The University Record, April 10, 2000

State Street recommendations call for less clutter, two-way traffic

By Jane R. Elgass

‘What do I do now?’ Attacking the visual clutter of multiple signs that send mixed messages in the State Street area is high on the list of priorities suggested by the multidisciplinary U-M team that conducted the State Street Development Project. To improve the ‘streetscape,’ the team recommended that single poles be erected that could accommodate new, brighter lighting fixtures; way-finding banners; regulatory signage; and parking meters. The team also suggested grouping trees rather than placing them every 15 feet, and erecting kiosks for fliers and directories showing the locations of shops and parking areas. Photo by Rebecca A. Doyle
Brighter nighttime lighting, sidewalk and street areas that are less cluttered, “transparent” storefronts and two-way streets that would bring shoppers into rather than around the State Street area are among the major recommendations released last week by an interdisciplinary U-M team. The ultimate goal of the recommendations is to help the area sustain its vibrant, pedestrian nature while nuturing future economic development to ensure its future viability.

The team also recommended creation of an economic development strategy that would include attraction of an “anchor” store, something that was lost when Jacobson’s moved to Briarwood Mall. Any remodeling should meet the requirement of the historic district and respect the character of the area, which dates as far back as 1936 as a defined area. And, the team also noted, attention should be paid to the hundreds of individuals who weekly fill the “entertainment” seats at the many theaters and other venues in the area, “an untapped demographic.”

New construction in the area, whether residential or commercial, should recognize and build on the pedestrian nature of the current environment by placing retail space at street level with residential and business operations on upper floors. The team also noted that parking availability should be a major concern in any discussions of buildings that would increase the population density of the area.

As defined by the study, the State Street area is loosely bounded by Huron, William, Thayer and Division streets, but also includes the Rackham Building, Power Center for Performing Arts and their immediately adjacent neighborhoods.

The interdisciplinary team, which drew students and faculty members from the School of Business Administration through the Business and Industrial Assistance Division, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and Ford School of Public Policy, collaborated with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and State Street Area Association (SSAA). The project began in 1998.

Representatives of the team presented their recommendations to a standing-room-only crowd in the Michigan Room at the Michigan League on April 3. Also speaking at the program were Ann Arbor Mayor Ingrid Sheldon; President Lee C. Bollinger; Business School Dean B. Joseph White; Susan Pollay, DDA executive director; and Karl Pohrt, SSAA president.
‘I can see it but I can’t get there from here’ was a frequent comment of visitors to the State Street area who were surveyed, resulting in a recommendation to make the current one-way streets into two-way streets. Traffic now is routed to the area and around it, resulting in confusion and difficulty in locating parking structures. Photo by Rebecca A. Doyle

Presenters Ann Brooks (BIAD and Taubman College) and Steven Flores (Ford School) noted in their opening remarks that the recommendations build on the strengths of the area while addressing weaknesses that were identified by hundreds of community members through focus groups, mailed surveys and on-the-street interviews.

Existing strengths include an active pedestrian environment that has “human scale,” existence of a cultural center that includes some 8,000 “entertainment seats,” many of which are occupied several times each week; and the area’s identification as a gateway that links the city and University communities.

Weaknesses include cluttered sidewalks, poor litter control, confusing signals from multiple signs, inadequate directional information related to the location of parking structures, poor maintenance of sidewalks and a mixture of brick and concrete in some areas that makes the sidewalks appear narrow and uninviting, a level of nighttime lighting that is far below that of the Main Street area, creating a perception among some visitors that the area is unsafe.

Improving the “streetscape” of the area was the guiding force behind the DDA’s request for help and subsequent funding of the project, Pollay noted. “The streetscape started it all,” she explained. “We knew two years ago we wanted to do it, and we identified funding, but we weren’t sure what we should do. Now we have some solid recommendations to work on.”

Pollay says next steps for the DDA will include asking the city of Ann Arbor to assign an engineer to develop an RFP for design work. Along with that, the organization will conduct several community sessions over the spring and summer to get additional input on suggested changes. It’s unlikely that any changes will be made before spring 2001. Pollay urges anyone who would like to be involved in these discussions to contact her via e-mail at dda@ci.ann-arbor.mi.us.

She noted that the city already is studying the issue of two-way traffic on the sections of State, Liberty, Maynard, Thompson and North University streets that now are one-way. That report is due in July.

In welcoming the audience to the presentation, White noted that the “right words for the day are outreach, partnership and teamwork. I was especially pleased to see this project happen,” he explained, “since outreach and collaboration on an international level were a hallmark of the Business School in the 1990s. And here we had a learning opportunity right in our community.”

Sheldon echoed White, indicating that the collaborative nature of the project reflected the sense of “community, ownership and investment” that is needed to maintain the area’s vitality. “We all need each other. The work of the team and the other organizations mirrors the investments that the businesses have made. I hope this will be a model we can replicate for the South University area. Businesses are hanging on by their fingernails in some areas. We can use this research to move forward on ensuring a thriving community.”

The work of the University team and members of the two organizations reflects the importance of the project to the “continuing development of warm and collegial relations with the city” that has been ongoing over the past several years, Bollinger noted. “We, as a University and a community, are jointly planning for our spaces, the best possible thing that can occur.

“To my mind, this area is the heart of Ann Arbor and the life of the campus, the collective life we live here. The human vitality, the messiness, people spilling out of buildings, this is the wonderworld of what it means to be in a scholarly community.”