A somber Ann Arbor District Library board voted unanimously this morning to suspend its ambitious project to build a new downtown library, though they held out the possibility of resuming the plan if and when the economy improves.
“I think we’re talking about a detour – at least I’m talking about a detour,” said board chair Rebecca Head.
The board called a special meeting for this morning which began in a closed session with the library’s real estate attorney, Jim Adams of Butzel Long. They reconvened for a public meeting at 10:15 a.m., and Head announced that Adams had delivered disturbing news about the bond market that was “very sobering.”
In addition to a nationwide crisis in the financial markets, board members cited reluctance to add to residents’ tax burden in such a difficult and uncertain economic climate, particularly in Michigan where the future of the auto industry hangs in the balance. Funding a new downtown library – the option that the board had been pursuing – would have required both a millage and the sale of bonds to cover the estimated $70 million cost.
For the past two years, AADL director Josie Parker and the library board have been exploring what to do with the downtown library building. Since 2006, the library has spent $900,000 on the project, an amount which includes consulting and architectural fees. The local firm Luckenbach Ziegelman Architects has been working on the building design, and Carl Luckenbach has made presentations at the board’s monthly meetings for the past several months.
Part of that work was evaluating the condition of the current downtown library. At the October board meeting, Luckenbach said that the decades-old building faced a laundry list of structural problems, including a failing sanitary system and outdated wiring.
Just last week at the Nov. 17 meeting, Luckenbach had led the board through a discussion of their vision for the new building, with the goal of bringing back a more concrete design to the board in December. Even then, however, the specter of the economy was raised when board member Carola Stearns urged price limitations to be set, given current economic conditions.
During Monday’s meeting, several board members noted that the work done up to this point won’t be wasted. “What we’ve paid for so far we can still use,” said Margaret Leary. The board now knows the extent of repairs and alternations the current building requires, Ed Surovell added.
After the meeting, Head told The Chronicle that the board doesn’t have a time frame for coming back to the project – that will depend on economic conditions, she said. Meanwhile, the board will do what’s necessary to keep the current downtown building up to standards, she said.
It isn’t clear what impact, if any, the library board’s decision will have on a separate, nearby parking project being undertaken by the city’s Downtown Development Authority.
Jennifer Hall, chair of the DDA board, voted against the underground garage project at the Sept. 3 DDA board meeting, along with then-board-member Dave DeVarti. Reached at home by phone a few minutes after the library board’s decision, she said she’d like to understand more fully what the library’s time frame was, if any, for the suspension.
But she also said that the library board’s decision to suspend their building project could be an occasion for the community to re-think the need for parking at this particular location. She said one of the reasons she had reluctantly voted against the project in September was that she felt it was important to be a good partner with the library. She said that the amount of parking required was in part driven by the discussion of the possibility of a 400-seat amphitheater planned for the new library.
Hall also recalled the overall context of the design for parking at the library lot location, which was a directive from city council for the DDA to provide various options for increasing parking capacity, and that the DDA had provided them – ranging from adding levels to the Ann-Ashley structure, to building additional parking on the Larcom Building site in connection with the new police-courts facility. The library lot had been identified by council as the location for which it wanted the DDA to design parking.
Another part of the context for the parking project was the Nelson-Nygaard parking study, which Hall said she read as a directive possibly to add additional parking capacity only after allowing various other strategies – like elimination of monthly parking permits, and parking demand management – to have an effect. Hall acknowleged, though, that her colleagues on the DDA board did not read the Nelson-Nygaard study in the same way.
Hall also noted that it would be important to determine if the library’s existing basement wall could accommodate structurally an entrance from the underground parking garage. The new library building was to have had a fairly grand “lower lobby” area designed to welcome library patrons in from the garage.
Reached by phone on Monday morning, Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, said it would be important for the DDA to sit down with the engineers and architects to determine how to address most flexibly the sheltered entrance to the library, as well as Library Lane (also a feature of the parking garage site plan that would presumably be retained even without construction of a new library building).
Pollay said the parking project “has a validity in its own right. The two projects are interconnected, but not dependent.”
“I’m grateful that they’re [the library board] doing their due diligence,” she said. “Projects can develop a momentum, but they are clearly checking at every point along the way.”
Pollay said benefits of the parking project, independent of the new library construction, include:
- upgrading utilities on the block (electricity, water, sewer)
- an increase in the downtown parking capacity
- the provision of a sheltered connection (underground) from parking to the library.
Also reached by phone Monday morning, Joan Lowenstein – who still serves on the DDA board and until two weeks ago served on the Ann Arbor city council – confirmed that the context for the underground parking garage historically was consideration of a range of locations to add existing parking capacity. The council and DDA had contemplated additional parking at the library lot well before the library had made its decision to build a new building downtown in the same location as the existing facility. As Lowenstein summarized it: “The library is still there.”
The site plan for the underground parking project will be coming before city council sometime in the near future, but the city clerk’s office has not yet received information that would allow reporting a precise date.
Present: Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Josie Parker, Carola Stearns, Ed Surovell.
Absent: Prue Rosenthal