The North Main Puzzle
Trains, runners, and the Walk of Death
by Steve Gilzow
On a sunny Wednesday morning in late March, a friend and I set out to explore the Bluffs Nature Area. The city parks website gives 1099 N. Main as the Bluffs' address and includes a link to a park map. The map shows a little T-shaped area labeled "Parking Lot" almost opposite Lake Shore Drive. We were driving north on Main Street, keeping our eyes peeled for that parking lot. The cars behind us in this forty-five-mph zone were doing at least fifty, ramping up for their merge with M-14. On our first pass, we missed it.
"I saw a sign, but it didn't say Bluffs."
"All I saw was Hawkins Auto Body shop."
Turning around and heading south, we missed it again. This time we saw a weathered wood sign that said "Bluffs Park" on the south side of the body shop. Problem was, there was no driveway next to it.
On our third pass, we slowed down--infuriating the driver behind us since this is the fast lane--took a chance, and turned in a rutted dirt driveway just north of Hawkins. We pulled up to a split-rail fence just before the driveway made a quick right into a private home. No signs confirmed we were at Bluffs Park, but the fence seemed like something the city might put in a park--and there was a trail heading up the ridge.
Hoping we were in the right place, we hiked up the steep path. It turned out to be one of the trails shown on the map--and, as we climbed, we were rewarded with spectacular views of Argo Pond.
That experience--being pushed along by speeding drivers while trying to find hidden parkland treasures--sums up one of the issues confronting the city's North Main-Huron River Corridor Vision Task Force. Later, when my friend and I attempted to cross North Main on foot, we experienced one of the other major issues.
"I call it the Walk of Death," says David Santacroce, who chairs the task force.
"On foot, forget it. It's perilous. There's no good way to walk down Main Street and get into Bluffs Park. When our task force did its walking tour we saw someone almost get clipped."
The task force has been meeting since last summer, charged with providing city council with ideas for enhancing pedestrian and bike access from downtown to riverside parks, easing traffic congestion at Main and Depot streets, and recommending uses for the MichCon property on Broadway. It has already recommended turning half of the city's former maintenance yard at 721 N. Main into a park.
For some longtime commercial residents of North Main, the task force is deja vu all over again.
Waldemar Alfred Paul John--better known as WAP John--has been at 1200 N. Main with his sign-making and graphic design business, Grafaktri, long enough to remember the 1988 task force, headed by local designer Howard Deardorff. John relishes being an evolving, cutting-edge graphics designer in a "divey" part of town. He has fond memories of daily encounters with the Lansky brothers, whose junkyard is now the NEW Center. These visits served up treasures such as "a spare wheel for a moon buggy--still in its original box!"
While John is receptive to the task force's recommendations, he won't devote much of his own time to its work. "We've done this before," he explains. "There is, in existence, a whole plan for this area ... They spent a ton of money, it went over a long period of time, I went to all the meetings." But nothing much came of it.
The mission of the 1988 task force and the 2013 task force are strikingly similar. So are the barriers to making changes.
The biggest obstacle is that while the city owns much of the property along North Main, access is controlled by others. The street itself is a Michigan Department of Transportation business route. The city can make suggestions, but ultimately it is MDOT which decides whether the road will be widened, the lanes reconfigured, sidewalks put in, or pedestrian crosswalks established. MDOT also recently took ownership of the former Norfolk & Southern / Amtrak rail line that runs between North Main and the river.
The railroad is a barrier between Main and Bandemer Park. There is just one legal crossing, at Lakeshore Drive. If MDOT goes ahead with plans for high-speed trains, a fence may be erected along the track here and a gate placed at the crossing.
The main pedestrian crossing from North Main into Bandemer Park is illegal: a well-worn footpath connecting the trail around Argo Dam with the parking lot of a building owned by local developer Peter Allen. Allen's son, Douglas, manages the family's five office buildings on North Main. "You'll get 200 people making the crossing here on a nice Saturday," Doug says. "Is it dangerous? Trains are going rather slow here, but we need a legal and safe crossing. End of story."
"I've been working on the problem of the railroads and trying to get people to the parks virtually my entire career," says parks planner Amy Kuras, who's been with the city for twenty-three years. "We've known forever that we needed a crossing."
The large windows in Doug Allen's office at 944 N. Main overlook the tracks and the river. Just seven years old when the 1988 task force made its report, Doug is unburdened by memories of that effort; he says that he or his father has been to "just about every meeting" of the current task force. His favorite proposal is for a pedestrian tunnel from Depot Street under the railroad berm. He points out that in the event of heavy rain it would also allow floodwater to get to the river--hopefully without people in the tunnel at the time.
As Doug and I stood behind his building, a trio of runners--two men and a woman--trotted through his parking lot and took the heavily beaten path across the railroad tracks, past the "No Trespassing" sign, and onto the paved path of Bandemer Park. The woman looked familiar ...
"There's Amy Kuras right now!" said Doug.
"I'm busted," Kuras admitted by phone a few days later. She and her lunchtime running group--which, Doug told me, includes some other high-profile scofflaws--sometimes take the Broadway bridges, but, like everyone else, often can't resist the illegal crossing.
Kuras says the last time she developed a plan for a crossing, it was shot down as too expensive. "But now I'm more hopeful that something may happen ... I think we may finally be at the point where people say, even if it's millions of dollars, we have to do it."
Then she backpedals. "I don't know if it will be before I [retire]," she says. "I don't want to be too optimistic!"
The next North Main Task Force public meetings are May 22 and June 12, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor Community Center, 625 N. Main St.
This followup appeared in the June 2013 Ann Arbor Observer:
How fast do you drive?
To the editor:
I just finished reading Steve Gilzow's article ["The Main Street Puzzle," May]. About three paragraphs in, I had a question: "When you aren't looking for the park, how fast do you drive North Main?"
I drive for a living. I am NOT a spokesman for the company I work for, but in the interests of full disclosure, I drive for Select Ride. I started out with Yellow, then added the paratransit lift vans and finally Arbor Limousine. I would be hard pressed to say which I drive the most miles for. Right now, I'd guess Yellow is just a little ahead of Arbor Limousine.
I am extremely careful to keep at the speed limit, so I know how other drivers react to 'slow' drivers. The problem is NOT the 'other guy.' The problem is each and every one of us.
Pick a spot. Colonial Square? The posted speed limit is 14.5. RESIDENTS pass me in my Yellow car! Arrowwood? Scio Farms? Manchester? Liberty, between Division and Ashley? There is probably no place in the greater Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area I've NOT been passed in. Residential or business, it just doesn't matter.
I'll spare you a description of trips between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro.
Joseph L. Gelinas
[Originally published in May, 2013.]