Should there be a conference center built downtown?

Conference centers have been proposed all too frequently in downtown Ann Arbor; they are an idea that continues to float to the top. About 30 years ago, a developer proposed a 22-story conference center and hotel for the Brown Block – that big parking lot at Huron and Ashley. I still have copies of the flyers my neighbors and I circulated to stop that project from being built. Other developers proposed a big hotel and conference center for the Kline’s Lot – more than once, most recently in 2010. These never got far enough in the planning to require public opposition. And of course, there were those two separate proposals for the Old Y Lot and the Library Lot.

The most recent (2011) plan – one that would have required the City to fund the conference center construction and operation – failed. And yet, some of us continue to be concerned about whether the community needs – and would benefit from –such a space. You’d think that the fact that this idea has never resulted in a serious project would mean something. Why does it keep coming back? I’m not going to be able to answer that, but I’m convinced that there won’t be much support to build publicly funded conference space.

The Connecting William Street project recently brought back the idea of a conference center and hotel. What I didn’t see in the report – and would have loved to see – was a civic use for any of the five parcels under consideration.

Many communities cluster their civic buildings together. Ann Arbor’s civic uses – City Hall, the Police Department, the County Courthouse, offices and meetings spaces, and one of our few museums, are all clustered along Huron. This street is, quite frankly, hostile to pedestrians and drivers alike. Of course, I’d love to see some serious discussion of the ways we experience Huron Street, and how that could be improved.

William Street is parallel to Huron, and separated by three blocks. It is quieter but is beginning to be redeveloped with the construction of Zaragon West. But much of William cannot be easily changed. The south side of William between Division Street and Fourth Ave. is protected, as are most of both sides of Division between Liberty and William. The Connecting William Street proposal looked at the zoning for the surface lots and made a recommendation for the best commercial use – by private developers – for each of the parcels. But it did not provide any advice about whether there should be civic uses for these lots – uses beyond parking.

The obvious civic use is to place one or more public parks (or urban open spaces, or plazas) along William or at the Library Lot. But before we all jump on that bandwagon, is that enough? Is it even what we all want? Certainly, Liberty Plaza – an urban open space that everyone agrees doesn’t serve the community well – is on the same block as the library. What if we created another failure? And is it just open space we need? What about all those other ideas floating around – performance space, meeting space, gallery space – how do we, as a community, want to see those needs met?

All the properties considered by the Connecting William Street project are valuable assets owned by the public. We should explore using them for the benefit of the public – a benefit for the long term, not only short term gain. I have heard that some of us don’t want more tall buildings. What I haven’t heard is a thoughtful discussion about the best use each of these parcels could have – for the City, and for those of us who live here.

I’d like a real discussion about civic uses downtown – and I’d like us to talk about the best ways we can pay for those uses. And then, I’d like us to set priorities. If the government cannot pay for everything – and it cannot – how can we get the ‘everything’ we want – downtown and in our neighborhoods?

If you haven’t yet looked into the benefits of civic space that give us full access to our community, I recommend the Project for Public Spaces. See what they are doing with residents of San Antonio and Flint, Tempe and Detroit.

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3 Responses to Should there be a conference center built downtown?

  1. Snarf Oscar Boondoggle says:

    if a for-profit enterprise sees the benefits for themselves, with more employment and tax revenue to the city (perhaps after 5 (and only 5) years abatement), it will happen by virtue of American exceptionalism – but NOT by fiat of an ‘Oh, it would be sooooo nice’ fantasy from those who would over-burden their neighbors’ too-high tax burden.

  2. It’s unfortunate that the new entrance to City Hall fronts on Huron. With the fountain and garden there it seems like the designers wanted it to become a meeting place. Unfortunately with the nature of the street there, I can’t imagine spending much time there. I’ve been thinking recently, that perhaps the parking lot across Huron from the City Hall entrance could be a good spot for a park/civic gathering space. I think it would take some work to make it feel OK considering the busy streets and the solid brick wall of the AT&T building, but I think it could be done.

    • sbriere says:

      Some weeks ago I played god, proposing that the best and most central & exposed location for a significant green park was this private surface parking lot. Of course, it’s fun to play god, just as its fun to play with Monopoly money.
      The city doesn’t own this land, and probably won’t acquire it soon, if at all. The city doesn’t go seeking these acquisition opportunities, even when the rest of us might think it smart. So the odds are some private land transactions will result in more tall buildings for this lot, most likely with no improvement to the architecture of the AT&T building.

      I’m still thinking about solutions to civic space downtown.

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