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The Sierra Club
The Huron Valley Group
of the Sierra Club

The Ann Arbor Greenway

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The city of Ann Arbor is known for its fine parks. However, it is missing two notable features commonly found in comparable towns: a significant green space in its downtown area, and a pathway that connects its downtown to other places.

There remains one last place that could provide both an urban greenspace and pathway - a greenway - in Ann Arbor. That’s the Allen Creek corridor, and it could one day be our Ann Arbor Greenway.

    Greenway events
    About the Ann Arbor Greenway
    New! The Ann Arbor Greenway at the Crossroads
    What you can do to help
    Sierra Club position letter written to the Downtown Development Authority (DDA)
    DDA response

Greenway Events

April 11, 2005 Debate on the Greenway and Downtown Development, featuring four presenters representing the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, Alice Ralph of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway, and Doug Cowherd of the Sierra Club. Sponsored by Women Progressive Activists, 7 PM, Church of the Good Shepherd, 2145 Independence Blvd., Ann Arbor

April 20, 2005 Doug Cowherd, Co-chair of Sierra Club-Huron Valley Group: "The Ann Arbor Greenway and Downtown Density" U-M School of Urban Planning - Planners Network, 1 PM, U-M Art and Architecture Building, Room 2108 [North Campus]

May 17, 2005 Margaret Wong, Co-chair of Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway: "Greenway or Concrete Jungle: Re-imagining Downtown Ann Arbor" Sierra Club Monthly Meeting, 7:30 PM, Matthaei Botanical Gardens


The Ann Arbor Greenway
A Bold Vision For Connecting Downtown to the Huron River and Beyond

By Doug Cowherd

Thanks to far-sighted residents who have supported three parkland acquisition millages, Ann Arbor is blessed with wonderful parks. Natural areas like Bird Hills and Barton line the Huron River corridor. Recreational facilities like Fuller Park and Veterans Park provide ball fields, swimming pools, and tennis courts. Small play parks featuring climbers and swings dot the neighborhoods.

But this city of fine parks is missing two notable features commonly found in comparable towns: a significant green space in its downtown area, and a pathway that connects its downtown to other places.

What’s Missing Downtown

If you look around downtown Ann Arbor for public open space, you’ll find Liberty Plaza, where the only green is in planter boxes surrounded by a sea of concrete. The University of Michigan diag efficiently redistributes a horde of students at the top of every hour, but discourages relaxation by its scarcity of seating. Both places serve their purposes. But neither is the kind of urban green space that provides beauty and respite from the bustle of downtown life.

If you seek paths from downtown that allow you to get to other nearby places under your own power, you’ll find these too. But they’ll be concrete sidewalks and busy city streets that many pedestrians and bikers find unpleasant and even dangerous. You never know when crossing a street will put you in close contact with two tons of Detroit steel driven by someone with a cell phone stuck in their ear. Many people who would love to walk and bike downtown to meet a friend for coffee or shop for a birthday gift won’t tolerate having to run the urban gauntlet of Ann Arbor’s car-dominated streets.

When you’re walking down the middle of Main Street on a gorgeous August afternoon listening to a jazz band play at a street festival, it’s easy to fantasize about the day when some part of downtown will be free of cars. While it’s unlikely that we will soon see native landscaping and park benches replace a downtown street, a green space that connects the downtown area to places that people want to walk and bike need not be a fantasy. This vision has become a reality in enlightened communities from coast to coast. In our area, people in Detroit, Battle Creek, and Windsor are now enjoying the special magic that is created when you add greenspace and pathways – greenways - to the urban buzz of downtown. We, too, could someday soon have an Ann Arbor Greenway.

The Ann Arbor Greenway

There remains one last place for an Ann Arbor Greenway that could become our version of Central Park, providing both greenspace and pathways in an urban setting. That’s the Allen Creek corridor (see map). This nearly 3 mile long path runs from Bandemer Park in the north, through the valley on the western edge of downtown, all the way to the University of Michigan’s athletic campus on South State Street, roughly following the Ann Arbor Railroad right of way. The Greenway route is a patchwork quilt largely composed of parking lots and older buildings, most of which lie in a flood plain.

greenway mapThe Ann Arbor Greenway would consist of a biking and walking path through a series of small “pocket parks” as well as a few larger urban parks; a lovely tree-lined “linear park” system. People would stroll a 3 mile long path that meanders past picnic areas, ponds, sculptures, and play areas. This Greenway would link neighborhoods and the central part of the city with over 300 acres of natural areas along the Huron River, the ball fields and amphitheatre of West Park, and the vast U-M athletic campus.

The City of Ann Arbor already owns three sizeable parcels of land on the Greenway route that could become these larger parks, since two are city vehicle yards that are slated for removal, and the third is used as a parking lot.

Greenway Benefits

The Ann Arbor Greenway would provide an unparalleled opportunity for biking, running, and walking year round. Without having to drive, city residents would have access to some of the best parks and recreational facilities in the area. Imagine biking a short distance from your house to the Greenway, then riding for miles all the way to the Huron River where you circle Argo Pond before stopping for lunch at a north-side restaurant or having a picnic while listening to an outdoor concert at Riverside Park.

This kind of relaxed urban experience would draw people to live downtown in places like the Eaton Building condominiums located next to the Greenway route. It would transform the New Urbanist vision of thousands of new residents moving downtown into reality by preserving the human scale of downtown Ann Arbor and adding easily accessible public greenspace. Without these amenities, New Urbanism is merely a rhetorical smokescreen for the construction of more high-rise buildings.

A greenway plan of this scale would also provide environmental benefits. It would replace impervious surfaces with native-plant rain gardens and landscaped bioswales. These features would filter sediments and pollutants before they reach the Huron River, and would reduce the flooding that plagues the west side of Ann Arbor.

Greenway or Maximum Development?

Developers have a competing vision for the Allen Creek corridor. They believe the area is ripe for over $500 million in new construction, if they gain access to City-owned parcels. So they’re marshalling their considerable economic and political clout behind a plan to intensively develop the corridor.

To help further this massive development scheme, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) began in July 2003 to pursue plans to construct a 500-car parking structure at the corner of First and William Streets. This is one of the three large parcels of publicly-owned land on the Greenway route. This structure would provide the parking spaces required to construct large buildings on other nearby city-owned lots where developers would like to build.

The key to both plans – greenway or high-rise buildings – is the future of the First and William site. An urban park at this location is perhaps the only feasible way to bring a significant patch of public greenspace to downtown Ann Arbor. A huge parking garage enables the “maximum development” scenario to proceed.

How to Create a Greenway

The Sierra Club’s Huron Valley Group expressed its support for a full-scale Ann Arbor Greenway in a letter to the Mayor and other City Council members. The Sierra Club asked the City to abandon the DDA plan for a parking structure at First and William, and instead dedicate the site as the city’s first urban greenspace park and the cornerstone of the Ann Arbor Greenway. We’re joined in this effort by the Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway (see and by construction company owner Joe O’Neal. O’Neal is forming a not-for-profit Allen Creek Conservancy and Land Trust that could help make the land acquisitions needed to create a full-scale Greenway.

The Ann Arbor Greenway may seem like a dream – but it is a practical dream. The money is available to fund the purchase of land to add to the three City-owned parcels by virtue of the $82 million Parks and Greenbelt Proposal that received overwhelming support last November. Matching funds from state and federal sources can also play a big role in creating the Ann Arbor Greenway.

The Allen Creek corridor is our last chance for an urban greenway in Ann Arbor. It’s the last place near downtown with a critical mass of contiguous under-developed land. The fate of the Ann Arbor Greenway depends on how many people actively support this vision. Now is the time to express your views on this compelling vision of our future, because the decision on the future of the First and William site will largely determine if a full-scale Ann Arbor Greenway will become a reality.

The Ann Arbor Greenway at the Crossroads:
Proposal for a Linear Central Park is Alive and Kicking

By Doug Cowherd

greenwayOn March 21, Ann Arbor’s City Council considered a resolution that would be the first step in creating the Ann Arbor Greenway. After only brief discussion and without holding a public hearing, Council promptly voted it down.

Is the Greenway dead? Hardly. This Council meeting marked a turning point in the Greenway movement, not its demise.

The Greenway concept has been discussed for years in Ann Arbor. Over the past six months there has been active public discussion about a particular proposal to preserve three publicly-owned floodplain parcels as Greenway parks, and to create a safe walking and biking path in the right-of-way alongside the tracks of the Ann Arbor Railroad. This Greenway path would run from the University of Michigan athletic complex, past the western edge of downtown, and north to the Huron River. From there, it would connect to an existing trail system that runs west toward Dexter and east toward Ypsilanti.

Interest in this Greenway plan has been remarkably strong. One sign of strength is the 150 people who jammed Council chambers to support the Greenway proposal on the cold March night when it appeared on the Council agenda. The resolution in support of the Ann Arbor Greenway plan may have been defeated -- for the time being. But the notion of a full-scale Greenway is now on the table in competition with the Downtown Development Authority’s plan to maximize development in the downtown area to the exclusion of any significant green space.

Why Council is Cool Towards the Greenway

Despite many positive statements about the Greenway concept, eight Council members -- including Mayor John Hieftje -- voted down a non-binding resolution that called for establishing a truly substantial Ann Arbor Greenway worthy of the Greenway name. Council members Chris Easthope and Bob Johnson voted for the resolution; Wendy Woods supported the resolution but was unable to attend the meeting. These leaders deserve our thanks.

The other Council members offered two primary reasons for voting against the Greenway resolution. Several cited a so-called lack of public input about the Greenway as a reason to vote against it. Never mind that Council has not yet scheduled even a single public hearing on the matter. The Sierra Club has joined Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway in calling for two public hearings. So far Council has ignored our pleas.

A second reason cited by Council members opposed to the Greenway resolution was that the three proposed Greenway park sites are critical to their plans to build parking structures and housing. However, hundreds of downtown parcels will be redeveloped in coming years. It is hard to imagine that these three dangerous-to-build-in parcels in the Allen Creek floodplain adjoining the Greenway route are the only ones suitable for their development purposes.

Citizens Need to be Heard

The Greenway lost a vote on March 21. But after a year during which the only issue before Council (and their appointees on the Downtown Development Authority) was how -- not if -- the key Greenway parcels would be buried under concrete, just getting the Greenway proposal on the table for discussion is actually real progress.

City Council's rejection makes it clear that the fate of the Greenway is now in the hands of the public. Unless residents speak out, Council is likely to continue stalling any serious consideration of the Greenway and at the same time move full speed ahead on their development plans, plans that would make the Greenway impossible. An outpouring of community support for the Ann Arbor Greenway is the only way we will achieve a Greenway that actually includes more than a token amount of green space.

(Photo © 2004 Project for Public Spaces, Inc.

What you can do to help

* Send an email stating your support for the Ann Arbor Greenway to Mayor John Hieftje ( and City Council members (

* Send an email to Doug Cowherd ( if you want to join other Sierra Club members who are helping to create the Greenway.

Sierra Club position letter written to the DDA

Sierra Club Huron Valley Group, Michigan Chapter
Nancy L. Shiffler
2877 Sorrento Ave.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

September 26, 2004

To Members of the Downtown Development Authority:

On behalf of the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club I am writing to express our concerns about the proposed parking structure at First and William and to advocate for its potential as a park. We have concerns specific to the site itself as well as broader concerns about how the plan for this site relates to the overall plan for the downtown area. vv Among the arguments against using this particular site for a parking structure are the following:

• The site lies entirely within the floodway of Allen Creek, and, in fact, sits over the pipe carrying Allen Creek. In addition it is bounded on one side by a steep slope. If this site is largely impervious surface, it will do nothing to help reduce the flooding in the area.

• The site is adjacent to the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks. Additional traffic from the structure may pose a safety issue, requiring crossing gates at intersections and increasing traffic congestion.

• The site is in the transition zone between the Old West Side neighborhood and the downtown. A multistory parking structure would create an abrupt transition, contrary to the Downtown Master Plan’s call to maintain positive transitions from surrounding neighborhoods and the downtown.

Beyond these site-specific concerns about the proposed structure is the broader issue of how development will proceed in the downtown area. The Sierra Club believes that increasing the number of downtown residents is a critical part of Ann Arbor’s future. However, this poses a considerable challenge. People will not want to live downtown if the ambiance of this area declines. One of the biggest problems for downtown livability is the absence of parks and paths for walking and biking. Apart from the Diag on the UM campus, there are no significant public green spaces in the downtown area. The First and William site provides a tremendous opportunity to use existing public property to provide this missing public amenity that is necessary to attract residents to the downtown area.

This concept has already been anticipated in the Downtown Master Plan, which recognizes the potential of the Allen Creek valley as a greenway providing visual and recreational amenities for residents in the downtown area. An Allen Creek greenway that stretches from the Huron River on North Main, traverses the west side of downtown, and extends all the way to the UM athletic complex would be a community treasure beyond measure. Far from interfering with development, this use of the creek valley would enhance the potential for residential use of the downtown. The First and William site is a vital part of this greenway vision.

We urge you to consider this broader context as you study this proposal. We need to consider all potential uses of this property to determine how it might fit into our long-range goals for a vibrant downtown.

Yours truly,
Nancy L. Shiffler
Vice-Chair, Huron Valley Group

Last updated April 2005.
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