Anya Dale is a Planner with Washtenaw County Office of Strategic Planning, with a passion for shaping the built environ in a way that gets people out of their cars. She earned her B.S. from Michigan State in Environmental Biology/Zoology and Masters from EMU in Urban and Regional Planning, but has done most of her learning out in the real world. Anya's life and work experience has ranged from writing agricultural conservation and wetland restoration plans for farmers to caring for African fruit bats.
Anya's only beef with working for the man is the grown-up work attire. And so she serves on the City of Ann Arbor Environmental Commission, chairs the Transportation Committee and coordinates volunteers for the Annual Midwestern Crane Count for the International Crane Foundation. All of which she can luckily do in jeans.
As a regular sanity-maintenance measure, Anya spends her time with her amazing husband, dog, and friends, hikes often and finds a quiet place in yoga.
While the Pacific Northwest has many times called her name, she remains in Ann Arbor dedicated to helping the region reach its potential as a true leader in sustainability.
Last week an Action Team of more than twenty leaders from local government, business, public interest groups and community service associations met to evaluate the potential of Washtenaw Avenue to be redeveloped from an auto-oriented suburban commercial throughway to a compact, mixed use transit corridor and to encourage community and stakeholder collaboration on future development, land use planning and transportation investment decisions.
This team will help the goal of smart growth materialize by creating and adopting action steps for regional coordination of investment in non-motorized infrastructure and public transit, and sensible use of public-private resources to accommodate growth sustainably in order to stimulate the economy while better responding to changing environmental and social challenges.
At this first meeting Washtenaw County staff presented a Redevelopment Opportunity map with vacant and otherwise underutilized parcels and buildings identified. The remainder of the time was dedicated to a work session in which challenges and incremental steps to move from the existing conditions to the uber-sustainable Transit Oriented Development model were identified.
One of the unmistakable barriers are the complication of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts in Michigan due to home-rule planning and zoning policies. Additionally, Michigan does not have much experience retrofitting an auto-dominated suburban corridor for mixed use and fixed transit service across four municipalities. However, these challenges are also why this project is an opportunity to implement a new vision for this area.
Steps to get to this new vision were separated into three categories: Transportation, Land Use/Zoning and Market. Potential improvements to transportation along the corridor ranged from generally increasing non-motorized access and competitiveness of transit service through continuous sidewalks, and safe pedestrian crossings to more specific actions such as acquiring right of way for future transit improvements. A common theme was better integration of transit stops with commercial centers, and more frequent and/or express service with feeder buses connecting from significant destinations and employers near the corridor. Ideas for long-term improvements were Bus Rapid Transit, dedicated lanes and even fixed rail service along the corridor.
Land Use and Zoning largely focused on the need for the multiple jurisdictions along the corridor to coordinate for consistent plans, zoning, and review processes, as well as to modernize their zoning ordinances to reduced setbacks, allow greater height and re-examine parking requirements. One recommended method of doing this included the communities creating and adopting a common overlay or corridor redevelopment district. Incentives to increase the variety of housing options and incorporate more mixed use with residential elements were also discussed.
Finally, steps to encourage supportive market conditions were charted, such as identifying priority redevelopment sites and coordinating marketing efforts. Encouraging developer investment in transportation improvements, providing incentives for transit supportive land uses and creating a centralized financial resources toolbox to highlight opportunities for economic development and other available funding resources were among the results of the brainstorming session.
While complete consensus on details in the real world is near impossible, one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that old strategies don’t work any more. With this in mind, future meetings will use the knowledge and expertise around the table to refine the steps, identify the information and resources needed, and use this foundation to develop an action plan that will get us moving in the right direction. The wide representation on this group also creates an opportunity for greater prioritization of resources and an ability to leverage outside resources such as grants.
As results from the workshops are compiled and completed they will be posted on the group website: http://annarborregionsuccess.org/action-teams/talent-center. This project will also be taken out to nearby neighborhoods and other groups for input at various points in the process. In the meantime, share your thoughts with me. What are your concerns for Washtenaw Avenue and the region? What are the improvements you would like to see for the corridor? What needs to change to make these improvements more feasible?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion more formally, contact me at email@example.com
Something we all hear about often is how important it is to keep young professionals in the area and what things we need as a community to attract the newly graduated, the creative, the entrepreneurs, and the businesses. For the most part we have those attractions, from hospitals, schools and parks to downtowns and big ten sports. We have all the glam of the big city in a smaller college town.
Unfortunately, most of these talented people often can’t afford to live in the urban areas that attract them. And those farther from downtown may be destined to spend what feels like half their life in a car. Now I don't care how much someone likes their car, most of us agree there are better things to do than read bumper stickers and decipher license plate abbreviations.
This brings me to Washtenaw Avenue, which most people think of as the ugly five miles between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. It's true that, depending on the time of day, you are likely to walk faster than you can drive. Yet, it's also true that this area of Washtenaw County has tremendous potential to grow into talent centers which attract young workers and businesses, while countering the sprawling nature of the corridor. What I am speaking of is the potential for pedestrian friendly mixed use with a strong workforce housing component and sense of place.
There are many reasons the seemingly unlikely Washtenaw Avenue is the place for these talent centers. Not only is Washtenaw Avenue the major link between the county' two largest urban areas, but is also anchored on either end by major employment centers and universities. Many people already live along this corridor and/or travel its length to access the downtowns, as well as the services and stores along the way. And, while traffic congestion is high, so is bus ridership. In fact, the AATA bus route 4 is one of the most productive in the system, yet still has difficulty keeping up with the demand.
The fact that bus ridership is so high despite the current landscape being extremely segregated and isolated with five lane roads and vast parking lots, is a testament to this corridor’s potential. Even moderate improvements in the form of mixed uses and pedestrian oriented design would have a significant transformative affect on the corridor.
What have generally been considered the shortcomings of Washtenaw Avenue can and should instead be seen as opportunity. Traffic congestion means the corridor is traveled, and its businesses have the potential to reap greater benefit from would-be customers. Pockets of relatively dense housing and people who rely on transit indicate there is an untapped potential for the needs of many of these residents to be met locally.
The land use characteristics which make this corridor auto-oriented also afford significant opportunity for redevelopment and infill development.
For example, within a quarter mile of the road there are roughly 100 acres of vacant and underutilized land. Many of the existing shopping centers have a high vacancy rate and largely unused parking lots. Redeveloping these areas into mixed use centers with increased housing options and increased transit could not only provide many of the daily needs of people living and working in the area, but drastically improve the tax bases of the communities along the corridor. It would also create more of the mixed use neighborhoods many young professionals are looking for. Luckily, community leaders are becoming more aware of both the needs and potential of the Washtenaw Avenue corridor. The recent Ann Arbor Region Success strategy has led to the creation of a Talent Center Implementation Team to explore and validate potential redevelopment opportunities and develop steps for transforming the corridor. There will be periodic Washtenaw Avenue related posts along the way, especially as the discussion moves into potential implementation steps, so keep your eye on this blog.
In the mean time, let me know your thoughts. Or if you feel inclined to take a more active role, drop me a line…
Many cities are well known for their ability to attract residents, businesses and tourists with their natural landscapes, from Boulder’s 200 miles of multi-use trails to Eugene, Oregon with its Class II-III Willamette River.
In southeast Michigan, it might be easy to feel like we don't have much in the way of bragging rights for significant natural features. Granted, we have no mountains or ocean coast, but there are some pretty significant systems that don't get the hype they deserve. Ann Arbor, in particular, has a relatively untapped potential for being an outdoor recreation mecca.
Ann Arbor has over 2,000 acres of City Parks alone, many of them with hiking trails. We have over 5 miles of river through the heart of downtown connecting to many of the regions parks. One of my favorite Saturday jaunts involves a hike through four parks. Individually each might only provide a couple miles of trails, but a bit of an adventurous attitude (or the help of online aerial photos or maps) uncovers how many of the parks in the area link to each other with little more than a road to cross. The Border to Border Trail which follows the river through town can also easily become a day trip on foot, or a good afternoon bike ride at least. Unfortunately, most people really don’t know what is out there. There are bike path maps and park maps, but none both comprehensive and with enough detail to show how trails within and between are easily interconnected into a longer trip. Ann Arbor's 2,000 acres of parks is impressive; the ability to "build-your-own" hike through a park and trail system would be remarkable. Of course, this would require a bit of technical mapping skill, as well as public outreach, but resources are available for both.
We also haven't properly promoted having something out of the ordinary. The communities which have made a name for themselves based on their parks or rivers generally have done something bold to elevate them.
Madison, Wisconsin has parks within city limits where you can set up camp, with racks of free firewood leftover from park maintenance. My heart is all a flutter just writing of it.
Kayakers know Denver for its Confluence Park, a downtown whitewater run. The park also has a positive impact on the nearby economy. As a recognized recreation center in an urban space, outdoor recreation stores, kayak and bike rentals, condos and outdoor bistros are all blooming within a short walk.
While Ann Arbor certainly has the goods to compete with these cities, many residents and tourists alike lack the ability to conceptualize the immense potential of these parks on account of our uninspired marketing approach.
For example, our river which is arguably one of Ann Arbor’s greatest assets is repeatedly interrupted by dams and mostly hidden behind industrial, office and research buildings. I can't express how important it is that new development or redeveloped properties along the river encourage a connection from nearby streets and neighborhoods to the waterfront, rather than hiding it. An opportunity to play up the Huron also exists in the recent discussion on potentially removing the Argo dam to return the river to its normal flow. Obviously there is a lot to consider, yet it seems to me most avid outdoor adventurers would be attracted to a more natural, consistent and faster flowing river with a few whitewater segments.
These are just a few of many ways to showcase what we have, from simple things like improved trail mapping to implementing grander visions for the Huron River. The most important thing is to embrace creative ways to change we think about what we have, and the willingness to take bold steps to put our natural features in the regional and national spotlight.
Some existing maps and resources:
City of Ann Arbor Bike Map:
A very smart lady recently posed the question to me "Who is Ann Arbor For?"
As a born and raised Ann Arborite, I have seen the city through some changes, mostly small, which have probably changed the character over the long term more than what would be obvious at first glance. My grandmother, who moved here in 1950, has a better perspective of the city's transformation. On more than one occasion, I find our generations have in common the same longing for local, walkable communities. She tells tales of walking to all of her shopping and service needs, all of which were downtown; a Kroger, Klines, Goodyears, Muehlig's, Feigels and Jacobsen's, as well as dime stores and hardware stores.
A few of these stores were still around when I was little. I remember coming downtown with my mom to Jacobson's when I had outgrown my clothes. Walking among these gorgeous old buildings for a day of errands and shopping was something I looked forward to even then. Through middle school my friends and I asserted our independence by hanging around Pinball Petes, Fantasy Attic and Inflight. And in college it was the bars. At twenty something I live most of my life downtown, visiting in breweries, bookstores and coffee shops.
I've heard and agree that each "group" knows and enjoys their own part of Ann Arbor. And while I personally probably could never tire of restaurants or coffee shops, it seems fairly obvious to me the needs of all "groups" are not being met. More specifically, the daily services which at one time made living and shopping locally the norm, which drew my grandma to the area and which now my generation is looking for are few and far between.
Except for a couple examples, little remains of the practical shops and services my parents and grandparents enjoyed. A common topic among many of my friends is that we wish we had more of those stores our parents and grandparents had downtown. Instead, it seems the boutique-ification (another shout out to the aforementioned smart lady) of the downtown has made it near impossible for the average person to buy clothing or home goods without getting into their car and driving to a mall or strip center. It's unfortunate that these are often the same people who would be happy to do without a car, either for financial reasons or because they are part of the younger generation which seek communities with housing and transportation options.
As I hear about the importance of keeping young professionals and talent in the area, I can't help but to think the lack of these downtown stores and services is hurting the cause. The fact that in their place are an increasing number of chain coffee shops and expensive bar-hopping-style clothing stores, may cater to students, but leave would-be more permanent residents looking elsewhere for most of their daily needs.
In order to remain competitive in attracting and retaining talent, we need to do more to maintain the unique character and functionality our downtowns. And of course, an Ann Arbor which is mostly for students and out-of-town Saturday night window shoppers, leaves the common chime of shopping locally to support the downtown lost on the ears of those driving to the closest big box to find shower curtains and t-shirts.