While Ypsilanti Township neighborhoods like West Willow and Gault Village have bounced back from the Great Recession, the township's Sugarbrook neighborhood is still struggling.
"Sugarbrook was one of the neighborhoods that lost the most taxable value," says Crystal Campbell, community engagement coordinator for the township. "Sugarbrook needed neighborhood stabilization more than neighborhoods south of Ford Lake or to the northeast."Ypsi Township Community Engagement Coordinator Crystal Campbell
A host of challenges remain for Sugarbrook, ranging from how to repurpose its former Kettering Elementary property to concerns over crime and lack of neighborhood amenities. But the township, Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, and neighborhood residents are mobilizing around a variety of solutions.
Small neighborhood, big challenges
As the township develops its own master plan priorities for Sugarbrook, it's also been working closely there with Habitat since 2016. Sarah Teare, community development director for Habitat, says township officials invited Habitat to work in Sugarbrook because they were so pleased with the work Habitat has done in Gault Village and West Willow, which surround Sugarbrook.
Teare cautions that Habitat's home rehabilitation work will likely be less dramatic in Sugarbrook than in Gault Village, where she says Habitat acquired 40 houses "at the bottom of the foreclosure crisis." Additionally, she says federal neighborhood stabilization funds used in Gault Village aren't available for Sugarbrook.Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley Community Development Manager Sarah Teare
Gault Village also has a low rate of rental property, around 1 percent in contrast with about 34 percent in Sugarbrook, so the two neighborhoods can't be directly compared.
"But we're always looking for additional homes to purchase, out there scouring listings and talking to realtors or people who may want to sell their homes independently," Teare says.
Habitat continues to both rehab houses and run other home improvement projects in the neighborhood. The organization has completely gutted and rebuilt five houses in Sugarbrook so far, with a sixth in the works on Foley Avenue. Habitat also runs programs that beautify the exterior of homes and provide minor repairs, along with programs that help residents lower their utility costs through installing more efficient equipment and appliances.
Conflicting visions for Kettering property
Habitat's work in the neighborhood isn't limited to building and improving homes. The organization has also been attending and facilitating community meetings to seek neighborhood feedback on a variety of issues, including the nine-acre property that once housed Kettering Elementary.
Kettering was a neighborhood anchor for many years, but the school was shuttered in 2010 and remained vacant until residents pressured Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) to demolish it late this January.The former site of Kettering Elementary in Sugarbrook
Glen Fitzhugh, head of the Sugarbrook neighborhood watch and member of Habitat's Sugarbrook steering committee, describes himself as a "strong advocate" for Kettering's demolition. He says the vacant building invited criminal activity and prompted frequent public safety calls.
Glen Fitzhugh at the former site of Kettering Elementary in Sugarbrook
Pastor Willie Powell leads Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions, at the heart of Sugarbrook. The church has let Habitat use its community center for town halls, and has hosted town hall meetings to gauge community concerns. Powell says the community members who have expressed an opinion about Kettering in those forums would like to see the nine-acre property become a community center of some kind.
Visions for that community center differ. Fitzhugh would like to see the property turned into a community commons with a walking track, benches, and a playscape for small children. Melvin Parson, founder of We the People Growers Association on the Grace Fellowship property, has repeatedly expressed interest in the Kettering property as a site for his new nonprofit, We the People Opportunity Center.
"It's a huge property, and residents want to know what is going to come of it," says Ceara Murtagh, community development coordinator for Habitat. "The land has a lot of potential, and we really want to work on it."
The YCS board of education gets final say on the property, but Habitat is hoping to guide the conversation and include residents' wishes in the process. Habitat is currently preparing a neighborhood survey on the topic.
Survey results will be shared with the neighborhood watch, the school board, and the township, along with any community partners who might step up to help with plans for the property.
"We know and understand it's ultimately (the school board's) decision," Murtagh says. "It's just a way for us to get the communication going and have data available so the school board knows what residents want."
Concerns about amenities and safety
Kettering isn't the only thing on residents' minds. A visioning session facilitated by Habitat at the end of January resulted in four work groups. One was for future uses of the Kettering property, while the other three focused on youth activities, neighbor relations, and amenities.
Concerns about crime and safety are an underlying concern for all of those work groups.
For instance, Sugarbrook Park gives the neighborhood its name, but many residents don't feel safe allowing their children to play there. The park has a brand new play structure, but that's only because vandals burned down the previous play equipment.Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions pastor Willie Powell
Campbell says the township has plans to install additional lighting at the park to combat crime. Powell is hoping that more activities for neighborhood youth will also help with crime and safety concerns.
Grace Fellowship already partners with Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation to run an eight-week summer camp for youth ages 6-11, and there are programs for youth 16 and over. But Powell says there's a "big gap" in programming for the ages in between.
"In the summer months, kids don't have anything to do but hang out and get in trouble," he says. "What we want to do is have some type of recreation and educational programs for teenagers from 12 to 15."
Another safety concern is drivers speeding through the neighborhood. The work group around amenities is already investigating the process for having the Washtenaw County Road Commission install curbs, and possibly speed bumps, on several streets in strategic areas.
Both Powell and Fitzhugh note that crime has decreased overall in the neighborhood, due both to Habitat's work and community policing by the Washtenaw County Sheriff's department.
Residents are also concerned about the lack of amenities within a few miles of the neighborhood. Similar to feedback the township has received from Gault Village neighbors, Sugarbrook residents would like to see the rundown Gault Village Shopping Center rehabilitated and revitalized.
"People really want a grocery store closer, and they're disappointed there isn't a bank over there anymore, and no hardware store," Campbell says.
Crystal Campbell and Ypsi Township planning and development coordinator Charlotte Wilson
Those needs "come up over and over" when speaking to township residents in several nearby neighborhoods, she says. The lack of amenities became a recurring theme in the township's master plan process in late 2018 and remains on the township's radar as it revises its master plan.
The township's plans for Sugarbrook (and other township neighborhoods) will be announced during a master plan unveiling event set for 7 p.m. April 2 at the Whittaker Road branch of the Ypsilanti District Library.
Fitzhugh says he loves what Habitat is doing for his community, and he expresses hope for continued improvement on Sugarbrook's remaining challenges.
"I just want Sugarbrook to be a nice place that people are happy to come to," he says.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at email@example.com.
Willie Powell photo courtesy of Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions. All other photos by Doug Coombe.