What makes for a great public space? Last week, we explored the idea that Liberty Plaza, while undoubtedly a problematic space today, deserves just as much — if not more — consideration as a place with incredible potential for a great space in downtown Ann Arbor.

Even if there was no discussion about a potential plaza on the Library Lot, Liberty Plaza remains a place worth reimagining. And here’s why.

Liberty Plaza’s unsung high points

With the conversations around Liberty Plaza use focusing on security, loitering and sunken cement, it’s easy to overlook some of the great things the corner has going for it as a public space.

Author of The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community Peter Katz says that great urban parks should be both centrally located to residents and public transit, as well as open on as many sides as possible to traffic.

“A public park should look and feel truly public,” Katz writes. “Being bounded by streets or sidewalks on all sides is one sure way to communicate ‘publicness.'”

These are both features of Liberty Plaza, the latter of which, for anyone keeping track, it has significantly more of than the potential Library plaza, which would be enclosed on three sides by buildings.

With so many new businesses cropping up on Liberty, the strong popularity of Mani Osteria right across the street, and Liberty serving as a main corridor between the Main Street Area and State Street, Liberty Plaza also boasts some serious foot traffic.

“What I hear from some of the advocates for Ann Arbor greenspace is that they want a place where a town crier might have been located,” says Ann Arbor city councilperson Sally Petersen. “Liberty Plaza might be that space. It is centrally located.”

As we discussed last week, Liberty Plaza has also demonstrated itself to be a great place when programmed. Events such as Sonic Lunch and Bloomsday have proven that when given the right programming, the park can be a downtown asset.

Director Park in Portland, Oregon — a successful hardscape park with water features and programming — exemplifies what could happen if programming was happening in Liberty Plaza all the time.

Director Park, Portland Oregon. Courtesy of the city of Portland.

Director Park, Portland Oregon. Courtesy of the city of Portland.

“In these waning days of summer, there’s always someone there,” writes Larry Bingham for The Oregonian, “from a tai chi class in the morning to kids splashing in the fountain in the afternoon to couples drinking wine and eating truffle fries under the canvas umbrellas outside Violetta Cafe in the evening.”

The funding question

What would it cost to match those positive features with a full renovation of Liberty Plaza? As we learned last week, it would be difficult to estimate costs without a very clear picture of what a redesign might look like. Whether or not there would be money to pay for it is a different question.

According to City of Ann Arbor parks planner Amy Kuras, all downtown residential development projects are requested to contribute donations to provide recreational amenities for their residents. Those funds may be used to develop new property for a new park, or to renovate existing parks in the vicinity of the development. For example, renovations were done to the plaza on South Forest in conjunction with the housing that was constructed across the street.

How much is in that fund, or how much Liberty Plaza would qualify to use is unclear, but with the recent sale of the YMCA lot for a mixed-use development and the Library Lot property not reserved for a plaza the site another potential nearby development, it seems some qualifying funds could be on the way. How much and whether or not they’re all diverted into the much discussed Library park or shared with Liberty Plaza is unknown.

What is known, it seems, is that no one intends for any downtown projects to move forward on the city’s dime alone.

“Any renovation of Liberty Plaza would need to be a public-private partnership,” says Petersen. “If we are going to sell at least a portion of the Library lot, there would be public property on all three sides.”

One of those sides is particularly problematic. If Liberty Plaza was raised up to street level, what would become of the ground floor of the First Martin Building to the east of the park? With full-length windows on the below-grade businesses, the change could dramatically impact the building, which is no small consideration, as First Martin not only donated the space years ago, but continues to maintain it. With so many unanswered questions, it’s no wonder it would take a large, collective effort to make comprehensive renovation plan for Liberty Plaza.

Liberty Plaza. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Liberty Plaza. Photo by Doug Coombe.

And that doesn’t even cover the question of funding programming. Not only did Director Park cost $9.5 million to create, but its dedicated staff and programming run up a bill of $475,000 a year. But then, it’s also a highly successful park.

Shorter term solutions

It would take some serious momentum for a project of that size to happen at Liberty Plaza, but there’s no need to wait for a big windfall to start helping the existing public space start living up to its potential. “Lighter, quicker, cheaper” is a big buzz-phrase in placemaking circles now, and it’s an approach that could help generate enthusiasm for a better Liberty Plaza, even as it becomes one.

Lighter, quicker, cheaper, or LQC initiatives have been underway in several parts of Detroit, turning Campus Martius into a sandy beach, bringing a pop-up market to Cadillac Square, and The Alley Project, in which a garage becomes a canvas for art, a studio space and an events forum. Similarly, Activate! in Chicago inspires people to activate public spaces for $1,000 or less. One such project transformed an underutilized concrete plaza with a running track, spaces for yoga mats, hopscotch and more.

Small steps are already taking Liberty Plaza in this direction. The Ann Arbor Commission on Disability Issues’s recently planted sensory garden there. First Martin installed smaller plants last year to increase visibility. The city has waived event fees to encourage community events to take place there.

But there’s more to be done. More organizations will have to take advantage of that offer and use Liberty Plaza for their events. More innovative, small investments could potentially activate the space on a more regular basis. With more regular use and greater perceived value, perhaps Liberty Plaza could become the kind of place Ann Arbor would find worth a major investment to finally bring it up to its full potential. Sure seems to beat washing our hands of it in order to focus on an imaginary park mere footsteps away.