Is Bigger Better?
Planting a park on Library Lane
From the July, 2014 issue
It looks like Will Hathaway and his mom, Mary, will finally get what they've dreamed of for years: a park on top of the underground Library Lane parking structure next to the Ann Arbor District Library.
"My mom has cared about this for a long, long time," says Hathaway, a middle-aged man with thinning hair and smiling eyes. "My mom invited me in to facilitate her group in 2010, and my role just grew."
The group is the Library Green Conservancy. Its email list numbers more than 100, and the core group includes former Parks Advisory Commission member Gwen Nystuen, attorney Eric Lipson, and longtime activist and former Students for a Democratic Society president Alan Haber.
The group lobbied for years without much response from city council, save the steadfast support of Ward 5's Mike Anglin, who'd long kept a forlorn "Let's Plant a Park on Our Library Lot!" sign in front of his bed and breakfast on First St.
But Anglin found a strong ally this year in Ward 4's newly elected Jack Eaton, and together they crafted a resolution dedicating at least 12,000 square feet of the structure's surface to a park. Council passed the resolution in April 8-1.
"We originally wanted a park on the whole [30,000-square-foot] surface," says Hathaway. "We would have loved the Dahlmann plan with an indoor-outdoor cafe and a grand fountain with a surrounding lawn that converted to an ice rink in winter." Proposed by Campus Inn owner Dennis Dahlmann that plan never gained traction on council.
Yet the Hathaways' group may still get it all. "There is considerable community support for using the entire site," emails Eaton. "It remains a possibility. Identifying the minimum size of this park allows deliberation over the use of the remaining portion to continue."
When a council committee looked at the site in 2010, it ruled out a proposal from the conservancy. The city spent $5 million on extra foundations capable of supporting a building on top--and
councilmembers hoped to get that back, and more, by selling the structure's air rights.
The committee looked closely at two proposals to build hotels there, only to see the deals fall apart over questions about the cost of a linked conference center. But the economic recovery has renewed hopes that at least some of the site could profitably be developed. "If we were to sell the building rights, we would get eight, maybe ten million," says mayor John Hieftje. If "you put in a full park there, you're throwing it away, plus millions in future tax revenue."
The Downtown Development Authority, the Parks Advisory Commission, and the Ann Arbor District Library also favor a smaller public space. Their fear is that too large a park could turn into a bigger, badder version of Liberty Plaza.
Asked why he thinks the city needs a park on Library Lane, Eaton emails that "the downtown area is rapidly developing and much of the new development includes new residential space. It is important to plan ahead for open space and parks within this densely developed area while space is still available for park use ... the PAC subcommittee public survey found about 76% of respondents support downtown parks (plural). When asked to identify a preferred site for a downtown park, the library lot was top choice." Eaton calls the "12,000 square feet identified in the final version of the resolution ... a compromise between the entire site and the tiny, postage stamp sized plaza suggested by the DDA."
Eaton says the DDA wanted just 5,000 square feet of public space. DDA chair Sandi Smith says it would have doubled in size during special events, when the group envisioned closing a portion of Library Lane atop the structure. But she agrees the DDA didn't recommend a "park."
"It was designed to have a plaza," she says, "and it's a better place for a plaza like a sculpture garden for noon meals. You have to understand that the urban open space user is significantly different from park users."
Smith is being polite. Any uninhabited space can attract unauthorized campers or be taken over temporarily by partiers, but the balance of positive and negative uses is especially delicate downtown. Liberty Plaza, on the southwest corner of Liberty and Division, has been a source of problems ever since it was created in the mid-1970s.
Designed by U-M landscape architecture profs, the park's sunken plazas offer a quiet refuge from the busy streets above. What no one anticipated was how much that seclusion would appeal to homeless people and substance abusers. The city has fielded complaints about drinking, fighting, and other uncivil behavior at Liberty Plaza for decades. In the 1990s, a portable toilet was installed to discourage public urination--only to be removed when it became a venue for drug sales.
"Crime downtown has mellowed considerably since the Eighties and Nineties," points out police chief John Seto, "particularly aggressive panhandling and disorderly behavior." In the early 2000s, a drug sweep helped restore order, and improved visibility and public events like the popular summer Sonic Lunch concerts periodically fill the park with visitors and good vibrations. But between events, Liberty Plaza continues to need frequent attention from the AAPD. Seto reports there were 140 "calls for service" at Liberty Plaza in 2013, including three assaults, four fights, and dozens of situations recorded as "disorderly conduct" or "open intoxicants."
"At Liberty Plaza there are visibility issues and access issues as well as maintenance problems and security problems," says AADL director Josie Parker. "All those issues would have to be addressed before a park on the library lot could be successful.
"I'm responsible for a large public space, so I know what it takes to run a public space," Parker continues. The downtown library gets about 600,000 visitors a year: young and old, rich and poor. The vast majority are well behaved, but some aren't. So the AADL employs its own security team at a cost of $250,000 annually.
The library works actively to maintain order, Parker says, because "the whole community comes here, and we want everybody to use the library comfortably. This is not occurring in Liberty Plaza."
When Anglin and Eaton's resolution came to council in March, the library board was sufficiently concerned that they authorized Parker to speak on the security issues at the library--starting with rude patrons and ending with eight narcotics overdoses in the last three years.
The board "has never objected to a plaza big enough for people to gather in and small enough for people to recognize each other across the space," Parker says. But to be successful, she says, whatever goes there "needs to be well designed and maintained, and it needs to be secure and activated. And there has to be people in it, lots of different kinds of people.
"We hoped that council would give credence to what we had to say," says Parker. Instead, Third Ward rep and mayoral candidate Steve Kunselman accused her of fearmongering and playing politics. Jack Eaton said it was "silly" to suggest a new park would create more problems downtown.
"I didn't think I was saying anything council didn't already know," says Parker. "It hadn't been said out loud there, but there was not a person there who didn't know it was true. It may have been uncomfortable for some, but I expected to be treated more professionally."
Third ward rep and mayoral candidate Christopher Taylor called on Kunselman to apologize. He says that "the council essentially turned their back on her and ignored the library's concerns." But Kunselman stands by his criticism.
"This is fearmongering," he says. "I met with the library on the Friday before the meeting and they didn't tell me about heroin or about the resolution. It's political." To solve the problems at the library and downtown parks, he says, "we need beat cops downtown and better public housing and better programs to help those who need them."
Parker says her presentation wasn't political: "It's governance. We as one elected body were asking another elected body to delay a decision."
Taylor believes it wasn't just the library that was dissed. "City council ignored the Park Advisory Commission's recommendation and acted as if they didn't exist and as if council hadn't adopted all their recommendations before this."
PAC chair Ingrid Ault confirms that council has adopted all the group's recent recommendations--though it hasn't always acted on them.
Eaton notes that in 2013 PAC recommended a "park/open space be developed on the Library Lot." However, PAC recommended a minimum size of just 5,000 feet--and included the following warnings from the downtown parks subcommittee:
"The subcommittee is strongly in favor of a mixed-use vision for the Library Lot that utilizes the city's investment in development-ready foundation and infrastructure. Development of the site and adjacent parcels, including the accompanying increases in activity, is essential for the future success of this site. In order to adequately address issues of safety and security, the Ann Arbor District Library must also be strongly represented in the planning process."
The major differences between PAC's recommendations and council's resolution, Ault writes, "are the dismissal of Placemaking Principles used to develop safe and functional public spaces [for example] having 'eyes on three sides of a downtown park' [while] the proposed location only allows for eyes on one side. Which is precisely the situation we have at Liberty Plaza, where we know we have challenges. Other differences include funding for development, maintenance and programming of the space, and working in tandem with the District Library to address issues of safety and security."
Asked about Ault's criticism, Eaton emails, "I agree that a good urban park needs 'eyes on the park.' I believe that the best way to achieve that goal is to design the park to be active. That is, a good park design will bring people into the park and their presence creates the eyes on the park. I do not believe that every park needs to be surrounded by buildings where passive onlookers will watch over the park."
Nor does Eaton believe that a new park could increase the amount of crime and disorder. "The problems foreseen by critics of the library lot park already exist in that area of downtown," he writes. "The creation of a park at that site will not increase those problems. If the park is properly designed, as we are about to try with Liberty Plaza, it will be activated in a manner that displaces the current problems ... the issues of downtown security are independent of placing a park on that site. We have significant problems, including but not limited to aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness, and heroin sale and use. These concerns will need to be addressed separately from the development of a park. Hopefully, Council will place a higher priority on increasing police staffing so we can feel safe in our downtown."
"The resolution moves the matter back to the PAC," Eaton emails. "Ideally, PAC will engage in a public process to determine what our residents want on this site. The PAC should then make recommendations to Council on possible uses, providing estimates of cost for each possible design."
"PAC hasn't been told to create a space there," Ault counters. Beyond maintenance and security, she says the park would have to be programmed with organized activities year round to succeed. "You can't create an urban space without uses for it, and parks have no ability to program, and neither does the DDA or the library."
Parker says that the library was never even asked to organize events at the planned park. "In the current resolution assumptions were made about the library's involvement without consulting the library," she says. "They assumed that we could do the programming, that we could move our front door, that we could grant an easement, and none of this was ever discussed with the library."
Will Hathaway believes there's another way forward.
"We need a more collaborative effort to solve the library's resistance," he says. "They've had to do it on their own for a long time; they've developed a bunker mentality. We've known about the problems for years, and we think what we need is for city council and the DDA and the library and the community to work together to find a holistic solution to the problem.
"The Library Park could be the solution for both spaces," Hathaway continues, the other space being Liberty Plaza. "We have a list of ideas that could be encouraged in both locations, so many we couldn't do them all. Perhaps we could have giant chess pieces like in Harry Potter or a band shell like West Park so we could have groups perform there like Sonic Lunch. There's just so much potential there!"
Ault won't make that leap. "There's this idea that 'if you build it, they will come,'" she says. "It's magical thinking."
Magical or not, the Hathaways got their wish for a bigger park on Library Lane. Still unclear is who will be responsible for making it a better one.
[Originally published in July, 2014.]
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