welcome to the new, sterile downtown ypsilanti

During a five-hour meeting of the Ypsilanti 2020 Task Force this afternoon, a fellow Task Force member asked me if I’d ever taken the time to read the Ypsilanti Township master plan. I told her that I hadn’t, and she suggested that I might want to go home and find it online. She said that I’d find the part about the “new downtown Ypsilanti” to be particularly interesting.

For those of you not from around here, the City of Ypsilanti is surrounded by a Township. From what I can tell, there’s always been some hostility between the two. I’m told that there was a time the Township would have gladly agreed to join with the City, creating one entity, but the City was unreceptive. Now, it seems, the shoe is on the other foot. While the City has suffered economically these past several years, the Township appears to have done quite well. With a surplus of undeveloped land, they’ve been able to grow (read “sprawl”) while we in the City been forced to work with what little we have. So, while we’ve been attempting to remediate brownfields on a shoestring, they’ve been putting up subdivisions on virgin land where farms once stood. As a result, their tax base continues to increase as ours drops. It probably also doesn’t hurt that they have few of the costly problems that we, as an urban area, need to address each day.

So, what I heard this afternoon is that the Township has plans to create a “historic downtown” of their own, just a few miles away from our existing downtown. I’ve been reading through the Township master plan for a while now, and I can’t seem to find any specifics, but I did find this one passage:

… Consider the additional commercial zoning in the Huron Street / Whittaker Road corridor between I-94 and Textile Road in order to promote creation of a town center district with a wide variety of goods and services available in a central location…

If this is true, and if it’s gone at all beyond the “let’s consider” phase, I think it’s incredibly perverse. We, as I’m sure some of the braver Township residents must know, already have a real, historic downtown. They don’t need to build cheap replicas of historic buildings, as has been done recently in Canton, Michigan, with the construction of Cherry Hill Village and it’s Ye’ Ole’ Coldstone Creamery. We already have them. Ypsilanti has an authentic downtown. Yes, it might have panhandlers and a strip club, and there might be challenges, but it does exist. And, yes, I suppose it would be easier to just start over again and create a sanitized and Disnified version of our cultural past, but can’t we do better? Don’t we owe it to ourselves and our kids to try to fix what’s broken before just starting over again? Does authentic history have a value, or is it just the appearance that we ultimately care about?

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22 Comments

  1. Posted August 27, 2007 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    I was talking to a friend the other day about the brouhaha that erupted over the placement of the library many years ago, so it doesn’t surprise me that the township have designs on world-dominance, beginning with their very own city center.

    I agree with you, that its a real shame. What’s even worse, is that neither city nor township governments have any plans to mend the long-standing feud between the two units of government. What’s worse again, is that its hard to raise a community “give a shit” sufficient to the task of addressing this issue.

  2. BrianB
    Posted August 27, 2007 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I can’t imagine that they would be successful in building a “historic” downtown area when most of their current roads lack sidewalks and most of their current businesses have huge parking lots out front and/or drive-throughs and their residents seem to prefer it that way.

  3. Posted August 27, 2007 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Which “we” are you referring to. Us or them?

  4. egpenet
    Posted August 27, 2007 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Silly.

    They can have a township “center” or a shopping “center” but even the developers are backing off … people in new homes on “virgin” famland have sump pumps working 24/7 … and as BrianB pointed out, walking or biking are impossible. Those homes are not good investments, will not age well and do not breathe, making them potentially polluted with formaldehydee, vinyl gases, carbon monoxide, etc.

    It’s a different lifestyle. I prefer the close-in city of good old downtown Ypsi.

    And when the sewers, sidewalks and other ammenities are added in the township, along with truly adequatee fire and police (sorry, Sheriff) … their taxes will be right up there.

    The State of Michigan has too many little local governments … period. And the State is in such turmoil in Lansing, which is where the real problems are, that all of these little “governmental bodies” are in trouble (or soon will be) throughout the state.

    For now, our best bet locally is the County, whcih is doing fabulous things to bring more local inter-government cooperation to services and development.

  5. Captain Pinecone
    Posted August 27, 2007 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    This idea reminds me of the fake downtown they built in Novi. That one is mighty lame but least it didn’t replace a real downtown.

    It always sounds easier to start over clean but, live egpenet said, once you add in all the things you take for granted like sidewalks and such you are no further ahead cost-wise and all you have is a cheap imitation of the real thing.

  6. Dirtgrain
    Posted August 27, 2007 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    They built the new library out there. Why? It didn’t make any sense to me at the time.

    The Ypsilanti Township housing bubble certainly burst with the rest of the real estate market–maybe it’s even worse there. I don’t think they will have the cash to make this new downtown in the near future.

  7. Posted August 27, 2007 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Dirtgrain – planning isn’t necessarily about the near future. If they want to do something like this, better that they begin thinking about it now – really, down markets are the best time to do your planning, since you don’t have a lot of development popping up mid-process.

    But on that note, I have to wonder if it’s way too late for Ypsi Twp to build a “town center”. Building a solid town center either involves rehabilitating a place that’s already got the bones for it, or else doing it in a cornfield, where there’s nothing in the way (Cherry Hill Village). I don’t really see how anything remotely walkable and human scale can be shoehorned in around the existing Whittaker Road built form. (Though, otoh, the typical new building is built with the expectation that it’ll be economically worthless in about 15 years, so it’s not as if a town center form can be built over time.)

    I also have to wonder if they’ve got the density of rooftops to make it work. If they’re thinking “town center” in the sense of Chelsea or Dexter or Saline or Ypsi, they need to put a lot more houses a lot closer together and make it a lot more walkable and bikeable. Without residential density surrounding it, I don’t know if they can hope for anything more than the Whole Foods on Washtenaw – just a prettier strip mall.

    I would agree with the sentiment, in general, that Michigan has perfectly good town centers, and, specifically, that Ypsi has a perfectly good one. Building a new one just a few miles down the road seems redundant.

    But consider: Michigan’s municipal government structure forces the development chase. Ypsilanti Township *has to* try to attract more development, just like Ypsi City does, and just like every other city and township around. If Ypsi Twp is going to fight for more development, wouldn’t we rather it be something human-scaled and walkable, rather than soulless and dangerous big box strips? (Maybe with dense, pedestrian-centric areas on both sides of I-94, we’ll finally have the critical mass to make a safe crossing.)

    If we have to work within the constraints of artificially and inefficiently fragmented local government, I’d at least prefer a dinky town center in every township to continuous sprawl.

  8. Kerri
    Posted August 27, 2007 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I’m being naive here, but with all of these task forces springing to life as of late, does it make sense to try to do something about the seemingly broken relationship between the city and the township?

  9. Steph's Dad
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    It does seem that we need something like a Regional Alliances work group. Merging the two entities might be too much to ask for at this point, but we could start more modestly and see what happens. (I know some of this is already happening.) At the very least, we should bring together the elected officials from both entities for a brainstorming session on how we can help one another.

  10. egpenet
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Those on both ends ARE working together and the County is helping to bring others in the county and surrounding counties to bear. It WILL happen out of sheer necessity, hopefully, sooner than later.

    Each politician needs to be individually polled and lobbied to look for ways to cooperate. Also, it’s not for lack of ideas … it’s down to personalities hiding behind issues with political control/management mechanisms … who’s going to manage what in “my” backyard.

    All politicians want to be known for “their” largesse, wisdom and power. Giving the “other” guy/gal the credit or the control is NOT in the cards, unless theree’s a value exchange.

    Under all of this is the animosity of some individuals who years ago did the old Steve Martin thing of spitting on each other’s shoes and reciting “I Break With Thee” three times.

  11. Rodneyn
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    “It probably also doesn’t hurt that they have few of the costly problems that we, as an urban area, need to address each day.”

    After all of the years I have lived, worked, or visited Ypsilanti (city and twp.), I remain amazed at the level of ignorance that each side harbors with regards to the other. Ypsi Twp. experiences the same types of “urban problems” as the City (brownfields, obsolete commercial buildings, property maintenance and abandonment issues in older residential neighborhoods, rental housing issues, crime, etc.), often from the same sources. Troublesome individuals and criminal organizations regularly move back and forth across the line as one side or the other cracks down on their activities.

    This “we’re so put upon – they have more than we have” attitude from certain City leaders (past and present) is at least 50% of the real problem the City of Ypsilanti faces right now.

  12. Posted August 28, 2007 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    The “Create Your Own Downtown” has worked so well for Novi…

  13. Ol E' Cross
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Rodneyn,

    True, Ypsi Twp has those problems, but it also has hundreds of acres of remaining greenfield development land and a state tax structure that will allow them to benefit from new development for decades to come.

    They also have more than twice the population but remain a twp for tax benefits.

    But, the downturn in the new housing market may push them to experience city-style shortages sooner than they projected (doesn’t matter if you have available land if nobody’s building on it).

    Hopefully, as they approach there budget crunch we’ll all be more willing to set aside differences to tackle the problems we share.

  14. elviscostello
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Hey egpenet,
    What do you mean truly adequate fire and police”? You might want to take a look at what fire resources you have there in Ypsi vs. Ypsi Twp. What are the numbers on an initial response to a house fire? How many on duty each day? What local government is threatening to cut firefighters if a certain tax proposal is not passed? As local bloggers can tell you (trustygetto, east cross), I am not opposed to some form of fire consolidation, but it doesn’t help when you throw the aspersions at my local department.

  15. elviscostello
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Also, as you all write about the cooperation you’d like to see, I’d remind you that the fire departments have had successful mutual aid agreements for over 20 years. Fire departments also pool resources for haz mat teams, tech rescue, etc…
    Now, as I continue, I don’t know how long you all have lived in the area, but I was born at Beyer and lived on the East Side of Ypsi Twp for almost my whole life. Because our dad’s were factory workers, we were seen as less than those Ypsi City residents who had parents in business, etc…Township was blue collar, city was white collar, and it was even worse for the generation prior to mine, when twp. residents who moved up for jobs were seen as white trash hillbillies (Ypsitucky was not named for the Quirks, Fletchers, etc). You also had some failed tries at cooperation- JYRO, etc…before you think this is an easy transition to “kumbayah” between the two municipalities, you should learn some local history. There are some long term cultural issues that are still out there. Also, if there were some sort of total consolidation, who picks up the cost of Water Street?

  16. elviscostello
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    BTW, I have argued for a total consolidation and name it “Woodruff’s Grove”.

  17. BVos
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    At a Twp. meeting a few weeks back the Supervisor and Treasuer both said they didn’t want to see the “town center”, nor did they want to see an area of denser housing that was proposed elsewhere in the Twp. The Twp. Planner said he’d take it back to the drawing board.

    So it seems the fake downtown is dead, or at least on it’s last legs. The fake downtown was just going to be a commercial area that wasn’t so strip-mally, parking-out-frontish looking. It would be no where near what a real downtown would be.

    Either way I don’t see it being a threat to Ypsi’s two real downtowns. People still prefer real downtowns and housing trends are moving towards people living in real neighborhoods too.

  18. egpenet
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Dear Elvis:

    I have greatly benefitted from the cooperative mutual aid fire pact, when my home burned in Novmber of 2000. My son is a fire captain in Illinois.

    Cultural history is a big part of the non-kumbaya and that’s just the “ivory” part of the story. There’s a whole “ebony” aspect to our issues (Town-Twp.).

    Us relative newcomers (been here 25 years+) get a “feel” for it all in the “Town/Gown” adversarial issues here in the city … not just with the Township.

    My feelings about inadequacies in the Twp. have mostly to do, not with fire, but with policing. City Fire response in the city is under 4 minutes. City Police response is almost as fast, depending upon the complaint or urgency (or the neighborhood). With the cuts in State Police and Sheriff’s road patrols, I don’t think you can beat our times. (My thing is bigger … etc.) And on top of havinhg more territory to cover, the Sheriff needs a new jail. We need a place to “house” the creeps we DO sweep off our streets.

    By the way … years ago, I was asked for an idea for a new name for a City/Twp. combo, and I suggested … Ann Arbor Heights. I am STILL in big trouble for that!

  19. egpenet
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Kathleen: I defie you to park your car and walk around “downtown” Novi … or bike. It is NOT pedestrian-freindly … definitely NOT a downtown. All the necessary buildings are there … but in fact it’s just a big collection of different-looking malls and strip centers. Northville has a downtown. Plymouth has a downtown. Both are walkable.

  20. Robert
    Posted August 31, 2007 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Egpenet, Kathleen is referring to that phony movie-set-like area east of Novi Road and south of Grand River. I also think she might be making fun of it in her post.

    Back in the day, Jim Kosteva, a Canton resident, politician, and (I believe) urban planner, had great ideas for how Ford Road in Canton should be developed. They were all discarded by a township government hijacked by developers. This Cherry Hill Village concept was a sort of attempt at regaining an opportunity that Canton lost decades before. It took a lot of effort and dedication by some committed individuals to make it happen, but it still just looks like a movie set to me…not a real village. I have to say though; there is one very good thing about it. The theater there is great actually, and I highly recommend that people in Ypsilanti take the short trip up Ridge Road to check out a play or a movie there some day. It’s worth it.

  21. Dirtgrain
    Posted September 1, 2007 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Yah, the theater there is nice, and it’s a great community resource. We have been putting on high school shows there, and it works out nicely so far.

  22. pineapple
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I am new to Michigan and have been here in Ypsilanti township for one full year, I love it! I was born and raised in New York married and moved to Virginia Beach, VA where I raised four children and put two of them thorugh college their, Its was beatifful I must say, but Michigan has excellent potential. I love the quaint downtown in the city of Ypsilanti. Its has todays growing downtown personality and should be the focul point of blossoming ypsilanti as a whole! On the other hand Ypsilanti township’s atmoshere is as beatiful as Virginia Beach and should consider some upgrades but not try to be downtown Ypsi, instead join to build a better revived, already existing downtown.I think the disagreeing between the two are a shame and sign of poor leadership.

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