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The Green Room: River Renaissance

After years of industrial contamination and economic stagnation, things may be turning around in Ann Arbor’s Lower Town, thanks to a new recreational feature in the Huron River, and the soon-to-be-announced DTE proposal to develop the Mich-Con property across the river.  Community responses are mixed, ranging from cautious optimism to elation.  

For nearly 150 years, Lower Town of Ann Arbor drew industry and commerce, attracted to it’s water power and railroads.  But boom times ended, leaving the Argo millrace stagnant, and empty lots on top of toxic waste.   But the times, they are a’changin’. In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” we explore the Argo area revitalization.

Lucas: I’m just downstream from Argo Pond at the Cascades, a series of descending white water rapids that’s chock full of kayaks and tubers.  Built just three years ago by the City of Ann Arbor, word has spread fast.

Marks:  We've been here about five times.  We keep coming back—It's so relaxing and so beautiful!

Lucas: Debbie Busista and Marianne Marks of Novi have set up lawn chairs and a picnic next to the first falls.

Busista:  It looks like a total blast, in fact there’s our one teen right there.  Hi!

Lucas: Busista says in the past they’d head up north to do things like this.

Busista: How wonderful that we have something literally 40 minutes from my house, and you feel like you are on vacation!

Lucas: Formerly a defunct millrace, leaks in its embankment led to huge controversy over whether or not to remove Argo dam.  With the decision to build the Cascades, the dam stayed.

Colin Smith:  It’s been a positive outcome to a very contentious issue.

Lucas: That’s Colin Smith, Parks and Rec service manager for the city of Ann Arbor. We’re at Argo Canoe Livery, where people are lined up to rent a boat or tube to “do the Cascades.” Smith says that comparing rentals from 2011 to 2013...

Smith:  It would be fair to say that essentially the business, has actually doubled...

Lucas: He says the profits here offset costs at other parks, which in turn eases pressure on the city’s general fund.  I asked Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, for her opinion.

Rubin:  There's no question that I'm disappointed that the dam is still here. We have too many dams in our system that really harm our water quality.  But in terms of the amenity that it has given, that has been fantastic! 

Lucas: Rubin says she’s amazed to see so many people walking the surrounding streets in bathing suits, carrying tubes.

Rubin:  ‘where they going?’  And I realize this is this new culture around the river. We never thought of ourselves as a Rivertown. We thought of ourselves as a tree town definitely, but not as a Rivertown.

Lucas: She acknowledges the surprising popularity has some downsides.

Rubin:  This year in particular I’ve heard more comments from the general public about rowdy loud tubers, a lot of garbage, a lot of drinking, partying things like that.

Lucas: Within view of the Argo Canoe livery is the pine lodge built in 1925 by Les Voyageurs, a University of Michigan fraternal organization devoted to nature.  Originally a remote riverside location, current members describe the changes.

Members of Les Voyageurs:  So we think it’s really great that a lot of people have access to the river and the river is getting more publicity and people are around and they appreciate it, but it’s a total pain, because it’s so busy and there are so many people and they are loud.  I don’t think it breeds the respect of the river that I would hope it would but I see enough people dropping beer cans and whatever to know that’s not the case.  On really busy weekends I have to wait in line to get into the driveway. 

Lucas: But others adjacent to the Cascades are euphoric. In the “Sic Transit” bicycle and repair shop, I speak with co-owner Joe Bollinger, while customers browse.

Bollinger:  I love the Cascades.  It’s beautiful.  For our business, it has been exceptional.  It gives people a great place to test ride bicycles.  I swear they come back from a test ride on the Cascades and they don't want the magic to stop, they want to keep riding!

Lucas: Co-owner Michael Firn the Cascades changes the way people perceive Lower Town. 

Firn:  It's sort of a momentum of people using this part of town as a jumping off point for exploring Ann Arbor—it’s proximity to other parts of town, and sort of an epicenter for a more active lifestyle. 

Lucas: Next door and kitty-corner are eyesores, empty lots that languish—contaminated by gasoline and by dry cleaning chemicals. 

Firn:  We're coming off 30, 40, 50 years of this being slightly the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. And I think now we are truly entering into a regenerative phase here and this is the spark that it truly needed.

Lucas: Within view of their store is another source of excitement:  the empty Mich-Con property, where coal gasification toxins are being cleaned up. DTE, the site’s new owner, plans to announce a development proposal soon. 

Rubin:  We'd really like to see the MichCon property cleaned up and put into more active use. It's 14 acres in the heart of Ann Arbor.

Lucas: Rubin says DTE is now down to one developer.

Rubin:  They're hammering out the details. And I have to tell you, there are a lot of details, because we are still talking about a complex cleanup on this property. This isn’t a cleanup where the responsibility is over after it.  There will have to be monitoring wells, there has to be, you know…  it's long and entailed.

Lucas: DTE says along with public green space and parking, the site may include a hotel, restaurant, residential, retail, or commercial.  Rubin says this type of “River Renaissance” is happening to many former industrial areas.

Rubin:  What is the most dominant natural resource in Southeast Michigan? It's our rivers and our waterways  …and when they know they can swim in them and paddle in them and don’t have to be scared of them…  you know, we don’t have our mother’s voice from 40 years ago saying, “Don’t go in that river!” or “Take a bath right away,” it’s very exciting!

Lucas: Urban revitalization is embraced by environmentalists, because it utilizes existing infrastructure within city centers, instead of increasing sprawl, auto commuting, and greenhouse gases.  Rubin says there has been interest in the empty spaces of Lower Town…

Rubin:  But it seemed so far, there's this disconnect.  This could be the connection that we need!

Lucas: Colin Smith is hopeful as well.

Smith:  I can walk from here to City Hall in 10 minutes and that's essentially the middle of downtown and your out by the river.  So I think the idea of having it be kind of the heartbeat of the town is kind of a good one.

Lucas: He does acknowledge the Cascade’s popularity has created pressures, and therefore they capped the number of boats they’re renting this year at Argo.  He’s hopeful DTE’s proposal across the river will help. 

Smith:  It continues to be busy and if there are developments on the DTE site I think that could certainly augment, amplify and complement what's going on here.

Lucas: From her front porch, which overlooks a packed Argo parking lot, Barb Scholtz says she’d welcome any relief from the congestion in her neighborhood.  

Scholtz:  If we could move the canoe livery launch place over to MichCon that would take a tremendous amount of pressure off the Argo livery area.

Lucas: But Scholtz worries that yet another popular new development could spell more problems with traffic.

Scholtz:  An important part of our city planning that the Cascades has illustrated to me is that we need to think about how does traffic flow through an area. And how will we accommodate this new feature. 

Lucas: A few blocks away is the site of a former Kroger store, and Scholtz is frustrated by the loss.  She doesn’t support drawing more visitors to the area, if local residents can’t get what they need without battling more traffic.

Scholtz: If we don’t have local services like hardwares and grocery stores and stuff like that everyone is going to have to get in their car to run out to the periphery to Meijers and Lowes to get their various needs met for their households.

Lucas: Can the area’s riverside assets be enjoyed by more people, without more car congestion, noise, and pollution too?

Scholz:  I know we've got a winner but, you know, we need to not destroy the environment because we love it too much!!!!

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.