Downtown and Underground

Ann Arbor is home to what is arguably Michigan's most beautiful parking garage. The Fourth & Washington garage isn't just a work of art, it's many works of art. The conservative-yet-modern mix of stone and brick exterior masks an eclectic mix of art that can't help but reveal itself on closer inspection. The Mosiac tile mural, metal sculptures on each level of parking, contemporary paintings that line the entrance and floor numbers in different languages ensure that even regular visiting commuters notice something different every day.

Its tight design still provides plenty of space for cars and pedestrians to safely coexist without fear of running into each other. The circular path to the top is efficient enough that vehicles can glide down in neutral and drivers barely have to touch the brake.

The easiest way to sum it up is as seven floors of parking palace in a region where most parking garages take their cues from clunky Soviet-style government buildings.

And even with its beauty and functionality, local leaders probably wouldn't build it again.

Above-ground parking is passe in Ann Arbor these days. It's hard to dedicate valuable downtown real estate to automobile storage when building density, promoting green practices and attracting young professionals are mission critical, especially in a state that is struggling on all three of those fronts. Furthermore, Ann Arbor locals are more focused these days on alternative means of transportation, whether it's trains, bicycles, or good ol' shoe leather.

So, how to make room for cars and keep the downtown's businesses attractive to a culture that still views the horseless carriage as its first choice for transportation? Store them underground and out of sight.

It's part of the reason why the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority wants to spend $55 million to build an entirely underground parking structure. It would make Ann Arbor the only other city in Michigan besides Detroit to have an entirely underground structure, once again putting Tree Town ahead of the curve and reinforcing its reputation for innovation.

"A lot of European cities have done underground parking garages," says Nancy Shore, program director for the getDowntown initiative. "This will be much more pedestrian friendly because it puts the parking in a different place."

Stacking in the Library Lot

The Library Lot is about one-third of a square block dedicated to 192 surface parking spaces adjacent to the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. To say that it is a prime location would be an understatement. The DDA wants to replace the lot with a 670-space underground parking garage that goes four stories deep and stretches beneath 5th Avenue.

The DDA is looking at incorporating a number of sustainable features into the project, such as sky lights to maximize natural light, utilizing LED lights and giving preferred parking for fuel-efficient vehicles. Space would also be set aside for bicycles and the surface level would be landscaped into a much more presentable state than its current sea-of-asphalt look. It's an approach that many German cities have used to great success.

"It's clearly a milestone for Ann Arbor," Ann Arbor City Councilman Leigh Greden says. "It's our first garage that is completely underground. That's important because it opens the land up to a variety of uses."

That's the big argument for the parking structure - it gives downtown Ann Arbor a variety of options. The parking deck will be strong enough to build a tax-paying building or city asset like a convention hall on top of it. It provides close to another 500-net parking spaces in the center of downtown (the Fourth & Washington garage only has 282 spaces) where the lack of parking is often cited as its biggest hurdle.

The ability to build something on top helps repair the urban fabric that has been partially torn apart by surface parking lots. A building filled with ground floor windows, shops and businesses completes the streetscape between the popular downtown library and Liberty Street, and on to Main Street. That puts more eyes on the streets that attract pedestrians and increases urban vitality.

"It's much more enjoyable for pedestrians to see those sorts of things than cars poking out of a parking garage," says Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

The last Ann Arbor parking garage?

Some have thrown around the idea that this parking garage will be so big that it will be the last stand-alone structure that downtown needs for quite some time. It is expected to satisfy the parking needs of businesses to the point that it will not only help retain existing start-ups and new economy firms, but attract new ones.

The Library Lot underground structure is expected to facilitate the future growth of Google's AdWords headquarters (one block away), the planned redevelopment of the library and old YMCA site and perhaps the construction of more office and residential buildings nearby.

"Once there is the ability to show that parking is around for them hopefully employers will look at other ways to encourage their employees to get downtown," getDowntown's Shore says.

That could mean getting more people to use AATA buses, biking, walking, commuter rail lines, or even taking advantage of downtown's new fleet of Zipcars. That could translate to more feet on the street, less congestion on the roads, more jobs in the city's center (where urbanists argue they belong in the first place) and a vibrancy that could be the envy of most Midwestern cities.

"This economy is going to turn around," Greden says. "We need to be able to attract and retain residents and businesses."

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publications Metromode and Model D. His last feature for Concentrate was Ann Arbor's Retail Incubator.


Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, feels that time is running out on parking meters-Ann Arbor

Underground parking at Washington and Fourth-Ann Arbor

The Exterior of the Washington and Fourth Garage-Ann Arbor

The Fourth and Washington Structure is Always Busy-Ann Arbor

A Scale Model of the Planned Underground Structure with Pop to Demonstrate Scale-Ann Arbor

A Scale Model of the Planned Underground Structure-Ann Arbor

Nancy Shore and Her Beloved Zip Cars-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He is an expert at parallel parking in case you didn't know.

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