On Wednesday night, about 75 Ann Arbor residents gathered in the SPARK office for the Center of the City Task Force open house. Residents discussed plans for a new park and civic center commons on the library lot between Fifth Avenue and Division Street, as well as improvements to Liberty Plaza, a public park located on East Liberty.
The Task Force, a 10-person municipal committee, was established following the November 2018 passage of Proposal A, which designated the plot adjacent to the city’s downtown public library for recreational use. Wednesday’s event, in combination with an earlier open house and online survey, will serve as the basis for the Task Force’s recommendation to City Council in February.
Task Force Chair Meghan Musolff, Ann Arbor resident and University of Michigan librarian, said the event was meant to “report back” prior comments and provide an opportunity for other residents to voice their opinions about the park and commons. Musolff said the Task Force aims to incorporate all opinions from the community without bias.
Residents discussed three issues: the oversight of the library lot, the existence and extent of a plot of land adjacent to the library and the renovation of Liberty Plaza. These three issues were controversial, Musolff said. The event included three tables where attendees could discuss these issues in small groups, monitored by a Task Force member.
“We are here to steward this process, but it’s really important to me that we gather the feedback, we hear from the community and synthesize that and refer back to it as we develop recommendations and submit them,” Musolff said. “Then it is up to City Council to execute.”
Musolff said the Task Force has so far identified community interest in developing both affordable housing and a green, open area that could accommodate different events like protests and community gatherings.
Ann Arbor resident Freda Herseth said she does not support the use of the library plot for affordable housing. She said it was not what she agreed to when she cast her vote in support of Proposition A. She said it was this disagreement that compelled her to attend the open house.
“I’ve heard that some of the Task Force may be wanting to change this to include things that we did not vote for,” Herseth said. “I’m here to try to keep democracy going.”
According to Herseth and other attendees, the desire to place housing and other private businesses in a building on the library plot is motivated by money. Ann Arbor resident Braxton Blake said he fears City Council may be acting on their own behalf, rather than on behalf of their constituents.
“(The library plot has) become a vehicle to sell the quality of our city for the profit of those who have money already,” Blake said.
When asked what she wanted visitors to say about the City when they leave, Ann Arbor resident Libby Hunter said she wanted people to note the area’s walkability and uniqueness, both as an impressive college campus and vibrant downtown area.
“I would like them to say, ‘What a great downtown. Let’s come back, and let’s tell people about it,” Hunter said.
According to Hunter, Blake and Herseth, the open plan for the library plot can only exist if the plans for housing and commercial real estate are scrapped.
However, not all attendees felt disdain for the library lot being developed into affordable housing. Ann Arbor resident Zachary Storey spoke to the group about a period of time in which he experienced homelessness and would have benefited greatly from affordable housing or convertible furniture, which can be used as beds after dark.
Despite calls for more affordable housing in Ann Arbor, some attendees said there are other sites in the city that have been designated for development. They said residents should pressure City Council to proceed with those plans without undermining their open, green vision for the library plot.
Ann Arbor resident Saharsh Hajela is a University alum who went to work in Ann Arbor immediately following graduation. Hajela said he came to the event to become more involved in his community, but feared older residents would “villainize” certain types of people occupying the park.
“I've heard from some certain constituents that Liberty Plaza is super ‘unsafe’ and there’s ‘vagrants,’” Hajela said. “I don’t want blame to be placed on people from an unhelpful lens.”
Hajela said college students and other young people should become more active in local politics. He said he believes their “innovative” spirit could be put to use.
Task Force member Miles Klapthor, a senior at Ann Arbor’s Community High School, explained how young people’s perspectives highlighted alternate concerns that might not have been heard if he were not on the Task Force.
“A big theme in the student community is (having) a place that’s integrated into a daily schedule,” Klapthor said. “Having a space that you can reach during your lunch period and having a space that’s just down the street from the bus station is really nice because that’s a feature that you’re using a lot.”
As a current high school senior, Klapthor knows he probably won’t be around in a few years when construction concludes to reap the benefits of what ends up being built on the library plot. Still, he said the anticipation of a final result is what excites him the most about the project.
“You kind of have a vision in your head of what could be, but I think it’s also really exciting to see what you can create with everyone else in the community,” Klapthor said.