Michael Smallegan: Don’t occupy Wall Street

By Michael Smallegan, Columnist
Published November 12, 2012

It’s easy to lament the sore state of the Ann Arbor parking situation, but determining a course of action to rectify it is a more difficult affair.

This month marks the start of the University’s construction of a new parking structure on Wall Street. The proposed structure seems like a perfectly adequate way to meet the increased parking needs that came with the opening of the new C. S. Mott Children’s and Von Voightlander Women's Hospital; however, its placement and execution create more problems than they fix.

Progress on the structure has been steady since its approval by the University's Board of Regents in April, despite equally steady resistance from residents in the Lower Town area. Calls from area residents to halt the project, though heard, remain unheeded. With room for 725 cars, the 70-foot tall structure will be an outlier in the mostly residential neighborhood speckled with historic buildings and delineated by a slow peaceful bend of the Huron River. The move toward more University activity in this area is far from unprecedented — it has been occurring for the past 30 years.

The University is an institution that has driven to be the “Leaders and Best.” In its marching to the ceaseless tempo of “improve, expand” it has acquired and demolished many historically significant homes in the area to make way for buildings and parking lots. While the new structure will be partially constructed on the location of an existing surface parking lot, at least one home will be demolished in the process.

The home in question, at 959 Wall Street, has received the same preparative treatment as have other homes lost to “progress” — a cursory archaeological dig directed by Anthropology Prof. Henry Wright. Though he carries out these digs in earnest, Wright is given too little time for a full treatment of the sites. Furthermore, this small gesture does little to mitigate the loss of the historic record that comes from demolishing these homes and replacing the soil underneath with culturally meaningless, homogeneous loose stone and concrete.

The loss of this part of Ann Arbor’s story is significant because of the role this area played in our city’s past. In 1830, with the construction of a flourmill on the Huron, the area gradually became a booming business center. Anson Brown, owner of the flourmill, named the streets in the area after those in New York, intending to create a city center, a “downtown,” that would compete with the then-developing community that is our current downtown. Many of the oldest houses in Ann Arbor are in this area, and with them, a fantastic record of some of our community’s past.

The establishment of the University and the location of the train station gradually sucked the vibrancy out of the area, and brought the locus of attention south of the Huron. It now seems the University is finishing the job.

Perhaps of even greater concern than the disregard of the historical record, the disturbance of the community’s look and feel, the increased traffic congestion, and concerns over pedestrian safety is the environmental degradation that this new structure will bring. Lower Town is called such because it is a low point topologically in Ann Arbor, and with its proximity to both Traver Creek and the Huron River, the unavoidable increase in runoff that comes with the addition of multiple thousands of square feet of impermeable concrete will undoubtedly have consequences for the area’s natural habitat.

The parking structure will be built, University planners will be happy and local residents will learn to deal with it, but lessons can be learned from this. There are other solutions to the lack of parking near campus. Let’s have some smart people find them next time.

Michael Smallegan can be reached at smallmic@umich.edu.