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The Green Room: The Allen Creek Greenway In Ann Arbor-It's A Matter Of Time

The Allen Creek Greenway is a three-mile walking and biking trail proposed to run north-south, near the railroad, through downtown Ann Arbor. The city has taken a $200,000 first step, by funding the master plan process. In this installment of 89.1 WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores hopes and dreams for the Greenway, whose proponents say, “It’s about time!” 

Barbara Lucas: It’s cold, dark, and windy these last few hours of 2015.  Why is a small crowd braving the elements, toting flashlights, packs and snacks?  They’re hiking the future path of the Allen Creek Greenway, with stops at Michigan Football Stadium, West Park, and Argo Dam.  Heather O’Neal has organized.

BL: Why do you think they should have the Greenway?

Heather O’Neal: I like to walk, get out of my car! The traffic around here is horrible these days. Just to connect all parts of Ann Arbor so you can walk anywhere, everywhere. Ride a bike.

BL: Trekker Susan Gardner would like to see the creek brought back up to the surface—“daylighted”—at least in parts of the trail.

Susan Gardner:  I would love to see it developed because it actually dictated the geography of Ann Arbor in its early days.

BL:  Indeed, the creek is named for Ann Arbor founder John Allen, who chose the creek as the site for his settlement.  The railroad chose to follow the creek, too.  But when pollution followed development, the creek was banished underground—nearly a century ago.    We’ve made it across the tracks by Argo Dam, and are peering over the railing at water pouring into the river from a ten-foot diameter cement pipe.  Tell us what we’re seeing here. 

O’Neal:  The Allen Creek has been underground the whole way we been walking. You can see the tunnel there, the hole, the pipe.

BL:  The creek may be hidden, but the tracks still run along above it, forming a barrier.  Excitement is mounting for a path that will increase access, instead of block it.  The trek ends at Kerrytown, at midnight.  Horns.  The children who’ve made the trek joyfully play the Kerrtyown carillon bells.  One of the revelers is Joe O’Neal, owner of O’Neal Construction and a major force in the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy. 

O’Neal:  If my dream is realized, eventually you can run from the stadium to the river and never cross a street. Either the streets will be dead-ended, or there'll be a tunnel under them, or a bridge over them.

BL:  With costs in the many millions, he knows it’ll need to proceed in stages.  But he’d like to get something started soon. 

O’Neal: One of the things might be to build a very short experimental section to show the world what can happen.

BL:  He points out the trail will connect to the Border-to-Border trail that spans the county, and to the Iron Belle Trail that spans the state.  He says greenways are assets to human health.

O’Neal:  A lot of what ails people is they should be out doing things, rather than sitting on the couch or laying in bed—they should be out moving.

BL:  He’s glad the master planning will soon be underway, but…

O’Neal: We've got to shorten the time between adoption and construction.  It's taking way too long. Here we are nine years, and we have yet to plant a blade of grass!

BL:  Is this a pipe dream, or is it actually going to happen?  I talk with Sabra Briere, who’s been on the Ann Arbor city council longer than any other member. 

Sabra Briere:  Everyone I've heard from recognizes that the Greenway is a significant asset. 

BL:  She cites various economic benefits to the city, for instance…

Briere:   Raising the property values in an area that historically has had low property values, because of potential, likely flooding that can happen there.

BL:  She notes the Allen Creek’s pesky reluctance to be contained underground.

Briere:  Especially with these heavy flashy storms we've been getting lately.  It floods at the Miller underpass… 

BL:  She recites a long list of trouble-spots, and says developing along the Greenway will provide new engineering opportunities to help rain move down, into the ground, rather than rush off as floodwater. 

Briere: We've got some great photos of people riding rafts and canoes on that floodwater.

BL:  And she says the city needs a safe, legal way to get from downtown to a major attraction:  the river.  She says even on a winter’s day there’s numbers of people…

Briere:  …who are walking across the railroad tracks, carrying their bikes across the tracks, walking their dogs across the railroad tracks. 

BL:  She says thus far, there’s no clear opposition to the Greenway concept.  Well, then…What's the hold up?

Briere: Oh well, money is always the biggest problem!

BL:  She says the master plan is key—it must be in place first, before money can be pursued.

Briere:  The purpose of the master plan is to allow the Greenway Conservancy the tool it needs to go looking for private funding, rather than for the city to say ‘We are going to build this’.

BL:  We discuss Indianapolis, which funded their trail without local taxpayer money—even ongoing maintenance is via a private foundationRegardless of dollars, she cautions this Greenway’s going nowhere till the many affected landowners are on board. 

Briere:  We don't have a set view of exactly how this is going to work. We only know that this is our goal.

BL:  Hmm, so support is there, especially if it need not depend on city funding.  But can it be realized in time for those working on it, to use it?

BL:  I visit retired engineer Dr. Jonathan Bulkley, of the Allen Creek Conservancy.  He uses a walker, and no longer hikes or bikes along the city’s streets.  He’s looking forward to future freedom of mobility the greenway could afford him.

Jonathan Bulkley: I’ll find myself an adult tricycle, for example.  I'd be very hesitant to go on other than a Greenway with my limitations.

BL:  He says the community needs safe non-motorized routes, now.

Bulkley: I just think it's important to separate bicyclists where we can—and where it’s appropriate—from cars. 

BL:  I’m reminded of my trip to the ‘High Line’—an elevated walking trail in New York City—where I happened to be recording when I heard this awful sound.  Yikes, was I glad to be on the High Line, away from the car crash in the street below! But that’s a trail that replaced a rail, whereas our greenway will run alongside the tracks.  Can it be done?

Bulkley:  There are a lot of railroads that have cooperated.

BL:  There’re over 1,400 miles of active rails with trails across our country.

Bulkley:  And it’s worked out very well.

BL:  He says trails can spur rail-side renewal, in an area.... 

Bulkley:  …which has not been the most aesthetically pleasing part of the city.  I think it would have tremendous potential for raising the human spirit in this community. 

BL:  Dr. Bulkley says the huge challenges are worth the tackling.

Bulkley:  We just need it, we really do need it—the time is now.  There are people coming to live downtown, young professionals, families, wanting to be able to recreate here, and this will be a wonderful addition.  You know Barbara, there are things coming together.  It's time!

Bulkley:  That’s a grandfather clock. 

BL:  He shows me another antique clock.

Bulkley:  It’s got a pretty fast beat.

BL:  Yes, it sure does.  If you want to speed up time, let’s put the Greenway on this clock!  


“Green the Way”: University of Michigan Urban and Regional Planning Capstone, Fall 2014

Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy

Rails With Trails

History of Allen Creek, by Grace Shackman, the Ann Arbor Observer, 1993

Map of Allen Creek with historic landmarks

Historic photos of Allen Creek
Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance

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.