I received an interesting email today from a reader concerning the acre of Water Street that we’ve been working on these past few months. Attached to the email were three images… two of which were taken from “Washtenaw County: An Illustrated History“. The person who sent the email wanted me to know that the original plat (seen below), drawn in 1825 by Augustus Woodward, John Stewart and William Harwood, called for the creation of two “public squares” in the village of Ypsilanti, one of which was slated for the intersection of Congress and Mill. (Congress, as you know, is today Michigan Avenue, and Mill is now Park Street.) So, it would seem, at the founding of the City, the plan was to have a “public square” on the property we today refer to as Water Street… right on the very spot, in fact, that our City Council recently sold to Core Resources for the construction of a Family Dollar. How’s that for irony?
The reason this was brought to my attention, I was told, was because I’d gone out of my way, these past few months, to say that, should a developer for the parcel that we’d adopted ever materialize, I wouldn’t have any qualms standing aside and allowing them to plow under our native plants, and bring an end to what we’d started. According to the author of this email, now that we’ve initiated a commons, we should fight to keep it. “As it was the intention of our founding fathers to have a commons area on Water Street,” this individual said, “you’d be well within your rights to fight to keep it undeveloped on behalf of the citizens of Ypsilanti.”
In addition to the 1825 plat, the author of this email also included a map of downtown today, showing the area our founders had designated as a “public square,” straddling Michigan Avenue, just west of Park Street, in relation to the acre that we’ve been working on. (I’ve added color to the images so that you can see where our City founders indicated public spaces should be in 1825, and where they’d be in relation to today’s landmarks.)
Personally, I’m not sure what to make of it. I know that the 1825 plans of these three long-dead land speculators isn’t binding. I can see, however, how it’s worth noting that the men who founded our City saw common space as being integral to its success, and that they envisioned one of these areas being on Water Street. That, I would think, would likely cary some weight with people in this community. It’s one thing, after all, for a pack of blog-reading, yuppy, hipster, native plant-loving anarchists to demand a commons. It’s quite another to acknowledge it as a directive from our heroic, pioneering ancestors. I don’t know that it changes my opinion concerning economic development, as I still think that we need to leverage Water Street to grow our tax base and create jobs, but I do find it interesting that there’s a historic precedent for what we’re doing. And I’d like to think that, just maybe, the ghosts of our founding fathers are happy to know that we’re trying to keep their dream alive, even if it is a half a block away from where they’d envisioned it.
Here’s how the author of the email concluded his note:
“Keep fighting on behalf of Woodward, Stewart, and Harwood, and don’t allow this acre to become a strip mall, even if it might mean a few jobs. We need this space. We’ve needed it for almost 200 years.”
update: It’s probably worth noting that I don’t think having a commons on Water Street and pursuing economic development on the site are mutually exclusive undertakings. Quite the contrary. As I’ve expressed elsewhere on this site, I believe what we’re doing on Water Street will make it more likely, not less likely, that developers, both commercial and residential, will be drawn to the 38-acre parcel. As for whether, in the long term, the commons should stay, I guess we’ll have to play it by ear. I can, however, easily envision a scenario in which a thriving, sustainable commercial ecosystem revolves around a public space like the one we’ve envisioned.