At Ypsilanti Township's nearly vacant Gault Village shopping center, roofs in several buildings are leaky or nonexistent, the parking lot is full of cracks and potholes, and a rear retaining wall crumbles and needs repairs every 10 to 15 years.
But township residents see much greater potential for the site – like a mixed-use development including housing, a grocery store, a hardware store, a coffee shop, and second- and third-floor apartments, all with kayaking and canoeing access nearby on Ford Lake.
That's just one of several visions township residents created for their community during a four-day master plan workshop called Ypsilanti Township 2040, held Oct. 16-19. Township officials and consultants from Carlisle/Wortman Associates hosted drop-in "open studio" hours each day, and then planned a mix of panels, tours, and other events over four days as a chance for residents to give input on the future of the township.
Oct. 16 kicked off with afternoon open studio hours at the Ypsilanti Township Community Center at 2025 E. Clark Rd., followed by an opening celebration in the evening. The opening celebration included a panel discussion with four township residents, moderated by the township's community engagement coordinator, Crystal Campbell.
Panelist Johnny Rose-Oakland came to the township's Hawthorne neighborhood in kindergarten 63 years ago, when his coal miner father moved north from Kentucky looking for work. He has remained in the community for more than 60 years because his family is here.
Panelist Janice Williams moved to the township's West Willow neighborhood from Ann Arbor shortly after she and her husband married. The house they bought 31 years ago as a "starter" home has remained the family home ever since, in part because Williams feels safe there, and also because she has grown to enjoy her friendly neighbors.
"When my kids were growing up, my house was known as a safe house," she said. "I've had people come back 30 years later and ask if we still have the basketball hoop. My husband helped some neighborhood kids with their life and the choices they made, and three of those kids came back this summer to visit."
Panelist Julie Pennington considered buying a home in the township's Westlawn neighborhood nine years ago, after both of her parents had passed away. When she came back for a second viewing and saw that the maple tree in the front yard had turned orange, her father's favorite color, she considered it a positive sign. She and her husband bought the house and have remained there because they are proud of their house and like the people in the neighborhood.
Panelist Adam Cecil and his wife chose to live in the township's Gault Village neighborhood partly because of housing affordability, but after four years, they also find it to be "a cool place," Cecil said.
During the opening ceremony, panelists and about 20 audience members named many things they liked about the township and their neighborhoods, with township parks and great neighbors showing up as common themes.
The four-day master plan event continued Oct. 17 with a driving tour of the the American Center for Mobility (ACM) and the surrounding industrial areas in the Willow Run complex. The tour reached full capacity days before it started.
Attendees and township officials highlighted ACM as a "crown jewel" of the township, according to Carlisle/Wortman Associates principal Ben Carlisle, while also expressing "concern about what the impact will be on the township, especially on the West Willow neighborhood." Carlisle said the township didn't want the neighborhood to feel "left behind" or to have "negative impacts fall directly on them."
The home of the new Yankee Air Museum (YAM) will also be adjacent to ACM, and Carlisle called that a "huge opportunity," noting that YAM is proposing to build a conference center that can serve 2,000.
After open studio hours in the afternoon, the evening concluded with a happy hour at Unity Vibration on Ecorse Road, where participants could try free samples of the fermented tea drink, kombucha.
Oct. 18 started with a tour of Smoking Barrels Ranch and other local farms in the township. Megan Masson-Minock, a planner with Carlisle/Wortman, said the question of how the township should handle agricultural land was a main topic that came up when the steering committee for the master plan workshop was formed, and it continued to be of interest to residents throughout all four days.
If growth in the township continues on its current path, open spaces and agricultural land will disappear, to be replaced with subdivisions full of single-family homes. If township residents value local agriculture, the township's master plan needs to reflect that, the consultants said.
A youth forum took place in the late afternoon at the township community center. Campbell noted that by 2040 the high schoolers of today will be the ones running the township, so knowing what it takes to encourage them to return to the the township after college or a few years in the military is important.
A tour of the Gault Village shopping center was also planned for late afternoon. About 40 township officials and residents showed up to tour the shopping center and talk with co-owner Robert Hull about his plans for the property.
Hull's short-term plans are to replace all the roofs on all the buildings, repave the parking lot, and improve lighting. One parcel is owned by someone else, and Hull said he's trying to purchase the last parcel so he can renovate the entire shopping complex.
However, Carlisle/Wortman staff encouraged residents to not just comment on what they'd like to see in the current configuration of buildings, but to imagine what they might suggest for the space if everything was torn down and developers were to start from scratch.
Community members were in favor of more green space, mixed-use buildings with retail on the bottom floor, and apartments or condos on upper floors.
Many residents noted that lakefront property is usually sought after, and clearing some of the trees and brush that block the shopping center's view of Ford Lake might improve property values and lure area residents to parks and other lake-based recreational opportunities just across the road from Gault Village.
The final day of the master plan workshop concluded with a public steering committee meeting at noon, and a closing gathering in the evening to digest all the ideas generated over the past four days. Consultants estimated that more than 400 residents showed up in person at various events throughout the week. Including online comments, a total of about 1,000 residents gave input on the township's master plan.
Carlisle/Wortman staff members noted six main areas of interest that cropped up repeatedly during the master plan event:
Neighborhoods as the heart of the township
Lack of physical connections
Desire for access to daily needs and services
The impact of continuing current land use patterns
Many participants identified strongly with their local neighborhood and their neighbors. This is in part due to the fact that the township is very spread out and isn't oriented around a downtown like most cities are. However, barriers large and small, from I-94 to Ford Lake, also created "island-like" conditions around the neighborhoods.
Overwhelmingly, participants asked for more local restaurants, retail, and services such as a laundromat.
"The whole township is under-coffeed," said Masson-Minock, referring to repeated requests for a local coffee shop.
The role of agriculture in the township and how that will be affected by land-use patterns was also a major concern, as was the future of both ACM and Gault Village.
"As ACM develops, we don't want workers and visitors to go there and leave," says Carlisle. "We want them to stay in the township, but where do we want them to go?"
One obvious solution, he says, was to create a connection to Michigan Avenue and its existing retail strip, and building up existing retail hotspots to accommodate more township residents. ACM officials have also expressed an interest in a more attractive entrance to their campus. Township officials see that as an opportunity to spruce up the entrance to the adjacent West Willow neighborhood as well.
The consultants and township officials will be going over the many documents generated from the four-day master plan event in the coming months over the next few weeks and will post documents compiling all the public's feedback at the master plan website.
They'll also be planning smaller coffee talks, as well as reaching out to the township's neighborhood watches for their suggestions. Additionally, the township is planning another four-day workshop in February to discuss implementing some of the ideas generated during the October event.
"We're going to start putting rubber to the road, and testing concepts," says Masson-Minock. "We'll be saying, 'This is going into the master plan. What do you think?'"
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.