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City Council debates Liberty Plaza redesign

By Matthew Jackonen, Daily Staff Reporter
Published June 16, 2014

Parks and recreation is serious business — and not just according to Leslie Knope.

Monday night, the Ann Arbor City Council opted out of a vote on a resolution to improve Liberty Plaza, and instead referred it to the Parks Advisory Commission for review and suggestions.

Liberty Plaza’s central location at the corner of East Liberty and Division in the city’s downtown district has made its use a hotly debated issue by city council in recent months.

Monday night’s resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Christopher Taylor (D--Ward 3), would allocate $23,577 from the parks budget in order to improve the area.

Taylor said the resolution would allow a wide range of appropriate stakeholders to engage in creating a downtown park that is “vibrant and green.”

Although Taylor did concede that many citizens wanted a downtown park other than Liberty Plaza, he noted that Liberty Plaza is more readily available to make improvements.

“Liberty Plaza is a park that we (already) have,” Taylor said.

Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) said he did not know if the suggested funding would be sufficient to meet the goals of the resolution for out of concern over the city’s lack of park planners; currently, the city only has one.

Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said she did not know if the funds would be enough to secure the goals, adding that she would rather have the PAC’s input on the project.

“It’s all the public outreach that is at issue that will get us to the goal of how we take a really pleasant area with bushes and trees and make it a really pleasant, safe area with bushes and trees,” Briere said. “I would not object to postponing this to refer it to PAC.”

Kunselman also sarcastically noted that Liberty Plaza is only recently becoming a priority over the city’s 157 other parks.

“We have one park planner, and we have 157 parks,” Kunselman said. “This one has suddenly become the priority.”

One of the main concerns with the proposed park’s location in Liberty Plaza is that citizens — often the homeless — loiter in the area, which sometimes leads to disruptive behavior.

The plaza is also often associated with drug and alcohol use as well as violent acts; most recently, a man was accused of using a box cutter to slice the face of another man in the plaza during an argument over alcohol May 31.

Mayor John Hieftje said he believes many of these problems can be fixed by simply redesigning Liberty Plaza.

“I don’t want to… have to station police officers full-time at a park,” Hieftje said. “If we can fix this issue through re-design, that’s what we should do.”

How exactly the area would be redesigned in order to alleviate these issues remained unclear, but one suggestion made by Taylor was to remove the seating areas in the plaza, which he mentioned the University did when they had similar problems near the corner of State Street and North University Avenue.

Kunselman suggested using the University Landscape Architecture students and faculty to help with the Liberty Park project, but Hieftje said a plan to coordinate with the department was already in place.

In addition to debating the issues surrounding Liberty Plaza, City Council also voted to approve the site plan for an 88,570 square-foot hotel on West Huron between Main and Ashley Streets.

The plan, brought to the council by First Martin, proposes a six-story building, in which the first floor would be used for retail and the upper five stories for hotel space.

Finally, council approved a $75,000 agreement with Greenway Collaborative, Inc. to aid the Pedestrian Safety and Access Taskforce in their study of pedestrian safety in the city.

The taskforce is currently working to analyze and mend the city’s walkways and improve other aspects of pedestrian safety.