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Posted on Tue, May 7, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Former Ypsilanti mayor Cheryl Farmer: I have no regrets about Water Street

By Katrease Stafford

The former Ypsilanti mayor who helped assemble the 38-acre city-owned Water Street property said she has no regrets and still believes it was the right thing to do.

"In retrospect, would I have done anything differently?" said Dr. Cheryl Farmer. "I think the answer to that was, if I had a crystal ball and would have been able to predict the housing crash, I would have waited until then to assemble the property because it would have been cheaper to buy up those properties. But other than that I don’t have any regrets. I think we did the right thing for the long-term future of the city."


Cheryl Farmer file photo

The city began began assembling the 38-acre site in 1999 with a vision to turn it into a premier waterfront residential and retail hub for its residents, but Farmer, who was elected in 1995, said the discussions began prior to her being in office. Farmer served as the Ypsilanti mayor for three terms over the course of 11 years.

"This wasn’t my idea," Farmer said. "This project had been simmering in people's back mind for more than 20 years, but no one had dedicated the time and energy into it. People were happy we were making it happen then, now they're unhappy because we have to pay for it."

Farmer said at the time, development statewide began to stall out and Ypsilanti felt the effects of the larger Michigan economy crumbling.

"Development in the whole state just died in 2008," Farmer said. "No one was building anything ... .It just died on the vine. Everything did. It wasn't a matter of marketing, no one was in the market."

Updated numbers provided by Ypsilanti's Fiscal Director Marilou Uy show that as of May 3, the city owes $24,764,695 on the Water Street debt and to date, the city has paid $4.6 million of the debt.

The payments, and interest rate, are expected to increase as the city continues to pay through 2031. The debt repayment schedule shows two payments are due each year and the first 2013 payment of $848,783.75 was due May 1 of this year. The city made that payment. The next payment, $435,070, is due Nov. 1.

Officials have discussed refinancing the debt in the near future.

So far, the city has used more than $5 million from the general fund to go toward Water Street and has spent $30.2 million on the property, according to records provided by Uy.

"It's been a sad thing to know that we've had to continue to pay out of pocket, but at the end of the day, we have something here," Farmer said. "It's going to be developed. I just wish the economy didn't implode when it did."

The city had two developers, Biltmore Properties Corp. and Joseph Freed and Associates of Illinois express interest in redeveloping the property. Both developers ended up leaving the project.


Joseph Freed and Associates' plan included a mixed use development.

Courtesy City of Ypsilanti

"We had a great developer in Freed," Farmer said. "They understood the urban characteristics we were looking for and they were determined to build ... . The timing was bad, but I think the project is still a good thing."

Freed envisioned retail space along Michigan Avenue, with parks along the Huron River and residential units on the rest of the site. Farmer said Freed's plan is still ideal for the site.

"There aren’t really any condo options and that becomes a more popular option for people in my demographic," Farmer said. "People want to stay here. They really love the community ... . I still think that the original plan makes a lot of sense. We put a lot of time and effort into it."

Farmer said she believes the waterfront off the Huron River will continue to be a draw for the property.

"This riverfront is a really huge asset," Farmer said. "In the beginning when the community was founded, it was a huge asset ... . I think again people recognize the value of the property. I can imagine people putting their families in cars to get on their bikes, get on their inline skates or on their canoes and take advantage of this wonderful park feature. I foresee that sort of activity in Washtenaw County."

The City Council will decide Tuesday night whether to give the proposed $1.2 million Family Dollar plan the green light.

Farmer believes the Family Dollar plan does not fit into what the vision for the property. The discount store would be located on the corner of Park Street and Michigan Avenue.

"My concerns with the dollar store is all about branding," Farmer said. "They’ve put a lot into branding themselves as a cheap place to shop and my concern is it would brand the rest of this beautiful parcel into that. The little neighborhood to the east of that parcel that the dollar store wants, it's really working to get better and I'm not sure of what the impact of all of the traffic would have on that."

Farmer said she supports the proposed $12 million Eastside Recreation Center, but said officials should consider moving it further back on the property. previously reported officials are considering such a move. However, the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department has said it remains interested in its original location. The rec center is slated to be placed on the northwest corner of the site, off of Michigan Avenue.

"I think the rec center, the ideas that they came up with are beautiful and they do meet the criteria that we had when were developing the property," Farmer said.

Yet, Farmer said the plan calls for the recreation center, which, because it would be county owned, would generate no tax revenue for the city, to take up between eight and 10 acres and that's too much.

"It takes too big of a piece off the tax rolls," Farmer said, who believes it should be located closer to the Waterworks Park area of the property. "They could have more space ... . They just take up such a big space of the existing corner. That's a prime location."

Farmer said she remains confident that development will happen for the site.

"It's just a matter of time," Farmer said. "What goes in there first can be a trigger for other businesses. Is that type of store (Family Dollar) going to help us bring other businesses in? There are other places they can build on Washtenaw."

Farmer said she believes the city needs to have a high standard not only for the Water Street property, but the entire community.

"What you're willing to settle for is what you get," Farmer said. "That really applies to our situation ... . What goes in first matters."

Katrease Stafford covers Ypsilanti for her at or 734-623-2548 and follow her on twitter.



Tue, May 7, 2013 : 7:22 p.m.

Sometimes you have to take a chance and invest in the future. The vision was to turn this property into a waterfront residential and retail area. We took that chance on our city. Okay, so far, we haven't been able to make it pay off. But every one of us has benefited from not having to look at all that dead Michigan Avenue blight that was such an eyesore for so long. And commuter rail is coming! I haven't given up hope yet. I can see, however, that I am completely outnumbered here, so please feel free to get as ugly as you like in response... I won't be coming back to sample the inevitable spewings of hatred! :-D Just wanted to share my opinion.


Wed, May 8, 2013 : 9:40 a.m.

This project had definite potential for success at the time of it's conception. (Developers did have plans.) If it had worked the Mayor would have been hailed as a visionary and a true leader. My question for all of the naysayers, if you were so prescient and cared so much, why didn't you share your wisdom when there was a chance to make a difference? It is weak to come in after the fact with hindsight and claim to have known this was going to happen.

Mark H

Wed, May 8, 2013 : 12:35 a.m.

The vision was utter fantasy, as many Ypsilanti residents told the Mayor and her "team" in 1999-2004. No private investor ever put real money down on this "project" yet the city leadership hocked the city's future, to the tune of $30 million. City services have been cut and will be cut more to pay for this fantasy. And Farmer ignored all signs that this was a BROWNFIELD that she was buying! It's a utter failure, and that Farmer can't see that now indicates a level of hubris and arrogance rarely seen.

Steve Hendel

Wed, May 8, 2013 : 12:25 a.m.

Quillory, I live in Dexter, so perhaps it's none of my business, but I don't see "spewings of hatred" here; just utter frustration on the part of Ypsi taxpayers that the former Mayor has no regrets about being the prime mover behind (let's face it) the main cause of Ypsi's current financial troubles, layoffs, etc.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 7:12 p.m.

Of course, she has no regrets. It's not costing her any money. That's the problem; in government, there are no consequences for failure. The price is payed with other people's money.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 5:57 p.m.

"... I think we did the right thing for the long-term future of the city." How can she say that today? I can see where she can say they THOUGHT they were doing the right thing, but now, 10 years later, with the city struggling to stay solvent solely because of Water Street debt, how can she possibly say it was the right thing for the "long-term future" of the city? Is the woman deluded? If she is really this out of touch with reality, then what credibility does she have anyway. Just go away.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 5:34 p.m.

Of course she has "no regrets." Incompetence rarely recognizes itself in the mirror. I don't think anyone has regrets about the vision for Water Street, which, as she comically points out, wasn't her idea. I think many have well-founded regrets with the incompetent manner in which it was executed. Who commits millions of public dollars to buy property that has housed industry BEFORE they have the soil tested for contamination? What municipality in its right mind buys up the property itself, instead of having the developer buy the property? What unit of government, having gone ahead and invested public money, doesn't write some contingency into the contract so as to insulate itself from risk should the developer(s) back out? The ridiculousness of it is simply breathtaking.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 5:42 p.m.

I wasn't here for the purchase, so it must have been an extraordinary snow job to get the people of Ypsi to think that this was even a remotely good idea.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:43 p.m.

"Farmer believes the Family Dollar plan does not fit into what the vision for the property." Well, I have a "vision" for my driveway...and only a Lamborghini Veneno fits it. However, I'm more than willing to let other cars occupy my driveway until that becomes feasible. It's been 14 YEARS! How many year and how much money does it take before the plan is re-assessed? The city simply cannot afford to keep sitting on that debt with zero (possibility) of income. Doing nothing is no longer acceptable.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 6:55 p.m.

I don't disagree that a dollar store isn't the ideal "anchor" store, but this thing is draining $1.3 million a year (soon to be $1.7 million) from city resources. How many policemen/firemen, etc. could this be paying for? After 14 years and still zero interest outside of Burger King, we need to face reality. Next thing you know, we'll have that nice Rec center as the sole resident of the site, draining yet more money from the city coffers.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:53 p.m.

None of us want a dollar store there. Then again, no one is exactly fighting to purchase that land, so maybe they just need to take what they can get. Either way, the tax payers will be paying for this long after Farmer has gone on to the city council in the sky, no matter who buys the plots of land.

not a billy

Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:31 p.m.

Just proves that being a doctor does not bestow any common sense. This project was doomed from the start, nobody looked at the environmental conditions that were so very obvious. Another "feel good" democratic folly, buy now, pay later. Unfortunately "later" in this instance may be forever, or at least long after the perpetrators of this debacle have became senile, died or moved away. Take the Dollar Store, it's called a sure thing.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

Hopefully someday she'll regret "Farmer's Folly" AND what she said in this interview. BTW - Paul and Pete are no better.

Dog Guy

Tue, May 7, 2013 : 1:34 p.m.

Neither election nor appointment implies any intelligence, skill, or expertise other than being alive, which is something voters should remember and those in office must remember.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 1:09 p.m.

Ahhh, and on the other hand.. when did they find out the soil was contaminated?.. before they spent the money?.. Thats a big problem with that whole site.. is the cost of removing the soil.. auto parts and gas stations occupied those spaces for years.before we had disposal methods.

Chris Blackstone

Tue, May 7, 2013 : 12:40 p.m.

The economy collapsed NINE (9) years after the city of Ypsilanti started buying the property. To blame it for the demise of Water Street is irresponsible at best, and deluded at worst. And some wonder why most people don't trust government leaders. The least we can ask of our politicians is to be honest with us when they lead us down a wrong path. That Dr. Farmer can't even admit that, even when out of office, speaks volumes.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:38 p.m.

And the fact that she still has a role in the city of Ypsi (charter commission, I think) says volumes about the city. She has decimated the city for decades, without remorse per her quotes, and she is still involved in the running of the city?


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 12:39 p.m.

This ill-fated debacle was dead years before the housing crash. This is what happens when elected and appointed government officials who don't know the first thing about business, finance, and real estate markets decide to gamble with the public's treasury and trust. Because of their collective lack of requisite business acumen, the taxpayers of the city will be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in principal and interest payments on the Water Street debt for decades to come. The real impact of this? Inadequate numbers of police officers and firefighters resulting in a threat to public safety. Inadequate funding to provide even the most basic public services. Inadequate funding to repair/replace crumbling infrastructure. Plummeting bond ratings. And, perhaps worst of all, loss of local control should an emergency manager be appointed by the governor. No regrets?

Chase Ingersoll

Tue, May 7, 2013 : 12:27 p.m.

She was elected by a Democratic majority. The voters, many of whom were property owners in Ypsilanti, have themselves to blame.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:36 p.m.

Thats a rather over simplistic way of looking at it. So I guess we can blame people like you for the 8 years of Bush?


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 12:22 p.m.

How can she blame the real estate collapse of 2008? 2008 was years after the project was supposed to be *completed*. Farmer's "no regrets" attitude is precisely why local governments should be barred from using taxpayer money for risky endeavors such as this. Notably, before the real estate collapse, in 2007, Farmer was in favor of imposing an income tax on city residents and workers to pay for all this. And she has the nerve to say she'd do it all over again? I guess experience isn't the best teacher after all.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 11:28 a.m.

If it were a private enterprise, she could take whatever risk she wanted with her own money but when you are an elected official you have a great responsibility not to take excessive risks with the public's money. The fact that she has no regrets means that I would never want to see her in charge of my money again.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:35 p.m.

If she had been in a private venture, someone with the purse strings would have had the common sense to kill this plan before it took off. Governments are designed to manage services. Not to be real estate speculators. A proper course would have been property tax abatements or other incentives to get the project going, not investing tens of millions of money a struggling town did not have.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 10:49 a.m.

Politicians and people in charge of OTHER people's money rarely regret poor decisions. I doubt anyone at City Hall in Ann Arbor regrets the $750,000 (at LEAST) nonworking joke of a fountain. Or the million plus they spent on preparing rhe Fuller Road train station site. It's the people whose money it is that are left to regret it. Always. City leaders should focus on core city services, especially in a bad economy. If it's not critical to the continued successful operation of your city, then it's probably just playing with money.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:51 p.m.

"It's the mayor's and the City Councilmembers' money as much as anyone else's." This technically is true since they are tax paying citizens of the city, but they are also the trustees of the funds that come from the rest of the city. They simply cannot approach major expenditures like this debacle with the mindset that this is free and limitless money. When the "folly" was beginning, there were large rumblings that the housing boom was nearing bust. Any person, not listening to the consultants and real estate developers, but actually seeking out experts, could have seen this. Heck, I would a simple mortgage broker and I knew to cash out because the party was ending. Too bad the city council and mayor, who are unrepentant about this, didn't do a little research before they spent millions of the tax payers dollars.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 4:40 p.m.

I disagree that "it's the mayor's and the City Councilmembers' money as much as anyone else's", even assuming they all live in Ypsi and pay the taxes. And as I point out, government officials should not be in the real estate development business period, but it's especially bad in a bad economy. Just because things are good eceonomically doesn't mean it's time to figure out more imaginative ways to spend everyone's money. Again: Streets, Fire, Police, Park/building maintenance, permits, etc. Not prospecting. Not art. Not parties. Not commissions and think tanks and task forces and brain trusts, etc.


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 12:24 p.m.

It's the mayor's and the City Councilmembers' money as much as anyone else's. And as Dr. Farmer pointed out, the economy was not bad when the plan was created. However, I fully support the development of a Recreation Center. Unlike a dollar store, it sets the right tone for the property, and other businesses will follow.