open space, they’re usually referring to large areas – but that doesn’t connect to what downtown is, she said. What’s often lacking is a discussion about how downtown space is used. To support local merchants, they need to figure out a way to use the downtown, including overlooked areas like alleys.

Derezinski pointed to the alley by Michigan Theater, which is notable for being completely covered in graffiti, and said it would be wonderful if that could be replicated elsewhere, “with taste, hopefully.” There’s potential for the alley behind Downtown Home & Garden to be a nice passageway, he said, if the City Place apartment complex ever gets built. The alley next to Café Zola, which runs between Washington and Huron, is another passageway that people use, he said, “but it stinks.”

Briggs addressed the issue of playgrounds, saying the city doesn’t need a traditional one, but they do need places for kids to play – boulders to climb on, places to sit, and small attractions like fountains. There needs to be visual interest, which includes public art but also smaller efforts.

Briggs also said that the idea of pedestrian malls shouldn’t be discarded. One option might be to close the street on Friday and Saturday nights after 6 p.m., for example. Just because merchants were against it doesn’t mean they’re correct, she said. However, Briggs also said she wouldn’t make that a priority. It was more important to seek out small, inexpensive ways to make the downtown more interesting.

Westphal picked up on Briggs’ comments. He noted that he’s been influenced by the work of William Whyte, specifically mentioning Whyte’s documentary, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” When you ask people about their favorite streets, they’ll typically mention places with lots of activity – sidewalk cafés, little shops and pedestrians. It gets into the debate of public versus private open space, he said.

One of the points that Whyte makes in his film is that successful spaces tend to be privately managed, in places where there’s oversight and guaranteed activity. There are creative ways of making this happen – perhaps the property is city-owned, for example, but privately managed with a guarantee of public access.

So what works now in the downtown area? Westphal asked. Maybe Sculpture Park, in Kerrytown on the southeast corner of Catherine and Fourth. It’s hard to pull off successful open space downtown, he said. If in doubt, don’t do it – because it’s hard to do.

Pratt said he liked Briggs’ idea of art, and noted that there’s money available for that. [The city's Percent for Art program provides funds for public art, and is overseen by the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission.]

Carlberg pointed to examples of other private/public open space downtown – a small plaza in front of the ice cream store on Main Street, or instances when the front sections of restaurants are opened up for al fresco dining.

Bona looped the conversation back to Sculpture Park – it hasn’t always been successful, she noted. When she first moved to town, she lived in an apartment above the storefronts that overlooked the park. There was a lot of noise from drunks all night, every night, she said. That changed when the area became busier, with more foot traffic. Liberty Plaza suffers from a lack of people, she noted, especially since the lower level offices that overlook the plaza don’t have much activity.

Woods said that sometimes small quirky things draw people out – like the fairy doors, or unusually painted fire hydrants. Briggs added that bike lanes were important too. There needs to be a connection that moves people through the downtown, whether by bike or on foot.

Eric Mahler said his experience with open space downtown comes mainly from sitting on the committee that’s evaluating proposals for the Library Lot, including some that called for keeping it as an open public plaza or park. Open space has to be a destination, he said, which involves planning and programming. There was concern about the cost of maintaining it and policing it, especially at night. When he asked the proposers who would use it, he said he wasn’t satisfied with the answer. In general, he said, he wasn’t impressed by the open space proposals.

Mahler said he agreed with Briggs, that a lot of small things could be done at minimal expense to make a big difference downtown.

As the discussion on this question came to a close, Briggs brought up the issue of the AATA’s Blake Transit Center on Fourth Street north of William, citing that area as one with potential for redevelopment. It’s not a good area now, she said, and if you want to attract “choice riders” to the bus system, Blake has to look less like a bus station. That’s something that needs to be addressed in the planning stages, she said – how to build something that’s attractive, and what kind of programming might go with it.

Negotiations with Developers

Question: Currently, the PROS plan specifies a formula for development that requests a donation of parkland, or cash in lieu of parkland, to maintain a certain ratio of parkland to residents. This has resulted in a number of neighborhood parks that have served the developments directly. In other cases, it is more difficult if there is not land available, as as in the downtown. How do we fairly treat different types of development?

Kuras explained that she often negotiates with developers, asking them to donate parkland or cash in lieu of land, which can then be used in the parks system. It’s been successful in other parts of the city, but is difficult to do downtown – in part because land is so much more expensive, she said. So her question is whether this is a valid approach for the downtown area, and how should downtown developments be treated differently.

Negotiations with Developers: Commissioner Discussion

Carlberg asked what alternative amenities there might be. Perhaps a rooftop area, or exercise space within a building, or a coffee shop – places where the community can meet and not be confined to their apartments. She said the contributions from developers are a boon to the city, and she wouldn’t want to give that up.

Kuras pointed out that Zaragon Place 2 planned to have a fitness center, but it would only be open to residents. [The development agreement for Zaragon Place 2, which was subsequently approved by planning commission at its June 15 meeting, includes a $48,000 contribution to the parks system in lieu of land.]

Briggs suggested that part of the money from downtown developments could be used to hire a consultant, who could create a coherent vision for the downtown amenities – where seating should be be installed, for example, or fountains, or public art. Then, as more developments get built, their contributions can be used to implement the plan. Kuras said she loved that idea.

But Derezinski said he was really troubled by the developers paying, given the high land costs. Is it fair?

Woods joked that her conscience doesn’t bother her on this issue – she views it as a citywide concept of beautification for everyone, not just the residents of one development. Giannola wondered whether it would be legal, if it didn’t specifically benefit residents. That prompted Kuras to say that some people have questioned the whole approach. Rampson later clarified that the program has been in place for at least 25 years.

Pratt pointed out that technically, you can’t demand land or payment from the developer – it’s a request. He liked Briggs’ suggestion of developing a broader plan, with a focus on streetscapes.

Saying she liked the idea of a contribution to the parks system, Bonnie Bona said it should be commensurate throughout the city, including the downtown – she doesn’t have a problem asking developers for it. She also liked the idea of developing a plan and looking at the downtown area holistically. Briggs said it might also serve to energize people, giving them something to be excited about in the face of often controversial development.

Westphal supported the idea of pooling contributions, calling it a kind of savings account that could be used for a strategic plan of areas that need enhancement. He recalled that when the development at 601 S. Forest was debated, residents spoke at public commentary indicating that this kind of contribution was a quid pro quo for the surrounding area. Some people are under the impression that even if the area is well-served by parks and open space, the contribution from developers must be kept in that area, he said – but that’s not necessarily the case.

Kuras commented that for a while, the city was setting aside contributions from downtown developers to use for the Allen Creek greenway. She said she does think that some people view the contributions as compensation for adding density to their neighborhood.

Mahler told Kuras that she didn’t need to go to developers hat-in-hand. She should think creatively about how to negotiate, he said, and present the situation as a win-win – lay out how open space will benefit both the developer and the city. He referenced the book “Getting to Yes,” saying it was all about creating mutual interest with your partner.

Westphal said there might be some advisory services available from the American Planning Association that the city could use, to look at best practices.

Private/Public Partnerships

Question: There has been much discussion – because of budget shortfalls – of partnering more with private companies, whether to sponsor a facility, park, house a cell tower or adopt a picnic shelter. Do you feel that this is something that parks should pursue more aggressively? If so, what type of regulations should be put in place to protect parkland?

The city is trying to think more creatively, Kuras said, but there are both good and bad examples of private/public partnerships. Some companies have approached the city about putting up cell towers in city parkland, which has sparked an internal staff debate, she said. [For some limited Chronicle coverage of private efforts in two city parks – Wheeler Park and Liberty Plaza – see "Parking Deal Talks Open between City, DDA"]

Private/Public Partnerships: Commissioner Discussion

Mahler said he didn’t think there was a public willingness to pursue those kinds of partnerships. Briggs said she wasn’t a huge supporter of sponsorships, and that for things like cell towers, they’d need to protect the visual landscape of the parks. But there might be opportunities to explore, she said.

For Giannola, the question was whether the partnership benefited the community as a whole. If the cell towers are erected in an area that wouldn’t otherwise get service, maybe it’s worth it, she said.

Partnerships would need to be consistent with what’s already being done in the parks, Carlberg said, but otherwise, if it brings in revenues, then that’s good for the city. If a private company sponsors a picnic shelter, for example, and the public can still use it, that makes sense.

Pratt pointed out that there are already some partnerships – Zingerman’s selling its products at the Gallup Park café, for example. The city should ask what’s the broad gain for the parks system, he said, and there are real opportunities. Staff should be as aggressive as the park advisory commission can stomach. Pratt noted that the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) called for developing restaurants along the river, for example.

Woods said if parkland is leased to an entity long-term, then it might as well have been sold – that’s a factor in considering partnerships, she said, alluding to the proposed Fuller Road Station.

Westphal cautioned about the types of partnerships the city might pursue. Having a BP logo on a park shelter would be a lot more desecrating than to have a small restaurant in a park, he said.

Partnerships are inevitable, Derezinski said – but watch your wallet. He noted that the private sector is getting more adept at working with municipalities.

Parks & Transportation

Question: How should the park system interface with the transportation system to increase opportunities for “active living”?

Only a few commissioners addressed this question, and some indicated that they weren’t sure what it meant. Rampson explained that the city puts money into trails within parks, but often the connections between parks weren’t there – and some of those connections might interface with the city’s transportation system. In some ways, it’s a competition for funds, she said. Another example of a disconnect: There’s a recreation center, but you have to drive to get there. Does that make sense?

Bona said there was nothing more important than linkages between parks – and there are a lot of gaps. Briggs agreed, pointing to the example of Bandemer Park. It’s a wonderful park, but it’s impossible to cross North Main to get to it. There’s no excuse not to see the big picture, she said.

Derezinski said the city needs to do a better job of interfacing parks and transportation. It’s especially an issue for people with disabilities, he noted.

Allen Creek Greenway

Question: Should we start to acquire and manage land for an Allen Creek greenway?

Carlberg suggested that the city develop what it already owns along the greenway and see if anyone uses it. She wasn’t in favor of buying more land. Pratt said he generally agreed with that approach.

Bona said that connections of parks along the Huron River are the most important priority. For the Allen Creek greenway, there are already a lot of linkages, she said – you can follow it pretty well using urban streets, though some places aren’t very friendly, like the intersection of Main and Summit. Ultimately, she said she’d rather have one complete greenway than two incomplete ones.

Woods agreed with Bona about prioritizing parkland along the river, or to look at city-owned land for the Allen Creek greenway. She wasn’t in favor of acquiring more land.

Briggs said that before she lived in Germany, she would have advocated more for the Border-to-Border Trail or on-road facilities for bikes, but now she sees the benefits of linear parks. It would be an asset for the community to have a system that benefits everyone.

Derezinski suggested working with nonprofits. Conservancies or others might partner with the city for purchase or maintenence of the greenway, which would be a huge expense, he said.