Plans for Ann Arbor greenway park and arts center at 415 W. Washington taking shape
A committee formed more than a year ago to explore creation of a greenway park and arts center at 415 W. Washington gave its first detailed report to the Ann Arbor City Council Monday night, saying much progress has been made over the past year.
"Based on what we've done to date, it certainly seems like there's a desire in the community for this, there's a demand for it, and it looks like we can do it — from what we know so far — in a way that could potentially pay for itself," said David Esau, an architect from Ann Arbor-based Cornerstone Design Inc. who has represented the Arts Alliance on the committee.
The City Council approved a resolution in February 2010 inviting the Arts Alliance and the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy to join the city in exploring ways to transform the city-owned 415 W. Washington property into an arts center and greenway park.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Representing the city on the committee have been Mayor John Hieftje and Council Members Margie Teall and Carsten Hohnke.
Hieftje said the committee has investigated what's happening at other art centers in different parts of the state and country, with the goal being to take the property at 415 W. Washington, turn the old building into a model of energy efficiency and a community arts center, and then create a greenway park on the rest of the property.
"We've made some progress," he said. "As you could imagine, in this economic environment we haven't made as much progress as we would have liked, but a lot of work has been done."
The site is about 2.24 acres and sits in the floodplain and floodway along the buried Allen Creek drain on the eastern edge of the Old West Side Historic District, across from the YMCA.
Groups like the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy and Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway have been working to promote the creation of a greenway system with public parks along the historic alignment of Allen Creek for years.
One of the hopes is to see greenway anchor parks occupying three specific city-owned floodplain/floodway properties: the northeast corner of First and William streets, 415 W. Washington, and 721 N. Main. Other sites would be added as they become available.
A city request for proposals previously netted three ideas for use of 415 W. Washington, but attempts by the city to bring any of those ideas to fruition never materialized.
Noting that the site is a short walk from Main Street and downtown, Hieftje and other city officials have proposed the greenway park as an alternative to developing an urban park or "community commons" on the city-owned Library Lot downtown.
The greenway park would run along the eastern part of the site, with a small parking area in the middle. Esau said the park has the potential to be an "oasis on the western edge of downtown."
"The important point is that the greenway, first of all, will be a wonderful place to bike and walk," he said. "But also for the artists, the interaction of the greenway and the arts could be a really wonderful thing as a source of inspiration for artists. They don't have to walk far to go find a beautiful natural environment to sketch or paint or whatever they want to do."
Esau said there also could be a small outdoor theater or performance space integrated into the greenway park.
- Click here to download Esau's presentation.
One of the reasons stated for the resolution adopted last February was a perceived lack of affordable space has forced some artists and musicians in the community to seek cheaper rent outside the city limits. The idea for 415 W. Washington is that an existing brick building on the site — with some money — could be restored and made available to artists and others in the community as a place for studios, gatherings, meetings and performances.
"The building has a lot of different kinds of areas in it, different heights of ceilings, different architectural characters," Esau said, adding it's perfect for what artists are looking for.
He noted it is considered a contributing resource in the historic district, so the project would have to go to the Historic District Commission for approval.
The Arts Alliance has gathered extensive data and held several focus-group sessions to determine best uses for the building, Esau said.
"The things that people were particularly looking for were areas for artists to interact each other, areas for artists to collaborate with each other," he said. "Lots of people can make a studio space in your garage or basement, but it's not a great place for multiple people to work on big projects together. They don't really have that option."
Ability to interact with the public also was cited as a need.
"It's great when the art fairs are here and you can go out and meet with the artists in their spaces at the art fair, but that's just four days a year, and this would gives us a place where that could happen year-round," Esau said.
Esau talked about examples of privately redeveloped industrial facilities that have been made into art centers. He said the group visited the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, Park Trades Center in Kalamazoo and the Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph.
He cited the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, and Flashpoint in Washington, D.C., as two other models Ann Arbor might consider.
"One of the things that we learned from our visits is not to over-improve these," Esau said, suggesting the city could give the artists the space and they'll make of it what they need.
Esau showed drawings of what the floor plans for the building could look like. The first floor includes a "celebration space," kitchen, 200-seat theater, restrooms, storage, arts office space, leased studios, management office and gallery. The second floor would be more studios.
"This was mainly to see, if we developed, how much leasable area could we get," he said. "It's important for us to start working on the feasibility of this project. We're assuming that, although the city would like to have us use the building, that we can't expect to get a lot of funding from the city for this. So we need to figure out if we can build it, and if we can operate it with the funds we can put our hands on through private sources, grants and donations."
Esau said the Arts Alliance has agreed to fund a grant writer that will be seeking funds to help the city move forward with the project. He said it's a competitive environment for grant funding right now, and efforts over the past six months to secure money have been unsuccessful.
He said the group hopes to raise an initial $100,000 to do additional studies on the building and investigate historic preservation and environmental issues, as well as review mechanical and electrical systems and the potential to incorporate green features into the site.
Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, said it might make sense to section off the project into phases and get the first phase moving so people could see it happening.
Esau said the building definitely lends itself to phasing, and the greenway part of the project could start quickly on its own if funding is secured.
Hieftje said the greenway portion of the project probably will be the easier part to fund. He said he's confident the city will land grant money and continue to make progress.
"This is a little bit of a different concept," he said. "It takes into account where the economy is right now, the fact that governments certainly don't have a whole lot of money to pour into new arts projects, but also you can expect us to be back here at the next round of funding for the Natural Resources Trust Fund and we're going to be working on that."
- Click here to download a three-page letter from the Arts Alliance to the city.