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Washtenaw Avenue: The region's next best place to live?

One of ReImagine Washtenaw's concepts for the redesign of Washtenaw Avenue
One of ReImagine Washtenaw's concepts for the redesign of Washtenaw Avenue - courtesy ReImagine Washtenaw
Washtenaw Avenue: The region's next best place to live? Raise your hand if you love Washtenaw Ave. No one? No takers? 
 
The jam-packed drive between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti shares a common struggle with many corridors across the state: it holds a lot of potential and gets very little love. As a generally congested strip of land with an intermittent feel of sprawl, it's no wonder Washtenaw Ave. is wanting for affection. But the county's Reimagine Washtenaw project has its sights set on changing all that. 
 
"It's hard for people to imagine areas like the corner of Golfside and Washtenaw as vibrant and walkable space that is safe and inviting with public art and transit-oriented development," says Nathan Voght, Nathan Voght, Washtenaw County's ReImagine Washtenaw project manager.  "It's hard for people to see that corner as a place where they'd want to go, much less want to live."
 
Can you imagine it? Washtenaw Ave. as the region's next downtown-like destination? With cool housing, urban density and walkability? It's undoubtedly difficult to see today, but with the right kind of long range planning and the right amount of imagination, it just may be possible. 
 
Reimagine Washtenaw is a long-term, multi-community planning effort lead by Washtenaw County with a goal of transforming the corridor into a 21st century mixed-use, multi-modal transportation environment. 
 
"Washtenaw Ave. was never designed to dump 40,000 cars into downtown Ann Arbor," said Voght. "The question is, how do we leverage this asset that has presented a challenge? How do we turn that around so it works for everybody?"
 
The effort is not an isolated one. As communities throughout the state are hoping to stave off sprawl and make the most of their built environments, corridors like Washtenaw Ave. are the next wave in redevelopment programs. Michigan Ave., connecting Lansing and East Lansing, Telegraph Rd. in Waterford Twp. and three areas of Grand Rapids are among many efforts statewide to make better use of corridors.
 
"More and more communities are interested," says Kevin Johnson of SECOG's Plan & Policy Development. "I think every community would want to look at this at some level."
 
Municipality Mashup
 
Perhaps the greatest challenge for these corridors is, and long has been, that they are often one road running through multiple municipalities. This results in segmented goals, building codes, design standards and development plans throughout.

"Washtenaw is a very fragmented road in terms of the land use," Voght says. "If we want this corridor to grow in a coherent way, the leaders now recognize that we need to think in a coordinated way."
 
That means Washtenaw County is working with the City of Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Twp, Ypsilanti Twp., and the City of Ypsilanti to make the avenue anew. 
 
As if coordinating with all of those entities doesn't sound like a big job, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Department of Transportation are a part of the effort. It's easy to see how the task is a big one without some serious orchestration. 
 
"What's great about where we are, is that these planners in all four communities are now, when they meet with developers, talking about Reimagine Washtenaw," Voght says. "It's becoming a regular part of their vocabulary." 

Contrary to popular belief that all developers simply avoid restrictive codes, Voght says when a community has a vision and high standards, the right developers are attracted, and they know just what to expect. 
 
A Gamut of Goals
 
Corridor redevelopment is unique to other common community development efforts, such as downtown development, in that each corridor can have a drastically different set of goals than the next. On Washtenaw Ave., for example, the goal is to create more density without impacting traffic congestion, and to build an environment in which people feel comfortable parking once and walking from Glassbox Coffee to Whole Foods to Elevation Burger. 
 
"Some cities may want to promote other assets," says Johnson, "like their green infrastructure, their parks, or their connections to the water."
 
There are even some corridors, such as Gratiot Ave., that are so long they have multiple purposes along the way. SEMCOG studied Gratiot Ave. to learn how to help communities redevelop corridors from urban uses on the Eastern Market end to suburban in Roseville. The result is a forthcoming online toolkit for communities to use to improve their own corridors.

Redevelopment Rewards
 
Economic development is obviously the broader, if drier-sounding goal of all corridor improvement projects. But at a street level many of these projects - Reimagine Washtenaw among them - have a more exciting endgame as well.
 
"In general, people are looking to corridors as places to have these placemaking features," Johnson says. "Not every community has a downtown, so corridors can help create a sense of place."
 
A future Washtenaw Ave. could be the next great place to live in the county. With mixed-use buildings, access to multiple modes of transit, parallel service roads and a walkable environment, one could live right on the corridor and rarely pull their car onto the avenue itself. 
 
"If our vision is achieved, what you could have is a net zero increase in traffic volume, but a substancial increase in property values," Voght says. "Everything we're going to do adds value to that corridor." 

Today, one might merely notice sidewalk in-fill and minor improvements along Washtenaw Ave., but rest assured the many stakeholders along the corridor are hard at work. Studies, visioning and codes are underway, quietly laying the foundation for a whole new kind of place. It's okay if you can't see it just yet. 
 
"Who would walk from Whole Foods to Arborland today?" asks Voght. "You can't imagine it now. But you have to imagine that in the future, it's possible."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the development news editor for Concentrate and Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe


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