The Treeline, at Last
How an improbable sale set the stage for a west-side pathway.
by Jan Schlain
From the May, 2019 issue
Joe O'Neal stresses that he didn't dream up the Treeline trail. Addressing city council in 2017, he traced the idea of a pathway along the Allen Creek valley west of downtown back to the city's founders nearly two centuries ago.
A 2014 U-M report dates the first reference in city documents to an Allen Creek trail to 1981. O'Neal traces his own role to the early 2000s, when the DDA proposed a parking structure on a city-owned lot at William and First.
A fit, blue-eyed octogenarian, O'Neal has been a commercial builder for more than forty years. His company is headquartered near the proposed parking structure. The neighbors "said we didn't think that was a good place for it," he recalls, "and they should have a plan as to what to do with the valley.
"We started pushing the idea [of a trail], and that's how I got involved." He's been the Treeline's most determined and persistent advocate ever since.
One of his allies was land planner Hank Byma, now a vice president at SmithGroup. Byma recalls that they saw "a one-shot opportunity" to connect downtown to the Huron River, creating "this linear green space that would get us to some of the city's treasures. And I include downtown in that, I include the trail system along the river, I include the neighborhoods, Argo Cascades--all of these are gems that the Greenway begins to link."
Many obstacles separated those gems. The valley was developed early in the city's history--the creek is named for town cofounder John Allen--and most of it remains in private hands. Though the creek has been buried for nearly a century, the Ann Arbor Railroad traces its path through the west side, limiting access. To the north, the Amtrak line cuts off the parks and trails along the Huron.
Though the city established a "greenway task force" in 2005, for a long time it seemed like one of those good ideas that everyone talks about but
no one ever finds a way to build.
City council went on record favoring "anchor parks" for the trail at First and William and the former city service yards at 721 N. Main and 415 W. Washington, but it "didn't really have any funds dedicated to it," O'Neal says. And then a state grant application for the N. Main site was turned down "because it doesn't connect to anything."
But suddenly, those connections are falling into place. The city is ready to build a tunnel under the Amtrak line, opening up a possible link to the Border-to-Border Trail. And in January, the Treeline Conservancy--a nonprofit that advocates for the project--bought half an acre along the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks.
It's a peculiar piece of property with a peculiar history. In the 1980s, through a series of governmental errors, it was sold for back taxes--even though at the time the railroad was owned by the state and should not have been taxed. After litigation, a tax-buyer named Pete Shefman ended up owning a ramshackle shed facing Miller Ave.--and a narrow strip of land behind it that ran all the way to Felch St.
O'Neal, the conservancy's co-chair, negotiated the deal. He had tried to contact Shefman many years earlier and never heard back. But Shefman evidently remembered: last September, he contacted O'Neal and said he was ready to sell.
The city was after Shefman to tear down the shed--not because of the trail but "just because it was blighted and it was dangerous," says Heather Seyfarth, the city planner coordinating with the conservancy.
O'Neal says Shefman "was nothing but first-class in terms of integrity ... He drove a hard bargain, but that's what people do in business." The price, $190,000, was contributed by an anonymous donor.
"We bought it, and we own it," O'Neal says with satisfaction. "It's a very strange shape, but it fits us beautifully." As part of the deal, Seyfarth adds, "the conservancy got rid of the shed."
Seyfarth says she doesn't "know the full magic behind the scenes" that brought about the sale. But she understands its significance: She calls it a "real kind of triumph in terms of being able to secure a piece of land that is going to be a key link to the whole project."
The project took another step forward in February, when city council approved a "collaborative agreement" with the conservancy. "Both parties wanted something that 'set the stage' and talked a little bit more about our roles," Seyfarth says.
While the agreement specifies that the city can accept gifts and pursue grants, most of the fundraising will fall on the conservancy. As O'Neal puts it, "the Treeline Conservancy will raise the money, and the city will build it."
They've already raised $35,000 for a short video to, in O'Neal's words, "show it to the world." He's not in the film himself--he'll be the one showing it to potential donors--but mayor Christopher Taylor, DTE CEO Gerry Anderson, and many other local movers and shakers are.
"The plan is to roll that out in small gatherings to raise the money," said Seyfarth. "It's really a piece that's meant to secure interests from donors and sponsors."
At this point, O'Neal says, "nobody knows how much this is going to cost." The conceptual plan shows the trail running south from the river through downtown, and then on to Michigan Stadium. But past downtown, there are still more barriers to overcome.
"It was a blow to us when Fingerle [Lumber] sold their property to U-M," Seyfarth admits. "During the planning the Treeline was rerouted to go along the roadway there, because U-M wasn't comfortable with the Treeline, at the time, [running] through the properties. We had hoped to revisit it someday."
They'd also hoped to use a wide area of the railroad right-of-way between Hoover and S. State that the railroad instead is developing as a gravel depot (see Inside Ann Arbor, p. 13). But that's a problem for the future. For now, O'Neal says, they're "honing in" on the first and hardest section: connecting the the former service yard at 721 N. Main to the Border-to-Border Trail along the river.
The Amtrak line is only the first obstacle--O'Neal points out that the trail will also have to cross Depot St. and N. Main. "We don't know how or what the route will be," he says. And deciding that will require a much more detailed study.
"The Treeline master plan was a conceptual plan," Seyfarth explains. The new study will "really get into the specifics of where the route can be and the engineering that needs to take place to actually build this thing," she says. "So that's the next step--to secure funding for that."
The study will determine what kinds of structures are needed to carry the trail over, under, or through the obstacles between the river and 721 N. Main--"to get from here to there," as O'Neal puts it.
"We don't know how that will shake out," O'Neal says. But he expects to have the answers very soon. "We will select somebody and have the results of the study by August 31," he says.
At that point, they'll know "what we are building and exactly where [the trail] will be located. By then, all the options will be decided--do we need MDOT approval? Do we need DNR approval?--and we'll then also have the cost."
He admits the timeline is aggressive, but the study is essential for the conservancy and the city to finalize plans for the first leg. And "once we get to 721," he says, "we can do anything."
Despite the Shefman purchase, Seyfarth says, "it's too complex to answer" whether the entire right-of-way from 721 to Miller is secured. "We still need the segment between 721 N. Main and Felch," she points out. "We will likely be approaching the railroad about that." And then they need to figure out the leg from Miller to the other former city yard, at 415 W. Washington.
But the Shefman parcel has accelerated the Treeline's timeline. "At Miller, even at Kingsley, we can get to First St.," O'Neal says. And from there, the DDA is working on an "interim connection to downtown. So in just a couple of years, if we can bring all that together, we'll be in the heart of the city."
Of course, all this depends on the conservancy's fundraising. It's "a big demand on the philanthropic part of the city and community," O'Neal admits. He's telling people, "Thank you for thinking of us in your estate plans."
"Joe was definitely a driving force behind getting this done," Byma says. The builder is "passionate about living in this city and being part of it. He's an avid runner, marathoner; he's visited many cities and observed how these greenways have added another level of vitality to the city environment.
"He sees the greenway as really a missing element that we should have. He's deeply committed to it, because over the course of his career, he's seen opportunities come and go, and he doesn't want to miss this one."
O'Neal often says the Treeline is not for the people who live here now--it's "for future generations." But he's starting to sound like a man in a hurry. He wants to break ground for the first stage in 2020--even if it's on December 31.
"I'm tired of thinking about it," he says. "It's time to build!"
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