Three Ann Arbor city-owned lots have become the subject of heated debate during the past few weeks. In response to a proposal to build two mixed-use high-rise buildings and a parking structure on these lots, Ann Arbor City Council Member Chris Easthope (D-5th Ward) proposed a different idea — building three parks that would become part of an eventual greenway. Despite the importance of parks and open areas, the battle against urban sprawl also requires a commitment to encouraging growth and density downtown.
By allowing the construction of the two buildings, the Ann Arbor City Council will be able to promote residential density and urban development by focusing growth in downtown areas. Some of the residential space could be subsidized by the city to lower prices, and overall housing rates would fall with the increasing supply. The arrival of new, small businesses would be beneficial to maintaining the charming character of the downtown sector. While the construction of additional parking may raise concerns about increasing downtown traffic and congestion, the proposed parking structure would merely consolidate existing spaces — a more efficient way of meeting the city’s parking needs and attracting outside visitors. Furthermore, because one lot lies in a flood plain, a parking structure would be one of the only viable options for the land.
The proposed greenway, which would run from the Huron River south to the University golf course and cut through the city center, would bring numerous aesthetic and environmental benefits. But even without it, residents currently have easy access to parks and green spaces just outside the downtown area. While three parks would be welcome by citizens, in this case, they would come only by sacrificing a rare opportunity for substantial economic growth within the downtown area. The building proposal includes some land allocation for a park, which could be connected to an eventual greenway. The two plans may have very different direct impacts, but they are not conflicting in their intentions. Both seek to promote responsible urban development. In this instance, however, the building proposal emerges as a clear winner, offering Ann Arbor the chance to stimulate growth in its center, thus promoting development and slowing the advance of urban sprawl.
By seizing the opportunity to further develop downtown Ann Arbor, the pressure from developers to build in rural areas will lessen. Though both proposals represent important visions for the future of Ann Arbor, two multi-use buildings would benefit the city’s growth in a way that would not hinder environmental initiatives the city has supported. The City Council should support the original buildings proposal and work to preserve open spaces by implementing the Greenbelt initiative. Provided that internal politics and conflict do not stop the council from putting its Greenbelt plans into action, Ann Arbor citizens can look forward to responsible development downtown over the coming years.