Blog: Anya Dale

Anya Dale loves her job but wishes she could do it in jeans. She is a Planner with Washtenaw County Office of Strategic Planning, serves on the city's Environmental Commission and chairs the Transportation Committee. She also knows how to care for African fruit bats. Anya will be writing about  A2's downtown, plans for the Huron River and the Washtenaw Ave portal.

Anya Dale - Post 3: Washtenaw Avenue Potential

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…