Ann Arbor needs to keep options open for space atop new underground parking ramp
Two years ago, when City Council was trying to decide what to build on top of the new $50 million underground parking ramp in downtown Ann Arbor, among the first ideas to get shot down were ones that would turn the space into a park.
Now that the ramp is about to open, that concept is back yet again. A citizen group is proposing “Library Green’’ - a downtown central park - on top of the 700-space parking structure located on South Fifth Avenue, next to the Ann Arbor Public Library.
The group received a decidedly unenthusiastic response when it presented the concept to the Downtown Development Authority earlier this month, and City Council Member Sandi Smith, who serves on the DDA, says the Library Green concept is “just not possible on that block’’ because there’s not enough density to support it.
We do think there’s a need and desire for some kind of outdoor “public commons’’ space downtown, as long as it’s the right concept and the right location.
Unfortunately, we’re not convinced that the Library Green proposal represents either.
The Library Lot, as the location of the underground ramp is commonly called, is not a natural gathering place. It falls in something of a no man’s land between the State Street and Main Street business districts. We fear that a park, by itself, would be sorely underutilized in that location and generate little positive activity.
Both the city and the DDA clearly see the site as a strategic piece of property that, if developed properly, could help invigorate this lagging part of downtown and help it attract more of the foot traffic and economic activity that is seen along State and Main.
That was the intention of a proposed hotel and conference center that City Council considered for the site, but ultimately rejected last year.
We have no interest in reigniting a community argument over whether a hotel/conference center should be built on that location. What we would like to see is a discussion about the future use of the Library Lot that doesn't lock Ann Arbor into the perpetual debate it seems to have over development versus open spaces.
In fact, the best future use of the property could well be some smart combination of public, open space and private development that could play off of each other to create foot traffic and increased vitality.
For now, the top of the parking deck will be used as surface parking. That’s a utilitarian, if unattractive choice, but it keeps the city’s options open. A better economy down the road could generate better options for the Library Lot. In fact, that site is one of five city-owned parcels between Fifth Avenue and Ashley Street that are being considered for future development. It would make the most sense to understand the possible future direction of the other parcels before making final decisions on the Library Lot.
Ann Arbor loves its parks, so we understand why there’d be support in the community for the Library Green concept. But no one would argue that the nearby Liberty Plaza has been any urban oasis. It’s a public space that’s lightly used and suffers with issues of vagrancy at times. To develop the space over the parking ramp as a public park and have it experience a similar fate would not benefit downtown.
At some point in the future, if the city isn’t able to secure any viable development proposal for the Library Lot that includes a public-space component, then perhaps the idea of converting it to a park should be reconsidered. But committing the site to such use now would be premature. Let’s not lock ourselves into something that could preclude better options later on.
(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and represents the viewpoint of the Editorial Board at AnnArbor.com.)