Ypsilanti's Eastside Recreation Center: Two Visions

The proposed $12 million Eastside Recreation Center on Ypsilanti's undeveloped 38-acre Water Street parcel fronting the Huron River is being touted as a viable economic strategy and an advancement in urban design. A linear park and extension of the Border to Border Trail are also planned for the site.
Together with officials from the city of Ypsilanti, the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department, designers from Ply Architecture and MAde Studio, and faculty and students from the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Planning, a trio of U-M graduate students spent last summer working up two iterations of the recreation center – "The Canopy" and "The Storefront".

Both versions call for a 60-65,000 square-foot center occupying eight acres. One of the models, however, questions the city's historical grid layout scheme – and presents an alternative as to how Ypsilanti can best optimize its riverfront.

"The Storefront is meant to be a continuation of downtown, and The Canopy is meant to be an extension of the park into the downtown," says design team member Catherine Truong.

"There were two components of the project: both the urban redevelopment of the entire Water Street site, as well as the design of the recreation center. It was important for the entire team and the steering committee that we look at it as one synthetic project," says Geoff Salvatore, a fellow design team member. "So we couldn't propose a rec center without thinking about what was going to happen on the rest of the site. And because of the history of the site, we felt it was necessary to use the opportunity for this Eastside Recreation Center as an opportunity to develop the [parcel]."

Concentrate's Tanya Muzumdar discusses the project and urban design concepts with three students from the team: U-M architecture graduate students Catherine Truong and Geoff Salvatore, and Leigh Davis, a student in U-M's urban planning graduate program.

What were your roles within the Eastside Recreation Center effort?

Davis: I did most of the urban fabric research to start the project off. We just wanted to get a sense of how Ypsi was laid out in terms of the development scheme and we found out it was mostly a grid.

Salvatore: We were all a part of the development of the concepts, both in terms of the urban plan – the ribbon scheme vs. the grid scheme and in terms of the building proposals, the canopy scheme vs. the storefront scheme. All of us worked on all four of those scenarios, in both the researching of why are we going to pursue a certain kind of direction, and also the figuring out of how to make that happen...the development of the idea into something that we could visually present to the parks board and the smaller steering committee that was leading the project with us.

Truong: We did a lot of precedent studies and visited a lot of local rec centers to see what was working, what was not working, what the parties involved were interested in as far as the local rec centers and basically what the community needed. And we presented [research on] rec centers around the country and some that were not in the country that showed different aspects of the building that might be overlooked; for instance, the rock climbing wall. There were some rec centers with unique tracks. [City and county officials] were really interested in not pushing that to the background. They wanted [the track] as a focal point of certain schemes early on in the development of each design.

Explain a ribbon scheme as opposed to a grid scheme?

Davis: The ribbon scheme follows the historical developments on rivers. So the Mississippi River has a ribbon, or a linear scheme, and it has to do with linear and urban farming, so that each parcel gets access to the river – instead of the grid scheme, which would section off the river and only one particular parcel would get access to the river. So our ribbon scheme is...making a linear scheme that's giving each parcel access to the river, and the grid scheme is just following the traditional fabric of Ypsilanti.

The rec center designs went along with that. The Storefront went along with the ribbon scheme because it was a more longitudinal design and The Canopy went along with the grid because it was more compact and centralized.

So as opposed to just one entity having control of a long length of the river, then the access is split between different parties.

Salvatore: It affects the way we proposed how the entire Water Street site could be redeveloped. So the ribbon scheme vs. the grid scheme, they're proposing slightly different variations. Both are mixed-use schemes...proposing slightly different makeups of commercial vs. residential and also the types of residential uses that might happen. So one of the benefits of the ribbon scheme being a scheme that's kind of thinner, is you might have more opportunities for row housing as a housing typology that could provide for different type of housing for the city of Ypsilanti, versus the grid scheme, which is a little more traditional [and conforming] with the surrounding areas of Ypsilanti.

Truong: The grid scheme follows the zoning that exists there. The ribbon scheme challenges that in trying to mix uses and not prioritize one typology over the other, and put commercial just up against the avenue and residential up against a river. It gives everybody a fair share of the river.

You presented both models and sought feedback at a public meeting at the end of September. Did people lean more towards the canopy or the storefront configuration?

Davis: It seemed pretty half and half at the meeting.

Urban renewal projects in cities such as Detroit, for example, are now putting their rivers in the front yard instead of the back yard, so to speak. How did the presence of the Huron River affect your designs?

Davis: Each of the schemes tried to not only bring the Border to Border Trail throughout the entire site but also just create a community area for residents of Ypsilanti and create areas where people can access the river and use outdoor space there.

Salvatore: The importance of the river in our thinking was the location of the rec center on the site. So if you look at the plans for either urban scheme, the rec center is always placed in the northwest corner at the intersection of where Michigan Avenue crosses the river. So we placed it there so it would be in closest proximity to the rest of downtown Ypsilanti, so it could capitalize on the activity that happens in the downtown right now as a way to provide the future rec center with users...

For both forms, we're really thinking about how downtown Ypsilanti continues to develop east along Michigan Avenue, and how this rec center could provide a way for that new development to interact with the river.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous column was "Green Drinks Mixes Cocktails With Conscience."


All photos by Doug Coombe

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