Public Gives Input on East County Rec Center

Conceptual designs displayed at open house for project in Ypsilanti

About 70 people crowded into a Sept. 27 open house at the Spark East office in Ypsilanti to hear about plans for a proposed new recreation center in downtown Ypsilanti, on the northwest corner of the Water Street redevelopment area. Two conceptual designs were presented for feedback, developed in large part by students and faculty at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. The overall project is being spearheaded by Washtenaw County parks and recreation.

Model of a conceptual design for a new recreation center in downtown Ypsilanti

Model of a conceptual “canopy” design for a proposed new recreation center in downtown Ypsilanti. It was one of two models displayed at a Sept. 27 open house to get feedback on the proposed project.

Robert Tetens, the county’s parks and rec director, gave the gathering an overview of the project. “We’re an organization run by data, and our surveys over the years have showed demand for a rec center in the east part of the county,” he said. “We went to the Ypsilanti city council last fall, and proposed that the city provide the land, we [the county] would build it, and the Y[MCA in Ann Arbor] would run it. The seven- or eight-month project has taken us to where we are now.”

The center would be located on the south side of Michigan Avenue just east of downtown, next to the Huron River. The building likely would be 60,000-65,000 square feet – larger than the county’s 51,000-square-foot Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, and smaller than the 70,000-square-foot Ann Arbor YMCA. Construction costs are estimated at $200 per square foot, or about $12-14 million. [Construction is only part of overall project cost, which typically includes infrastructure, professional fees, and more. No estimate of total project cost was made at the Sept. 27 meeting.] Tetens said that construction could not start until after the county’s parks and recreation millage is renewed in November 2014.

Two millages totaling 0.472 mills support the county’s parks and recreation efforts: one for operations, and one for development. The operational millage, at 0.2353 mills, was renewed for 10 additional years in 2004. To ensure operational continuity, that millage is typically renewed two years in advance of its expiration date. The current operational millage expires in 2016, but will likely be on the ballot for renewal in 2014.

Previously, Tetens had said that the schedule for the proposed east county recreation center would include settling on a specific plan for the building by December 2012. At the Sept. 27 meeting, he said other steps would include collaboration between the Ypsilanti city council and the county parks department over the next 8-10 months, followed by a campaign for the county parks millage renewal in November 2014, which is needed to ensure adequate cash flow. Then, Tetens said, he hoped to have bids out and be ready to get approval from the county board of commissioners, sign a contract, and start construction “right after that.”

The planning group showed two possible ways of developing the entire Water Street site: a “river ribbon” street plan with a storefront-style, elevated rec center building; and a “grid” street plan with a canopy-style building. Before designing the specifics of the building, the planning group defined the project’s objectives and the pertinent qualities of the overall site. Running through the discussion, including audience participation at the end, was the desire for the publicly-funded rec center and the adjacent Border-to-Border trail to create enough use of the site to attract private investment in retail, residential, and commercial uses that would generate tax revenue for the city of Ypsilanti.

East County Rec Center: Goals, Overall Site

This project has been underway for several months, and has been discussed at previous meetings of the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission. [See Chronicle coverage: "More Planning for Rec Center in Ypsilanti."] Information about the project is also posted on the county’s parks and recreation website.

At the Sept. 27 open house, UM professor Craig Borum described the goals of the project, which he said went beyond designing a building or just a park. The entire site and its surroundings have been considered, including the Huron River – which runs along the west and south sides of the site and can flood. Other factors are the impact of stormwater on the site, the landscape of surrounding streets, use of daylight, and the site’s brownfield conditions. His team, Borum said, thought about “what makes good cities and good streets. We may call it a rec center but we should think of it as a community center that could anchor and attract new development on the site.”

More specifically, Borum said the group’s three goals were:

  • To develop sustainable, urban design parameters for a mixed-use redevelopment on the 38-acre, post-industrial, riverfront site.
  • To develop strategies to integrate desirable block sizes, infrastructure placement, brownfield mitigation, green infrastructure, building typologies, public open space and floodplain protection.
  • To develop design parameters that prioritize an environmentally and culturally responsible approach to the construction of a community recreation center.

Borum described the concepts underlying both proposed models. First, to underscore that the site “lives between the two worlds of the river and the city, and have the site live up to being between those two worlds.” Second, that the site will incorporate an important segment of the Border-to-Border trail that will run across Washtenaw County, and be part of that string of parks. And third, that the site “reflect the existing mix of city buildings and landscape, both Michigan Avenue specifically and Ypsilanti as a whole, and not be just a rec center.”

With this background, Borum became more specific about the site’s key qualities. He mentioned the urban character of that stretch of Michigan Avenue, which he said the design team wanted to “establish but not replicate” by building the rec center right up to the sidewalk on the north side of the site. Second, he emphasized the importance of River Street – a north-south boulevard on the east side of the project, which currently ends at Michigan Avenue but used to run almost to the Huron River. [A birds-eye map of Ypsilanti in 1869 shows this historical configuration.] Borum proposed extending River Street south to the river, to a potential Waterworks Park. Third, there will be a 100-foot easement for the trail along the river to accommodate possible flooding. Borum said, “We have to be sensitive about the flood zone and not just bulldoze through it.”

The site also exists, Borum said, between two different ways that cities in Michigan have organized their streets. Some use a grid design, which he called an “abstract system of spacing streets evenly in a one-mile grid” with streets running at right angles north-south and east-west. Another approach, used in cities on rivers, often reflects that “specific local condition with long skinny, narrow lots so all have access to the river, plus access to the public infrastructure along the street,” he said. Because the Water Street site lies between a river and an existing grid, the group developed two site plan concepts – one for a grid and one for a so-called “ribbon” layout.

Taking all this into account, Borum said, his group decided to place the rec center at the northwest corner of the site in both layouts, nearest downtown, to “capture the energy from downtown and to build demand for adjacent growth.” He added that the most valuable commercial properties are at street intersections that will lie to the east when the Water Street site is fully developed.

East County Rec Center: Conceptual Designs

The group also settled on the uses that the rec center would include: three basketball courts, a swimming center with a competition lane pool and a zero-depth access ramp warm pool; spaces for a variety of exercise equipment; specific rooms for yoga, pilates, and tae kwon do; rooms with more general purposes such as public meetings, events, or birthday parties; child care; and a running track that is a prominent feature in both plans. Borum said the group became fascinated with the track and used that to organize the design of both proposed interiors. The track is indeed visible from most parts of the interior of both designs.

Overhead view of a "storefront" design for the proposed east county recreation center in Ypsilanti

Overhead view of a “storefront” design for the proposed east county recreation center in Ypsilanti. The Huron River is to the right. Michigan Avenue is on the north edge of the site – in this image, the road runs along the bottom.

The first site plan reflects the river lot or “ribbon” street system, with “meandering east-west streets, and north-south streets which go all the way to the river,” as Borum put it. Some streets have buildings with mixed uses, while some are only residential.

The rec center in this plan is a “storefront scheme” that Borum said “plugs into the storefronts along Michigan Avenue,” with a relatively narrow presence on the north end. The building stretches out along the river, and is “lifted up so flood waters can go underneath it,” he said. Bicycle parking and the Border-to-Border trail are both underneath the building in this plan. Borum said this “urban wall” plan ”reflects the scale and interest we see along Michigan Avenue,” and has “parking dispersed on the site to avoid a huge area of asphalt, to provide 150 spaces in smaller chunks.”

The parking spaces located farthest from the rec center serve other uses on site, such as people who want to picnic or walk on the trail. The front door in this plan is accessible from the parking, from the trail, or from Michigan Avenue, with all entries leading into a single vestibule. The swimming center and a climbing wall are on the first floor, with exercise rooms on the second floor overlooking a pool and the climbing wall. The third floor holds the running track and meeting rooms. Walls of glass look over the river and onto Michigan Avenue. It’s crucial, said Borum, to “always have windows so you are connected to the site around you.”

The second site plan extends the existing gridded street system, both east-west and north-south. In this scheme, the rec center is compressed into a smaller area and takes up less space on the ground. It places commercial uses along the streets to the north and east, shifting to residential along the river to the south. The rec center in this version is a “canopy plan.” According to Borum, it “gives the sense that the park comes all the way out to Michigan Avenue, and that the building is under the tree canopy.” In fact, he said, the glass exterior of this version could be “fritted” so that it appeared to be covered with trees. [“Fritted glass” is treated in a variety of possible ways to make it more opaque, or add patterns or add color.]

This design includes an outdoor play area behind the building. The canopy provides an overhang, which pedestrians walking along Michigan Avenue, or those using the Border-to-Border trail, would pass under. Like the “storefront” scheme, this building could be entered easily from the street, parking, or the trail. The programmatic uses for this plan are similar to the first: A ground floor with a swimming center and locker rooms, exercise and weightlifting spaces, along with child care; a second floor with basketball courts and other rooms; a third floor with more exercise and meeting rooms, and the running track. Glass walls would allow users to see the river, and the track runs overhead in the whole space.

Comments, Questions

A member of the audience expressed concern about whether the rec center would be affordable for everyone, saying, “It would be sad to see a little kid looking in from the outside and not able to get in.” Diane Carr, vice president of program & community development for the Ann Arbor Y, responded to the comment: ”We turn no one away. Although we don’t have a formal agreement yet, our practice has been that we charge a membership fee but have scholarships so that anyone with a need can get in.”

Amanda Edmonds, executive director of the nonprofit Growing Hope in Ypsilanti, added her perspective. “The Y has showed us they understand the different economic situation in Ypsi,” she said. “I am excited that they are partnering on this – they get that partnering in a true and authentic way. I trust what they say. Y is already in Ypsi: they have one week summer camps with 55-60 kids for 10 weeks, and also provide programming in schools and at the senior center with adult exercise.”

In response to a question about affordability for senior citizens, Bob Tetens cited the Meri Lou Murray recreation center rate for those over 80 – $50 a year.

An audience member asked, “How will you deal with the high crime rate in Ypsilanti?” Tetens’ response: “The more people you can get in a facility, the safer it is. We would work with the city to develop as much activity as possible. It is a concern wherever we go.” He went on to describe the contractual arrangement of parks & rec with the county sheriff to patrol the county’s 23 nature preserves as an example of ways to ensure safety.

Several public officials attended the Sept. 27 presentation, including parks and recreation commissioners Pat Scribner, Janice Anschuetz, and Roland Sizemore, Jr.; Ypsilanti Township supervisor Brenda Stumbo; and former Ypsilanti planning directors Karen Hart and Richard Murphy.

The project’s steering committee includes Borum, Tetens, parks & recreation commission president Robert Marans, county parks and rec deputy director Coy Vaughn, county parks and rec planner Meghan Bonfiglio, Ypsilanti planning director Teresa Gillotti, and Cathi Duchon, CEO of the Ann Arbor YMCA. In addition to Borum, other UM Taubman College faculty involved in the project are Jen Maigret and Maria Arquera de Alarcon.

Students working on the project are Catherine Baldwin, Leigh Davis, Kathryn Dreitzler, Chaerin Jin, Geoffrey Salvatore, and Catherine Truong. Designers Amy McNamara, Alex Timmer, and Kayla Lim of PLY Architecture also worked on the design.

Editor’s note: This report is based on the presentation given at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012. There was a second presentation at 7 p.m. that day.

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