What a 21st-Century Washtenaw Ave. should look like

Nathan Voght is an economic development specialist with the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development. He is the ReImagine Washtenaw project manager, and the brownfield redevelopment coordinator for Washtenaw County. Prior to his work with Washtenaw County, Nathan was the director of the Howell Downtown Development Authority and the Main Street manager from 2008 to 2011, and the city planner for Ypsilanti from 2001 to 2008. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in urban and regional planning from Eastern Michigan University.


What a 21st-Century Washtenaw Ave. Should Look Like

Today, there's a deepening understanding of how land use development patterns can affect safety, quality of life, and economic development. An over-emphasis on the automobile and little thought to creating great "places" have resulted in an environment that is undesirable.

Washtenaw County, like any place, has many legacies. As communities grow and develop, decisions are made that appear to be in the best interest at that time, or at the very least they reflect the diverse set of conditions that give rise to the built environment over time. My work with Washtenaw County is particularly focused on two legacies that the modern day county leaders have inherited: brownfields, which include contaminated land, as well as abandoned, dangerous and obsolete buildings, and the Washtenaw Avenue corridor, arguably the most perilous corridor in the County for drivers, much less bikers and pedestrians. (Have you ever *actually* looked forward to driving down Washtenaw?!)

The conditions that resulted in the Washtenaw Avenue that we know today vary, but generally include the emergence of strip commercial development, promising easy parking and access, and convenient US-23 access. The "rise" (downfall?) of the corridor also coincided, presumably, with the increasing cost to develop in downtown Ann Arbor pushing new commercial development to the fringe. The popularity of "easy-access" strip malls, gas stations, and restaurants, meant each site was developed quickly, and individually to maximize convenient automobile access. Little thought was put into how each site related to the other, and the potential to maximize efficient use of land by sharing access, parking, or other site amenities. While likely not a problem then, with traffic volumes relatively low, no public transportation, and no real demonstrated need to accommodate pedestrians or bicyclists, what about today? Today, things have changed. Traffic volumes are high, there is significant demand for public transportation, biking and walking are again seen as vital forms of transportation, and there isn't sufficient funding to expand existing roads, much less build new ones. In other words, we can't "build" our way out of the problem.

Reimagine Washtenaw is an effort to fully leverage all of the assets of the corridor to transform the area into an economically viable, higher-functioning, transit-oriented corridor, which is safe to walk and bike, is a place our community likes to visit, and can contribute to the economic vitality of the region, yet still provide for efficient movement of vehicular traffic. The collaboration, made up of the four communities along the corridor, as well as other key stakeholders such as the Michigan Department of Transportation and The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, focuses on three areas that need attention:

Place-Making

"Places" are where you enjoy being, whether you have to be there or not. Think of your favorite salon, your favorite restaurant, your favorite park, your friend's cool downtown loft, or your favorite outdoor café… People are most comfortable shopping, living, and experiencing places that are interesting, unique, diverse, and built to a human scale. With our infatuation with the car, we built neighborhoods and shopping districts that not only depend on access by vehicle, but require it. ReImagine Washtenaw will create new "places" by providing for various neighborhoods of compact, active, interesting places along the corridor. Buildings here are denser, built to pedestrian scale and provide interesting street-level interaction and walkability through first floor retail, restaurant and service uses, adjacent efficient transit service, and safe accommodations for both pedestrians and cars.

Why is creating "places" a key to transformation of the corridor? Millenials and Baby Boomers together make up the largest segment of the population. Attracting and retaining these age groups is critical to building communities now and in the future, as Millennials will make up most of the work force and represent the future of the economy, and Boomers are downsizing, looking for walkable places with amenities, and have disposable cash. These segments are driving a shift in housing and quality of life that "places" provide, where access to transit, downtowns, and walkable communities is the highest priority. 

A 2014 survey by the American Planning Association found that only 8% of Millennials and 7% of Active Boomers prefer living, if they can afford it, in a suburb that requires driving to most places. In the same survey, 76 percent of all respondents said affordable and convenient transportation options other than cars are at least somewhat important when deciding where to live and work. That percentage increased among Millenials (81 percent) and Active Boomers (77 percent). ReImagine Washtenaw is implementing the change along the corridor as quickly as possible in order to attract those who are seeking the kind of environment that Washtenaw Avenue could provide. It is recognized that these desirable groups are fairly mobile and are more likely to move more often, compared to other generations. For example, the APA survey found that 55% of Millennials said they are likely to move in the next five years.

Economics

National studies have shown that walkable communities with access to various transportation alternatives and other cultural, recreational, and commercial services increase in value faster and retain value longer that other areas. The higher-density, walkable, mixed-use nodes that are planned along Washtenaw Avenue will create more jobs and provide more value by providing the "places" that people want to be. Job creation will be higher that found in lower density, suburban developments. Finally, high density, mixed-use, compact development generates far more revenues in proportion to the cost of public services it uses. A 2013 study by Smart Growth America of three styles of development in the Nashville, TN area: suburban, large-lot, low-density development on a greenfield site; a "New Urbanist" style, mixed-use, walkable development, also in a greenfield setting; and a mixed-use, compact housing and office development with retail and dining built on a brownfield demonstrated that the latter was far and away the best value for municipalities. 

Finally, congestion inhibits economic growth. ReImagine Washtenaw participated in the formation of a new business-owner association in the city of Ann Arbor, called the Washtenaw Avenue Merchants Association. Business owners have cited low sales during rush hours, particularly in the afternoon. Driving the corridor at any time is frustrating, so shopping or making other stops is done only when absolutely necessary. So, increased traffic defeats the synergistic advantages of an easily-accessible business district, where one business might receive secondary sales benefits from a shopper that is already in the area for another purpose.

Safety

The Washtenaw Avenue corridor is very congested during peak periods, and includes some of the most accident-prone intersections in the county. Some of the highest housing density in the county is located within walking distance of the corridor, yet walking around the corridor is menacing, at best. Mid-block crossings and walker-friendly intersections are needed where numerous residents and transit users seek to access public transportation and other services, but there are currently not adequate, safe locations for pedestrians to cross the street. 

The vision for Washtenaw Avenue is to create a more "complete street" by providing reasonable accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians, while continuing to move traffic. The current conditions on the corridor don't provide safe routes for pedestrians and bicyclists. Each commercial site unnecessarily has its own ingress and egress drive, which leads to an unsafe and threatening environment for all users, not just pedestrians and bicyclists. Excessively wide lane widths encourage speeding and less awareness of one's driving environment. Appropriately sized lane widths will, in the long term, accommodate buffered bike lanes along the entire corridor.

Through a comprehensive approach, including place-making, complete streets, and compact, mixed-use land use patterns, ReImagine Washtenaw will facilitate the gradual, incremental transformation of the corridor. The knee-jerk reaction may be to "build" our way out of congestion by adding more lanes, but even if there were sufficient right-of-ways to expand the road, it's not the smart and sustainable solution. In fact, that would be the fool's approach, given the impending cultural, economic, and demographic factors that demand a far different solution. 
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