The end of the Water Street Commons native flower prairie… at least for now

Someone came to the door this afternoon with an official letter, which they told Linette she had to sign for. I was at work when she called me, and she was understandably concerned. We didn’t discuss it, but I suspect she thought that we were being sued or something, probably for something that I’d written on the site. Fearing the worst, she opened the letter and read it to me over the phone. It turns out that it was an official “Notice to Quit,” informing me that the agreement I had with the city to adopt an acre of Water Street for the purposes of planting native plants had officially been terminated. “Pursuant to this notice,” the letter said, “please take all necessary steps to vacate the premises immediately or the City with will an action in District Court to evict you pursuant to MCL 600.5714(1)(f).” And it was signed by the John Barr, the city’s attorney… Here, if you’re interested, is the letter.


A week or so ago, when I first saw that the Border-to-Border trial through Water Street had been closed, I knew that our days were numbered. I knew that, in time, I’d hear from folks at the city, telling me that, due to recent concerns about PCBs on the site, we’d no longer be able to walk through the native plant prairie we’d come to know as Water Street Commons, or hang out at the sculpture garden that eventually took root just over the hill behind it. I just wasn’t expecting that a courier would arrive at my door with a formal eviction notice. I suppose, however, it makes sense from a legal point of view, given that I’m on record as the person who formally adopted the parcel from the city. The city, I’m sure, is concerned about potential claims that might be made, and they want to be sure that there’s a paper trail showing that, once it became public that there might be a health risk, they made efforts to keep people, like myself, off the site. I can appreciate that.

For what it’s worth, we always knew there were areas of contamination of Water Street. We just didn’t know, as it appears now, that the toxicity might have extended to the site we’d selected for the Water Street Commons native plant prairie. Here, to give you an idea of what we were thinking at the time, is a clip from something I posted almost exactly three years ago, announcing our plans for the acre along Michigan Avenue.

On Thursday evening, the Ypsilanti Parks and Recreation Commission met, and considered our proposal to adopt an acre of Water Street right alongside Michigan Avenue, just west of South River Street. I don’t think it will be official until Monday, but the members present agreed unanimously with the project as I explained it. So, it looks like we, the people of Ypsilanti, now own an acre of the former brownfield at the heart of our city, at least until such time that a developer comes forward to purchase the site. Here, if you haven’t seen it yet, is a map showing the area in question… which, as you can see, is relatively far away from the remaining areas of contamination…

And here’s the image that accompanied what I’d written. To the best of my knowledge at the time, it accurately showed the areas of Water Street that still needed to be remediated.

Now, though, it’s looking like the map we were given at the time may not have been completely correct. Either that, or the toxic chemicals somehow migrated with the wind since the point when that map was made. Forever the optimist, I’d like to think that the areas we were working in weren’t really all that bad, and that the city is just being extra cautious now that tests are apparently coming back showing some signs of PCBs and the like across the site, but I suppose the day could come when I regret all those hours of digging holes, pulling weeds, and just hanging out there with Linette and our young kids.

[For what it’s worth, I submitted a list of preliminary questions to the city last Friday, in hopes of better understanding the current situation relative to the contamination of Water Street, but, as of right now, they still haven’t responded, although they have told me that they intend to. My hope is to eventually post their responses here.]

So it looks as though, at least for the time being, our little experiment in bringing life, beauty and vitality to Water Street is over. The flowers, of course, will still come up [assuming we’re not ordered to remove them], but, at least for now, there won’t be events and the like, and no one will be pulling the spotted knapweed… But we’ll always have the memories.

Here, for those of you who weren’t there, are a few photos taken on May 1, 2013, the day that dozens of Ypsi folks came out to help us throw nearly 3,000 seed balls (containing 8 species of native grasses and 27 species of flowering plants) onto what was then just a vacant acre of downtown Ypsilanti, along with the words I wrote that night upon returning home.

[All photos, except for the last one, which I took, came courtesy of our friend, the world-famous Doug Coombe.]

And here’s what I wrote that evening.

I’m sunburnt and in much need of sleep, so this won’t be as exhaustive of a post as perhaps it should be. I did, however, want to say, before passing out, just how happy I am about the way things went today. What I saw unfold this afternoon on Water Street, I’m certain, will keep me inspired well into the fall.

Thank you to each and every one of you who played a part; Jeff Clark, Jason Tallant, Linette Lao, all the children and adults who came out in the snow a few days ago to help prepare the site, the kids of Summers-Knoll and Yspi Middle School who really took ownership of the project and helped immeasurably, everyone who contributed toward the making of the 2,745 seed bombs that were produced over the past two weeks, all my neighbors who came to the site this evening with delicious food to share, the 27 individuals who pledged money toward making the whole thing happen, the incredibly motivated men and women of the Ypsi Free Skool, and everyone who stood happily packed together on the sidewalk, hurling seed bombs onto our burgeoning native meadow this evening.

We live in an awesome little community, and our possibilities are endless. When we work together, as we demonstrated today, we can really make things happen… beautiful things. And, if you don’t believe me, just keep an eye on this little piece of property along Michigan Avenue, as the native plants come back to life, and people begin to spend more time there.

My sense is that a true community commons is evolving.

And, for what it’w worth, I still feel that way. Regardless of whether or not Water Street Commons is sealed off, this community will still keep growing and doing great things. What has started in Ypsi will continue to evolve, grow, and branch out in new, exciting, and completely unpredictable ways. There’s no stopping it. There are just too many good, passionate people who call this place home.

One last thing… Here, for those of you amateur historians out there who want to know more about how the native prairie came to be, are links to a few of my favorite stories from over the past three years. I hope you enjoy them.

The initial idea
People coming together to make it happen
Making seed bombs with local kids
Making seed bombs with local adults
The successful seed bombing
Finding historical precedent for a commons on Water Street
The day the official sign went up
The sprouts started coming up
The prairie first came to life

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    How does it feel knowing that your Mayor tried to keep the public from knowing the extent of the contamination?

  2. Andrew Clock
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    That was awful nice of the city. Funny, I have an older adopt a park agreement for the Water Street trail and I never got one of those cease & disists . You must be special. Or a feared member of the media.

    Or maybe they’ve decided to turn the commons into more affordable housing we don’t need. City council has obviously given up seeking any projects of actual value down there…

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    From MLive:

    “The city never made MSHDA’s letter public and council members said Mayor Amanda Edmonds hand delivered the report to council members’ homes instead of emailing it, which isn’t typical.

    A concerned resident leaked the letter to The Ann Arbor News, and then the city discussed the issue at the next City Council meeting.”

  4. Rat
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    There may be “fugitive dust” but I doubt it’s anything to worry about unless you’ve been out there every day for years.

  5. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Hey “anonymous”. Why not stand behind your words by giving your real name???

  6. Westside
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Good for you and all the people that transformed that space. It’s inspirational! Just as we need politicians that dream big we need citizens that dream big. We are lucky at this time to have both. Keep up the good work. I’m sure your building downtown will carry on this vision of a better world. Thank you!

  7. Anonymous
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    My name isn’t important. What is important is that people were working on that land in good faith having been told that it had been remediated. If I were one of them, I would be angry right now. I would especially be angry knowing that our elected leaders tried to keep word of contamination quiet once they were made aware of it.

  8. Legazpi
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Best place for a first date. Always remember.

  9. Alice
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I’d be interested to hear from the city what went wrong here. My guess is that their initial testing was less rigorous than it should have been. Hopefully they kept good records.

  10. Kim
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Maybe they are just using this to get you off the site so that they can sell it for low income housing.

  11. mytatom
    Posted April 15, 2016 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Ow. This is such a sad outcome to an inspiring effort–with emphasis on the inspiring.

    The summer grasses –
    Of brave soldiers’ dreams
    The aftermath.

    –Basho Matsuo [Donald Keene]

  12. EOS
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Breaking News!

  13. Westside
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I’m so sorry to hear about this. We warned you. The Democratic machine in Michigan is behind Hillary 100%. We keep track of who’s strayed from the party line and you’ve really been pumping up these Sanders people and fooling the youth into believing that they can control their future. Punitive action was required. You could still change your ways and write a nice article about Hillary. Otherwise the permits etc. from the city might be difficult. I hate to break it to you but, sometimes you need to go along to get along. Water street was a great effort but you stepped out of line. Let’s learn our lesson and move on, we have great hopes for the project on Pearl. But you are being monitored!

  14. Max
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I don’t think there’s a larger political motive here. It seems like a good ol’ fashioned case of CYA on the part of the city government/mayor, sparked by the historic debacle in Flint.

  15. Jo
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    The city won’t sue. The city will offer a deal. “Sign this document saying that, if you get cancer you won’t sue us, and we’ll drop everything.” That’s all they want. They want to cover their asses. They want to protect themselves from lawsuits coming their way from people who were working on the site with their knowledge.

  16. Don't Read the Comments
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I know they say not to read the M-Live comments, but I couldn’t help myself. Now I’m angry.

    principal life: Lobbing a couple of “seed bombs” is not “planting wildflowers.” The constructions on the site, one of which consists of two tons of concrete that will now have to somehow be removed, don’t evince much craftsmanship, much less artistic inspiration. Which is why they’re not for sale in a gallery. If you think it’s OK for would-be, aging hipsters to pour two tons of concrete on someone else’s land and create headaches and potential liability for other people and the city as a whole, without any visible wildflowers or artistic improvement to the site, leave your address below so that folks can come and “improve” your property.

  17. Lynne
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    That person is probably lying. Otherwise I would give them my address because I think some seed bombs and a sculpture park would be awesome in my back yard!

  18. Andrew Clock
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Since the city has (stupidly) filed a lawsuit against the commons instead of just issuing a simple cease and desist, maybe its time to file a counter suit for negligence. The city put everyone in danger by allowing public projects on land they should have known was not safe.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of lawsuits. But in this case, someone needs to put Mr. Lang’s office and council in check for this latest bit of idiocracy.

  19. Frosted Flakes
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Yes. Keep suggesting people sue the city–that is a great idea.

    Here is a brilliant thought: If a plot of land has known contamination spots don’t play in the dirt and have a picnic there–especially if you are going to cry “negligence” afterwards.

  20. anonymous
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    It’s best to know your facts before opening your mouth, FF. People had been told the sites in question had been remediated and were safe.

  21. anonymous
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    All you have to do is scroll up and look at the map, FF.

  22. Dan
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    If there is really that much added “material” to the site, then the person responsible for adding it definitely should be responsible for removing it. If the city has to hire someone to bulldoze the “art” you guys dumped there, then they are taking on liability in potentially contaminated dust.

  23. Frosted Flakes
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Anonymous. I have seen the map. I also realize it is a relatively small piece of land and the supposedly “safe spots” are/ were near/ adjacent to the “not safe spots”. Even a poisonous glass of water is 99 percent safe. Common sense risk management. It is unfortunate if anybody was over exposed. I sympathize, but on the other hand people chose to play around near known contaminated spots and recently remediated lands. Sorry, I am not going to have a picnic around an area that was recently remediated. Maybe people have different sensitivities to risk? Maybe some people have different impulses to sue for negligence?

  24. kjc
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    “I sympathize, but on the other hand people chose to play around near known contaminated spots and recently remediated lands. Sorry, I am not going to have a picnic around an area that was recently remediated.”

    FF why must every issue become an opportunity for you to engage in facile moralizing? Seems like you’re in love w/your own perpetually nascent thought process. There’s something so freshman year about your need to uncharitably parse all responses and find your own (yet again) the most reasonable.

  25. Frosted Flakes
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know kjc. What is your response to someone who, twice now, has suggested a lawsuit for negligence?

  26. Andrew Clock
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I don’t seriously think there should be a negligence suit. I would imagine the Adopt-a-park agreements we signed would prohibit that anyway. That said…

    When the Water Street Trail project started in 2009-10, I went to at least 2 council presentations on Water Street and looked at dozens of pages of maps and documents. Every single one of those presentations, maps, and documents indicated that all areas where the trail (and commons) volunteers worked had been remediated and that the remaining danger zones were safe to work around as long as those specific areas were not dug up. Now a state analysis of remediation records along with new core studies indicate that was not the case.

    Setting aside the origins of the Water Street debacle, our current administration has screwed things up about as much as they could. First the plans to fix the purchase debt, which include selling for three times the value, taxing street lights, or trying (again) for a millage. Followed by the ham-fisted drama fest that was the initial response to the DEQ report. Then the hasty shutdown of the property, seemingly acknowledging that the DEQ’s report has merit. And now a lawsuit where a simple cease and desist, hell, a phone call or certified letter, would likely have gotten the job done. Oh, and let’s not forget the plan to put subsidized housing on the only potentially valuable parcel for a third of the asking price while giving up all the originally promised tax and infrastructure benefits to the city.

    Tone deaf, vindictive, or just thoughtless actions like this lawsuit, which we’ve seen all too often, do serious damage to Ypsilanti’s reputation and to efforts to build and better the community. Make it hard enough, and people will stop investing their time, efforts, and money into community building.

    So anyway, what exactly should we call the city’s utter failure to properly inform or warn volunteers on Water Street of potential risks? An oversight? An oopsie? I’m still leaning towards benign, as opposed to criminal, negligence.

    I suppose you are right though. I was pretty dumb to believe all of the information the City of Ypsilanti made available to the public indicating that the couple hundred visitors and volunteers I brought to the trail over the years were not being exposed to toxins. I should have known in 2009 to look at information I got from the city with a more skeptical eye.

  27. Posted April 20, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Just waiting to see how it all plays out. I can’t imagine the city will try to prosecute, but we’ll see. Here’s my statement to MLive.

    “While I haven’t been actively involved with the sculpture park for over a year, I was very much a part of it early on, and I have no idea why I wasn’t named along with Jeff. If the City intends to pursue this in court, though, I have every intention of being there with him. And I imagine others will as well. I can understand why the City wants people off the site now, given the contamination concerns, but I can’t for the life of me understand what they would hope to accomplish through a lawsuit. The fact is, the city knew that people were down there, creating art for the past three years, and they could have stopped it at any time. They knew that it was a good, positive thing for the city, though, and they allowed it to happen. My guess is they feel as though they have to do this in order to protect themselves from potential liability, but I’m afraid that it’s only going to make things worse. Hopefully they’ll drop the whole thing and we can all move on with our lives, focus on the redevelopment of Water Street, etc.”

    As for how smart we were to try to plant flowers and create a sculpture park in this part of downtown, I’d just encourage you read what’s been said before. We had all been told this area was clean and safe. We had no reason not to believe that. And, for what it’s worth, this area might be both clean and safe. I’ve yet to see the results of the most recent tests that were done across the site.

  28. Posted April 20, 2016 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    OK, the city sent something out today that makes it sound as though none of us will be going to jail for planting flowers or making art. So please stop sending me the names of attorneys.

    Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 10.26.01 PM

  29. MCTrashpedal
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    I was there the day before they roped the entire area off. I was amazed to see that some of the larger structures have been knocked out already. There were tracks as if a vehicle had approached some of the sculpture and smashed into it. The bar and library we’re still intact.
    I was taking someone who had never been down there before. He was amazed as an Ypsilanti denizen, born and raised. It is really too bad that he’s not going to be able to take others down there as planned. It was quite a thing, that park. I was glad to have benefited from the art / other people’s work there. Thanks, Mark.

  30. stupid hick
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Mark, are you and Tom Perkins on the outs? Notice that in the mlive story he states you’re “sinking” $500k in your Pearl Street property. Sinking not investing?

  31. Jcp2
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    A sunk cost is a one time large expense that has been incurred, otherwise known as a retrospective cost. The opposite is a future prospective cost that has to be accounted for, but not yet spent. Since Mark is still in the process of renovating his building, his budget is moving money from prospective costs to retrospective costs, hence the expression of sinking costs. This is an accounting model for all expenditures, including investments.

  32. Frosted Flakes
    Posted April 22, 2016 at 7:33 am | Permalink


    I wouldn’t characterize it as the “city’s utter failure to inform”. The city passed on information they had. To answer your question: I would call it people, just like you, doing the best they could with the information they had in order to form a judgment–just like you.

    I think what was done by volunteers at Waterstreet between the flowers, sculpture and trail was a beautiful thing in terms of community building. It would completely suck if someone (especially a child) becomes sick over this…Understandably people might be a bit freaked out. I apologize if I was to quick to share my thoughts on which parties should share in the responsibility….Maybe I should have waited especially since you said you were not serious about a lawsuit–I did not pick up on the intentional sarcasm or exaggeration on your part

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] image above shows the Water Street Commons native plant prairie, which was shut down by the City a few days ago, shorty after they closed down the portion of the border-to-border trail that runs through Water […]

  2. […] that would help us jumpstart meaningful development on our 38-acre downtown brownfield known as Water Street and turn our city around. Well, despite his assurances at the time at he was looking for a […]

  3. By My thoughts on International Village on September 21, 2017 at 8:06 am

    […] history, and the various twists and turns the development has taken over the years, but I’ve also personally adopted acres of the property to start a native plant flower garden, and I’ve worked, along with others, to construct what was a thriving public sculpture garden on […]

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