Ann Arbor resident Jessica A.S. Letaw, a board member of the Downtown Development Authority, hosted a “DownTown Hall” at the Ann Arbor District Library Wednesday night. Letaw said she took it upon herself to host DownTown Hall meetings to try to make the DDA’s technical work in downtown Ann Arbor more accessible to the general public.

Letaw hosts this event twice a month to provide an opportunity for city residents to have a conversation about current events and changes going on in downtown Ann Arbor. 

“A healthy downtown informs a healthy city,” Letaw said. “I wanted to make sure that anybody who wanted to have access to be able to ask questions of somebody who is doing this work.”

The Ann Arbor DDA, created in 1982, strives to “undertake public improvements that have the greatest impact in strengthening the downtown area and attracting new private investments.” Letaw kept to this theme during the meeting by covering the DDA’s 2018 State of the Downtown report, which covered statistics about different aspects of downtown Ann Arbor such as people-friendly streets, employment, investment and growth.

“A lot of times, when we think about downtown, especially as a parking authority, we think of it as a place for cars,” Letaw said. “But in reality, a city is a place for people.”

Letaw explained the division between responsibilities that the city of Ann Arbor and the DDA share. While the city of Ann Arbor is in charge of road right-of-way, such as street maintenance and signals, the DDA is responsible for pedestrian right-of-way, Letaw said. In maintaining this, the DDA uses tax-increment financing (TIF) to create a right-of-way for people that is welcoming and easy to use. Currently, the DDA is working on improving safety in the city for bicyclists.

“Nobody is going to take their kid on Plymouth (Road),” Letaw said. “Nobody is going to take their kid on Washtenaw. Nobody is going to take their kid on Jackson, they’d be insane if they did. But what if they weren’t?” 

One of the DDA’s most recent developments was implementing the first protected two-way bike lane installed on William Street. Their decision to place it here was based on an accident review of all collisions and conflicts in downtown over the last five years, which labeled this street as an area of high vulnerability.

City Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, who has been a longtime advocate of pedestrian safety, was also in attendance. She stated Ann Arbor could begin improving pedestrian safety with three distinct steps. 

“We need to hire a senior engineer with ‘Vision Zero’ expertise. Vision Zero is a proven process for reducing roadway fatalities and serious injuries,” Griswold said. Number two, would be the need to cap all of our crosswalks lit with positive, contrast lighting. We’re working on that. That’s quite expensive, but we’re not there yet. And number three, we need a state crosswalk law so that everyone knows what that law is.”

Ann Arbor resident Rich Chang, who attended the meeting, is the CEO of Ann Arbor tech company NewFoundry. Chang is also a part of seven committees around town, including the board of directors for United Way of Washtenaw County and the chair of the executive committee for the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber. 

As someone involved in multiple committees around town, Chang said he hopes more residents will take the initiative to become informed about their city.

“I feel like more and more people are not willing to take the time to become more informed and ask questions,” Chang said. “Critical thinking, to me, is one of the biggest challenges. I think if we all did better at critical thinking and having dialogue … I think people will not have as much of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction.” 

Letaw also spoke about her hopes for DDA’s future expansion, including taking on solid waste management problems and implementing art projects similar to those in downtown Detroit. One example she mentioned was The Belt, an art alley unveiled in Detroit in 2014. She also talked about the DDA’s goals for their charter renewal in 2033. At that time, they hope to become leaders in making downtown Ann Arbor more equitably accessible and available for people using all modes of transportation.

“It’s hard to know when it comes to politics, or even any kind of public work. It’s hard to know if your work makes a difference,” Letaw said. “But when work that you do builds up to a protected bike lane or more bike parking or whatever it is, it feels really gratifying.”

Julia Fanzeres contributed reporting.

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