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Masonic Temple To Crumble

U.S. Building A Federal Crime 

by Dick Ahern


In one sense, the proposed Federal Office Building is a masterpiece of urban design, that is, if you subscribe to the proposition that great art expresses the temper of the times. Like the Government it is designed to serve, the Federal Building puts up a good front but is ugly behind the scenes.

The building is proposed to be located on Liberty Street between 4th and 5th Aves. The glittering glass step-pyramided front would face a well-designed, terraced mini plaza. The office use would be appropriate for downtown. It would provide some construction jobs. But, the negative features of the proposed building as presently designed would far outweigh the advantages. I urge all residents of Ann Arbor who want to see downtown develop as a pedestrian refuge from the asphalt blight of Briarwood and other outlying shopping ghettos to contact their representative on City Council and ask that he or she vote against the rezoning of the land until an acceptable plan is submitted by the government. An Acceptable plan is easy to define in this case; it would conform to the ordinances and policies of the City of Ann Arbor. In particular, many thousands of man/woman hours have gone into the discussions and preparation of a "policy plan" for the Central Business District in which the building would be located. It was citizen involvement that led to the insertion of policies to develop downtown as a good urban residential environment along with commercial and office land uses, and a place where it would be pleasant to walk. Surface parking lots would be especially discouraged to avoid that bombed-out look so typical of many downtown areas, while parking under buildings, bicycle access, and mass-transit alternatives would be encouraged. This is not only good aesthetic sense but good economics, because no downtown that has lost its business to suburban shopping centers and tried to compete with them by imitating them, immersing itself likewise in spaghettiring-roads and parking pavements, has regained and held its economic vitality and social pre-eminence, at least not to my knowledge.

The proposed Federal Building would not have parking under the building. Instead, it would have an open parking lot for ninety vehicles at the rear and to one side. Worse yet, there would be a loading dock for Post Office trucks and an overall appearance of warehouse activity. Still worse, according to Ann Arbor Planning Commission estimates, there would be a deficiency of 119 parking spaces relative to present conditions, and this would ultimately have to be provided for "somewhere else." This would most likely not only mean a still more extensive asphalt lot to blight the area but an effective subsidy of the Federal Building by the citizens of Ann Arbor. The total effect would be far less pleasant for the pedestrian than the assortment of buildings there now.

By curious coincidence, another "Federal" Building.. .the Ann Arbor Federal Savings Building at the corner of Liberty and Division Street, just two blocks closer to campus, is the best nearby example of what would happen. Compare the character of Washington Street several years ago with the bleak expanse of parking that offends the eyes now; the structures that were removed were not only more serviceable to the downtown community but also contributed to the vitality and livability of the area.

Most citizens who have not taken a careful look at the plans for the Federal Building welcome its construction as an impetus to the regeneration of downtown. Many have complained about the loss of the sturdily constructed Masonic Temple to be replaced by parking for about 40 cars, when the auditorium space in that building alone would warrant its preservation as a valuable community resource. But the parking problem is not so obvious an issue. Even so, it is the most important factor in this case. If downtown further deteriorates into piecemeal developments, each provided with its own asphalt mini-desert, we can only expect residential development of an alienating character, pigeonholing people into isolated monolithic towers protected by armed guards, rather than buildings of a truly residential scale and character integrated into a vital urban center of diverse and mutually interdependent land uses that is alive 24 hours a day. To have such a downtown, we must prohibit parking lots and multi-level parking garages from now on. Podium parking is the only solution that permits all of the land to be economically and functionally utilized.

In its relations with the City and the citizens on this matter, the General Services Administration of the Federal Government which is responsible for the development of the Federal Building has been most arrogant, deceptive and intimidating. It has asserted its authority to proceed with the project without the rezoning or site plan approval that would be required for most other developers. It has threatened the City with a three-year delay of the project or even the loss of it unless the present plan is approved. Let us not be intimidated! I believe we can get what City planning policies and goals call for if we act consistently as a community. This should not become a political issue; rather people of all political persuasions should find this a simple matter of good versus bad urban design that transcends political policies. For once, let's work together in the interests of a truly viable environment for the city center of Ann Arbor.

(Dick Ahern is an architect and community planner living in Ann Arbor.) The city will be holding a public hearing on this plan March 3, 7:30 at City Hall.