Urban Destination: Washtenaw Avenue?

Strolling pedestrians and bikers mingle in verdant shopping areas. Nearby, others wait for the trolley to take them from Washtenaw and Huron Parkway to Ypsi. What?!? The mind boggles, but the prospect is enticing.

Yep, if all goes as planned, Washtenaw Avenue will morph from a visually cluttered hodgepodge of parking lots and empty strip malls to a destination urban village. It won't happen next year, though, and it will take more than imagination.

Ten years from now, the Reimagine Washtenaw project task force hopes the Washtenaw corridor will echo former urban wastelands in Richardson, Tex., Oakland, Calif. and Chicago. A group of planners from Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Pittsfield, and Ypsilanti Townships is preparing a road map for changes needed to make it real.

"It's going to take a long time to go through all the zoning changes. There are a handful of developers who want to do something along the corridor. If you go from one community to another, standards and the permitting processes are really different," says Anya Dale, project manager with Washtenaw County economic development. Dale's portfolio includes oversight of Reimagine Washtenaw.

Low-rise, two-to-three story mixed use buildings, landscaping, and most important, non-motorized transportation options, can create a desirable new place for people to live, work, and shop. Accomplishing this will take unprecedented cooperation between the four municipalities. Land use, zoning, building permits, signage, and development rules must be coordinated. MDOT, AATA, and all four government units have to sign off on traffic changes.

Nonetheless, talk is becoming action. At an Ann Arbor City Council meeting earlier this week, Dale said that officials involved in the project are readying a formal recommendation to convene a corridor improvement authority to manage improvements along the 5-mile stretch of Washtenaw from Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti's water tower. Tax capture would provide funding to acquire property, improve properties and signage and market the district, among other uses.

Can't be done? Visit YouTube to view an eye-opening presentation that outlines a plan and shows results of similar actions in Richardson and Oakland. Then check out the initial visioning report issued in 2009 by an action team of business people, residents, and others who want Washtenaw Avenue to be all that it can be. Or for a good overview of the project, visit: http://www.washtenawavenue.org/.

By the end of September, expect a report from the second-stage project planning group, the Joint Technical Committee. The group of planners and transportation staffers from the four municipalities will outline a corridor redevelopment strategy, including highly specific recommendations for master plan, zoning, and traffic changes.

Reimagine Washtenaw used grant money to commission a non-motorized transportation study from The Greenway Collaborative Inc. Its findings contain short-term and long-term recommendations including sidewalk improvements, more bike paths, and mid-block street crossings with pedestrian islands.

Two public meetings held last July confirmed working hypotheses and the need to implement the study's recommendations.

"People want more transportation choices. And they don't feel safe crossing the street to reach the shopping centers. [It's easy] to pinpoint the areas that need attention," Dale says. "The non-motorized analysis identified large blocks of land or roads where there's no crossing – compared to the need to cross. There is not much vacant land but there are definitely a lot of people who can't cross."

A student group from the U-M Ross School of Business created a strategic development plan for a large lightly developed tract south of Washtenaw between Huron Parkway and Platt Road. One portion formerly held the Washtenaw County Juvenile Center. The report was presented last April.

In May, Campus Realty of Ann Arbor and Chicago-based North Shore Properties Group scooped up an 8-acre chunk of the study tract directly across Washtenaw from Whole Foods for $3 million. If future development of that parcel is coordinated with two other nearby parcels, as envisioned by the students' work, an urban village would anchor an important segment of the corridor, says Ann Arbor developer Peter Allen.

Under new City of Ann Arbor density guidelines, more than 1 million square feet of new construction would be allowed. Allen favors three-story buildings for the most human-friendly scale. "It makes economic sense if you link to Whole Foods and the property across Washtenaw. Slow down traffic, get cooperation from MDOT, similar to what Ann Arbor is doing on Huron Street downtown. With a parking deck and people living (nearby) who won't need a car – then you'll have an urban village. It won't work today – it may work in five years," Allen says.

The student group studied Lincoln Park, Bucktown, Wrigleyville, and other Chicago neighborhoods to see what makes those vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods close to downtown work. The group discovered that 25-35 year old knowledge workers (employed at the universities and hospitals as well as in industry) would live on the Washtenaw corridor if it wasn't totally bus-dependent, with amenities such as yoga and Whole Foods nearby, based on the Chicago model.

"You need to give the whole [Washtenaw-Huron Parkway] intersection identity and a walkable equation, with a right-of-way from one corner to the other and ways to cross the main arteries." Allen says.

Campus Realty's plans include a new stoplight at Platt Road and Washtenaw Avenue synchronized with lights at Washtenaw and Huron Parkway. This would also allow left turns, which are currently illegal, from Platt onto Washtenaw. "You'd really begin to connect everything: Cars, buses, bikes, and walkers. You might even expand the County Rec building and the County Park. You'd need a good couple of bars – we need a Casey's down there. And you'll attract one," Allen says.

Making the Washtenaw dead zone more accessible means expanding existing transportation options, as well.

"AATA is really gearing up and setting plans. The Corridor gets twice the ridership of any other AATA route. [AATA is] looking to do a lot of investment. Have buses run later on weekends? Run more often? Faster travel times? It's researching what types of service changes are needed. The idea is to know how to improve Washtenaw service by the end of year," Dale says.

Pittsfield Township Senior Planner Paul Montagna is revising the township's master plan to encourage a whole new Washtenaw. It will be finished early next year. "This area is key not only for Pittsfield Township, but for the whole region. It links two cities, two universities, major hospitals," he says.

Some township developments are 50 years old now. They were based on 50-year-old planning regulations, so they could be tweaked to function better, Montagna says. "Pedestrian orientation could create a sense of place – a cool place where some of our [area] students might want to live after graduating. The [Washtenaw Corridor] plan lays the groundwork for all this," he adds.

Pittsfield Township will take one step into Washtenaw Avenue’s future this fall, when it fills gaps in the sidewalk network. Senior Planner Paul Montagna says the township has already completed 2,600 feet. This fall, it will finish the north end of Washtenaw to create a complete sidewalk from Hogback to Golfside and extend the sidewalks along Golfside between Packard and Washtenaw.

It's important to make the corridor, a major thoroughfare, aesthetically pleasing, not just something you drive through. Offering affordable housing options and an exciting urban lifestyle for young people getting out of school is important to everyone in the county, including the business community, says Diane Keller, president of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber.  
"Mixed-use buildings with living space above, transportation so people can get to businesses, get to their jobs, get back and forth between the universities, with housing price points for everyone - these things will keep those talented people in our community," Keller says. "It will not be a short-term project. What is the outcome going to be 20 years from now if we don't do anything?"

The proposed changes may benefit the Ann Arbor end of the corridor more than the stretch of Washtenaw between Hogback and Hewitt Roads, Peter Allen says. If light rail running on existing railroad tracks comes to pass, connecting Ypsi to Ann Arbor, it may make large-scale development east of US 23 more challenging, he points out.

Because land is cheap on the eastern half of the corridor, small-scale development is already taking place organically, absent a plan and government encouragement. The giant Asia City buffet restaurant opened last February near Hua Xing Asia Market, close to Golfside. Leone's Bistro opened in early September in the former Cottage Inn Café between Hewitt and Golfside. Nearby, Pita Pita and Pacific Beach Burrito are other restaurant newcomers. If it's true that housing and retail development are closely aligned, that's a good sign for new housing.

But are we preparing for development that may never arrive?

Leapfrogging between planning and development is typical, says developer William Kinley, president of Ypsilanti's Phoenix Construction. "With any planning from the public side, there's a chance that will happen. With the greater number of businesses and more traffic now, planning could make it more convenient. When it looks good and is accessible, that will be good long-term for developers," Kinley points out.

"Look at corridor changes in Scio Township. That's all under the control of one entity. All of the Jackson Road boulevard construction certainly has made traffic flow better. The frontage of businesses is more attractive. It wasn't too hard to achieve because it was [a single planning authority]."

Among the proposed changes along Washtenaw are similar boulevard islands, with greatly reduced setbacks and revised parking provisions, so businesses will be close to the street, not floating amid giant parking lots.

One of the biggest changes of the past year has been a subtle improvement in Ypsilanti's image. Kinley says when he bought property in Ypsi in 1967, the city was clearly on a downward slide. Washtenaw was a two-lane road then, he recalls. Forty years later, it's finally turning around. "Some of it's [due to greater] affordability. The creative group is really taking the city to heart. I'm modestly optimistic. Ypsilanti is becoming Brooklyn to Ann Arbor's Manhattan," Kinley says.

Say it loud and click your heels together three times: Ypsilanti is becoming Brooklyn to Ann Arbor's Manhattan.

The comparison may already be getting stale but there's little doubt that young creatives are starting to redefine a city that's long lived in A2's shadow. With Shadow Art Fair, Spur Studios, a puppet theater in its downtown, an underground martini bar, and personal touch cafes like Beezy's and the Ugly Mug, Ypsi is developing the kinds of urban destinations that used to characterize Ann Arbor.

When/if the proposed improvements to the Washtenaw Corridor are in place, both "Brooklyn on the Huron" and "Manhattan on the Huron" will undoubtedly result in more options for young professionals, pedestrians, bikers, urban enthusiasts, and businesses.

Constance Crump creates a festival of words for Concentrate. She's also an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.  Her previous article was A Festival All Our Own.

All photos by Doug Coombe


Arborland to the Ypsilanti Water Tower via Hipstamatic

Anya Dale

Crossing Washtenaw Avenue at the Ypsi-Arbor Bowl

Paul Montagna

Bill Kinley in his Ypsilanti offices

A few destinations on the eastern half of Washtenaw Avenue
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