West Park, once a thriving year-round hub of activity, is now often deserted, even on warm summer days. But thanks to the Obama administration’s economic stimulus money, it’s getting a million-dollar makeover. Because it’s just a few blocks from downtown Ann Arbor, boosters envision it as an urban oasis for walks and relaxation–a smaller cousin of New York City’s Central Park.

When it opened in 1908, the park was designed primarily for organized sports. Although by then the streets surrounding the park–Huron, Miller, Chapin, and Seventh–were filled with houses, the site was still vacant because it was susceptible to flooding from the two branches of Allen Creek that crossed Seventh and merged in the park.

The city park commission first bought six acres on the Chapin Street end and put in tennis courts and two baseball diamonds. Over the decades, the city purchased adjoining lots from individual owners, traded with the school board for the site of the old Mack School (now the Miller Avenue entrance with the pergola), and added land ceded by the county drain commissioner after the creek was put in a pipe. By 1964 the park had reached its present size of more than twenty-six acres.

As a boy in the 1920s, Don Whitesell played tennis on the courts on the Huron Street side. The park “was mostly just space when I was there,” he recalls. “It was real quiet most of time.” Whitesell, whose grandparents lived on the corner of Huron and Chapin, describes the park he knew then as a low swath of land with a stream running through it, reached by a steep incline behind the houses on Huron.

Below the tennis courts, about halfway down the hill, Whitesell picked wildflowers on a trail believed to have been used by Native Americans. “One of the [Indian] paths crossing West Park in Ann Arbor follows the trail that led from Allen Creek to Dexter,” wrote U-M professor William Hinsdale in his 1927 book The Indians of Washtenaw County, Michigan. Bob Kuhn recalls how he and his buddies used to play cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers there. On February 12, 1929, the Boy Scouts put in a plaque which “marks an old Indian trail plainly visible at that date.”

Bill Browning, retired Ann Arbor Public Schools outdoor education director, used to take busloads of third graders to the trail while leading Ann Arbor history tours. “I would tell them that the Indians walked quietly, single file. It wasn’t wide enough for wagons or even horses,” he recalls.

Marian Zwinck remembers skating on the frozen creek as a child, wearing skates clamped onto her boots. In 1928 the creek was put in a pipe to mitigate flooding, but its path can still be discerned by the black willows that stood on its banks.

The park got major improvements during the Great Depression through an earlier federal stimulus program, the Works Progress Administration. In 1933, WPA workers created a pond in the grassy area at the bottom of the Huron Street side. It was used as a wading pool and a skating rink. Bobby Kuhn, Bob’s wife, remembers sitting on a log next to the frozen pond to put on her skates, and it was “colder than heck.”

WPA workers also built the park’s band shell, in 1938. The WPA pond was later filled in after Eli Gallup, superintendent of parks, decided it was too easy for kids to fall in. In its place, the Kiwanis Club built a smaller wading pool. Skating moved to a rink created by flooding the baseball diamond near Chapin.

“West Park and Burns Park were the ice skating ponds,” remembers Al Gallup, who was hired by his dad to manage the skating rink at Burns in the early 1950s. Each night, the parks’ resident managers would build up the ice by spraying water from a hose.

“The rinks were heavily crowded. Kids would come every day after school,” recalls Gallup. Bob Dascola was one of hundreds of children who learned to skate there. After getting so cold outside, Bobby Kuhn was “tickled to death” when the city built a small warming shed. Gallup remembers wet mittens placed on the woodstove to dry, sending up steam.

In 1958 the shed was replaced by a permanent shelter, designed by U-M architecture professor Bob Metcalf. The north end was enclosed as a warm-up area, the south left open for summer picnics. A middle section held the furnace and bathrooms. The shelter had a space-age look with what Metcalf calls a “hockey stick roof,” shallow and turned up at the end.

By then West Park was busy year round, thanks to a recreation program staffed by the public schools. Coleman Jewett, who ran the program in the late 1960s and early 1970s, remembers it as “big and thriving.” Kids came from all over the neighborhood, even very young ones, bringing their lunches so they could stay all day. The little kids could play in the sandbox or wading pool, while older kids did crafts like making pot holders and key chains.

Sports were a big part of the program too–touch football, basketball, and softball. If kids had trouble getting along, Jewett would bring out boxing gloves and set up a bout in a grassy area: “After pounding each other for a while, they would stop and say ‘this is stupid.'” He remembers that after the fight the two antagonists would often become good friends.

In the early 1990s, the ice skating and summer recreation programs were phased out, both for the same reasons–budget constraints and decreased usage. Ron Olson, park superintendent from 1985 to 2004 (and now state parks director) recalls that as winters got warmer, maintaining the city’s seven outdoor rinks got “outrageously expensive.” They were gradually phased out, leaving only the indoor rink at Vets and the semi-enclosed one at Buhr Park.

The summer programs also declined as parents began scheduling their children’s activities more systematically and became more worried about safety. Olson kept the activities going at West Park as long as he could because “there was an increase of misuse–alcoholics who drank there during the day or homeless who slept there. We wanted to provide positive activity, a presence, but it got more challenging with tight budgets.”

Although baseball games and concerts continued at the park, the end of skating and summer recreation programs resulted in large chunks of time with no organized activities. As the park became emptier, problems escalated. Police patrols were increased, and the shelter was eventually torn down.

Flooding also became increasingly problematic. After Allen Creek was put in a pipe, Ann Arbor’s west side was completely developed, greatly increasing the amount of run-off coming through the park during heavy rains. In the summer there are large areas too swampy to mow or use for recreation, while in winter ice often covers the walking paths.

Plans for the makeover of West Park had their genesis in 2004, when the Downtown Development Authority suggested building a parking structure on the surface lot across from Liberty Lofts at First and William. Opponents argued that the land should be used for a park instead. They pointed out that Ann Arbor, although full of parks, did not have any green areas downtown. The two downtown parks, Liberty Plaza and Sculpture Plaza, are mostly paved.

The ensuing discussion started downtown activist Bob Dascola thinking. Dascola, who crochets to relax from his day job as a barber, was making a scarf when he suddenly thought, “What’s wrong with using West Park as a downtown park? It could be part of the Allen Creek greenway.”

Dascola began talking to Janis Bobrin, the county water resources commissioner; Laura Rubin, director of the Huron River Watershed Council, and Amy Kuras, of the Ann Arbor parks and recreation department. Dascola also gathered other like-minded people to found Friends of West Park, which he cochairs with longtime park neighbor Steve Thorpe.

Bobrin’s office, as well as the watershed council, was interested in West Park as a place to clean and slow the storm water in Allen Creek. This dovetailed with Kuras’s desire to increase public use of West Park. “Over the years the water table has just gone up and up,” says Kuras. “There are often areas that are underwater. Near the band shell there have been sinkholes.”

Kuras held three public meetings to hear suggestions for park improvements. Working with Bobrin’s office on the technical aspects, she then drew up a West Park recreation and storm water master plan. That plan includes a chain of four trenchlike areas called bioswales to capture storm water during heavy rainfalls. Three are designed to drain within forty-eight hours, but the fourth, where the two tributaries meet underground, will be dug deeper to create a pond fed by a natural spring. Native wetland and prairie plants planted along the sides will help absorb and clean the water.

The old pipes will stay in place, but their water will be cleaned by eight hydrodynamic separators, also called swirl concentrators. Located underground where the tributaries enter at Seventh Street, the separators will spin the water, causing heavy debris to settle and oil to rise to the top, where it can be skimmed off. (Similar projects are being done on the Pioneer High School grounds and at two other places along Stadium Boulevard, also using stimulus funds).

The Pioneer project includes massive underground detention basins, but there wasn’t room for those at West Park. Harry Sheehan, an environmental manager from Bobrin’s office, explains that the flow of water at West Park is much greater, and the buried creek is nearer the surface–in some places less than three feet underground.

At the public meetings, some residents called for removing the pipes entirely to “daylight” the creek. But the plans call for only a small portion of the creek’s storm water to be routed above ground through the swales. According to Sheehan, there are two serious problems with daylighting the whole course: “One is E. coli. There are very high E. coli counts in Allen Creek, even in dry weather, because the rest of the network of storm sewers–and there are miles and miles of them–are habitat for raccoons.”

The second problem is flooding during heavy rainfall. “You have to get the water back in the pipe when it gets past West Park,” Sheehan points out. “So, there’s going to be a need to store water in the park….It would definitely change the use of the park–it would be much more a storm-water facility and not a park.

“If you’re going to try and store water and daylight Allen Creek, it makes sense to do it in steps. You have to do it with projects that detain water throughout the watershed….You can’t just start at the downstream end.”

Responding to requests from senior citizens at Miller Manor and Lurie Terrace, above-ground improvements to West Park include fixing the stairs down from Miller and Huron and placing benches along new paths. A Project Grow garden will also draw more people to the park.

Kuras wanted to preserve the old black willows, but many are badly decayed and toppling over. As trees are removed, city workers are taking cuttings to propagate stock for replanting along the buried creek’s course. They are also being careful to preserve the park’s old oaks, many of which are older than Ann Arbor itself.

The project’s cost is $1.4 million, but the city will have to pay only 15 percent of that from its parks maintenance and development millage. Stimulus funds will pay for all of the storm-water work, with 40 percent an outright gift and the rest–about $725,000–repayable over twenty years at 21/2 percent interest, using storm-water utilities revenue.

Under the city’s 1-percent-for-art policy, $10,000 has been set aside to create public art. Thirteen people expressed interest in creating pieces to be installed on the new seating walls facing the band shell. A committee that included members of the public art and parks advisory commissions chose Traven Pelletier, a sculptor and installation artist who co-owns Lotus Gardenscapes. Pelletier says he has yet to submit a formal proposal, but he envisions “two steel, standing treelike sculptures, probably ten to twelve feet” tall, placed on either side of the top seat wall, along with an array of boulders among the three rows of seats that will form a tree when viewed from above. The new seating will be ready for Ann Arbor Civic Band concerts in the summer of 2011; this year the band hopes to play at Burns Park.

Ron Olson points out that parks need to change with changing public interests. “The new trend is self-directed recreation. There is a heavy thirst to seek physical health, appreciate nature and quiet.” The new, improved West Park should serve the city well for another century.

Additional reporting by Jan Schlain

This article has been corrected since it appeared in the April 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. Due to an editorial error, Harry Shehan’s comparisons of the volume and depth of Allen Creek at Pioneer High and West Park were reversed.