Ypsilanti officials like elements of Water Street rec center proposal but raise concerns
Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission officials shared their vision for a new recreation center on Ypsilanti’s Water Street property at the Ypsilanti City Council's meeting on Tuesday. The preliminary plan and ideas received a warm reception from several council members, though concerns were raised over the city not receiving any tax revenue from the center and the size of its parcel.
The $10 to $15 million development would occupy up to 12 acres on the property’s northwest corner. It would be bordered on the north by Michigan Avenue and on the west by the Border to Border Trail and Huron River.
No official plans were submitted, but several council members questioned the need for such a large site. The city would likely give the property to the county and wouldn’t receive any tax revenue.
A lack of revenue from Water Street has significantly contributed to the city's strained financial position. The city started acquiring parcels comprising it in 2001 with the expectation that it would quickly attract mixed-use development.
Officials thought that development would add to the tax rolls and pay off the bond issued to fund the purchase. The development never came, and the city made its first bi-annual debt service payment of $476,000 last May. The city faces $31 million in debt after it refinanced the bond in 2006, as well as bi-annual payments that will grow to $1.3 million through 2031.
But Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Director Bob Tetens called the rec enter a development “anchor” that will help attract the mixed-use and residential developments the city has desired.
The rec center would serve as the centerpiece in a series of area parks linked by the eastern Washtenaw County Border to Border Trail. The commission is funded by a millage and officials previously said the project would be partially paid for out of its fund balance, while the rest would be covered by bonding.
Preliminary drawings presented to council called for a parcel approximately 400 feet from east to west and 1,200 feet from north to south. A small park and greenspace wrapping around a two-story, 65,000-square-foot building would sit on the site’s north quarter closest to downtown. The building would be set back from the road approximately 40 feet, Tetens said.
A 250-space parking lot would occupy the quarter of the property directly south of the building. A trailhead to the Border to Border tail would be further south, and plans called for a park, some playground equipment and more greenspace on the southern end of the site where the river bends to the east.
Indoors, the building would include a pool, gym, track, fitness equipment and weights among other amenities. The center would utilize Border to Border Trail and riverfront for outdoor recreational activities such as canoeing.
The Commission also is seeking to link the site and Border to Border Trail to Waterworks Park, which sits just south and east of the Huron River and north of Spring Street.
Tetens said the Commission wants to work with the city on the site's design, but said they weren’t interested in any other location on the property.
“For us, it’s the river, it’s the trail and it’s the main road, and that’s the only site where you get all three of those,” he said. “And, again, we want to be a landmark downtown and be as close to the center of downtown as we can.”
Tetens called a rec center and parks a “boon for development” and the project Water Street needs to attract further development to the east.
He said the group could provide concrete data demonstrating that such a project would attract further development when asked to do so by Council Member Dan Vogt. Council Member Ricky Jefferson also said he liked the idea, but said he wanted to see more evidence that it would attract development.
“This development will not pay off your Water Street debt, but you need to have an anchor or catalyst, and nothing will make that site look better than a community recreation center," Tetens replied.
Council Member Brian Robb called the proposed center a “quasi-suburban” development in an urban area, and asked for examples of similar successful projects. He said the building could be taller and denser and serve the same purpose while better fitting the vision for Water Street.
He said the current proposed site is sprawling.
"If they want to be on Michigan Avenue, it needs to be urban," he said.
Mayor Paul Schreiber said he liked the plans, but questioned parts of the site's layout and asked specifically if the parking lot needed to be located along the riverfront.
Schreiber also questioned how infrastructure would be paid for, to which Tetens replied that the parks ommission would “play a role.”
Council Member Mike Bodary said he liked the idea of the rec center but wanted to see it on a smaller parcel.
“A smaller footprint is definitely encouraged,” he said.
During council proposed business at the end of the meeting, Council Member Pete Murdock said the city needs to carefully consider how it proceeds because it may put a Water Street debt retirement millage in front voters while concurrently giving away a third of the property. The proposed plans could equate to a loss of $400,000 in annual tax revenue, Murdock said.
He was skeptical that the center would definitely attract development and said the same promises were made about the Eastern Michigan University School of Business prior to it being built in downtown's west end.
“They haven’t demonstrated any instances of how a rec center is an anchor to development,” Murdock said.
Schreiber said he agreed the financial situation is complicated, but said there aren’t a lot of Water Street development proposals on the table.
“As we heard before, the first thing you put on Water Street is going to determine what is going there, and a rec center provides options,” he said. “And even though we’re giving away a chunk of tax revenue, it may attract tax revenue from other developers interested in building in a high-density downtown area.”
County Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. was one of several commissioners in attendance and has played a role in the project's development. He said he was pleased that the dialogue had been started and said planners are likely willing to work with the city on issues over the size or design of the parcel.
He said the center would improve the quality of life, attract businesses and bring people to the area.
"I think this an economic tool, not just a tool for recreation," he said. "This side of the county deserves this."