6. Possible Development: Infill
Two general types of development can be encouraged in parts of Washtenaw County that are already built up: compact and corridor. We'll discuss two specific possibilities here.
6.1 Corridor Infill Project
Description of the area: Drive due west from Times Square in the heart of downtown Detroit. You're at the eastern origin of US 12, Michigan Avenue. If wanderlust moved you to drive all the way to the western terminus of US 12, you would find yourself in the port of Aberdeen, Washington, near the Pacific coast. But less than an hour from the start of your trek, you would enter Washtenaw County, just north of the Willow Run airport and manufacturing complex, built during World War Two to produce thousands of B-17 bombers, currently owned by financially ailing General Motors. Local residents insist this was where the original "Rosie the Riveter" worked, and if you continue just a little farther in Ypsilanti Township, you'll see on either side of Michigan Avenue plenty of gritty areas where aging Rosies hang out, largely forgotten by their country.
East Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti Township is a problem area, with substandard housing,1 prostitution,2 "blight and safety issues, as well as Fire Department issues".3 In April of 2001, the Township Board was presented with a draft "Ecorse Road and East Michigan Avenue Corridor Plan"4 to address such issues; it was carefully researched and proposed following New Urbanism5 principles, and had great potential. However, after brief consideration by the Township Board, it was rejected because opposition was voiced by a handful of vocal business owners who believed the plan might be detrimental to their businesses.6 The current problems just mentioned demonstrate that nothing significant has been done since 2001 to address the underlying problems.
Because of the careful work and sound principles that went in to the corridor plan, it is an excellent basis for sustainable, transit-oriented corridor infill development. In the intervening years, the urgency of the energy situation has become more apparent, so a number of details need to be added to the plan. We will focus here only on Michigan Avenue, though similar plans for Ecorse Road are certainly appropriate.
Summary of the 2001 Plan
Here are the goals and strategies proposed in the 2001 plan; I have taken the liberty of rearranging the order of the strategies, but have left the original wording7 unchanged.
Michigan Avenue Goals:
- Establish an active, strong economic center for the community as well as the region at the same time portraying a comfortable, positive image for Ypsilanti Township.
- Provide safe and efficient circulation for multiple modes of transportation along the corridor that: preserves the level of service of the roadway; provides convenient access to business and neighborhoods; unifies the corridors and surrounding community; and promotes the quality image of the Township
- Plan for public investment that will complement and support private investments along the corridor which support the character and design goals
- Reduce reliance on the automobile by creating a pedestrian and transit oriented, mixed-use environment
- Coordinate with the local transit authority to improve the condition and function of bus stops and expand the route area to better serve residents, shoppers and employees and enhance access to core locations
- Create a pedestrian-oriented environment for all sites that is compatible with the character of the area and the nature of the uses
- Expand the residential in a manner consistent with traditional neighborhoods where appropriate in the form of high quality townhouse style units
- Develop specific special conditional use, or "performance standards", for intense uses to ensure they are properly located and designed
- Incorporate open spaces and plazas into site design
- Design commercial sites in a manner that creates a pedestrian friendly, traffic calming environment
- Orient buildings and entrances to businesses towards the road with parking in the rear
- Require pathways along all site frontages that are a reasonable width based on available right-of-way, the size of the lot and surrounding conditions
- Design sites to accommodate pedestrian movement; Promote a convenient and comfortable pedestrian environment by providing connections to neighborhoods and safe places for walking
- Institute traffic calming techniques to reduce speeds along the corridors
- Develop specific access management standards that regulate the number of driveways per site, driveway spacing from other driveways and driveway spacing from adjacent intersections
- Establish specific and effective landscaping requirements that creates a tree-lined streetscape; screens and softens views of the site; and enhances internal open space and parking areas
- Install decorative street lighting and street furniture
- Establish architectural design standards that relate to the type, scale and intensity of proposed uses and the desired quality and appearance of the business districts E. Michigan and Ecorse Road Corridor Plan
- Create consistent building lines and setbacks that relate to the size of the proposed lot and type and scale of the building and use
- Be cognizant of the rear facades of buildings in order to present a quality, welcoming appearance to businesses for visitors and to ensure pleasing views from abutting properties
- Encourage placement of utilities underground
- Develop parking lot design standards
The goals and strategies recommended in 2001 are entirely consistent with Wake Up Washtenaw's vision. A number of additional strategies will make this plan more sustainable, and fit it into "smarter" overall growth strategies for the 21st century.
- Use Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) to encourage new development in the Michigan Avenue corridor and halt greenfield suburban development in Ypsilanti Township.
The southern end of Ypsilanti Township is zoned for extremely low-density, upscale development. It was equipped with water and sewer lines in the 1970s, but south of Textile Road there are still many acres of farms and woodland. Rather than bulldoze fields and trees, development dollars can be applied to resolving the problems of the Michigan Avenue corridor.
- Grow the transit system on Michigan Avenue. Although the local transit agency provides nominal service to the area, it is inadequate to building reliable patronage. Michigan Avenue is served only between Spencer and Harris, about one-third of the length of the corridor in Ypsilanti Township. AATA Route 10, the line that runs on Michigan Avenue, is scheduled only once every hour, in a west-bound direction. There is no east-bound service, so passengers coming from Ann Arbor and downtown Ypsilanti must ride a circuitous route that takes twice as long to reach Michigan Avenue (29 minutes) as in the other direction. There is no service on Sunday, though there are numerous churches along the route (but not on Michigan Avenue).
- Identify open areas in the Michigan Avenue corridor to designate as urban gardens. As oil prices make it more expensive to transport fruit and vegetables from out of state, this land will provide fresh, local produce at reasonable prices. Coordinate with Transition-Ypsilanti8 to identify locations and appropriate technologies for urban gardening.
The first two strategies require some expansion, so we'll discuss TDR and transit growth next.
Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)
TDR combines local government and business interests to protect open land (such as farm and forest) and encourage denser development in areas where that is desirable. The local government designates sending areas (typically farm and forest) and receiving areas (generally inner core or other places where development is encouraged).
- The local jurisdiction (Ypsilanti Township) identifies sending and receiving areas.
- The jurisdiction then allocates "development credits" within the sending area.
- Owners of land in the sending areas sell their development credits to developers, speculators, or the community in return for payment and/or a tax abatement. Free market forces determine the value of the development credits. Once the credits are sold, a permanent conservation easement is placed on the land.
- Developers who purchase these credits are then allowed to build within the receiving zone in ways that are more profitable for them. This is usually at a higher density or with taller buildings, using such measures as Floor to Area Ratio (FAR) and feet of height.9
Growing Transit on Each Michigan Avenue
A frequent dilemma in transit-oriented development is whether to build the transit first to encourage development, or develop first to provide riders for transit. A good solution in this case is to grow transit step-by-step while development is encouraged in other ways.
Step 1: Lay the financial groundwork. As part of any improvement of East Michigan Avenue, a funding foundation must be in place. A number of possibilities exist, such as a Special Assessment District for public financing, a Business Association for private financing, a Community Development Corporation for channeling public and private funds and seeking grants (including Brownfield Redevelopment grants). As this is being written, Washtenaw County is considering10 a county-wide plan to fund transit, but local funding for Michigan Avenue would always be helpful to ensure adequate service.
Step 2: Increase service quality and frequency. Service in one direction over a small part of the corridor is clearly inadequate. A bus route that serves Michigan Avenue exclusively, from downtown Ypsilanti to the county line or the Willow Run industrial complex is more straight-forward and easy for users to understand. Service should initially be increased to once every half-hour, to put it on a par with service in the Ann Arbor area. Even that is not adequate for transit-oriented development, so as development begins to happen in the corridor frequency should be increased.
Step 3: Re-engineer Michigan Avenue. In concert with efforts to develop a human-scale environment in the corridor as suggested in the 2001 plan, Michigan Avenue needs to be re-built from a five-lane highway having speed limits of 45 and 50 MPH, with multiple driveways and alleyways debouching into it. Part of this re-engineering should involve dedicated transit lanes. Initially these would be used by buses, perhaps in a "rapid bus" (BRT) configuration.
Step 4: Add a fixed-guideway transit system. Eventually a fixed-guideway system such as light rail could be added. Fixed-guideway systems are ideal as magnets for development, because they encourage investment of high-density residential and commercial real estate. Light rail on Michigan Avenue from Detroit through Ypsilanti is identified as option LRT 5 in the 2006 SEMCOG/Parsons study11. Because of its initial cost, it is not being considered as the first step in the Detroit-Ann Arbor transportation corridor, but as federal and private funding becomes available it may well be started. Having dedicated transit lanes already in place would significantly lower the cost, and hence raise the likelihood, of developing such a system. Having East Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti be part of a light rail corridor from Detroit to Ann Arbor would be a significant boost to the local economy, and would greatly add to the value of real estate. It would make East Michigan Avenue especially attractive to businesses considering a location in the proposed Aerotropolis Corridor.12
Overview of the East Michigan Avenue Corridor
The aerial view shows the northeast section of Ypsilanti Township around the East Michigan Avenue corridor. A rough, preliminary indication of suggested new features is overlaid. The intention is to stimulate further discussion and investigation; no GIS, title, or land survey has been performed.The main features shown are:
- Land to consider for redevelopment;
- Land currently not developed to consider for designation as parks or urban farms;
- One primary transit station (large circle at Harris Road);
- Several secondary transit stations (smaller circles);
- Wiard Road extension over the railway, as recommended in the 2001 plan.
Click image to see full-size version
1 The Ann Arbor News, Thursday October 09, 2008, "Laswuit alleges unsafe conditions at Ypsilanti Township mobile home park" by Khalil Hachem. (Online at http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2008/10/laswuit_alleges_unsafe_conditi.html)