By Taylor Wizner, Daily News Reporter
Published December 2, 2012
Washtenaw Avenue, the 4.5-mile road that stretches through Ann Arbor, is known by most students for its fast traffic, proximity to fraternity houses and as a straight-shot route to Whole Foods Market.
However, the street has been a thorn in the city’s side for years due to its precarious crossings and transit options, as well as inadequate sidewalks. After four years studying the roadway, officials in Ann Arbor and surrounding communities have planned a number of improvements to make the road safer and more accessible.
Nathan Voght — the project manager for ReImagine Washtenaw, a regional study to evaluate the road’s condition — said his first goal has been to look for ways to improve safety.
“(Ann Arbor officials) wanted to undertake a process of public engagement to try to determine how the corridor could be transformed into one that’s more attractive, that’s safer, that’s something that will thrive and encourage economic development and really be a corridor that will meet its potential,” Voght said.
Voght said pedestrian transit developments such as foot and bike paths are also a focus of the study, adding that the community has been frustrated that these ideas have been ignored.
“(In the past) there’s been very little planning and coordination to make sure that improvements that are made really look at the quality of life along the corridor and access to the corridor and other ways of transportation to get around, specifically bikers, etc.,” Voght said. “This has been something we are now looking into.”
Some projects have already been completed in the area between Pittsfield and Ypsilanti Township, and others in Ann Arbor are in the planning or construction phases, Voght said.
In September, officials broke ground for the construction of Arbor Hills Crossing, a 90,000 square-foot retail and professional office space located across from Whole Foods Market, which is located at 3135 Washtenaw Ave.
The development will introduce safe transit features like new, wider sidewalks, a new Ann Arbor Transportation Authority bus stop, a traffic signal and pedestrian crossing at Platt Road.
Voght said while the study is constantly developing projects on the corridor, several improvements to the road are still years from completion. He said there are also plans to redesign paths between building and the road so that they are more accessible for pedestrians.
Former Ann Arbor City Councilmember Tony Derezinski, who lives off of Washtenaw Avenue, has been a proponent of work on the road before the formation of the initiative, which launched shortly after he was elected to the Council four years ago. He said, living near the road, he always felt it was something that needed improvement.
“I’ve watched it get busier and busier and more congested and I felt very strongly that this was an urban issue that needed to be addressed,” Derezinski said. “When I got elected to City Council it was one of the first things which I indicated to the mayor I wanted to work on and some people were already getting together to try to share information.”
Derezinski said so far the group has dealt with the road’s problems well, addressing them in the “spirit of cooperation” with nearby communities.
“It was time we really took a look at it not just in the view of Ann Arbor, but also in collaboration with all the communities that this avenue services,” Derezinski said.
Several nearby communities have partnered with Ann Arbor in the effort, including Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. Local organizations and governments — including the AATA, Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Department of Transportation, Washtenaw Area Transportation Study and Washtenaw County — have also been participating parties.
Derezinski said one project currently in development would ease non-motorized transportation on the road. The Michigan Department of Transportation is constructing paths on both sides of Washtenaw Avenue near US-23, which will allow for pedestrians and bicyclists to safely travel beneath the highway overpass.
“Right now we are partially completed with a walkway underneath US-23 so you can get there without fear of losing your life,” Derezinski said. “And I think that is great for students who live in this community.”
While Derezinski was defeated in his run for second term on City Council, he said he will continue to work on the initiative. He still serves on the city’s planning commission and oversees the project development for the ReImagine Washtenaw initiative, and said he will continue to inform councilmembers of plans on Washtenaw Avenue.
Jim Kosteva, the University’s director of community relations, wrote in an e-mail that the University is happily awaiting improvements along the road.
“Although the University does not have direct stake in the ReImagine Washtenaw initiative, we are supportive of the improvements in mobility for the entire community,” Kosteva wrote. “There are sustainability benefits that we all share with improved public transportation and safe accommodation for alternative modes.”
Kosteva noted that the University is especially looking forward to several services, including increased bus service in the corridor, expanded night-time service and a park-and-ride that will directly benefit University members.
“I'm confident that all of these improvements will be used and enjoyed by a large number of UM faculty, students and staff who live in this vicinity,” Kosteva wrote.