Downtown Park at Main and Huron

Downtown park sketches by Mike Prochaska, 1973.

At a meeting in February of 1973, an Ecology Center staff member suggested a new project idea to convert a vacant lot at the northwest corner of Huron and Main into a temporary public park. The lot was previously occupied by the Municipal Court Building, which burned down a couple years before, and what remained was a charred, abandoned lot. Such a park would be an oasis amid “the harsh noise and hard sidewalks of downtown Ann Arbor with its soft paths and grassy hills,” offering workers and shoppers the opportunity to escape the predominantly concrete downtown for a moment. Further, the park would attract shoppers, drawn away by the opening of Briarwood Mall, to the local restaurants and shops of downtown Ann Arbor.

On the first of March, Cecil Ursprung, the Business Director for the Ecology Center, signed an agreement with John Dames, the owner of the land, which allowed the Center to rent the land for the park site for one dollar until the lease sale of the lot. Between February and April of 1973, “the instant park...developed from a suggestion made at an Ecology Center staff meeting, to a sketch, to a blueprint, to a water a color rendition, with the help of a variety of volunteers.” Realizing the potential benefit of the park to the community, donations poured into the park project, ranging from legal and architectural services and park materials to technical advice, time and energy. Co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the Black Economic Development League, the Community Development Center chose Mike Prochaska, a member of the AIA and Ann Arbor’s city planning director, to design the park. To draft his plans, Prochaska utilized input from the community, including a U-M architecture student and many area residents who had attended the Ecology Center’s meetings on the park. The plan emphasized the use of natural, reused, and portable materials with a spacious, open layout.

Michigan Daily, June 15, 1973

Letter from Mayor Stephenson

Michigan Daily, June 15, 1973

During the summer of 1973, Ecology Center volunteers made the sketches into a reality. Maple trees lined the park’s edge to insulate the park from the noises of the bustling area and noisy streets. Orange and yellow marigolds contrasted the thick, green grass. Recycled telephone poles enclosed a children’s sandbox. The breeze spun the mobile-sculpture at the park’s center. Workers sat and enjoyed their lunch breaks outside of cramped office spaces. Children played in the sandbox after a day of walking and shopping. Students relaxed and read books for class. Over the years, the downtown park became a beloved space, offering sunshine, fresh air, green space, and a moment of peace to all. 

After five years, a developer purchased the property with plans to build a nine-story office building. The Center expressed its gratitude for the five years that the Ann Arbor community enjoyed the downtown park, and they felt that they had demonstrated the social and environmental benefits made possible by creative land use. In a final effort, the Ecology Center wrote to the director of Parks Administration, offering to donate the trees they had planted to another city park if the city would provide the funds and the labor. The trees were relocated to Hunt Park and a park area behind an old powerhouse at Argo. The downtown park was a model for other Ann Arbor areas, and the Ecology Center and other local organizations cooperated to start other park projects at Liberty and Division, Packard and Arch, and South University and Walnut Streets.

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