Survey Drafted for Input on Downtown Parks

Subcommittee of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission plans to launch the survey in mid-June, and deliver recommendations in August

At a May 28, 2013 meeting interrupted by a tornado warning, members of the Ann Arbor downtown parks subcommittee reviewed a draft survey to gather input as the group develops recommendations for the city council.

Alan Haber, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Alan Haber takes notes on a draft survey about downtown parks. He was attending the May 28 meeting of a subcommittee of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission, which is putting together a survey that will be released in June. The subcommittee will be making recommendations regarding downtown parks and open space. (Photos by the writer.)

In a variety of ways, the survey attempts to gauge interest in downtown parks and open space, and to identify the types of activities and features that people might want, such as playgrounds or performance space. The survey also includes questions about assessing the existing downtown parks, including the farmers market, Liberty Plaza at Liberty & Division, and Sculpture Plaza at Fourth & Catherine.

This subcommittee of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission has been meeting regularly since early February. Their work relates in part to a request that mayor John Hieftje made last summer. It’s also meant to supplement the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s Connecting William Street project. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “Parks Group To Weigh In On Downtown Need,” and “Committee Starts Downtown Parks Research,” as well as coverage included in the PAC meeting reports for March 19, 2013 and May 21, 2013.

Several leaders of the Library Green Conservancy attended the May 28 meeting, and gave input on the survey throughout the discussion. The conservancy previously has criticized a survey conducted by the DDA as part of Connecting William Street, saying that the DDA survey did not give respondents the option of supporting downtown parks and open space.

Based on feedback at the May 28 meeting, parks staff will revise the survey for final review at the subcommittee’s June 11 meeting. The intent is to launch the survey soon after that meeting. The goal is to incorporate survey results as recommendations are developed for downtown parks/open spaces, which will likely be delivered to the city council in August.

Downtown Parks Survey

During the May 28 meeting, the subcommittee worked on an 18-question draft survey that had been developed by the city’s parks & recreation staff. [.pdf of draft survey, prior to revisions made on May 28]

In addition to general questions about the respondent’s relationship to downtown Ann Arbor and demographic information, the survey attempts – in a variety of ways – to gauge interest in parks and open space. It also tries to identify the types of activities that people want in a downtown park or open space. The survey also includes questions about assessing the existing downtown parks, including the farmers market, Liberty Plaza at Liberty & Division, and Sculpture Plaza at Fourth & Catherine. Most of the questions have options for open-ended responses.

A sampling of the draft survey questions:

  • How important are downtown parks/open spaces to you?
  • Do you think Ann Arbor needs more downtown parks/open spaces?
  • If more downtown parks/open spaces were added, do you think downtown would be better served by a large or small park/open space?
  • What activities are most important to you in a downtown park/open space?
  • What features are most important to you in a downtown park/open space?
  • Should the city of Ann Arbor consider alternative funding sources for the maintenance and programming of downtown parks/open spaces?
  • Should Ann Arbor focus more attention and resources on the existing downtown parks, including Liberty Plaza, Sculpture Plaza, and the farmers market – instead of creating new downtown parks/open spaces?
  • Looking at the downtown’s existing parks, what do you like/dislike?
  • Ann Arbor has many downtown street festivals and outdoor programming. Do you think these activities serve as temporary parks/open spaces?

The draft survey also asked about ideas for temporary parks/open spaces. The idea of “pop-up parks” has been mentioned at previous subcommittee meetings, as something that’s worked well in other cities. The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces has worked on this concept under the framework of “lighter, faster, cheaper” – developing engaging, temporary public places.

The draft survey also includes a map of the five city-owned properties that were examined as part of the Connecting William Street study, and asks respondents to rank the properties in terms of desirability for a downtown park or open space. Those sites are: (1) the Kline 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 former YMCA lot (on William between Fourth and Fifth), and (5) the top of the Library Lane underground parking garage on South Fifth, north of the downtown library.

Five city-owned sites in the Connecting William Street project

The five city-owned sites that were the focus of the Connecting William Street project are indicated in blue.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks & recreation manager, told the subcommittee that the survey had been drafted with the mission of the subcommittee in mind. That mission is:

To determine whether and what additional parks are wanted and/or needed in downtown Ann Arbor, focusing on city-owned parcels in the DDA district while maintaining awareness of additional nearby properties, for example: Liberty Plaza, 721 N. Main and 415 W. Washington. The “deliverable” will be a set of recommendations for the City Council.

David Rohr, the city’s park planning assistant, said the staff tried not to ask leading questions, and to make the survey overall as fair and balanced as possible.

The subcommittee reviewed the draft survey item-by-item. Themes of the discussion included ensuring that the survey questions were clear, eliminating terms that might be considered jargon and giving examples, where appropriate.

Alan Jackson, David Rohr, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor park advisory commissioner Alan Jackson and David Rohr, a park planning assistant.

Smith cited a rule of thumb he uses: Could his mother understand it? If not, he suggested revising the terms. “Passive recreation” and “programmed activities” are phrases that have meaning for parks and recreation professionals, for example, but aren’t necessarily clear for the general public. Providing examples of these terms would be helpful, he said. Programmed activities might include concerts, plays or other performances. Passive recreation could be picnics, reading or visiting with friends. Active recreation in a downtown park or open space might include Frisbee, basketball, chess or pétanque.

Mary Hathaway, with the Library Green Conservancy, joked that she was like Smith’s mother. She suggested asking whether people would be interested in having a wifi hot spot – wireless Internet access – at a downtown park or plaza.

Alan Haber, also with the conservancy, hoped to get more feedback about activities and features that families might want, like a playground. Hathaway suggested that a fountain or interactive water feature should be included as an example – it could be a place for children to play.

One question asks people to identify desired features in a downtown park or open space. The question provides a list of possibilities, like seating, art installations, landscaping, “a place that feels safe,” and “a place that sells food and beverages.” Hathaway suggested adding the option of a shade feature – not necessarily trees, she said, but perhaps awnings or arbors.

The subcommittee also discussed whether the phrase “alternative funding sources” was clear. The term was meant to indicate sources that are not based on taxpayer dollars, such as grants or other kinds of private funding. Alan Jackson, a park advisory commissioner, suggested first asking a question about whether people would support extra staffing or security at a downtown park or open space, and following that up with the question about funding sources.

Downtown Parks Survey: Next Steps

The subcommittee talked about how best to distribute the survey. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said the goal is to reach the widest group possible, including people who live and work downtown, residents who come downtown for specific purposes – like going out to eat, to special events, or to the library – and general parks users.

Park planner Amy Kuras noted that the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority had developed an extensive email distribution list as part of its Connecting William Street project. She suggested building on that list.

Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Members of the downtown parks subcommittee at their May 28 meeting. From the foreground: Julie Grand, Karen Levin and Alan Jackson. At the far end is former park advisory commission Gwen Nystuen, one of several members of the Library Green Conservancy who attended the meeting. A tornado warning forced the group to relocate the second half of its meeting to the basement of city hall.

Alan Jackson wondered about sending out surveys via regular mail, noting that it would be more costly but might reach people who can’t access an online survey. Kuras advised mailing out surveys only when requested. That was the approach she took when soliciting input for the parks, recreation & open space (PROS) update. She suggested putting up posters at public locations like the library branches and parks facilities, with contact information. Julie Grand proposed providing paper copies of the survey at those locations and other spots, including the Ann Arbor senior center and the Ann Arbor community center.

Alan Haber suggested putting the survey in locations to reach a broader age demographic, like the Neutral Zone – a downtown teen center – or local schools.

The parks staff will rework the draft survey based on comments at the May 28 subcommittee meeting, as well as any additional suggestions emailed to the staff. Smith cautioned commissioners not to deliberate about the survey via email, but simply to send their ideas for additional changes.

At its next meeting on June 11, the subcommittee will review the revised draft, with the intent of releasing the survey that same week. On June 11, the subcommittee will also set dates for public forums that it intends to hold, likely starting in July.

The subcommittee plans to bring a set of recommendations forward to the full park advisory commission, which will then forward those recommendations to the city council. The goal is to deliver the recommendations to the council sometime in August.

Public Commentary

Though members of the public who attended the May 28 meeting participated throughout the session, there were also two formal opportunities for public commentary.

Mary Hathaway thanked commissioners for “making us feel welcome.”

Alan Haber gave an update on the effort to put a temporary ice-skating rink on top of the Library Lane underground parking structure. He indicated that it was on hold, awaiting the recommendations on downtown parks, as well as on the Ann Arbor DDA’s decision about funding the project. He hoped the project would be considered, possibly for the fall.

Overall, he said he was encouraged that the subcommittee was looking at options that could be more than just a traditional park. But the concept that wasn’t captured in this survey, he said, was the idea of developing a central gathering place downtown. The options in the survey are delineated, he contended, and don’t represent an integrated vision for a civic center.

Haber also suggested that when survey results are compiled, it would be good to have the results analyzed by someone who’s an expert in data analysis – for example, someone from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Amy Kuras replied that one of the park commissioners has already offered to contact someone at UM for this kind of analysis.

Gwen Nystuen echoed Haber’s comments, noting that the draft survey includes options for the kind of parks that already exist, but it doesn’t address the basic question of whether people want a central park. Some people want that as a focal point, she said, but the survey doesn’t quite capture it.

In response to Nystuen’s comments, park commissioner Karen Levin suggested adding the central park option to the survey, as a choice in the question about types of downtown parks that people are interested in seeing.

PAC members present: Alan Jackson, Karen Levin, Julie Grand.

Also attending: Also Colin Smith, city parks and recreation manager, park planner Amy Kuras, and David Rohr, park planning assistant. Members of the public included Gwen Nystuen, Mary Hathaway, Will Hathaway, Alan Haber and Eppie Potts.

Next downtown park subcommittee meeting: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 from 5-6:30 p.m. at city hall’s first floor south conference room. More information about that group is on the subcommittee’s website.

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  1. June 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm | permalink

    I so wish we had some sort of “central park” in downtown (sorry, but the Diag doesn’t do it for me). I was in downtown Plymouth on a sunny day last week and their little town square area was full of people and pets and awesome. It would be nice to have something similar here…they even have a gazebo on theirs and it is so cute.

  2. June 2, 2013 at 10:51 pm | permalink

    Actually, Ann Arbor has impoverished itself by the lack of some sort of central plaza or park. Apparently before the County Courthouse was rebuilt (30-40 years ago?) there was some central green space around the old courthouse. Perhaps we were too comfortable with the release provided by the UM campus (which is not our downtown). But so many other communities benefit from a central park or plaza, even very small towns.

    A friend sent me this video [link] from Barcelona last year and I was just reviewing it. It is wonderful (a flash concert of Ode to Joy) but I was also impressed with the space in which it occurred – imagine if we had a gathering space like that where both planned and spontaneous public events could occur. I just don’t think Main Street quite substitutes.

  3. By John Floyd
    June 2, 2013 at 10:58 pm | permalink

    Plymouth does have a small but lovely downtown. With the push to put more highrises in central Ann Arbor, simultaneously adding green space/a public square seems like it would be an important amenity for any non-student tenants in these new buildings.

  4. June 3, 2013 at 10:16 am | permalink

    At this step of the PAC study of downtown parks, the question seems to be how do we involve the public in the decision making. This meeting included the important consideration of how to form the questions that will elicit the public’s input. From this report, it seems the PAC is actually interested in getting the process right.

    This is in contrast to the method the DDA used in seeking public input for the Connecting William Street (CWS) study. The DDA did not seek ideas about how best to acquire public opinion. In fact, the DDA obstinately ignored recommendations that their CWS survey was fundamentally flawed in its failure to seek advice on public space, downtown parks and green space. The CWS project was meant to lead to amendments of the downtown plan, but did not achieve that goal because of the general recognition that the CWS recommendations lacked support among residents and among Council members.

    Good public process is so important to democratic decision making. Good public process isn’t a question of how many residents participate in a survey. Instead, it is a question of how well did the survey present the issue. There are few questions that receive unanimous support. A good public process insures that we have a good approximation of how much support any idea actually has.