Ypsilanti's Water Street: Contradictions keep city from fulfilling any potential for property
The sun was shining, the grass was green, the river flowing. And as I walked along the beautiful western edge of Ypsilanti’s Water Street property on Wednesday, all I could think of was: What makes sense here?
I’m not alone in that line of questioning.
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
This property - 38 acres, assembled into a single parcel more than a decade ago - started as a vision for extending downtown. Homes, businesses and riverfront recreation all belonged there in that original plan. It was ambitious and defining, and it cost the city millions before evaporating.
Developers couldn’t make the numbers work. The Great Recession descended upon Michigan. And Ypsilanti was left with a much larger than projected $30 million in debt on the acreage.
So what makes sense there?
As I stood near the southern edge of the property, I understood the complexity facing the city as it sought to determine that answer since the 1990s.
The Huron River makes it feel purely like recreational land. Yet its northern edge borders US-12 and the visibility of that high-traffic corridor, creating tension between prospective building and enduring open space.
That sense of “this or that” permeates every aspect of Water Street.
The push to sell land and spur development. The urge to step back and plan what’s there.
The sense that it’s a unique parcel, yet it’s not the only large tract available: There are expanses of vacant acreage along Factory Street and east at the township border for a developer looking for space.
The willingness of Washtenaw County to build a recreation center there as a “first in” project. The rejection of it, as others say it shouldn’t be on that property at all or in a prominent spot.
The years-long real estate listing as the city sets a priority for dense development. The renewed interest in master plan revisions amid calls for priority shift.
The natural beauty. The contamination that awaits cleanup.
The widespread marketing of commercial space. Community concerns over the two businesses that wanted to buy land: First, Burger King; now Family Dollar.
I can’t disagree that Water Street presents a special opportunity to the city of Ypsilanti. And that’s why I walked the property. I spent years driving past it; before that, I spent years working in one of the buildings demolished to clear its way. And in all of those years working there, I had no idea of the natural beauty just north of my own offices.
That makes me hope that the city can take that step: That it can afford to pause, set priorities and deliver them.
But I’m concerned about saying that, too. The property has been listed for sale for years; that listing is still online as an active development opportunity in the city. As the economy rebounds, Ypsilanti will be in a better position than it has been in the last five years to find buyers for this property. But will there be potential buyers - for commercial, for residential, for recreation - as the city resets what it wants there?
The property has had a vision for years, too. We’ve had council members direct the real estate agents toward density; toward commercial entities; toward generating taxable value.
Before that, there were consultants and downtown visioning sessions. I’ve been to at least one Water Street charrette. For more than a decade, everything that some people wanted on this property, others didn’t.
The polarization is now paralysis.
In the meantime, the debt is real: At this point, a city of 19,435 people owe an amount equal to $1,543 each on the vacant property.
What makes sense for Water Street? So far, with the stated goals and subsequent contradictions, the answer may never yield clarity then action.
The Ypsilanti community is likely to get exactly what it’s had there for years: Nothing, but with fewer choices.