The Center of the City Task Force met at Larcom town hall to discuss the planning stages of a new park in the center of Ann Arbor Wednesday afternoon.
The 10-person municipal committee was designed to promote long-term beautification projects in Ann Arbor. The group first met on Aug. 1, after local voters approved Proposal A in November which designated the library lot between Fifth Avenue and Division Street as a space for the construction of a new community commons.
Meghan Musolff, the chair of the task force, explained the group is still developing plans for the park’s construction and will be doing so over the next several months.
Bringing in support and input from the community in the next few months will help the project’s development, Musolff said.
“My goals for today are to really start thinking about how we engage the community in an inclusive, meaningful way, starting from where we are in the conversation,” Musolff said. “This group is really coming together to start thinking about the vision, and today … we (are) going to bring the community into the decision-making process.”
While the Center of the City project ultimately gained approval via direct vote last November, task force members explained the idea has been in the works for several years. Alan Haber, task force member and local political activist, says the idea was originally shot down by the city over ten years ago.
“In 2009, the city put out a request for proposals as (to) what should happen on top of the parking structure, and at that time I and another person with a larger group put in a proposal for the Ann Arbor community commons,” Haber said. “The city, under the table, had decided, already, that this was going to be a kind of conference center … So our proposal for a community commons was not considered nor another proposal for a town square.”
LSA senior Hannah Boettcher is the sole University of Michigan student voice on the task force. Boettcher is a part of the Roosevelt Institute, a think tank and campus network at U-M focused on public policy. The Institute originally campaigned against the proposal, instead advocating for an affordable housing complex at the same location.
“The alternative to the Proposal A in the center of the city would have been an affordable housing building,” Boettcher said. “So we as a student body took the opinion that affordable housing near campus would have been more beneficial, not only to students, but also to the community at large.”
Following the approval of Proposal A, Boettcher applied to be on the committee in order to represent the student body and ensure the project took all community members’ needs into account.
“All that aside, I’m interested as a student on this project, because it does lie in the intersection of student neighborhoods,” Boettcher said. “There are student neighborhoods pretty much all around this location, so to me it’s really important to have a student voice representing this so it doesn’t become another wasteland park in the middle of downtown that nobody uses.”
At the top of the agenda on Wednesday was community engagement, and members of the task force proposed several tactics to gather local support and inform the community.
Heather Seyfarth, an Ann Arbor city planner, suggested several methods of increasing awareness, including invite letters, town social media accounts, holiday letters and posting flyers across town.
However, Councilmember Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, warned against the use of mailings to consolidate community support, explaining they tend to be less effective than other means of spreading information.
“It’s been my experience, because I do this work for a living and I’ve organized more than a few political campaigns, that we shouldn’t spend any money on mailings,” Smith said. “Mailings don’t generate any feedback, they don’t get people to meetings, generally if they’re looked at at all, they’re quickly tossed in the recycling bin. I think we need to prioritize what’s going to be the most effective way to reach the different populations we’re trying to reach for each event.”
The task force also set out goals for the next several months of project development. By the end of October, the committee hopes to complete outreach to the public and members of the community who have vested interests in the project. During November and December, a public proposal will be written, and by February, final discussions will be had about gaining approval from the Ann Arbor City Council.
While members of the committee are eager to see the projects progress in the next few months, Boettcher explains she has some reservations about the task force’s composition. Boettcher says the multitude of city planners and local officials on the task force gives it a diversity of opinion, though not necessarily of race or socioeconomic background.
“I’m disappointed in the lack of minority voices, when we’re talking about the ethnic diversity and the racial diversity of this task force, and likely the socioeconomic diversity of this task force,” Boettcher said. “I don’t think it’s been well-considered that this is an area downtown that maybe is not the most welcoming to all walks of life. That’s disappointing in that regard, but I think we’re mindful of that, and I think we all have a vision of inclusivity.”