Weekly Meeting - January 22: An "Emerald Necklace" Is On the Horizon Here in Ann Arbor

Speaker: Joe O’Neal is the founder of O’Neal Construction Company here in Ann Arbor.  His “Tree Town” roots run deep. He and his company developed the Kerrytown complex of shops. They are responsible for such landmark buildings on the University of Michigan campus as the Power Center. His company is housed in the Argus Camera Building at 525 W. William Street, which it painstakingly restored; Joe’s keen interest in local history motivated him to establish and privately fund the Argus Camera Museum on the second floor of that building. He was a long-time member of the Board of Directors of the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts (co-founded by Penny Fisher, the wife of our own Ken Fischer), now known as the Ann Arbor Community Music School. He has served on the Board of Directors of the University Musical Society. Over the years, though, one of his passions has been the rediscovery and preservation of the now-buried Allen Creek and its watershed. Co-Presenting with him this afternoon are our own Norman Herbert, as well as Heather Seyfarth, Community Engagement Specialist for the City of Ann Arbor and Project Manager for the Treeline.

Boston in many respects is a tale of two cities. One Boston is the birthplace of the American Revolution. The Freedom Trail winds for 2.5 miles through downtown Boston, from Boston Common at the footsteps of the State House to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charleston, leading tourists who “follow the red brick road” past 16 locations that are seminal to our democracy. To the northwest, the Battle Road in Minute Man National Historic Park traces the route from Lexington Green to the North Bridge in Concord made famous by Paul Revere’s ride. A little to the southeast, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Plimoth Plantation vividly makes present the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock with a historically accurate reconstruction of their initial settlement in the New World; a replica of the Mayflower rides at anchor near the Rock itself. The other Boston is a thriving modern metropolis. Thanks to the noted landscape architect Frederic Law Olmstead, though, its urban density is relieved by the Emerald Necklace — a series of parks linked by parkways and waterways that wind for 7 miles from the Boston Common and the Public Garden downtown, through the Fens in the Back Bay area, past Arnold Arboretum (an endowed part of Harvard University, which deeded it to the City of Boston in 1882 but holds a thousand-year lease on the property and maintains it), to Franklin Park in Brookline. The moniker “Emerald Necklace” derives from the way the green oases in the system appear to hang from the “neck” of the Boston Peninsula.

The greening of Boston has continued in the present day. Between 1991 and 2006, the elevated 1.5 mile segment of Interstate 93 known as the Central Artery which wound through downtown was rerouted into a newly constructed underground tunnel. The superstructure that had supported the elevated roadway then was demolished. The end result of the “Big Dig” was 17 new acres of prime real estate cleaving through the downtown area. However, rather than allowing commercial development of that acreage, Massachusetts set it aside as a linear park to be comprised of landscaped gardens, promenades, plazas, fountains, art, and specialty lighting systems stretching for over a mile through the Chinatown, Financial District, Waterfront, and North End neighborhoods. Officially opened in October 2008, the park was named the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy was established as an independently incorporated non-profit in 2004 to guide this emerging park system. In 2008, the Massachusetts legislature confirmed the Conservancy as the designated steward of the Greenway under a ground lease from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (today retitled as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation). The Conservancy has overseen the park since February 2009, raising funds for an endowment to maintain it and fund its operations, all the while strengthening its physical beauty and encouraging a sense of a shared community in Boston.

A similar greening of the urban landscape has taken root in Ann Arbor. Our speaker has long envisioned the Allen Creek watershed as an urban trail winding from Argo Dam through the heart of downtown, for the most part utilizing the right-of-way for the tracks of the Ann Arbor Railroad, linking the Border-to-Border Trail with Argo Pond and the Cascades. This urban trail has come to be known as The Treeline in deference to Ann Arbor’s colloquial nickname Tree Town. “The Treeline will enhance Ann Arbor’s green environment where needed most,” our speaker believes, “foster community engagement, facilitate stormwater management, provide a positive economic return and, of most importance, improve the quality of life for present and future generations. It will make Ann Arbor proud.” On December 28, 2018, the Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously to incorporate The Treeline into the City’s master plan. That vote was the conclusion of a multi-year advocacy and planning process. The 2.75 mile trail for pedestrians and cyclists will not be funded with public money. Surplus city properties bordering the proposed route may be contributed to it, but its development for the most part will be realized through private funds raised by the Treeline Conservancy. The northernmost section of the Treeline will be the initial focus. The first piece of property purchased by the Treeline Conservancy was 410 Miller Avenue on October 24, 2018; it lies east of the Railroad tracks, north of Miller Avenue and south of Felch Street. The first finished segment of the Treeline Trail runs behind the Yard Apartments complex at 615 South Main Street and was paid for by that project’s developer.

Our speaker will bring us up to date this afternoon on the genesis of the Treeline Trail and its bright future prospects.