There are a number of obstacles. In the past, Water Street supporters emphasized the weak economy and poor real-estate market as the reasons development failed. Now both the economy and real estate are strong, but there are still no good prospects. Obstacles include unrealistic restrictions on would-be investors, prematurely enthusiastic investment in untested projects, and site contamination.
For example, a fast-food restaurant and grocery store were rejected as Water Street projects, for “not fitting the vision.” Two other developers were run off by City Council when they said was unrealistic to demand only particular types of housing, and prohibit businesses along Michigan Avenue. City Council has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on endless planning, and rigidly specifies not only the businesses it will accept, but even the number of parking spaces or color of stucco on the walls. Given this “we know best” attitude, the only buyer Ypsilanti has found after 11 years of trying is a Family Dollar store, which City Council approved over the objections of many city residents.
Even if City Council relaxed its aesthetic requirements, what developer in the world would select land at 85 mills, when it can build in Ann Arbor at 61 mills?
Finding no private buyers, the City argued that even a government building that produces no property-tax revenue might enhance the vacant lot and increase consumer traffic downtown. Plans for a county recreation center were announced, and work began on a new $1,200,000 bridge and a $600,000 walking path as part of a Border-to-Border Trail connecting Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. After the City paid another $50,000 for environmental testing, the recreation-center plans were shelved, and the walking path was closed, due to unsafe levels of contamination on parts of Water Street.
Such “shoot-ready-aim” tactics make it difficult to credit the “we know best” attitude, and suggest that today’s City Council has not learned from the mistakes of the City Council who began the Water Street project two decades ago.