Ann Arbor park advisory commissioners had a wide-ranging conversation on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 – mostly focused on responding to a Connecting William Street presentation that was made at PAC’s Aug. 21 meeting.
Their consensus: That the potential development scenarios presented by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – focused on five city-owned properties along William Street – did not include sufficient parkland or green space.
Commissioners plan to craft a resolution for their Oct. 16 meeting, recommending that the DDA incorporate more green space into its final proposal to the city council. The council had directed the DDA to develop a coordinated planning approach for the five sites, to guide future development. The parcels include the lower level of the Fourth & William parking structure, plus four surface parking lots: (1) the Kline’s lot on Ashley; (2) the lot next to Palio restaurant at Main & William; (3) the old YMCA lot between Fourth and Fifth; and (5) the top of the Library Lane underground parking garage on South Fifth, north of the downtown library.
PAC’s resolution will also likely suggest specific attributes they’d like to see in a downtown park, such as grassy areas, interactive sculptures, or a performance space. Other attributes might include a visible location with mixed-use development around it, and programming or activities to attract people to the site.
Despite consensus that more green space is needed, commissioners were less unified about where that green space should be located, and expressed some frustration that they didn’t have more time for this task. One possibility discussed was a downtown greenway, making connections between different parcels where pedestrians could walk from Main Street to the library on South Fifth, and possibly continuing to State Street.
Other ideas included setting aside one of the five sites – either Main and William, or Fifth and William were suggested – as a park. Commissioners also discussed a possible park or plaza on the Library Lane site. There was some sentiment that having an outdoor space next to the library would be positive, though they acknowledged the concerns raised by library officials about putting a park there.
Liberty Plaza, one of the city’s current downtown parks, was part of the mix, although it’s not included in the Connecting William Street project. Commissioners have been asked by mayor John Hieftje to look at that park and some staff suggestions for improving it. More broadly, Hieftje has asked PAC to help prioritize the needs for downtown parks and the possibility of adding more parks into the system.
Colin Smith, Ann Arbor’s parks and recreation manager, encouraged commissioners to review the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, which includes recommendations for downtown parks. Some of these issues have been discussed for years, he noted, and it’s important not to “reinvent the wheel.”
The follow-up discussion to requests from Hieftje and the DDA was held at PAC’s land acquisition committee meeting on Sept. 4 in the city council workroom. It was attended by seven of the nine park commissioners: Julie Grand, Ingrid Ault, Tim Berla, Tim Doyle, Alan Jackson, John Lawter and Karen Levin. Not at the meeting were the two city councilmembers – Mike Anglin and Christopher Taylor – who are ex-officio members of PAC.
Also absent was Bob Galardi, the commission’s most recently appointed member. His absence was noted by some commissioners, who had hoped to hear his perspective as a member of the DDA’s leadership and outreach committee for the Connecting William Street project.
Downtown Parks: Background
At PAC’s Aug. 21 meeting, commissioners had received two requests related to the downtown. Mayor John Hieftje asked PAC to make recommendations for prioritizing downtown parks, including Liberty Plaza at the southwest corner of Liberty and Division, as well as other city-owned sites that might be incorporated into the parks system: 415 W. Washington, 721 N. Main and possibly the DTE/MichCon site near Argo Dam, if it’s acquired by the city.
Separately, Susan Pollay and Amber Miller of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority had given an update on the Connecting William Street project, a DDA-led effort to coordinate planning for five city-owned sites in downtown Ann Arbor. PAC’s land acquisition committee had served as a focus group for an earlier stage of the project, and commissioner Bob Galardi is a member of the project’s leadership and outreach committee.
The Ann Arbor city council has asked the DDA to propose a framework to guide possible development of the five sites, which are primarily surface parking lots: (1) the Kline’s lot (on the east side of Ashley, north of William); (2) the lot next to Palio restaurant (northeast corner of Main & William); (3) the ground floor of the Fourth & William parking structure; (4) the old YMCA lot (on William between Fourth and Fifth); and (5) the top of the Library Lane underground parking garage on South Fifth, which recently opened north of the downtown library.
The DDA hoped to get feedback from PAC about three development scenarios that generally represent low density, moderate density and high density development. All conform to current zoning, and were created based on input from interviews, focus groups, an online survey, and the work of land use economist Todd Poole.
PAC is just one of the groups that the DDA is meeting with, as part of a broader effort to get input before making a final recommendation to the city council. In August, for example, the Ann Arbor planning commission was also briefed at a working session, when they were asked for feedback. The DDA is also holding public forums and webinars. The next such meeting is on Monday, Sept. 10 from noon-1:30 p.m. in the downtown Ann Arbor District Library’s lower level, 343 S. Fifth Ave.
Although park commissioners gave some input to the DDA at their Aug. 21 meeting, they decided to hold a longer discussion at the Sept. 4 meeting of PAC’s land acquisition committee. That committee, which includes all PAC members, meets monthly and primarily focuses on potential park acquisitions. Those discussions are typically held in closed session, as permitted under the state’s Open Meetings Act.
The discussion about downtown parks was part of the committee’s open session. This report summarizes the discussion thematically.
Park or Greenway?
Tim Doyle began by saying he understood the argument that more downtown density is necessary, but he thought that a downtown green corridor might be possible as well. Although there are a few existing green spaces and parks, like Liberty Plaza, gaps exist between them, he noted. In the DDA’s presentation, Doyle said he didn’t see any integrated thought to that approach. He’d like to at least consider a downtown greenway.
Tim Berla felt that it’s been hard enough to build an Allen Creek greenway – so he didn’t think a downtown greenway would be possible. What’s needed is another park, he said, but one that’s bigger than Liberty Plaza. He hoped PAC could pass a resolution calling for a park, but stating that it wasn’t yet clear where a new park should be located. They needed more time and staff to help figure out the best location for a park, and there isn’t sufficient time to do that by the next PAC meeting, he said.
Berla noted that the Library Green advocates want to put a park on top of the new underground parking structure on South Fifth Avenue. He could see the positives and negatives of that, but thought that a better spot would be on the city-owned Fifth and William lot – the former YMCA site. It’s a more open site, he said, because it fronts three streets: Fifth, William and Fourth.
But the DDA wants a recommendation at PAC’s next meeting, he noted. [That meeting is set for Tuesday, Oct. 16.] It was a much quicker timeframe than he had anticipated. So rather than get into a discussion about specifics of each site in the Connecting William Street project, Berla recommended that the entire project shouldn’t move forward until the city decides where to locate a downtown park. For PAC’s park, he suggested commissioners list some attributes that they’d like to see in a downtown park, regardless of its specific location.
Doyle agreed with Berla’s assessment that a downtown greenway might not be feasible. But Doyle suggested being more specific about a park location. He thought the Main and William site – at the northeast corner of that intersection, next to Palio restaurant – would be a good location. It’s located in an area that’s active, he noted, and it might be easier for the DDA to accept if PAC’s recommendation is specific. ”It would enhance the downtown, in my opinion.”
Alan Jackson said he’d been reading information by the Library Green supporters, and they had pointed out that the DDA’s Connecting William Street survey hadn’t offered the option of a park or green space. It seems there’s a lot of interest in having a downtown park at some location, he said, though it might make more sense to have a European-style “commons” rather than a more nature-oriented park.
Liberty Plaza: Why Not Successful?
Julie Grand noted that there are already two downtown parks – Sculpture Plaza at Catherine and Fourth; and Liberty Plaza at Liberty and Division. What makes one of them work, while the other one struggles? For one thing, she said, Sculpture Park is flat, unlike Liberty Plaza, which is sunken. She directed a question to Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager: Is there any way to make Liberty Plaza flat, at street level? Sure, he replied, “but not inexpensively.”
Alan Jackson observed that there had been a lot of failed efforts to revitalize Liberty Plaza. Perhaps it’s just not the best location for a downtown park.
Ingrid Ault described Liberty Plaza’s design as “fundamentally flawed,” because it’s not at street level. She pointed to problems that retail shops have had in the building on the northeast corner of Liberty and Fifth, where AnnArbor.com is now located. There are several steps up from the street level to reach the retail space, and that’s a barrier to access, too.
Smith agreed with Ault’s view, but said the fact that Liberty Plaza isn’t at street level is just part of the problem. The biggest issue is what’s located around the park, he said. It’s not as helpful to simply identify a location for a park – suggestions are needed for the context around it.
Later in the meeting, Ault noted that the city’s Kempf House Museum, at 312 S. Division, is adjacent to Liberty Plaza. Although the two sites are currently separated by a picket fence, it’s possible that those could form an anchor for a stretch of green space down Library Lane – a small road running between Division and Fifth.
Smith reported that he and park planner Amy Kuras have been looking at Liberty Plaza and Kempf House. There might be ways to connect those sites to the Library Lane area, he said. [Some of their suggestions are outlined in a staff memo about Liberty Plaza.] Smith noted that the DDA hopes Liberty Plaza will benefit from increased foot traffic from the underground parking structure, but the DDA’s expectation is that people will use a private walkway at the southwest side of Liberty Plaza. Kempf House is on the southeast side.
The pedestrian walkway between the Library Lot and Liberty Plaza is on property owned by First Martin Corp., which also owns the building adjacent to the plaza’s west side. Smith said the company closes the walkway at least once a year, to prevent the city from claiming “adverse possession” – an action in which the title to a property can be claimed because the property has been used by the public for an extended, uninterrupted period.
Grand noted that it’s not a safe environment to walk through at night, but she could envision a different scenario in which a walkway would be better lit and more viable to use.
Alan Jackson recalled that a First Martin employee had attended PAC’s August meeting, and had reported that the company invested significantly in Liberty Plaza’s upkeep. First Martin might be a good partner for the city, he suggested. Perhaps the company had ideas for the plaza, which would in turn increase the value of First Martin’s property. Perhaps a walkway with sculptures along it would be a good way to connect Liberty Plaza with the Library Lot area, Jackson said.
Library Lot: Not Clear It’s Best for Park
Picking up on the issue of context, Julie Grand noted that for the Library Lane site, part of that context would be provided by the Ann Arbor District Library, which is adjacent to the site. With the library there, “one side is taken care of,” she said.
Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, indicated that he wasn’t sure library officials would support that. [At past AADL board meetings, trustees have raised concerns about having a city park next to their building.]
There was some discussion about how the library’s current site – at the northeast corner of Fifth and William – would make a better location for a park, rather than on top of the city-owned underground parking structure. Some commissioners speculated that AADL could build a new library on top of the parking structure and let its current site be used as a park. Smith pointed out that the bond proposal that AADL is putting before voters on Nov. 6 specifically states that a new library would be built on the current downtown library site.
The reasons for AADL’s decision to build on its existing site were outlined by AADL director Josie Parker at the board’s July 30, 2012 special meeting. From Chronicle coverage:
Parker gave a brief history of the site, to explain why that location is preferred. One major factor relates to the site’s previous ownership by the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Until 1995, the library was part of the AAPS.
A separation agreement with the school system gives AAPS the right of first refusal if AADL decides to sell the site. If the school system decides to buy it, AAPS would pay only 65% of the market value. If AAPS doesn’t buy the property and AADL sells it to another entity, AAPS gets 35% of the net sale proceeds. All of that factored in to the board’s decision to stay on the site, Parker noted.
Grand described her vision is to emerge from the library and have other moderately-sized buildings in that area, with a coffee shop and other retail, and perhaps some library-themed sculptures that kids could climb on. She envisioned something new, that doesn’t currently exist downtown. Having the library on one side of such a park would be important, she said, adding that it’s also important to think about what problems a park there might cause for the library.
Ingrid Ault asked if anyone had talked to library officials, to get their views. Alan Jackson said he’d only heard second-hand reports, and his understanding is that the library isn’t keen to have a park there. The downtown library already has security problems with people using the building, and there’s the fear that a park would exacerbate that issue. He said he understood that perspective. Given the problems at Liberty Plaza, it’s tricky to design a space that discourages certain kinds of activity while encouraging the kinds of use you’d like to see.
Tim Berla said the idea of a green space in front of the library was appealing. It’s easy to imagine people taking their kids there and reading on the grass, he said.
Ault observed that the kind of park described by Library Green supporters isn’t possible on that site – it wasn’t designed to support large trees, for example. It was designed to build a large structure, she said.
Grand noted that one reason why Library Green advocates are lobbying for a park on the Library Lane site in particular is that they’re angry about the potential of something larger being built there. [When the DDA designed the underground parking structure, they invested several million in building a foundation that would support a high-rise building in the future. The city had issued a request for proposals, and a committee that evaluated proposals for that site recommended a proposal by Valiant Partners, which included a conference center and hotel. However, Valiant's proposal was ultimately rejected by the city council in April of 2011.]
Several commissioners pointed out that in the Connecting William Street scenarios, the only green space that was indicated on any of the sites was the relatively small plaza atop the Library Lane site. There was general consensus that this wasn’t adequate, even though there was the option to expand the plaza by shutting down Library Lane for special events.
Ault said she’s always advocated for mixed-use development at that site. If the AADL millage passes and a new library is built, that entire area could change, she said. The DDA’s big picture is to strengthen the connection between Main and State streets, Ault said. So PAC needs to think into the future, and what role a park might play in helping make that connection.
She returned to Doyle’s idea of a downtown greenway, saying she loved that concept. Doyle wondered whether the city could stipulate that developers for the five Connecting William Street sites would need to include green space in their site plans, as a way to build a greenway corridor. That gets the city off the hook for maintaining additional parks, he noted.
Karen Levin pointed out that green space within a private development would be very different from a public park.
Julie Grand asked whether the city’s parks staff has formed an opinion yet regarding downtown parks. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, replied that the biggest issue is determining how staff should spend their time and focus. Over the last three or four years, they’ve been pulled in many directions, he said. A year ago, for example, no one was talking about 721 N. Main – but now, that’s become a priority, he noted. It would be helpful to get some priorities from PAC, to help focus staff’s energy regarding downtown parks.
Grand noted that the Connecting William Street sites can’t be viewed in isolation. Perhaps it’s more important to connect North Main to the Huron River, she said. [Grand serves on a task force that's exploring the future of the North Main corridor. The task force was formed earlier this year by city council.]
Alan Jackson noted that sometimes priorities are being driven by opportunities that emerge. He mentioned the DTE/MichCon site as one that the city can’t ignore, for example. [DTE is remediating that property, located next to the Huron River near the Argo dam. The city hopes to acquire at least a portion of the site.]
Smith agreed, adding that the DTE/MichCon site is one that’s of most interest to the parks staff. It’s been part of the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan for many years, he said, and it has huge potential.
In terms of Liberty Plaza, there have been several efforts to improve it over the years, Smith said, although the park’s “skeleton” has remained in place. It would take significant investment to substantially change that park, he added, and the question is: Is that the best place for the city to invest?
Tim Doyle wondered what it would take for the city to sell or trade that Liberty Plaza site. He realized that it would require voter approval, but the location is prime real estate and might be attractive to developers. Then funds from a sale could be used for a park or greenway somewhere else.
Doyle also asked whether downtown parks in general caused more security concerns, from the staff’s perspective. Smith’s initial response was yes, but after further thought he said that wasn’t really the case. Although Liberty Plaza has been an issue, there are hardly ever security calls for Sculpture Plaza or the farmers market. It’s more typical to have security problems in some of the city’s more isolated nature areas, he said.
Smith also stressed the importance of programming, from the staff’s point of view. That needs to be part of any recommendation, he said. In the past, the parks department hasn’t had a major role in providing programs for downtown parks, although his staff does handle site rentals and some special events. But that all takes time and money, he noted. Some events – like the popular Sonic Lunch concert series at Liberty Plaza – are put on by private businesses. The Bank of Ann Arbor spends a lot of money on Sonic Lunch, he said, and the bank feels it is getting a good value for that. Perhaps part of PAC’s recommendation could be that private developers should be responsible for programming the open space that’s on or near their developments.
Smith reported that his staff previously had been asked about their opinion on having an ice rink on top of the Library Lane site. They didn’t support it, he said, because of the expense to build and maintain it. The city has experience with that, he noted – the parks staff already operates two ice rinks, at Veterans Memorial Park and Buhr Park.
Responding to the DDA
Alan Jackson said it bothered him that the DDA was trying to push an artificial timetable. The DDA wanted PAC to make a recommendation by October, before the library has made a decision about what it intends to do. [That decision by the Ann Arbor District Library will depend in large part on the outcome of the Nov. 6 ballot proposal to fund a new downtown library.] It’s better to partner with the DDA, the AADL and others and take however long is needed, Jackson said. As long as there’s no rush to sell or develop the land, there’s no need to hurry.
Tim Doyle said he agreed with Jackson’s point, but noted that if developers are interested in the five Connecting William Street sites, then there are potential revenues that the city is losing if it waits.
Tim Berla didn’t think PAC should ignore the DDA’s timetable. But he suggested a general resolution stating that PAC thinks a park or green space is needed. The resolution could also suggest specific attributes they’d recommend – like grassy areas, or a performance space. But the main thing is to recommend another park.
Doyle noted that if PAC doesn’t provide some definitive feedback, the DDA’s process will move on without them. He suggested crafting a recommendation that would put the issue back on the DDA’s shoulders by providing certain attributes a park should have, and then telling the DDA to figure out how to make it happen. Ultimately, he said, it’s the DDA’s problem.
Karen Levin suggested narrowing down PAC’s recommendation to two possible sites for a new park: the Library Lane site, or Main and William. She felt PAC could be more specific than the general approach that Berla had proposed.
Jackson recommended at least identifying a geographic area where a park should be located. At that point, Berla said, one option might be the southeast corner of Huron and Fifth, across from city hall. [That site, a surface parking lot, is owned by First Martin Corp.] But generally, Berla said, he favored having more time to figure out what the best option would be.
Colin Smith, parks and rec manager, noted that PAC has been asked to give feedback on two things: (1) the DDA’s Connecting William Street project; and (2) the broader request from mayor Hiefjte to prioritize downtown parks. Smith cautioned that since the future of the Connecting William Street sites isn’t yet determined, PAC might be pigeon-holing itself by identifying a specific site for a park, without knowing what will be developed around it.
John Lawter said he liked the idea of a more general recommendation, along with some rationale about why a park is needed and what attributes commissioners would like to see. There was general discussion about those attributes, with suggestions including: (1) a visible location with mixed-use development around it; (2) the site’s ability to be used for multiple purposes; and (3) programming or activities to attract people to the site. Suggestions for programming/activities included a winter art fair, ice sculptures, a playground, a merry-go-round, interactive sculptures like The Cube,
Ingrid Ault noted that the city will get pushback from advocates who want a park at a specific location – like the Library Lane site – so PAC needs to be prepared with specific arguments to back up their recommendations. PAC needs to provide the rhetorical tools so that city officials can make their case, she added, whatever the final decision is. She noted that she attends a lot of Democratic Party events, and the future of the Library Lane site comes up frequently at those events.
Responding to the DDA: Connecting William Street Scenarios
Ault asked what the DDA wants in terms of responses to the three specific scenarios in the Connecting William Street presentation. Berla replied that the DDA doesn’t really care about PAC’s feedback in that regard – PAC “isn’t part of their world.” PAC’s job isn’t to help the DDA, he added. Rather, commissioners should give advice on the scenarios directly to the city council.
Ault disagreed, citing her experience as former director of the Ypsilanti DDA. PAC needs to work with the DDA, she said, but it wasn’t clear to her what the DDA wanted from commissioners.
Grand thought the DDA would be most pleased if PAC simply picked one of the scenarios. But more realistically, PAC should try to give concrete guidance as much as possible, she said, in terms of what size a park should be or what should surround it.
Doyle expressed frustration at the overall Connecting William Street effort. He didn’t see any sign of connectivity between the five sites.
Berla pointed out that Doyle’s definition of “connecting” differed from the DDA’s goals. In the past, there have been separate discussions and in some cases requests for proposals for these sites, Berla noted. So the DDA’s charge from the council is to connect those sites into a comprehensive plan that can give guidance to developers, he explained. The point is to prevent developers from saying “Oh, it’s those Ann Arbor twits again,” he joked.
It’s great for the DDA to aim for developing greater density downtown, Berla continued, but he didn’t want PAC to get into that. Personally, he supported scenarios with the maximum density, while making the Fifth and William lot into a park. But others had different views, and that’s why he didn’t think they should focus on the development issues, but rather parks. The worst outcome would be for the city to decide a year from now that it wanted a park in a certain location, but that something was already being built there.
Several other commissioners weighed in for adding parkland, possibly by suggesting that a percentage of the total land on the Connecting William Street sites be devoted to parks or open space. Ault said she’d advocate for a greater percentage of parkland/open space in scenarios with greater density.
Colin Smith recalled that the DDA’s position had been to consider green space in the context of the rest of downtown, not simply on the five city lots. Even with the greatest density scenario, the DDA believes that the city would still be well-served with green space.
Grand felt that, based on the DDA’s presentation to PAC, that the DDA preferred scenario B – with moderate density, and buildings in the 3-8 story range. That scenario was estimated to support the most amount of job growth (900-1,000 jobs) and most annual employee spending in the local economy ($6-$6.7 million).
Smith pointed out that these scenarios aren’t recommendations for what to build. They are guidelines, and the final recommendation to the city council will likely be a combination of these ideas.
Julie Grand, PAC’s chair, said it seemed like the consensus was to recommend including more green space than currently exists in any of the Connecting William Street scenarios. The resolution from PAC can include the fact that PAC recognizes the need for density and an appropriate interface with adjacent sites, she said, as well as the importance of programming and activities to draw people to the site.
Grand felt it was important to pass some kind of resolution at PAC’s next meeting, so that their opinions could be incorporated as the planning moves forward.
Colin Smith suggested pointing out that PAC is also looking at the downtown area as a whole, not just the Connecting William Street sites. He also recommended that commissioners walk through Liberty Plaza and the Library Lane site, to familiarize themselves with the area before the next PAC meeting.
Smith encouraged commissioners to review the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, which PAC had previously recommended for approval. The document includes a lot of recommendations about downtown parks, he said, so incorporating those recommendations into a resolution would be helpful. Sometimes it feels like the city keeps “reinventing the wheel,” he noted, and it’s important to remember that some of these issues have already been discussed.
Grand asked that recommendations for elements to include in a resolution should be emailed to her. The plan is to discuss and vote on a resolution giving feedback to the DDA at PAC’s Sept. 18 meeting. She also suggested continuing this discussion at the next land acquisition committee meeting, and inviting park planner Amy Kuras to participate. LAC next meets on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 4 p.m. in the city council workroom at city hall.
PAC also is planning a fall retreat, at a to-be-determined date and location, where they’ll discuss the group’s work plan for the coming year.
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