freighthouse trumps art center elevator

During the 2020 Task Force meeting last night, Nat Edmonds raised what I thought was a really good question. It was during a discussion with our Ypsilanti Director of Planning, Karen Hart. Karen, at the time, was discussing the plan to put an elevator in the Riverside Arts Center. As you may know, the project has been stalled for some time due to our not having sufficient funds to complete it. I may have some of my facts wrong, but the gist is that, a few years ago, when it became clear that the Water Street development was stalled, it looked as though we might be losing a grant that we had already secured to do work on the site. Instead of just forfeiting the money, we went back to the state or federal granting agency and asked to have the money shifted to another project. The project was the Riverside Arts Center elevator, and we were successful. We got $336,500, which we thought would be enough, but, it seems that we were way off. Current estimates show the project to be, for whatever reason, at about $1 million. As I understand it, the City and the Arts Center are trying, somehow, to raise the difference, but it looks unlikely. And, to be quite honest, the value of an elevator in the 3-story building seems marginal to many. OK, so with all that as background, Nat Edmonds suggested that we try to shift the money again — this time to the Depot Town Freighthouse.

While it wouldn’t be enough to finish the work that needs to be done, Nat is of the opinion that it would be enough to bring the building up to code, so that community events could once again be held in it. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. Granted, the lending agency might not go for it, but it seems like it’s worth a try. And, I hate to be say this, but the value of a functional Freighthouse, which could be used as a community market, a location for town meetings, a place for senior citizens to congregate, etc, far outweighs the value of an elevator that may be used once or twice a day. I do realize that an elevator would make it easier for those with disabilities to reach the upper floors of the Arts Center, but my guess is that disabled Ypsilantians, if polled, would much rather have a public space like the Freighthouse open to them year round, than a hypothetical elevator ride in a building that they most likely would never enter. So, if Nat wants to push this, I plan to be right there with her. It sounds to me like one hell of an idea.

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  1. Posted October 17, 2007 at 9:47 am | Permalink


    Accessibility remains a very large issue for those with disabilities across the US.
    The Americans with Disabilites Act grew out of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and addresses many its core causes: discrimination and access.

    Unfortunately, it is largely uninforced or ignored.

    The question you ask of the disabled in your post is a King Solomon’s one.

    “My guess is that disabled Ypsilantians, if polled, would much rather have a public space like the Freighthouse open to them year round, than a hypothetical elevator ride in a building that they most likely would never enter.”

    Will you with your disability agree to not be allowed to access the Riverside Arts Center OR the DTE building so that others can use the Freighthouse?

    My mother has been in a wheelchair my whole life and I have seen her asked this question on a daily basis in many different guises.

    “Surely, you don’t mind not being able to attend your daughter’s/son’s play/game/assembly/parent-teacher conference. It would cost too much to provide access.”

    “Surely, you don’t mind that I as a small business owner can’t allow you a place to sleep/use the bathroom/shop. It would cost too much for such a small gain.”

    In the end, you’re probably right, many, if not most disabled individuals would allow the money to be shifted.

    I, instead, challenge Karen Hart to go back to the estimates received, to get new estimates, and try to find a better way to make Ypsilanti a community accessible to all.

  2. Posted October 17, 2007 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    On another note, will $300,000 allow the Freighthouse to reopen? Will $200,000?

    Auctions you might remember held at the Morris Lawrence Auditorium with $50/ticket charged and donated big ticket items cleared $50K. Could the Friends of the Freighthouse hold these twice a year? Could there be a barn-raising (freighthouse raising) fundraiser?

    I see this kind of auction was held in 2004.

    How much money is in hand, how much is needed?
    I can’t find a FoTF website, is there one? Could there be a “money needed a la United Way thermometer placed on this site?

  3. Posted October 17, 2007 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Just to let folks know, the first floor of the DTE building and the theatre are already ADA accessible. So the elevator was mainly to make it accessible on the upper floors which are not accessible and so no activities that require ADA access should be going on there right now.

    Good for Nat and all of 2020 to be thinking about these things.


    – Steve

  4. Posted October 17, 2007 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your reply.
    “The ability to incorporate an elevator and stairway to provide accessibility for both buildings significantly broadens the possibilities for the types of community arts programming that can take place.”
    REQUEST FOR LEGISLATION, January 13, 2006

    While I, too, applaud creative reallocation, this seems to be a clear robbing Peter to pay Paul situation.

  5. Posted October 17, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Regarding your comment about robbing Peter to pay Paul. That was the same argument that was made when folks expressed concern about transferring the money out of the floundering Water Street Project.

    The argument the city made back then was Water Street was stalled and the money could be put to immediate use at Riverside. Well now Riverside is stalled so if the money could be put to immediate use at the Freighthouse, perhaps that is a good thing.

    It is about the allocation of limited resources. When you talk about taxpayer money, grants and loans, you should always ask the question where could the money be used most effectively. The 2020 folks have made an interesting suggestion.

    The suggestion by 2020 is the same argument the city fathers made for moving the Money away from Water Street. That it could be better used elsewhere because it would have an IMMEDIATE impact on the community.


    – Steve

  6. Posted October 17, 2007 at 2:18 pm | Permalink


    You make good points. I guess my main remaining question would be:

    If the money is shifted to the Freighthouse, can the money be used immediately to reopen the building?

    The website seems to be down. I can’t find any current information as to how much is need to reopen the Freighthouse or how much the Friends have raised.

    BTW: I heartily agree that the 2020 committee is making huge time sacrifices to try to improve the City.

  7. Barry LaRue
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Just to set the record straight, the most recent cost estimates are $700,000 for the elevator and stair tower. The original estimates were far off apparently due to not knowing to what extent the rather tight quarters were. The demolition, footing work, etc. is in a very narrow alley and bidders jacked up prices accordingly.

    We have a grant application outstanding with the DTE Foundation for which we expect to hear the results in November. We have reworked our architectural plans to allow for a phased project with the stair portion done first. This will allow a C of O for the dance studio. We will seek a waiver on ADA while we fundraise for the actual elevator shaft and car.

    I look forward to talking with folks on this issue. As a member of the Cummunity Development Advisory Commision back in the 1970s I voted to spend CDBG money to rehab the Frieght House originally. I would hate to pit one great project with another.

  8. maryd
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Now Natalie Edmonds has a plan. My wheelchair using daughter learned to use her first tiny wheelchair at the Freighthouse 24 years ago, where all the community gathered bi-weekly to buy produce, drink coffee, play scrabble and listen to music. A Winter Jazz Series took place, a series of 3 concerts over the winter of live jazz, when we danced into the night. I have purchased fresh meats, eggs, Holiday greens, handcrafted jewelry as well as seasonal plants and produce. Neighborhood meetings brought many together to discuss improvements. The Civil War dances in the early spring evenings with soft light extending into the night and the colorful ball gowns swinging to the strains of acoustical music. These are just a few of my many memories of our beloved Freighthouse.

  9. Ol' E Cross
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    My personal affection runs deeply to the freighthouse. My attemps at impartiality make me believe a facility like Riverside needs an elevator. My cynicism makes me dread the days of Ypsi infighting over which blocks gets to have their streetlights on.

    (Watch out Maynard, your block will go black before I let Cross St. flicker and fade.)

  10. Posted October 17, 2007 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Are these the current figures for the freighthouse funds?

    “. . . $365,000 needed to renovate the 127-year-old Freighthouse, which closed in 2004 because its main floor beam and foundation were deteriorating.

    The group has raised just $18,000 so far.”

  11. Barry LaRue
    Posted October 18, 2007 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Bill Kinley, the Riverside Arts Center board chair, sent this to me last night. The figures are a bit less that I estimated:

    “It’s worth noting that the number is actually approximately $650-675,000, not a million.”

    He did comment that there is a significant difference in square footage between the two facilities perhaps making the case for providing access greater at RAC. A quick estimate on a cocktail napkin indicates around 20,000 sq. ft. for both Masonic and DTE spaces combined.

    Since the Riverside has been working extensively with both EMU and WCC there is no reason why we can’t also work together wtih the Freighthouse committee to assist in fundraising or some sort of cross-promotion.

    Anyhow, it’s safe to say that both facilities are great venues and it’s good to see people so attached to both!

  12. MaryD
    Posted October 20, 2007 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Ol’ E Cross, I admit I am not at all impartial to accessibility issues, watching/helping a sibling and a daughter overcome obstacles all of my life. It seems as though having ground floor access to both the Theater at Riverside and the Freighthouse would best serve the most of the community.

  13. egpenet
    Posted October 20, 2007 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Both the RAC and Freighthouse have main floor accessibility. There’s only the main floor and the deck at the Freighthouse. The elevator at the RAC is needed for access to the lower floor, the second floor of the RAC and the Edison Annex and the third floor of the RAC.

  14. mark
    Posted October 20, 2007 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for your comments on this. There are certainly persuasive reasons for continuing the renovation at the Riverside Arts Center. The reality of the situation, however, appears to be that this money, if moved to the Freight House, could get it open, where it could be of service to the entire community, including those with disabilities. As it is, the money isn’t helping anyone. While we wait for the additional money necessary to be raised so that the Riverside elevator project can go forward, people could be using the Freight House. I know the RAC is a cause near and dear to the hearts of many, but, in this case, I think the answer is clear. If the money can be moved, it should be moved to the Freight House. At least that’s my opinion.

  15. Posted October 20, 2007 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure if this should even be an argument. The ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) is probably the basis of why we were granted the federal money for the elevator. It seems as if the Freighthouse would be a completely different proposal and situation. And isn’t the Freighthouse privately owned? Which would mean that we couldn’t use the money for that anyway.

    In any case, I don’t think you can take federal money that you recieve for making a building accessable for those with disablities and then use it elsewhere for whatever you wanted, regardless if that really is a better idea.

    With that being said, I agree 100% that fixing the Freighthouse would be fantastic. I remember once going in on a Saturday morning and these old guys were playing bluegrass – it was the coolest thing.

  16. mark
    Posted October 20, 2007 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    As of right now, the Freight House, as I understand it, is owned by the city. You may be right about the money not being transferable though. My point was that it should at least be tried. What would it hurt to make a call to the administrator of the grant?

  17. Posted October 20, 2007 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    This is me working from memory on projects I’m not involved in, so don’t hold me to it, but:

    The money is CDBG, which could probably be used for the Freighthouse, as long as the Freighthouse serves low-moderate income community members. (Just as CDBG money is being used for repairs at the Senior Center, Parkridge, and the pool.)

    The money is about half what’s needed to complete the entire RAC project.

    The money is about what’s needed to 100% complete the Freighthouse. (I actually think it’s more than enough, especially as some contractors in the community have been known to donate labor to the project, and some of the work has already been done.)

    Personally, I don’t have any attachment to the Freighthouse – it’s never been open during the time I’ve been in Ypsi, so opening it doesn’t mean anything to me. But I know it’s very important to a great many community members. If we can use the money to completely repair the Freighthouse vs. banking it against a future expansion of useable area in RAC, the community benefit seems like it’s weighted towards the Freighthouse.

    But, certainly, this involves “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” (Or, less emotionally, there’s an opportunity cost to spending the money on the Freighthouse, in that we go from 50% to 0% of the way towards the RAC expansion.) Whatever we spend money on, there’s other stuff we’re not spending money on. (Lots and lots of other stuff – why don’t we transfer this money to the pool, or to the housing commission, or to solar panels, or to fixing up College Place, or to the first year’s Water Street bond payments, or or or or…)

    But let’s assume that the Freighthouse and RAC are the only options we’re considering. What if, rather than robbing Peter, Paul sat down with him and worked out a loan? Again, I don’t know how much the Freighthouse charged in user/event fees in the past for various things, but maybe we add an Elevator Fund Surcharge to every event fee in the Freighthouse, so that the Freighthouse can pay back the loan over time? (Probably a long time, considering the amount of money involved…)

    Just an idea…

  18. Posted October 20, 2007 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m wrong – the money is not CDBG, but Michigan’s Core Communities Fund. The Freighthouse could probably qualify under the fund goal of, “Redevelop or reuse obsolete buildings or nonmarketable sites”.

    That also brings up a reason to make the switch – the faster we can use the money, the less chance the State has to take it back to fill their own holes. :) (OTOH, they might say, “If you’re not going to use it for the project we said you could, maybe we should just take it back.”)

  19. Posted October 20, 2007 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Oh, cool Murph. If that is the case, it’s a great idea to renovate the Freighthouse.

  20. mark
    Posted October 20, 2007 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the facts, Murph.

  21. Lesley
    Posted November 26, 2007 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m just now catching up to this issue, and am very intrigued by the possibilities here. As former President of the FOYF, and current Board member, I’d like to clarify a few things:

    The City owns the building, but had an agreement with the FOYF to manage it (established before either of us new the full extent of repairs needed). The agreement has expired, and is now obsolete anyway, since the building has to be brought up to code before any activities can be managed there. However, the FOYF continues to pay utility bills and work on raising funds through grants and other means to retore the building.

    The $335,000 could very well cover everything needed to open the building. A thorough professional assessment of the building was conducted in the summer of 2006, paid for with grant money the FOYF helped the City acquire. A detailed report was written, and City staff all have access to it. The estimate for completing the work required to bring the building up to code and open it for public use is $365,000; some of that work has already been done, the FOYF has about $18,000 in the bank, and local contractors have offered to do some of it at cost or less.

    Plans, specifications, and architectural drawings are all part of the building assessment report, so the work could be bid out very quickly.

    While I respect the importance of accessibility, I’d advocate for using the money to repair and reopen the Freighthouse, making it accessible to all again. However, I would not want this to become yet another divisive issue in our cash-strapped City. As Murph pointed out, there are many, many ways the money could be used. It just seems like using it to reopen the FH would be an excellent way for the City to do something positive, with community support – give folks in Ypsi something to celebrate rather than bicker about.

    One thing that needs to be examined, though, is how the building will be used once opened. It won’t stay open for long without a plan for operating it in a way that allows it to pay for itself. When the City ran it, they ran it at a loss and subsidized it. They can no longer afford to do that; indeed, that was part of the reason it was closed in the first place. The FOYF Board has lots of ideas on how it could be run sustainably, but we want community input to help us solidify our vision into a viable business plan. I’m sure the City would want to see that there is a solid plan before considering going through the process of making the money available to repair the building. We could certainly come up with that, especially if we knew it would help get the funds necessary to reopen the building.

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