Much ado about something? ReImagine Washtenaw's hazy path to a clear vision

Sometimes knowing how the sausage is made is a good thing. Sometimes not so much. To wit, the recent vote on ReImagine Washtenaw's possible vision of the future, which divided Ann Arbor's city council for nearly a year. Why? We're still wondering.

On the morning of June 2, there was much to celebrate regarding the future of Washtenaw Ave. County planning officials and city council members in favor of the ReImagine Washtenaw Corridor Improvement Study were relieved the document had finally been approved by the Ann Arbor City Council. Council members who had previously voted to delay the study's adoption were celebrating the fact that its recommendations won't actually come to fruition for a long, long time, and even then, only after additional analysis. 

So…which is it? Was the night a victory for ReImagine Washtenaw or for the study's detractors? And why does a longterm, comprehensive, professional study examining ways to make Washtnaw Ave. a more functional, attractive and safer multi-modal corridor have detractors? 

Well, it didn't seem like it did, at first. Three of the four municipalities in the five-mile study area—Pittsfield Twp., Ypsilanti Twp. and the City of Ypsilanti—adopted the study that was released in April 2014 with little fanfare. 

And then there was Ann Arbor. 

Though the Ann Arbor Planning Commission voted unanimously to adopt the study in December, when it came time for city council to follow suit in February, a majority voted to postpone approval, deciding the study, which has been under discussion for more than five years, had not yet been sufficiently discussed. 

A minority, however, were ready to approve ReImagine Washtenaw from the beginning. 

"I appreciate the study because it was a long-term, collaborative, multi-agency effort," says Council Member Kirk Westphal. "I like it also because it acknowledges that Washtenaw is a connector and place, not just a piece of road."

Sounds pretty good. But in April, it was postponed again after a substitute resolution proposed by Council Member Jane Lumm supporting only portions of the study was proposed, but voted down. This was the crux of the holdup: council members picking apart specific recommendations in the study, discussing which were viable and why they didn't like others. For those keeping track, this marked one year since the plan had been released.

"All of the partners had been very strong supporters and very involved in the ReImagine Washtenaw collaboration," says Washtenaw County Economic Development Specialist and ReImagine Washtenaw Project Manager Nathan Voght. "So I think the other units were definitely looking to Ann Arbor to also adopt the study, since so much time and energy and implementation had already occurred."

And then, almost magically, it passed on June 1 in a 10-1 vote. What changed? Everything and nothing, depending upon whom you ask.

"Originally, the resolution included approval of all of the recommendations in the plan," says Council Member Jack Eaton. "The words 'all of' were taken out of the resolution, recognizing that the plan still needs work."

This is because, Eaton says, "There are a lot of problems with the plan." Not giving every recommendation included in the document sweeping approval—such as a median to facilitate Michigan left turns that may not give semis enough room to navigate—means everything will be vetted by traffic engineers, the public and, of course, city council before becoming reality. 

But according to Voght, those two little words will not adversely impact the implementation of the ReImagine Washtenaw plan. Probably because it's not actually a plan. Nor was it intended to be.

"It's absolutely not a construction document," says Westphal. "It's several phases removed from that. So while there may be some tweaks, or large changes that have to be made…it was approved as a vision, not as a construction plan." 

So, okay. It seems like maybe the wording change was not, in actuality, a big deal. So why did five of the six council members who had voted repeatedly to postpone the study's approval, and most of whom supported Lumm's alternate proposal, really change positions? 

According to Council Member Mike Anglin, who it was mostly a matter of gathering more public input, and, when it came down to it, he says, the differing opinions on council weren't that far apart. 

They were different enough, however, for Lumm to create that alternate resolution and for it to divide the council. Supporting it were Anglin, Eaton, Sumi Kailasapathy and Stephen Kunselman. It offered a sort of a la carte approval of the study, endorsing continued cooperation with the other municipalities, completing sidewalks and other multi-modal goals, but also calling for additional study and review of Michigan lefts and empirical evidence to support development close to the road. And keeping motor vehicle traffic the highest priority on the corridor.

The resolution was only one part of Lumm's pushback against ReImagine Washtenaw. She reportedly gave presentations at neighborhood meetings and urged residents to vocalize their opinions on the details of the study, which, again, were never intended to be accepted for immediate execution. Lumm was not able to be reached for comment as of publication. 

Whatever the motivations were to get people riled up over the details of a long-term vision that was intended for further review all along, a great deal of government time and energy was expended over the four-months, resulting in no small amount of frustration on behalf of those who were ready to move forward. Especially considering, after all that to-do, the end result will be the same as it would have been if council had approved the study in February. 

But regardless of process, Voght says things are now as they should be for ReImagine Washtenaw. 

"It's really important that all of the partners now will be working from the same study, in terms of taking the next step necessary to implement the provisions," he says.

For example, if one community along Washtenaw wants to create bike lanes, they can use the study as a guide to build their plan around, knowing the other municipalities are committed to creating complementary lanes in the future. 

"If one community is not following the same study, we'll be missing important links in the future," says Voght.

But amenities like bike lanes and a boulevard could be a decade away. For now, Ann Arbor city officials will be looking into acquiring right-of-ways along Washtenaw that would allow for future improvements, and all four municipalities will be thinking small and steady.

"There are numerous smaller projects that are going to advance this effort forward that will be incrementally making improvements to pedestrian safety, to transit to walkability, and those sorts of improvement will happen every year," says Voght.

Some of those initial improvements includes sidewalk infill in Pittsfield Ypsilanti townships, a mid-block crossing near EMU and the first AAATA super stop by Arborland. 

"But before any real, substantive alterations will be made, significant additional analysis would be allowed by the community," says Voght. "And [council members'] job is to make sure that the changes that occur do not adversely effect the community." 

And that, despite nearly a year of arguments and back-and-forths, has always been the plan. 

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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