column: Top 5: Opportunities to get rid of blight on Ann Arbor's North Main corridor
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Ann Arbor City Council will hear a resolution Monday night to establish a North Main-Huron River Corridor vision task force.
Details on that as of mid-afternoon were not available, but the timing is right: MichCon’s effort to clean up its contaminated riverfront property is under way.
And it’s well past time to look at North Main Street.
After all, the corridor from M-14 to Huron is the northern gateway to Ann Arbor. But it’s also the most obvious evidence of blight in the city.
As one of the key entrances to the city from M-14, these blocks of North Main comprise the first view of Ann Arbor for visitors from Grand Rapids, Lansing, Brighton, even Plymouth and Metro Detroit.
Yet what is Ann Arbor telling its visitors - and its residents - by ignoring all of the elements on this stretch of road that, collectively, make it an eyesore?
The opportunities here are endless, considering the acreage involved - and how much of that property fronts the Huron River.
Details on tonight’s North Main proposal are still unclear. But here are the properties that I’d put in front of city officials as priorities:
1. Those abandoned houses: They started as a vision for very low income housing and on the real estate front, they represented an assemblage that spoke only of opportunity to create needed housing in the city. Today, thanks in part to the economy slowing that Near North project down, these six houses in the 700 block of North Main have become the “poster children” for what’s wrong with Ann Arbor development. Exposed beams in a roof, boarded-up windows, peeling siding and holes big enough to attract vandals - much less smaller mammals - combine to create a housing eyesore that begs for demolition until something else can be done with the properties. The city says that’s in the works. But in the meantime, neighbors of these homes are living or (in the case of the Summit Party Store) running businesses next to unabashed decay.
2. The Greek Church: Just like “those houses,” the former St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church has a plan behind it - it just neither has the financing nor the market conditions to make that possible. Yet. And in the meantime, the condition of the building is just getting worse. Windows are broken out, the dome is wide open to the elements, and the efforts to secure the property (like the orange temporary fencing) leave it an unappealing eyesore. In its defense, someone is taking steps to control graffiti - and at least there’s fencing there. But of all of the properties mentioned, this one is closest to downtown - and the one people really stop to see as southbound vehicles approach our central business district.
3. Ann Arbor's Fleet Services building Across from the Avalon Housing property sits the city’s Fleet Services garage, which is, in turn, next to the Ann Arbor Community Center. Both have served their purpose. And they're technically not blight. The fleet services building simply isn't the best use of a near-downtown building. And I have to suspect the programs in the community center would serve their purpose in a newer (but still centrally located) facility. But today, in a city that decries demolition of historic homes for student housing, the fleet services property simply offers a chance to maximize development in a place where it would improve the area and not bring out the wrath of neighbors. Could this city-owned lot be the next request for proposals from municipal officials? Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for something viable for the Library Lot and see whether the timing is right to find someone willing to develop a vision for this property.
4. The fenced lot at 1212-24 N. Main: Industry grew up along Ann Arbor’s Huron River shoreline, and it remains there today - even as other buildings (like those redeveloped by Peter Allen) have been gentrified into cool office space. This lot shows the residual impact of the lack of importance the river played over decades here. Today, we’ve got a fenced lot in front of an industrial garage. And again, it’s just west of the riverfront. Picture a restaurant here, maybe during summer at twilight with strands of lights. Picture pedestrians on the walkway. Picture an Ann Arbor that enjoys both a vibrant downtown and stops turning its back on the riverfront.
5. Hawkins Auto Body. From the junk truck parked out front to the RV with the blue tarp on the roof out back, the lot doesn’t signal prosperity. Yet behind it sits Bluffs Park (the sign is just to the south of the business) and one of Ann Arbor’s finest tree-lines. One element that could come into play here: Autos come off of M-14 screaming fast - and they tend to race past the first quarter-mile or so as they head south on North Main. However, the right calming element on this property could open up the potential that people could actually see Lake Shore road and its access to Bandemer Park, both just east of Hawkins.
There are less acute issues on the corridor - like the former gas station at the corner of Summit that just begs for redevelopment.
But I’d like to see what Ann Arbor could make of this corridor by targeting these eyesores first.