You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 5:57 a.m.

Urban park concepts for Ann Arbor's Library Lot get second look from committee

By Ryan J. Stanton


From left to right, Jayne Miller, the city's community services administrator, City Administrator Roger Fraser, and Council Member Stephen Rapundalo gather before the start of Tuesday's interviews with backers of park proposals for the Library Lot.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Two proposals - each calling for a large urban park space to be developed in downtown Ann Arbor - were given a second look Tuesday during interviews with the city's Library Lot RFP review committee.

Proposals by Dahlmann Apartments Ltd., which is calling for a new Ann Arbor Town Square, and a citizen-led group called the Ann Arbor Committee for the Commons, which wants to create a Community Commons, were scrutinized for 90 minutes each during public interviews at the downtown library.

City Council Member Stephen Rapundalo, chairman of the review committee, said the two proposals - among six in all - recently were eliminated from consideration because they did not provide enough information to demonstrate either project would result in a financial return for the city.

Upon closer examination, both sides made a case Tuesday that there could be a significant economic impact if a green space occupying the 1.2-acre site owned by the city on South Fifth Avenue were cultivated.


Ben Dahlmann, vice president of Dahlmann Apartments Ltd., gives a presentation Tuesday on his firm's proposal for a new Town Square.

Ryan J. Stanton |

"We are extremely confident that this proposal will do right by the city of Ann Arbor," said Ben Dahlmann, vice president of Dahlmann Apartments Ltd., as he laid out a vision for the Town Square.

Dahlmann had architect Brian Charlton of JJR LLC join him in talking about features of his proposal, one of which includes a life-size bronze "Alice in Wonderland" sculpture similar to one in New York's Central Park. Another feature of Dahlmann's proposal that's been popular with residents is an outdoor ice skating rink in the winter. The committee, however, questioned the need for another ice skating rink in Ann Arbor.

Dahlmann said the site would be inviting to the masses in the summer as well. Springing from a sculptural glass orb, would be a water-based feature that would include art, interactive jets, cascading water, wading areas and an elegant granite "water wall" that would wind through the square and culminate in a display of dancing water jets in the central fountain set in the Great Lawn.

Other features include a creative promenade, reading garden, chalkboard wall to be used by artists, town square pavilion and a serpentine bench that would wind through the park. Charlton said there even could be musical stepping stones that would produce notes as children step on them and nearby retail opportunities that could include a hot chocolate bar or coffee station.


A conceptual plan laid out by Dahlmann on Tuesday for Ann Arbor Town Square.

Courtesy of developer

The developer said goals of the project are to provide access to open space for downtown residents, offer a setting for public gatherings and cultural events, and give downtown workers a place to take breaks. He also said his group hopes for opportunities for complimentary library programming.

Following discussion of the Town Square proposal, Ann Arbor residents Alan Haber and Alice Ralph made a separate pitch for their Commons idea. They acknowledged their idea for open space is stacked against larger development opportunities that include three hotel-related proposals.

"The economic value of downtown open space is well documented - community is priceless," Ralph argued, pointing to the success of Millennium Park in Chicago, which she said more than paid for itself in its first year.

Ralph also referenced Detroit's Campus Martius Park, which is the result of a public-private partnership between the city of Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit 300 Conservancy. The idea of a nonprofit group to oversee the park was discussed at length by both presenters on Tuesday.

"The commons has the view that this land belongs to the people and the people will desire it and run it and program it," Haber said, adding that it would be a self-governed, self-sufficient and self-financed nonprofit organization.


Ann Arbor resident Alan Haber spoke Tuesday about his vision for a Community Commons downtown.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Haber said he envisions a situation where surrounding properties - including restaurants like Seva, Jerusalem Garden and Earthen Jar - would naturally turn to orient food service and seating toward the Commons.

The Commons would have an improved walkway connection with nearby Liberty Plaza. Haber said the vision is that Liberty Plaza might be considered more of a "pocket park," while the Commons would be more of a "central park" capable of hosting large public events.

By the end of the three-hour discussion, presenters of both proposals agreed there might be room for collaboration of ideas.

"That could be completely possible with those two or either one of those in conjunction with some of the ones we might hear tomorrow," Rapundalo said. "I think the possibilities are perhaps not endless, but they certainly are many, and I would hope that we will be able to get to some of that once we perhaps narrow down the field and then turn and say, 'Well, are you willing to talk to so-and-so, or are you willing to consider this concept design element into your design?'"

Rapundalo said he didn't hear any surprises Tuesday.

"Generally speaking, there weren't any surprises from the presentations and the responses to questions with both of those options," he said. "We did hear some firmer commitments and elaboration from the first proposal, the Ann Arbor Town Square. But I for one was still less than satisfied with the level of detail by the Ann Arbor Commons and their lack of understanding or willingness to understand the business nature of this whole initiative."

Haber said financing construction on the Commons could happen in several ways, including raising support from the community. But he argued Tuesday that there is money in the existing budget of the Downtown Development Authority's bonded underground parking structure project.

He said an estimated $4 million - based on a contractor's estimate - would be saved from reducing the enhanced foundations of the soon-to-be-built parking structure on the Library Lot. He said with the Commons idea there's no need to install infrastructure to support a potentially 15-story building.

Dahlmann today cited a cost range of $2.5 million to $5 million for the Town Square project, acknowledging his firm would be willing to kick in $2.5 million toward the effort. Any costs over and above that amount would have to be discussed, the developer said, though acknowledging opportunities to apply for grants and raise funds privately in the community exist.

Rapundalo said the vision for a town square as presented by Dahlmann was impressive, but was vague on what could be achieved at no cost to the city.

"The questions from the panel were focused on that - is that $2.5 million or is that the $5 million?" Rapundalo said. "Because as you heard one of their respondents say, 'Well, it depends on what kind of features you put in.' Well, of course we understand that, but as shown, which end of the scale is it?"

Haber suggested the idea that all parties involved could pool their resources. With Dahlmann's pledged $2.5 million, $4 million from the DDA's parking structure budget, and other donations that may come in, Haber said the project would be off to a good start and could grow from there.

Ralph suggested the idea that while construction continues on the underground parking structure over the next two years, a committee of citizens could spend that time firming up a plan for the Commons.

"This concept is a wonderful beautiful concept. I understand the value that it could bring to the city," Rapundalo told the presenters of the Commons proposal. "The bottom line is, it has to pay for itself."

Interviews with three of the four other proposals continue today inside the downtown library. Rapundalo announced Tuesday that one of the proposals - a senior housing complex idea proposed by Beztak Land Co. - has been withdrawn by the developer.

Rapundalo said RFP review committee members will be sitting down on Thursday with city staff members to openly discuss what they heard during the presentations this week. He said it's likely the group will score the proposals and narrow the field of proposals. The city is then planning to bring in a consultant to evaluate the feasibility of the remaining proposals.

Among concerns brought out Tuesday were that an urban park on South Fifth Avenue, between Liberty and William streets, could potentially take away from activities that historically have occurred on Main Street. The presenters also responded to concerns that - similar to what currently happens at Liberty Plaza - an urban park would just draw more homeless people.

Dahlmann said from talks he had with Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, library officials had concerns that an open space next to their building would attract "vagrants." Parker disagreed with Dahlmann's characterization, saying the library's only concern is that operating such a large public space is a huge responsibility that the proposers don't seem to be willing to take on and that creates the risk that the library might find itself next door to a "tremendous failure."

"The possibility of harm to the public library is tremendous if this is not successful, and we're just one neighbor," Parker said.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.



Thu, Jan 21, 2010 : 9:18 a.m.

Yes, either a Commons or an Urban Park. What about allowing cart vendors to sell food items there too. How about holding open markets there on certain days with produce, crafts, and other locally produced items? This happens in squares all over the world creating community and commerce. How about creating walls for community artists and children to paint colorful murals. How about creating a community garden section where people who work in it reap the benefit of the produce? This could including the homeless and would contribute to the sense of ownership and responsibility for the park and the community. All of this could happen along with the great restaurants located right there opening their doors to share in the great atmosphere. Bottom line, it would generate an economy based in local business along with a great place to hang out and visit.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 6:05 p.m.

Why are we even thinking of spending money on anything like this right now, in this economy? What would it have hurt to leave the parking lot in place for a few years?


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 5:34 p.m.

I think the people making derogatory remarks about Liberty Plaza are off base. I live near there. The city has acted positively in bringing musical acts there a minimum of two days each week in the summer. People bring picnic food and hang out. In addition, I've seen many gatherings of friends and families. From time to time, I also see people I suspect are the ones being referred to here as homeless. Sometimes they are hanging out or playing chess. I've never been accosted, and believe they have a right to use the park, too. I've NEVER seen drug use or public urination there. The only thing wrong with the space in my opinion is that it's all cement and steps. A green space would be nice.

Chris Taylor

Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 4:07 p.m.

They should turn the site of the library lot into the A2 skateboard park. It would bring tons of families into downtown, who would spend lots of money.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 1:44 p.m.

Liberty Plaza hardly ever gets used? WHAT WHAT? Please. You should get out more!!


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 1:35 p.m.

Wow. Thanks for the list of places to meet in Ann Arbor. The list has teeth, meaning it shows the capacity of the space and how much it costs to use it. What is the city thinking? Who is going to use this space, even if it has the convenient underground parking next to it?


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 1:19 p.m.

One advantage of a park is that it has less in the way of upfront capital costs. If in the end, it is a drain on resources in terms of clean-up, maintenance, patrolling, etc., the city could re-think the use of the space. However, putting up a conference center is big bucks and a full-time job trolling for conferences to use the space. The plumbers come here in the summer for a week. Where have they been meeting? Oh, I guess there's already a space for them. Every hotel out at Briarwood has some event space - not big, but cities of 100,000 don't usually host large conventions. The university has lots of conferences, but guess what? The university already has conference space. So, while the park plans may be pies in the sky/dreams that don't work out, they are actually excellent interim uses of pretty valuable land.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 1 p.m.

This is quite a clever plan by Dahlmann. He probably thought to himself, "How can I maintain my current monopoly on the downtown Ann Arbor hotel market, while convincing the city to subsidize the effort? Eureka! A public park. All I'll have to do is put together a presentation with pretty pictures of NYC parks, and these simple-minded Ann Arbor residents will be eating out of the palm of my hand. In fact, they'll even go to great lengths to fight for the rights of homeless people to congregate/urinate there! This will keep them away from my hotels! Brilliant plan Ben, brilliant plan."


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 12:07 p.m.

Just call it Homeless Park.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 11:14 a.m.

I expected to be "attacked" because of my choices comment. There is no doubt that a number of homeless are mentally ill, but the vast proportion are alcoholics and dug users. Using drugs and drinking is a choice. There are plenty of public and private institution that will help clean up people. But some just like to live that way and have made a "choice" to be homeless. In America everyone has the right to live the way they want and make their own life choices. We all pay for the bad choices we have made in life (myself included).


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 11:06 a.m.

Ann Arbor already does way more than other places to help the homeless to the point where they come here from out of town. The city cannot possibly care for all the homeless of SE Michigan. Taxes: They are high in A2 but something like 45% of the land is non-taxable. The city gets to keep less than 30% of the property taxes. Most goes to the schools. The city has not raised the millage in 10 years. Cities across the state are going broke. I think A2 Govt. is doing a great job staying ahead of them particularly when you consider the facts above. Ann Arbor has too many parks now. They don't need another one. It would be a total dead zone much of the time. Within a ten minute walk you have the big green Diag, underused West Park, etc. And yes, a large park on this spot would be peopled by the same population you find at Liberty Plaza.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 10:21 a.m.

This is not just about a park. It is about a comprehensive plan for public use of public property. And hopefully a new beginning on how we view and use publicly owned assets. On the completely irrelevant issue to this subject. How many paychecks, health care or personal disasters are any of us away from being homeless? If anyone thinks that people choose to be homeless because it's cheaper to live that way or that people are homeless only because of the "choices they make" needs a heart and brain transplant.

Red Riding Hood

Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 10:09 a.m.

What does Ann Arbor do with all its money? The property taxes are higher than most towns and the services delivered are much less. I have never lived in a town where you were expected to maintain and pay for the city sidewalk outside your home. Every city service has their hand in your pocket. Dog park..$$$ Row boat or kayak$$$$$...and how about parking? Lots and meters..$$$$. Lets squeeze every penny out of everyone's pocket. Hey I think free parking on Sundays is a place where more money could be collected. Well bravo for the is free. And what about that HUGE new high school with all the sports facilities? Was that really needed? Maybe you should just leave the space above the parking garage (did Ann Arbor need another parking garage?) alone. Plant some grass for a few $$$$ Maybe a bunch of parking meters for bikes would pay for that and leave the place alone. See what happens. Let the homeless hang out there...or if it bothers your sensibily...take one home with you.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 9:21 a.m.

I've actually seen Porta Johns there in summers past.Maybe it was for a special event.No reason why they cannot be continued to be used.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 9:14 a.m.

I've actually gone and talked to homeless people who use liberty plaza.When questioned as to why they hang out there, the reason given is that the shelter staff ask them to leave (during the day) and they are told to go to the Library.These are the folks who are actually residents at the shelter.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 9:01 a.m.

Maybe public restrooms would solve the outdoor latrine problem at Liberty and any future park. I imagine it would be difficult to take care of this basic bodily function if one didn't have a home or a place of employment and had to spend most of one's time outdoors. On braggslaw's belief that the homeless chose their circumstances - I wonder if you also believe that you chose your genes, your parents, their SES, the places you lived as a child, the people you were exposed to, the schools you attended, and all the other factors that contributed to your current lot in life?


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 8:09 a.m.

"Ann Arbor desperately needs competition for downtown hotel space that is modern and competitively priced." Unfortunately, the opposite is true. The Ann Arbor hotel/motel real estate market segment is experiencing historic vacancy, as is metro Detroit, as is City of Detroit, as is almost every hotel/motel market across the country. There is a great surplus of rooms across the nation. You won't see much new hotel construction in the future. More likely, you'll see auctions of failed enterprise, selling for pennies on the the new construction cost dollar.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 7:05 a.m.

A2Grateful, I don't hate homeless. I feel horrible about the choices they made that put them in their predicament. The present sunken Liberty Park is hardly used because ofthe numbers of homeless in the area. They use the park like a latrine and create an "unsafe" environment when they approach people for money. This problem would be compounded by a larger park and act as a gathering place for all the homeless in Ann Arbor. Mayber the money should be spent on a homeless outdoor recreation area, since that will be the ultimate result.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 6:14 a.m.

I agree with EBL, and support the urban park concept. Dahlmann's offer to contribute $2.5 million for the urban park is quite generous in this economic environment. Think not? Match or exceed the donation to champion your opinion. The productive economic contribution of an urban park is founded in quality of life and experience. This idea may be lost to the City, as the Parks Commission and Council are mainly concerned with using City parks as football parking lots. However, as stated for a city like Chicago, urban parks are used, and especially appreciated, amidst density. The creation of vitality in the urban center has balance in use, as well as development. In this case private developers build structures for urban density, while City provides infrastructure and recreational amenities. It's a formula that works. Having attended many Liberty Square events, I appreciate the venue, as well as the devotion of surrounding merchants that design, support, and host events. I have never had a problem with homeless people in Liberty Square. Fear and hate of homeless people reveals the cold and hardened hearts that dwell in some of those fortunate enough to possess dwellings/shelter. Whether homeless or cold hearted, I continue to pray for mercy for both.

Lifelong A2

Tue, Jan 19, 2010 : 11:01 p.m.

Newsflash: there's already a park about 200 feet away from this site. It's called Liberty Plaza. If Dahlman's park costs more than the $2.5 million he's offering to donate, then who will pay the difference? The taxpayers? When we're talking about closing the senior center, laying off firefighters, etc., I cannot believe that anyone is seriously considering spending $1 million or more in City tax dollars to build another park, especially when there's already one on that block.


Tue, Jan 19, 2010 : 9:53 p.m.

I think it would be delightful to have a plaza with Earthen Jar, Jerusalem Garden and Seva, all serving food during the summer. Top of the Park, Art Fair Annex, Library activities, winter skating, maybe some covered, heated spaces for local artists and artisans during the winter. What's the hurry to cover that space with a giant building and lose the potential for a public space, that has been envisioned for years? This is a chance for the city to be creative, and not just build another bleak, money-losing conference center, like all the others in the country, that will just sap the life out of the existing hotels that are already suffering. What sense does that make? Where are the market studies that say a conference center would work? I haven't seen one. What's the hurry? Especially in this economy, we should wait and see what makes the most sense and what evolves on the site. Urban parks and green spaces have proven to become destinations that attract tourists and families to the center of the city, spend time and money and revitalize downtowns. I think we should give the open spaces a chance. Once a building goes up on the space, it will be there for the rest of our lives. We don't need another Tally Hall. Millenium Park is the second biggest tourist attraction in Chicago after Navy Pier. Jamison Square is part of the charm of Portland's Pearl district--complete with a Dreiseitl water sculpture. There are many studies showing how urban parks benefit downtowns--generating both activity, revenue, and development around them. I think that many Ann Arborites feel that downtown lacks a heart. The library lot is the perfect spot to be that heart.


Tue, Jan 19, 2010 : 9:32 p.m.

Wouldn't this plan include some appropriately sited public art? Perhaps a fountain for temperate months in coordination with an ice skating rink for winter? How utterly practical. Imagine amphitheater seating for music and performance art. And the site is only a stones throw from the Allen Creek. Maybe a historical marker telling the story of how Allen Creek determined where Ann Arbor eventually came to be located?


Tue, Jan 19, 2010 : 8:57 p.m.

What a great place to have Top of the Park!


Tue, Jan 19, 2010 : 8:53 p.m.

(To be more politically correct.) The park will be a gathering place for homeless which will make it unusable, just like the sunken park on Liberty. Do not spend millions on a Hooverville.