Perfect Park Potential: The Case for Liberty Plaza, Part I

There's been a lot of dreaming about downtown parks lately. The Library Green Conservancy's website imagines "A place where Presidential candidates would want to speak, Where Shakespeare could be performed, Where Greek theater is played with our choruses, And wandering minstrels find welcome!" Eighteen percent of respondents to a survey by Councilperson Sabra Briere say they'd like to see "a grassy area with trees." Fourteen percent want to see a space for food carts and craft fairs.

So many voices with so many different visions for a potential public space, and all refer to the space next to the library that is now a surface parking lot and roof to the underground parking structure known as the Library Lot. And on the same block, just yards away, is a public space of the same size with a current use that few are happy with.

And no one is talking about it. 

No, really. No one wants to talk about it. As we found in researching this article, it was more difficult to persuade people to talk about Liberty Plaza than any other topic this writer has covered for Concentrate. With all the downtown park dreaming, why the visionary vacuum for Liberty Plaza?

"It's always more fun to build a new flower bed than maintain the one we've got," says Briere. "It's easier to imagine a new park as a popular place where nothing can or has ever gone wrong than look at a park where things aren't going well."

The issues in Liberty Plaza have been well documented over the years. Does all of the focus on the future Library Plaza mean Liberty Plaza is just out of luck? A place to be avoided indefinitely? Or could a renovated version of an existing park be the best hope downtown park dreamers have of realizing their vision?

A brief history

Liberty Plaza was built in 1977 as complement to the First Martin building immediately to its west. 

"It was designed to create a really pleasant entrance to a below-grade retail space to make that retail space viable," says Briere. "As long as there was a bookstore there, that space was viable."

But since retailers have gone out of the sunken, basement story of the building and the plaza-facing doors stopped being used, Liberty Plaza became a place without a purpose. And so it has remained. According to a 2012 City of Ann Arbor staff memo, via the Ann Arbor Chronicle, discussions about the issues in the park have taken place in 1991, 1998 and 2003, and several renovations have been done specifically to address them, most recently in 2003 when $200,000 was spent on plaza structure, paving and furniture. 

"The renovations have never really changed the structure of the plaza," states the memo, "but only replaced paving materials, benches, tables and lighting."

Another thing the renovations never really changed are the issues that make Liberty Plaza an unfriendly place for the general public. 

Library lot limits

If Liberty Plaza and the Library Lot were to go toe-to-toe in a Public Park Potential Showdown, some downtown greenspace dreamers might be surprised to learn that the underdog not only has the advantage of more foot traffic but also in the grassy, shady, public space department.

"A lot of people envisioned a lawned park with mature trees," Briere says of her Library Lot survey findings. "The problem is, it can't happen in that location. Because mature trees need room for roots. There are tree wells [in the parking garage], but they'll never be big shade trees." 

Not like the big shade trees at Liberty Plaza, at least. Councilperson Sally Petersen agrees, saying a more accurate vision of the Library Lot park might be hardscape plaza. 

"I know some people are vocal that there should be open greenspace, but I'm not sure how much of that we could do," Petersen says. "I'm more inclined to think of an urban plaza that could feature pop-up shops or pop-up restaurants."

A hardscape park? Uh…like Liberty Plaza? Which is less than a block away.

A vision for Liberty Plaza

If the Library Lot could become a hardscape park (that will somehow succeed where Liberty Plaza has failed), then couldn't Liberty Plaza become downtown's great hope for a true, green, shady park?

To do so, Briere imagines the following renovations: bringing the space up to ground level, uniting the plaza with Kempf House, and connecting Liberty Plaza more naturally and visually to the library. 

"People who sit at Liberty Plaza for hours give the impression that they have nothing to do," she says. "Because their activity is below grade and kind of sketchy looking…there is nothing about that space that says it's friendly for small children. 

"By making it all at grade, you eliminate that sense of privacy that people have there." 

What would such renovations cost? That's anyone's guess. 

"Renovations at Liberty Plaza, or any site for that matter, can vary tremendously in scope and ambition making a cost estimate difficult to generate," says Amy Kuras, park planner for the City of Ann Arbor. "To date, there has been no concept design generated, nor have there been any public meetings held targeting what people would like to see instead of what is there now other than some general discussion about raising the Park level."

Why would so many meetings be necessary? Because planning a park without first specifically planning for its use is a recipe for disaster. See: Liberty Plaza, currently. And now, even while - nay, especially while - everyone is obsessing over the Library Lot could be the best time to do it.

"If we're going to transform that park, we need to do it while we're transforming the rest of Library Lot," Petersen says. 

There's no reason, after all, for two neighboring public spaces to have duplicate or competing uses. One of them, certainly, would suffer either way.

The programming piece

Of course, bulldozers alone don't change behavior. 

"I don't know if you can change the loitering issue just by changing the architecture," says Petersen. "There needs to be programming on it."

Bob Gregory, President of the Detroit 300 Conservancy, which oversees the development and ongoing management and programming of Detroit's $20+ million Campus Martius Park, concurs.  At a April 2012 Concentrate speaker event Gregory emphasized that a successful downtown public space requires active and continued programming, making use of both public and private financial support. 

Gregory highlighted "a year-round programming plan, park features that are extraordinary, and flexible spaces" as part of Campus Martius Park's recipe for success.

Locally, Sonic Lunch is a perfect example of how programming can transform a downtown space, with no design consultants or bulldozers required. Liberty Plaza might be an undesirable place to walk through at 3:30 pm on an average Tuesday, but at noon on Thursdays during the summer, people are lured there in droves to view the Sonic Lunch concerts. 

Similarly, after Liberty Plaza has been a problem spot during Ann Arbor Art Fair for years, The Ann Arbor News reports that a the presence of an Ann Arbor Police Department booth transformed the use of the plaza during the event, giving visitors a place to seek shade and respite. That's right, shade. Because Liberty Plaza already has the trees the Library Lot cannot.

The current trajectory of Liberty Plaza isn't far off from these visions, it's just not moving there very quickly. According to the Park Advisory Commission's Downtown Parks Subcommittee Report, official recommendations for Liberty Plaza is that significant improvements should only be made in concert with First Martin, the adjacent property owner that currently maintains the park for the city, and that immediate efforts should focus on small, incremental changes, such as shrubbery removal, and programming opportunities. Down the road, making a visible connection to the Library Lot is recommended.

That's not a particularly revolutionary or urgent plan, but with all of the passion focused on making a park on the Library Lot it's hard to fathom why there's so little enthusiasm for improving Liberty Plaza. Is there any reason there shouldn't be passion to imagine a better future for both spaces? Should Liberty Plaza be regarded as disposable, overshadowed by the novelty of a space that has no other advantage other than it is new?

The issue has its challenges, to be sure. If Liberty Plaza were brought up to grade, how would the below-grade, windowed offices in the First Martin building adapt? If the negative behavior that deters people from Liberty Plaza is driven away, will another area of downtown (maybe one closer to the library) suffer? These are good questions. But with all the overlooked promise the much-griped about plaza has to fulfill the dreams some have for a downtown park, perhaps the answers are worth uncovering.

All photos by Doug Coombe