Water Street Rescue
Affordable recreation for Ypsi
by Margaret A. Leary
The city of Ypsilanti has been trying to redevelop thirty-eight empty acres on Michigan Ave. since 1999. The challenge is that although the city owes millions of dollars on the land, it's been unable to close a deal for the massive condo development it originally wanted for its "Water Street Project." The only current tax-generating prospect is a Family Dollar store that may get built on the east end of the site.
But several Ann Arborites are actively pursuing a plan to build a nonprofit recreation center at the site's west end, along the Huron River. They're envisioning a 50,000 to 60,000-square-foot facility that would draw people of all ages to the site every day, improving its ability to attract private development. Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission president Bob Marans, WCPARC director Bob Tetens, U-M architecture prof Craig Borum, and Cathi Duchon, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor YMCA, are working with Ypsilanti planner Teresa Gillotti to create a formal development plan for the facility. The idea is that the city would donate the land; WCPARC would build the facility; and the YMCA would run it.
Duchon says that after the Ann Arbor YMCA completed its new building on W. Washington about six years ago, "we turned to Ypsilanti, where there is no city recreation department, and expanded there a little at a time, mostly providing activities for kids so they could be active." They started with sports, and then, to attract more kids, added dance, yoga, and cheerleading. The Y initially covered the staff costs for the free activities from its general revenue, but recently received a $70,000 state grant to support programs in Ypsi and Willow Run.
The limiting factor, Duchon says, was facilities: most activities took place at schools, but "the gyms were small, and we could only have programs right after school."
"A long time ago," Duchon muses, "I approached the then-city manager of Ypsilanti, Ed Koryzno, when the Water Street project first started,
and suggested building a Y on the site. But he said they were seeking tax-generating operations, and said no." So the Y did what it could in the schools, city parks, and the senior center.
Duchon says there are now many models nationally in which Ys partner with cities, counties, hospitals, and other nonprofits that own recreation buildings but don't have the resources to operate them. Earlier this fall, she joined Marans, Tetens, Borum, Gillotti, and others to visit recreation centers throughout southern Michigan, including a Y-city partnership in Southgate. Unlike the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center on Washtenaw, which the WCPARC owns and operates, the proposed east-county rec center might be membership-based: only members could use the building, though the Y would provide scholarships to families that can't afford to pay.
Borum and an interdisciplinary architecture and urban planning team have developed concepts for two possible site plans. Both incorporate a new section of the county's border-to-border trail along the river, but one uses a standard "Jeffersonian" city grid pattern, while the other uses the French river pattern of long narrow lots, each with river access. They have also developed two concepts for the rec building itself. One, nicknamed "canopy," reflects the influence of the tree canopy in Ypsilanti; the other is a more urban "storefront," with only a narrow face close to the street.
Ypsilanti and WCPARC signed a letter of intent to work on the project last March, and the Y will soon create a task force to work on its end. Next steps include writing a development agreement among Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County, and the YMCA; getting more public input on the concept design; carrying out the necessary rezoning, permitting, and site plan approvals; and finalizing the bonds, millages, and grant applications needed to finance the project.
Meantime, Ypsilanti will continue to market the rest of the site through CBRE, an international real estate services company. With luck, a Family Dollar on the east end and a new recreation center on the west will bookend a long-envisioned array of residential and retail development.
[Originally published in February, 2013.]