Rec center to benefit county

The long-empty 38-acre Water Street site on Michigan Avenue just east of central Ypsilanti might become the site of a public recreation center if the Ypsilanti City Council takes up a proposal from Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department.
Teresa Gillotti, Director of Planning for the city, said, “This is a great project. The devil is in the details. Most people feel positive about it, but we need to get appropriate public input.”

Gillotti said WCPARC is “figuring out a timeline and details of financing, and will do a study of demand, competition and how the proposed recreation center could anchor other development” on the site.

In the meantime, she said the city is determining the interest of other developers and the process for gathering public input. The process is on track, she said, to make a decision in January on whether or not to proceed.

The Ypsilanti City Council first heard the proposal on Oct. 4th from WCPARC Director Robert Tetens. The recreation center would front on Michigan Avenue along the Huron River on the 12 acres at the northwest corner of the Water Street site.
Tetens said the proposed recreation center “would be comparable to the Meri Lou Murray Center” on Washtenaw Avenue near Platt Road in Ann Arbor, and would “bring many benefits to the City of Ypsilanti and eastern Washtenaw County.”

“Surveys show there is demand for a 50-60,000 square foot facility,” he said. “Building a recreation center in the eastern part of the county has been in WCPARC’s plans for years.”

Tetens said such a facility benefits the health of those who use it, draws people who then stay to shop or eat in the neighborhood, creates a stronger sense of community and reduces crime and juvenile delinquency.

Further, Tetens said studies have shown a recreation facility can increase the competitive marketing advantages of nearby residential, retail, and office buildings. Tetens’ plan showed the recreation center, its open space, parking and public park taking up a 500-foot wide and 1200-foot deep piece of the parcel.

Tetens asked the city council to either donate part of the Water Street parcel to the project or provide a very low-cost, long-term lease.

Tetens pointed out WCPARC’s collaborations, such as constructing the “border to border” trail, also known as the B2B trail, which includes land belonging to the county, the city of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, local hospitals and Eastern Michigan University.

The Water Street site, Tetens said, would enable the B2B trail to run from Riverside Park to Water Works Park, another benefit for local and county residents.

Tetens also said the Meri Lou Murray Center has about 1,000 visitors a day. He asked council to consider the positive impact many people could have on downtown Ypsilanti.

According to the WCPARC website, the Meri Lou Murray Center provides a track, a pool, a gymnasium, cardiovascular and weight training rooms, lockers and a party center. The annual fee for a county resident is $220 and the daily fee is $7.

Karen Popek Hart, director of planning for the city of Ypsilanti from 2006-2008, was closely involved with much of the planning for the Water Street site.

“It wouldn’t generate tax revenue, but it would be a valuable amenity that would be attractive to other developers,” she said. “Also, the border-to-border trail ties together other parks and will bring people to the site.”

Hart pointed out two site conditions not mentioned at the council’s working session. First, there is a small but deep highly contaminated area at the northwest corner of the site, very close to Michigan Avenue. Second, part of the northwest corner falls within a historic district, which requires negotiations with the State Historical Commission. Gillotti said these
conditions are easily manageable.

The Water Street site has been years in the making. According to the Ypsilanti city website, at the end of 2010 the city completed removing buildings of defunct businesses, and remediated the site’s brownfields with $850,000 in federal grants. However, the city still has a mortgage used to buy the land. That is currently a financial drain on the city, as outlined in Mayor Schreiber’s September and October 2011 reports to Council.

Schreiber’s September report showed payments on the bond will cost $1.2 million in the current fiscal year and are projected to cost $1.31 million and $1.34 million in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, moving up to $1.38 million for fiscal years 2015-2017.

In October, Schreiber said: “Until development on the Water Street property results in property tax revenues, Ypsilanti must pay the $1.3 million annual bond out of the general fund. Under state law, city council or a state-appointed emergency manager does not have the power to default on this payment. State law requires these payments to be made before all other payments ? including police and fire services.”

The Water Street property is for sale, according to Schreiber. The listing agent is C.B. Richard Ellis, whose website describes the property as a “prime mixed-use redevelopment” site with an undisclosed price, available in 1-38.5 acre parcels. The Ellis site suggests uses including retail, office, medical, sporting, entertainment, hotel, single or multifamily housing or student housing.

At the Oct. 4 meeting, council member Ricky Jefferson asked whether there would be any lowering of fees in consideration of the high unemployment rate in Ypsilanti, and Tetens said it would certainly be feasible.

Council member Daniel Vogt asked Tetens to supply council with “any relevant data on how such a rec center affects economic development, in areas as similar to Ypsilanti as possible.” Tetens said he would supply rafts of data, and would include an assessment of the competition – that is, similar facilities at Washtenaw Community College, Eastern Michigan University, the YMCA in Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.

Toombs County, GA built a recreation center in Lyons, GA, and in 2007 the Georgia State University’s Bureau of Business Research and Economic Development studied the economic impact of the recreation center. BBRED estimated that visitors’ economic impact in 2006 totaled $956,000 and produced 17 jobs. Toombs County with 28,000 residents is much smaller than Washtenaw County, but similar to Ypsilanti’s 22,000 people.

In October, City Manager Ed Koryzno described the next steps: City staff will provide their comments to council at its next meeting and the rest of the process would be the same as if this were a private project. There will be a write-up of the proposal, and council would revise and eventually approve it or not, he said.

Tetens had asked the city to make a decision by January 2012.

City planning staff submitted a report to council in mid-October, citing as benefits the ability to set the tone of the redevelopment with a quality, architecturally interesting use to provide substantial public benefit.

Benefits cited included dedicated public access to the site and the river, the ability to provide infrastructure into the site for next phase developers, compatibility of a recreation center with residential development in particular and ability to address some of the issues related to development in the floodplain, in which most of the affected area lies.

Back in October, Schreiber expressed support for the concept of the recreation center and said he “sees this as a stable long-term use” which would bring people and other development to the site. The staff report and Gillotti’s current continued enthusiasm for this “great project” suggest it might happen.

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