Reimagining Burns Park

This blog is ostensibly about downtown Ann Arbor but I live in Burns Park and walk through the park itself every day.  Basically I couldn’t help sharing a few thoughts on some ways to improve it.


Let’s get this out of the way, Burns Park is fantastic.  It is the quintessential neighborhood park.  The gorgeous Burns Park Elementary School forms its western flank and the park itself contains almost everything one could ask for: ball fields, tennis courts, play equipment, a senior center and a shelter building.  It’s one of the biggest reasons we bought a home in the neighborhood.  People may literally yell at me for suggesting we change a thing.  That said, like so much of our infrastructure, some facilities are showing signs of age and part of the point of this blog is to look around and say, “This is great but how could it be even better and how do we position it for the next generation?”  First, of course, a little history.

The land where Burns Park currently sits is the former home of the Washtenaw County Fair Association, established in 1890 but used for various fair and equestrian activities long before that.  The land was purchased by the city for a public park in 1910, naming it Burns Park in honor of George P. Burns, a University of Michigan botany professor and inaugural member of the Park Board.  The city continued to lease a portion of the land to the Ann Arbor Driving Club for a horse track until 1921.  The double row of linden trees there now roughly duplicates the original path of the track, seen clearly below (don’t worry there are a couple little saplings doing their best to fill that gap in the southwest corner).


The mound of dirt that had been at the center of the track was moved to the southern edge of the park and is now colloquially known as “Magic Mountain”, a popular mini sledding hill for generations of Burns Park children.  The current shelter, built in 1957, replaced an 1898 log cabin and the Senior Center is an expansion and renovation of the old horse barn originally built in 1912.  In 1925 the city sold the western portion of the park to the school board for the site of the Tappan School.  When Tappan moved to its current location on Stadium Boulevard in 1951, the building was renamed Burns Park Elementary School and has housed grades K-5 ever since.  There have certainly been minor improvements and changes but the 15-acre park has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950’s.

Okay, background history established.  On to the future.  Below are a few ideas for Burns Park, loosely in order of priority and/or awesomeness.

The Shelter/Warming Hut

The Burns Park Shelter, used as a warming hut in the winter, was built in 1957 in the northeast corner of the park.  It’s a pretty basic, low slung brick building with restrooms, a garage area and a community room with a kitchenette.  There’s a little outdoor area with some barbecue grills, the building is available for rent for $137 per day for a summer weekend.


In my experience this building is in actual use about a dozen times a year, perhaps a little more this past year when the ice rink was installed.  Here’s my idea: lease the majority of the building to a private user.  It might require a renovation and expansion of the building (and I think a portion of the building needs to remain available for public use) but that could be financed by the lease payments of the tenant.  The ideal tenant in my mind?  The good folks over at Argus Farm Stop.  Argus is a year round farmers market and coffee shop that in just a couple years has become the heart of the Old West Side neighborhood.  Can you imagine having something like that at the epicenter of Burns Park?  Let’s take it up a notch (since this is fantasyland right now anyway) and imagine a pairing with Argus neighbor Blank Slate Creamery for ice cream.  Coffee in the morning, local farm shopping during the day and ice cream on a summer evening?  Sign me up.  (Side note: I know the Dairy Queen has its loyal following but come on, DQ’s are everywhere and you have to walk across 5 lanes of traffic and a gas station to get there.)

I don’t personally know Bill and Kathy at Argus or Janice at Blank Slate but perhaps one of the 11 readers of this blog do.  Any plan would obviously take cooperation from the city and Parks and Recreation as well.  I’m excited about this idea in particular so perhaps we can get some traction.

Community Gardens

This one is a no brainer.  The majority of the lots in Burns Park are relatively small and old growth trees, while lovely, make gardening at home a near impossibility for many people.

Project Grow has been facilitating community garden plots in Ann Arbor since 1972 and now boasts 15 sites around the city providing over 350 individual plots.  Some locations have as few as 5 plots.  There are a number of out of the way areas within the park that could support 5-10 plots depending on the amount of sunlight required.  There are some fairly wild areas behind and adjacent to the tennis courts that could be a fit or perhaps the northeast corner of the park that is actually across Baldwin Ave?  That site is usually home to one lonely picnic table and is rarely used.

I would be shocked if a small community garden site in Burns Park didn’t have a waiting list a mile long if implemented.

Senior Center Expansion/Redevelopment

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little out of my depth when it comes to the Senior Center.  I don’t fit the target demographic and as such I’ve never set foot in the building.  That said, it seems to fill a need and from what I can tell keeps fairly busy most days.  It requires a membership, is open most weekdays from 9-4 and can be rented after hours for various events.


The Senior Center is a nice amenity to the park and the neighborhood but I think there’s untapped potential there.  I would propose a new, larger building that would be open to people of all ages.  Something with open space and community rooms on the ground floor that could keep up with programming catering to seniors and perhaps a second floor with a fitness center and more space that could serve families and people of all ages.  The Burns Park Social Club has a nice ring to it.  Parking could be an issue but hopefully you could control that through parking passes and/or membership priority for neighborhood residents.

This looks like a mini YMCA in my minds eye and a really strong neighborhood amenity, a town hall of sorts for Burns Park.

Baseball/Soccer Field Realignment

As a huge baseball fan this pains me a bit but the American youth sports landscape has changed.  The interior of the tree ring (I call this the Great Lawn in my head) contains two baseball diamonds which take up the majority of the space.  Fields for soccer, ultimate frisbee and football are sort of jury-rigged around the infields.

Again, it pains me as a baseball fan but we could probably stand to eliminate one diamond and put up some permanent soccer goals there.  Both diamonds are in mediocre shape at best and are rarely in use at the same time but there are often 3-5 soccer games or practices going on at once.  Most of the space should probably remain flexible but one legitimate soccer field would likely find good use.  Side note: Please no field turf.  I get the advantages but let’s just leave Burns Park regular old grass, dandelions and all.


Like virtually all parks in the city, most of the infrastructure could use a face lift.  I mentioned the ball diamonds above, the basketball court is also in need of a resurface.  The play equipment is a mixed bag but my favorite is the old wading pool that now sports the super popular funnel ball pole (when was this ever a thing? I remember a brand new one at our elementary school in the early 80’s that wasn’t cool then).  There’s also a couple Pétanque courts that were built with the best intentions back in 2009 but I’ve walked by probably 100 times in the last year and have yet to see them in use.  The entrance signage is faded and the whole park could probably use a bit of color, flowers, etc.  Not too much, Burns Park is and should always be more about function than beauty.


That’s what I’ve got for now.  Just a few ideas that have bounced around the ol’ noggin as I’ve walked through the park with the dog, annoying my lovely wife with half baked schemes.  Please feel free to share any more in the comments or via your social media of choice.  You can find TreeDownTown on Twitter or Instagram.


15 thoughts on “Reimagining Burns Park

  1. FABULOUS ideas!!!!! Keep dreaming and sharing!
    My favorite idea is the Argus Farm Stop and possibly an ice cream shop.
    How fun would that be and a natural community builder! Fun way to visit with neighbors!


  2. I like these ideas. I have lived in Burns Park since 2010 and it’s very beautiful but not much of a community. I hardly know anyone. Many times I’ve thought it would be nice to have a low key cafe right in the park rather than having to walk down Packard; a farmer’s market on Saturday; and a community garden.


  3. Several neighborhood residents in their 20’s proposed a community garden in the space east of Baldwin, but it was shot down by some fierce neighborhood opposition, that may have not been widespread. Its a great idea, and I would take a perennial bed there from Project Grow, a great organization, if it were available. All your ideas are great, except for the baseball diamonds that are of two sizes if you look closer. One is used almost continuously for youth baseball and softball, the other for adult softball. There has been enough room for youth soccer, field hockey, frisbee football, adult football, etc. games. The main use of the park has been for youth sports, which I would do nothing to hinder. This doesn’t mean that adult soccer goals couldn’t be placed in optimal locations for use when there are not youth practices or games going. Most importantly, the turf needs work-anyone who has taken their children to games outside of Ann Arbor knows that we come back ashamed at the state of our playing fields. Turf building and maintenance are necessary-kids might as well be falling on concrete, there are more weeds than grass, and kids’ feet hurt after wearing cleats on these fields-they are so hard. That is a major disgrace, considering our community is more wealthy than others that are able to maintain good turf on their youth sports facilities.


    • I’m surprised to hear there would be such opposition to the the community gardens, seems pretty harmless.

      Point taken about the fields and agreed on the quality of the turf, it’s abysmal.


  4. I was the one that spearheaded the community garden proposal at the mini park on Baldwin. This was in 2009 or so. We had strong support from project grow and many families in BP. One family across the street from the park organized a group of non-supporters to the idea (I’ll never forget the mother saying “but that’s OUR park”.)

    It got weird and a bit heated. We had a community forum facilitated by the city and project grow. I pulled the plug on the project in the middle of the meeting, as the point of a community garden is to bring people together, not divide them. I later found out that the main family in opposition used to volunteer for project grow! It was a pretty clear case of a “nimby” reaction by homeowners concerned about property values and faux excuses like “gardens are ugly”.

    A great outcome did happen when the school principal heard wind of the situation, and donated the space for the current school garden at Burns Park. Myself and several school parents went through Growing Hope’s school garden training program, and installed the school garden that same year.

    I think there is an even newer wave of younger residents that would further support the BP community garden at this time, but I was surprised by a few folks that initially supported the idea, only to change their minds after talking with the family in opposition.

    I’ve often thought of a weekly farmers market at BP as well. That’s probably the most feasible idea at this time. The city parks dept. would probably want it on a week nite, like they have at cobblestone farm market on Tuesdays, so as not to conflict with the main Saturday farmers market.

    It’s fun to dream!


  5. A little late to the party, but have some comments nonetheless. I was born and raised in Burns Park in the 1960s and ’70s, and as I was reading the blog post, I was preparing to be all NIMBY and oppositional to suggestions for improvement of this grand old place. Much to my surprise, I LOVE your suggestions! You have some great ideas. I hope some of them can be implemented! Side notes: The shelter used to have a large covered porch on the south side that held 3 or 4 large picnic tables, the kind that could seat a dozen small butts per table on summer days when the city paid teenagers to be camp counselors and lead us in arts and crafts. Many an afternoon was spent making lanyards and Popsicle stick buildings under that porch! The wading pool was a godsend for us and our parents. Most BP houses weren’t air conditioned and hanging out sitting in the cool water was the BEST! The library bookmobile would come once a week, and we’d make a special trip down to get our books. And the “magic mountain” (ugh) was just the plain old “big hill” in my day. “Meet ‘cha on the big hill,” was a favorite phrase!


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