For years, people who pass by the former Washtenaw County Road Commission site across from the Ann Arbor Y have wondered why something hasn’t been done to what is universally agreed is an eyesore. The buildings haven’t been touched since 2007, when the city departments located there moved out. The grounds are a mix of broken cement and dirt.
The city would like to see something built there, but there are a number of obstacles. For starters, after more than eighty years of housing trucks and fuel, the soil and water table are contaminated.
Then there’s Allen Creek, which passes under the site in a pipe–except in heavy rains, when it reclaims its floodplain. Even the portion outside the floodplain, called the flood fringe, has a number of problems.
Most obviously, the former buildings are still there and need to be either renovated or removed. And because the entire site is in the Old West Side Historic District, any development would have to be approved by the Historic District Commission (HDC) before it would even be considered by the planning commission and then city council.
Voters approved the creation of a road commission in 1919, and the county acquired the W. Washington property the same year. In 1925 it constructed the site’s signature building facing Washington St., with a garage on the ground level and office space upstairs. A smaller repair shop was added in 1929, and another repair shop in the 1930s.
In 1965, when the road commission moved to new headquarters on Zeeb Rd., the city took over, using the garage for maintenance vehicles and the offices for a variety of departments that overflowed City Hall. When stormwater and floodplain coordinator Jerry Hancock started working for the city in 1990, he was often in the building; even then, he says, it was very rundown, with a leaky roof and uneven floors.
The city moved its maintenance operations to the Wheeler Service Center on Stone School Rd. in 2007. Five years later, the city hired architect Marc Rueter to do an evaluation of the main building. Because it’s in the floodplain, it couldn’t be used for housing. There was interest at the time from the Arts Alliance and the Kiwanis, but neither venture panned out. Rueter says his suggestions for repair could still be implemented but would cost more today. Activists who are worried that the buildings are too far gone to repair call it “demolition by neglect.”
In 2019 the city hired SmithGroup, a Detroit architectural firm with offices in Ann Arbor, to look at four city-owned sites to see if they could be used for low-income housing. Three had obvious potential, but the W. Washington site was a much more difficult challenge. For starters it would have to be rezoned–SmithGroup suggested changing it from PL, public land, to D2, downtown interface. But federal low-income housing subsidies wouldn’t be available, since their rules preclude building on floodplains. In their report, SmithGroup suggested local funds, such as the city’s affordable housing millage, could be used instead. But housing activists point out that cleanup costs would make that option not realistic. Alternatively, the site could be used for market-rate housing, with the profits put in a fund to build affordable housing somewhere else.
SmithGroup’s charge is to create an RFP (request for proposals) for interested developers to bid on. Working closely with Washtenaw County’s brownfield redevelopment program, they are working out “entitlements,” which lay out what is and isn’t allowed, with the necessary permits already obtained. Those could include tax increment financing (TIF), which would allow developers to deduct environmental cleanup costs from future property taxes. Brownfield program head Nathan Voght points out that TIFs have been used successfully to clean up other contaminated sites, including Beekman on Broadway, which was impacted by a dry cleaners and junkyard, and the Flatiron building at Detroit and Division streets, which replaced a gas station. Rueter, who designed that building, recalls that they had to dig down twenty feet to get rid of the impacted soil.
In July, the architects held a working session with the HDC to get feedback on a possible six-story building on the site. A group of neighbors from Third St. didn’t like that. They weren’t much happier in September, when the architects showed a modified plan that shifted the tallest parts away from their backyards.
Mark Wishka, who has lived on Third since 1978, thinks townhouses would make more sense than a high-rise, which, even stepped back, would “loom dramatically.” His next-door neighbor, Ann Colvin, says it’s not the low-income aspect of the project that bothers the neighbors, but the height. Colvin would rather see the site used as an anchor park for the Treeline, which would let the critters that live there now stay–raccoons, woodchucks, rabbits.
Jerry Hancock sees bigger problems if the building impinges on the floodplain. “If they build there, it will just increase the floodplain in other areas, causing property damage and a safety risk,” he explains. Since the city owns the site, he says, it has an “opportunity to plan a resilient use that mitigates the [existing buildings’] development impact and considers future flood conditions.”
Activist Tom Stulberg worries that when the floodplain maps are redrawn, they will show a larger floodway, which will continue to grow with the effects of global warming. Stulberg thinks that the city has wasted time and money developing the pre-entitlements. He doubts any developers will be interested when they see all the challenges plus the community opposition.
If Stulberg’s prediction proves correct, what else could be done? A popular option is the one Colvin suggests: use the site as a park. It would enhance the Greenway, and no one would be in jeopardy if a flood occurred. But it costs money to create parks, and the city can’t use TIFs to offset cleanup costs.
Lately another possibility has surfaced. Joe Lambert, who owns the former Moveable Feast building on W. Liberty, has floated the idea of an adaptive reuse project that would keep the old buildings for farmers’ market stalls, create a green area in the middle where kids could play and other activities such as yoga and Pilates could take place, and build housing on the higher land he already owns in back of his building. He even has funding lined up–although he is quick to say that this is not in opposition to the SmithGroup plan, just a fallback if their plan fails.
Whatever happens, there is one area all the interested parties agree on, which is to save the old chimney on the main building so that the chimney swifts can continue to roost there. The abandoned chimney provides a perfect place for them to gather in the fall to prepare for their flight to South America. SmithGroup has examined the chimney and found that it is “not structurally connected to the existing building.” So even if the building is demolished, the chimney could be preserved.