Planning Commission Weighs In on Parks

Ann Arbor's 5-year PROS plan nearly ready for sign-off

Amy Kuras, Ann Arbor’s park planner, last talked with the city’s planning commission in June of 2010, soliciting their feedback for an update on the Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan. She’s in charge of revising the plan, and met with planning commissioners again last week, this time with a draft that’s in the final stages of revisions.

1936 Ann Arbor News article

An article from the May 19, 1936 Ann Arbor News about the city's parks system. Copies of some pages from this 1936 issue were hanging on the walls of the city hall conference room where the planning commission held its Jan. 11 working session, which focused on parks.

The commission will formally consider adopting the PROS plan at its Feb. 1 meeting, when there will also be a public hearing on the plan. It will then be forwarded to city council for final approval.

The plan – a document that in its current iteration is roughly 140 pages long – is required to be updated every five years in order for the city to be eligible for certain state grants. The proposed plan covers 2011 through 2015.

In addition to an inventory of the city’s parks system and assessment of current conditions, the PROS plan includes a listing of goals and objectives for the system, a needs assessment and an action plan. [The draft plan, a 5.1 MB .pdf file, can be downloaded from the city's website. It's also being sold at Dollar Bill Copying – $12.94 for a black-and-white copy, or $43.48 for color. In the following article, The Chronicle has included .pdf files of each of the nine sections separately.]

Commissioners spent about two hours giving Kuras feedback on the draft. Though they offered some revisions, the group praised Kuras for the breadth and depth of the effort – a process which has spanned more than a year.

Kuras began with an overview of how the plan was developed, a process that’s dictated by the state. One of the first steps was forming a steering committee, which included planning commissioner Erica Briggs and city planner Jeff Kahan, among others. They also designed an online survey – using that technology for the first time, rather than doing phone surveys as in the past. Kuras said while six years ago they struggled to get the minimum 600 responses they wanted from the phone survey, the online survey yielded 822 responses. Replies to open-ended questions in particular were given “with great depth, and a lot of passion,” she said.

The plan is shorter than in previous years, in part because the state eliminated some requirements, such as previously mandatory topographical maps, climate charts and other information.

Section I: Introduction and Community Description

Kuras said she beefed up the introduction, and included a review of what’s been accomplished from the previous PROS plan. The intro also summarizes changes between this plan and the last one, she said. For example, “Trails and Greenways” was eliminated as a separate chapter, and its content was incorporated into the section on infrastructure needs assessment.

In the “Community Description” section, Kuras said she eliminated the subjective language that was in the previous version. Issues that have developed over the past five years – like the Fuller Road Station – were also added. [.pdf of draft PROS intro and Section I]

Section I: Commissioner Feedback

Jean Carlberg observed that Ann Arbor is primarily a city of neighborhoods – houses with yards. It’s not Chicago, with large apartment buildings. For her, Carlberg said, that fact influences the necessity of increasing neighborhood parks and parks planning.

Evan Pratt picked up on that comment, saying that except for some areas of the city – like Ward 2 – most homes in Ann Arbor have small yards. That would seem to necessitate the need for parks, driving people to use parks more often.

Kuras noted that the staff does look at park density – that’s reflected in the PROS section on land use planning and acquisition, which mentions one of the criteria for city parks:

The current standard is provision of neighborhood parks within ¼ mile of each residence. Opportunities in areas considered to be deficient (in terms of parkland) are considered as the City attempts to meet access and availability standards.

It’s also mentioned in the needs-assessment section of the PROS plan:

Gaps in neighborhood park service (for residents that do not have a neighborhood park within one-quarter mile or where they need to cross a busy street) should be considered, taking schools in to consideration, including demographics (study done by PAC) when developments may include land dedication or when vacant parcels that are appropriate become available.

But she noted that they don’t differentiate between types of neighborhoods. That is, there aren’t different standards for neighborhoods with large yards compared to those with smaller residential lots.

Carlberg commented that a lot of the city’s small neighborhood parks aren’t well-used. Perhaps that’s because people don’t have enough recreational time, she speculated, or that they use their own yards.

Kirk Westphal noted that another way of measuring park density is acreage per resident. But the real question is where should the city locate its parks to get the most bang for their buck, he said. There’s also a question of quality – why are some parks more used than others?

Kuras pointed out that a lot of neighborhood parks have been acquired as the result of development, “so the process is somewhat opportunistic.” The PROS plan lays out the city’s formula for asking developers to donate parkland as part of a development project – it’s included in the section on land use planning and acquisition. [.pdf of draft PROS Section V on land use planning and acquisition] It’s worth discussing the merits of this approach, Kuras said.

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, also noted that neighborhoods go through cycles, depending on who lives there. The same would be true for neighborhood parks, she said – some years, depending on the needs of residents, the parks might be more used than in other years.

Chart of census data in Ann Arbor parks plan

Among other things, this chart of census data shows the number and acreage of Ann Arbor parks for different areas of the city. (Links to larger image)

Some commissioners questioned whether certain sections of Ann Arbor are underserved by parks, noting that the southern part of the city seems to have less park acreage, based on data in the “community description” section of PROS. But Kuras pointed out that in addition to the city’s 26.5-acre Southeast Area Park, there are other non-city open areas south of town, which aren’t counted in the analysis – the University of Michigan golf course, for example. Carlberg noted that there’s considerable preserved open space in nearby Pittsfield Township to the south, and that the large residential co-ops in that area include their own parks and playgrounds, which aren’t counted in the city’s tally of parks because they’re on private property.

It’s also true that some areas appear underserved by parks for specific reasons – Kuras cited the upscale neighborhood off of Devonshire. In fact, that area has a great deal of private open space because of its large lots. And property owners there have even told the city that they didn’t want a public park in their neighborhood, she said.

Evan Pratt noted that the PROS description of acreage of parks-per-resident doesn’t reflect University of Michigan property, or playgrounds and fields owned by the public schools. Kuras added that the PROS plan does include maps showing what’s owned by other entities, including Washtenaw County’s large County Farm Park at Washtenaw and Platt, and Pioneer Woods next to Pioneer High School.

Jeff Kahan also observed that the South State Street employment corridor runs to the south, making it more commercial than residential – another factor in the location of parks. This provided an opening for Westphal to make a joke about office parks.

Section II: Administrative Structure

Commissioners spent little time discussion this section outlining the parks & recreation administrative structure, with Jean Carlberg observing, “I’m sure it’s interesting to some people.” [.pdf of draft PROS Section II]

The section explains the organization and responsibilities of the city’s parks & recreation services unit, the field operations services unit, and the community education and recreation department of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, commonly known as Rec & Ed. It also describes the various advisory boards that address parks-related issues, and outlines the ways in which the parks system seeks public input.

The city’s administrative structure has changed dramatically since the previous PROS plan, Kuras said, and there have been growing pains. She noted that in the parks & recreation organizational chart, she is the only park planner for the city – when she was hired several years ago, she said, there were six.

Section III: Budget & Funding

Kuras reported that the section on budget and funding had changed dramatically since the previous PROS plan, with much of the information now being included in chart form. [.pdf of draft PROS Section III]

In addition to providing financial data, the section describes the budget process for the parks system, including a description of the seven city funds that are used for financial support. They are:

  • Fund 10 (General Fund): Supports parks administration, along with numerous recreation facilities.
  • Fund 24 (Land Acquisition Funds): These funds get revenues from the Open Space and Parkland Preservation Millage and are used to purchase new parkland.
  • Fund 25 (Bandemer Park Fund): Designated for use specifically at Bandemer Park.
  • Fund 33 (Gifts and Memorials Fund): Donations and developer contributions, and associated expenses.
  • Fund 46 (Market Enterprise Fund): Enterprise fund for Farmers Market operations.
  • Fund 47 (Golf Enterprise Fund): Enterprise fund for golf course operations.
  • Fund 71 (Parks Maintenance and Capital Improvements Millage): Millage revenues support capital projects, park planning functions, and volunteer outreach.

Section III: Commissioner Feedback

This PROS draft includes detailed financial data from FY 2011, which runs from July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011. Much of the discussion for this section revolved around whether to include that level of information at all, how to present the information most clearly, and whether to move it to an appendix.

Evan Pratt observed that the PROS plan covers a five-year period, but the financial data represents only one year. That might be sending mixed messages about the purpose of this report, he said – perhaps that level of detail should be eliminated.

Bonnie Bona suggested that including revenues and expenses from the past five years would be helpful in setting the context, more so than a one-year snapshot. Others noted that the FY 2011 data would be outdated after this year.

Eric Mahler proposed including a narrative about financial trends and projections – keeping the information about funding sources, but including the specific FY 2011 budget in an appendix. There appeared to be consensus on this approach.

Section IV: Inventory

The inventory section attempts to classify the city’s 157 parks and facilities, covering just over 2,000 acres. Six classifications are used: (1) neighborhood parks, (2) urban parks/plazas, (3) recreational facilities, (4) historic sites, (5) community-wide parks, and (6) natural areas. [.pdf of draft PROS Section IV]

In addition, this section inventories other parks-related properties held by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Public Schools, Washtenaw County, the state’s Dept. of Natural Resources, the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority – as well as parks in neighboring townships and cities.

The inventory also includes an extensive listing of grants received over the years – dating back to 1973 – to fund the development and operations of the city’s parks.

There was little discussion of this section by commissioners.

Section V: Land Use Planning & Acquisition

This section provides a detailed look at the history of Ann Arbor’s parks and open space acquisition, starting in 1988. [.pdf of draft PROS Section V]

It also outlines the process and criteria for acquiring parkland, as well as various methods that can be used for acquisition. The section also discusses the city’s greenbelt program.

Section V: Commissioner Feedback

Most of the discussion focused on the issue of donations by developers. From the PROS draft:

During the City’s review of residential development plans – a final plat of a subdivision, a planned unit development, or a site condominium – each developer is asked to dedicate land for parks and recreation purposes to serve the immediate and future needs of the residents of the development in question. These donations are not mandatory in the absence of state enabling legislation but rather are a discretionary contribution by the petitioners.

The 1981 PROS Plan established a rationale for dedication of land in new residential developments based on the ratio of households in the City to acres of neighborhood-scale parkland. The ratio then was 4.9 acres of neighborhood parkland for every 408 households or 1,000 new residents or .012 acres of neighborhood park per household. This amount of new parkland was felt to be the minimum amount to maintain the existing level of service for neighborhood parks. With each subsequent update of the PROS Plan, the formula for neighborhood parkland was adjusted to reflect changes in demographic and land acquisition patterns. The current formula was updated based on 2000 Census data and an average of current land values.

In December 1985, City Council adopted an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance that allowed developers to donate land for parks and still receive the dwelling unit density that would be allowed before the dedication in terms of gross lot area. This amendment effectively reduced the cost of parkland dedication to developers. Large-acreage developments could accommodate an on-site park and still achieve a density of dwelling units as though the park did not exist. The parkland is counted as part of the open space required by the Zoning Ordinance.

The amendment has made negotiating for parkland much easier as a part of larger developments. Smaller developments of under 15 acres have less flexibility in site layout and often have difficulty providing an adequate park site while still building the maximum permitted number of dwelling units. There have been some instances where the dedication of land or cash in lieu of land has been inadequate, but generally the new developments are provided parkland through this process.

Wendy Rampson noted that the section doesn’t indicate how the city makes a judgement about when it will accept cash in lieu of parkland. That might be useful to clarify, she said. Kuras indicated that the cash-in-lieu option is usually accepted when there’s no land available – especially for downtown developments, where land is scarce and more expensive.

Kuras gave an example of 601 S. Forest, a residential development being built in the South University area. She said she’ll likely use the developer’s cash donation for parks to improve the alleyway near the building, perhaps with trees and public art. Though the funds aren’t going directly to parks, they’ll still be used for purposes that serve the public interest, she said, adding that perhaps they should make that approach more explicit in the PROS plan.

There’s also an option to get credit for private open space and recreation in a development. Rampson said the planning commission will be seeing an example of this soon, when Avalon Housing’s 1500 Pauline project comes before the city’s planning commission for site plan approval. The project, a low-income residential development, is on the agenda for the commission’s Jan. 20 meeting.

Kirk Westphal asked whether indoor space is within the city’s purview for these decisions. Kuras said the key is accessibility – a rooftop park on an apartment complex would provide recreation space for residents, but not the general public. In that case, it might get credit under the provision for private open space and recreation.

Section VI: Planning Process

The section outlining the planning process for the PROS plan includes a description of the steering committee, efforts to gain input from the city’s staff and general public, and results of an online survey, which garnered 822 responses. Also included are responses from three public meetings held specifically to get input on the plan. [.pdf of draft PROS Section VI]

Section VI: Commissioner Feedback

The section also summarized input from related task forces and reports, including the Huron River Impoundment and Management Plan, known as HRIMP. Kirk Westphal, who served on that task force, noted that the summary didn’t include mention a consensus from the HRIMP task force that recommended commercial development along the river.

Evan Pratt clarified that the concensus was for “limited” commercial development. They intended it to be something more like a place to get a drink along the river, he said, “not a Target.” He added that the Huron River Watershed Council is developing a “water trail” plan that would include a similar recommendation, and Dexter officials are also focused on that kind of limited development for the stretch of Huron River that passes through that village. He suggested adding the recommendation to the PROS plan section on goals as well.

Section VII: Goals & Objectives

Kuras indicated that this section hasn’t changed significantly from the previous PROS plan. The one major change was the addition of the Huron River Impoundment and Management Plan (HRIMP) recommendations. [.pdf of draft PROS Section VII]

The section was organized into eight major goals, with more detailed objectives provided for each goal:

  1. Provide an efficient recreation and open space system, where all the components will complement each other in providing a broad spectrum of services while minimizing duplication, where necessary.
  2. Achieve and maintain a balanced parks, recreation and open space system, accessible to all of the community.
  3. Assure a firm financial basis for the park, recreation and open space system.
  4. Assure adequate and suitable provisions of land and facilities to meet present and future parks, recreation and open space needs in terms of maintenance and development.
  5. Foster the quality of life in Ann Arbor by paying particular attention to the park, recreation and open space system as a visual and functional resource.
  6. Assure citizens a voice in the decision-making process of the park, recreation and open space system, including acquisition, planning and development.
  7. Develop recreation programs, services and facilities after assessing changing trends and community needs.
  8. [This goal was taken from the HRIMP report.] A healthy Huron River ecosystem that provides a diverse set of ecosystem services. “We envision a swimmable, fishable and boatable river, including both free-flowing and impounded segments, which is celebrated as Ann Arbor’s most important natural feature and contributes to the vibrancy of life in the City. The river and its publicly owned shoreline and riparian areas create a blue and green corridor across the City that contains restored natural areas and adequate and well-sited public trails and access. Ample drinking water, effective wastewater removal and a full range of high quality passive and active recreation and education opportunities are provided to the citizens of Ann Arbor. Ongoing public engagement in the river’s management leads to greater stewardship and reduced conflict among users.”

Section VII: Commissioner Feedback

Jean Carlberg noted that there’s one mention of an objective related to low-income residents, but there’s no indication of what action has been taken. It would be nice to see an accounting on this, she said.

The PROS objective to which Carlberg referred is this:

i. Address the recreation and service needs and interests of disadvantaged persons and residents of public housing sites and cooperatives. Also, improve access to parks and recreation services for low-income residents City-wide.

Kuras said that one huge improvement for low-income residents is that the city has contracted with the nonprofit Community Action Network (CAN) to manage community centers in two low-income neighborhoods: the Bryant Community Center and Northside Community Center.

Kirk Westphal brought up Liberty Plaza, an urban park at the corner of Division and Liberty that he described as his “bugaboo.” [The park is consistently mentioned as a problem for the city, in part because it's underutilized and a hangout for panhandlers. The issue also had been raised when Kuras spoke to commissioners about the PROS plan at a June 2010 working session.] He noted that in the needs assessment section, the Downtown Development Authority had mentioned the importance of having “eyes and ears” in the urban parks:

Planning for urban parks must take into consideration urban issues, including homelessness, panhandling, drinking, etc. All parks need to have “eyes and ears.” Open space alone does not mean a successful open park, and size and location are extremely important in the planning of a downtown open space.

But Westphal pointed out that it’s not mentioned as a goal or objective. Kuras responded by saying that the parks & recreation unit doesn’t have the staff to do programming. It’s an issue they’re aware of, she said, and they’re trying to encourage others to do more programming in locations like the West Park bandshell, for example. She said in the past they’ve tried similar things at Liberty Plaza – asking food vendors like Pilar’s to set up there during lunch hours, for example. Some programming is done there by local businesses, like the Bank of Ann Arbor’s Sonic Lunch, which features weekly musical performances during the summer months.

Commissioners discussed how this might be added to the section on goals and objectives, perhaps in the context of public/private partnerships. Rampson noted that Sculpture Plaza – at the southeast corner of Fourth and Catherine – became a success when businesses in that area started to embrace it. It would help Liberty Plaza if Ann Arbor SPARK would vacate the lower level of the building adjacent to the plaza, she said. SPARK, an economic development agency, uses the space for offices – a more active use, like a restaurant or retail business, might help bring life to the plaza, said Rampson.

Section VIII: Needs Assessment

In this section, city staff and the general public were surveyed to develop a detailed list of needs for existing parks and facilities, as well as for future acquisitions and projects. [.pdf of draft PROS Section VIII]

Kuras noted that five years ago, a dog park was highlighted as a major need, based on public input. Though a centralized dog park is still identified as a need, this year it was a skatepark that drew the most interest, though she added that those responses seemed to be at least in part due to an organized effort by skatepark advocates to distribute the survey to supporters.

Other needs identified for new projects include the Allen Creek greenway, and several other trails and greenway connections throughout the city.

Commissioners had little comment on this section.

Section IX: Action Plan

The final section of the PROS plan focuses on a general action plan for the parks system, including staff projects, volunteer projects and capital improvements. [.pdf of draft PROS Section IX]

Kuras said she tried to align the proposed PROS plan more closely with the city’s capital improvements plan (CIP). [The planning commission approved the 2012-2017 CIP at their Jan. 4, 2011 meeting. It is being forwarded to city council for final approval.]

A detailed list of projects is included in the previous section on needs assessment – the action plan outlines how the parks staff prioritizes those projects.

Section IX: Commissioner Feedback

The draft PROS plan includes fiscal year and estimated cost of projects in the CIP plan. Kuras said it makes her a little nervous to include this, however, since it raises the expectation that the projects will occur in those years and at those costs. Bonnie Bona suggested stripping out the specific years and dollar amounts, and to simply include a list of the projects that are being considered.

When no other questions or suggestions were forthcoming from commissioners, Kuras thanked them for their time and feedback.


  1. By Mary Morgan
    January 18, 2011 at 12:33 pm | permalink

    One additional note re. the PROS plan: The Ann Arbor park advisory commission is holding a public hearing on the plan at its Tuesday, Jan. 18 meeting, which begins at 4 p.m. PAC is also expected to vote at the meeting, recommending approval of the PROS plan. The meeting will be held at the Washtenaw County administration building, 220 N. Main St.

  2. January 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm | permalink

    Thanks so much for this thorough coverage and for the sectioned pdf files.

    Question: I heard some informal complaints from those watching the process that demographic data from the 2000 census was being used and that staff was resisting using the 2010 census information. Was that discussed or is there any more information?

    I used to live near Devonshire. That area profits immensely by the nearby Gallup Park and Arboretum, two of our crown jewels. Also, the controversy surrounding Bader Park comes in here. Is the city contemplating the offer from the church that bought the old Bader school to buy the park?

    Regarding changes in neighborhoods over time, I assume that each neighborhood has life cycles like my neighborhood’s. When I moved here (Sunset/Brooks area), there were many houses occupied by aging couples or singles whose children were long gone. Now many houses are occupied by young families again and our neighborhood parks appear to be well-used. I’d hate to see decisions made because a neighborhood is at the wrong point of its life cycle.

  3. By Mary Morgan
    January 18, 2011 at 10:22 pm | permalink

    Re. census data: At this afternoon’s park advisory commission meeting, I asked Amy Kuras why 2010 census data wasn’t used. She said the data they need from the 2010 census isn’t yet available. When it comes, she plans to update the chart in an appendix.

    Re. Bader Park: Kuras said the city has no intention of selling it.

  4. January 19, 2011 at 10:44 am | permalink

    I hope that the commissions will continue work to link our parks together, particularly those along the Huron River. Ann Arbor has lagged many of our peer cities, including Madison and Boulder, in developing a linked system of waterfront parks well connected by trails. It should be much easier to reach Gallup Park by foot or bike from the Broadway Bridges and Bandemer/Argo than it presently is.

    There have been some improvements in recent years, like the new trails along Argo Pond, and the concept of a Washtenaw County Border-to-Border Trail has drawn some attention. To make it a reality, though, we need to make a Huron River greenway system a higher priority, along with the Allen Creek corridor. Such a system would be important for both recreation and transportation purposes.

  5. By DrData
    January 19, 2011 at 11:35 am | permalink

    Re 2010 Census data:

    Some of the characteristics in the table labeled “Statistics from the 2000 Census” will not be available from the 2010 Census. The most recent census is a short-form only census. It gathered information on relation to head, age, sex, Hispanic, race and tenure (ownership of dwelling unit).

    The American Community Survey data are available for census tracts as of December 2010. This allows one to describe neighborhoods by median income and disability status. One should not use the ACS data for population counts (of people or dwelling units).

    Likewise, some of the margins of error are large so users should be be wary of reporting on individual census tracts. The appendix in the Compass series describes how to combine units of geography. So, one could combine several census tracts and create neighborhood characteristics with smaller margins of error.

    We will be receiving the first local data from the 2010 Census with the redistricting data – to be dispersed on a flow basis from Feb 1 to March 31. That will provide population counts but with very minimal other information as the main purpose is for redistricting. The characteristics are Race/Hispanic for the total population and the population 18+.

  6. By Susan
    January 21, 2011 at 11:21 am | permalink

    Slightly off topic, but does anyone know WHY this year’s Census included only the short form? The depth of data from the long form sample was so useful for many purposes.

  7. By DrData
    January 21, 2011 at 1:32 pm | permalink

    Because the American Community Survey (ACS) is the replacement for the census long-form. The ACS has what the census long-form did.

    For units of geography that are 65,000+ you get long-form census data every year instead of once a decade. Units of geography that are between 20,000 – 64,999 get a 3-year moving average, updated annually. And finally, small units like census tracts, unpopulous counties, small towns etc. get 5-year data, updated once a year. This was the first year for the 5-year data.

    If one is comparing units of geography, they need to all be based on the same period (1-yr, 3-yr, or 5-yr). I’m sure many people will not do so. Likewise, comparisons of change over time for the 3-yr or 5-yr data should be based on non-overlapping times: 2005-2007 vs 2008-2010; not 2005-2007 vs 2006-2008.

  8. January 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm | permalink

    DrData, where may citizens access the population data from the census for our local area, once it is available?

    (Sorry to hijack the thread, but inquiring minds want to know.)