Downtown Development Authority board meeting (April 1, 2009): The board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority held its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday and passed a resolution – with some dissent – recommending that city council eliminate the character districts from the A2D2 zoning proposal.
The board also authorized spending around $75,000 to help start a business district in the Main Street area – an idea mentioned in our report on the board’s December 2008 meeting.
Additional spending, totaling around $25,000, was authorized for bicycle parking – some of it on-street.
The board also heard a report from its ad hoc committee on the discussion of the parking agreement with the city of Ann Arbor. Initial indications are that there was clear (but not unanimous) sentiment on the committee against renegotiating the existing agreement, but for exploring other alternatives.
Accessibility was a theme that came up in the form of DDA meeting material as well as real-time parking data.
Planning commission has forwarded to city council a set of recommended zoning changes to downtown. Council is due to hear a first reading of the changes at its next meeting on April 6. Previous coverage in the Chronicle:
- Feedback Wanted: Downtown Zoning Revisions
- Council Begins Downtown Zoning Review
- A2D2 Zoning in the Home Stretch
At Wednesday’s DDA board meeting, the board considered a resolution recommending amendments to the proposed zoning revisions:
1. Given that one of A2D2′s most important goals is to encourage increased residential development in the downtown, we recommend that the premium credit for residential be calculated as 300% of FAR, not 300% of residential. The recommendation as currently written would not allow mixed use buildings to get to the maximum 700% with premiums.
2. We understand that an ordinance is under review by the Planning Commission that will address the FAR utilized by mechanical rooms, elevator shafts, and other non-habitable portions of a development. We recommend that the City alter the A2D2 zoning ordinance amendments to allow an increase in a project FAR to match the FAR required for mechanical and other requirements of a building.
3. We recommend that diagonals not be used to determine building form. They work to accommodate office construction, but discourage residential development, because they favor a square floor plate as most efficient, rather than a rectangular floor plate preferred for residential projects.
4. We recommend that no building height limit be established in the D1 zoning area. However, we prefer a building height limit with no diagonal to determine building form, rather than no height limit and a diagonal.
5. If City Council elects to establish a building height limit, we recommend parking should not be counted toward the maximum allowable FAR. We would like to encourage developments to include parking to reduce demand on the public parking system, not penalize them by reducing the amount of habitable space.
6. One of the important goals of the A2D2 process was to simplify the zoning process. We recommend that the character area elements of the zoning ordinance be eliminated as this information will be addressed in the design guidelines.
7. We recommend that the ground floor active use limitation be removed from the A2D2 zoning ordinance. We fully appreciate why this was suggested, but we believe that this is not the way to accomplish the goal of an active street frontage. In difficult economic times a restriction like this will ensure that a street frontage will be inactive because commercial space may sit empty for want of an attractive tenant. And in good economic times we have seen the market place operate effectively to create a mix of uses in each commercial area.
Of these points, it was (6) that generated discussion among board members. Sandi Smith, who also serves on city council, suggested that (6) be stricken from the resolution, saying that design guidelines that also rely on the character districts would be passed soon. [Differences between character districts have to do with differences in streetwall heights, setbacks, and stepbacks].
Board member Joan Lowenstein expressed her thought that the resolution without (6) would make it stronger, because a great deal had been invested in the notion of character districts. “If we come in and say all of a sudden, let’s get rid of them, that weakens our resolution.” That was a sentiment echoed by board chair Jennifer Hall.
The arguments against character districts discussed by board members were based on what Roger Hewitt called their arbitrariness and their complexity. Hewitt said that the goal of the four-year process had been to simplify the zoning. Being able to walk down the street and in the space of a few blocks cross as many as four different character districts was not, he said, consistent with the goal of simplification. Board member Leah Gunn agreed that character districts introduced unneeded complexity – developers needed to understand clearly what they could do by right. The purpose of the exercise, she said, was to provide clarity, not to create a multi-layered set of rules. She said that the D1-D2 areas were a layer, historic districts represented a layer, active use areas were a layer, and character districts were yet another layer.
Hall countered that based on her prior service on the planning commission, clarity could arise from complexity.
Outcome: Resolution passed with dissent from Smith and Hall, and abstention by Marcia Higgins, citing the fact that she was there only to fill in for Mayor John Hieftje and that it would be coming before council.
Outcome: On the amendment to strike (6) from the resolution, only Smith and Hall supported it, and it thus failed. On the main resolution, the vote was unanimous, with one abstention by Marcia Higgins, citing the fact that she was there only to fill in for Mayor John Hieftje and that it would be coming before council.
Also related to the A2D2 zoning were some of Ray Detter’s remarks, giving his update from the regular meeting of the Downtown Citizens’ Advisory Council. He said that a recent letter circulated by the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce that included a policy statement on business development was a controversial point in the council’s discussion [full text of policy statement]. Among the more controversial points, said Detter, included the following:
- The downtown area’s decades-old present defined boundaries should be reevaluated and expanded beyond those of both the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority tax increment financing district and the current greater downtown area, thus permitting logical, necessary growth for benefit of future generations;
- The definition of the downtown area, as well as development densities, should be closely considered relative to U-M properties and the appropriate development relationship;
- Development densities should be maximized in the downtown area to increase the City tax base, to maximize existing infrastructure, and to increase walkability and efficient use of mass transit and other alternative transportation modes;
- Further downtown historic district expansion should be curtailed, and current boundaries and policies should be reevaluated to more effectively promote development opportunities;
- City staff and officials should approach the redevelopment of structures and parcels in non-historically designated areas with the same zeal and energy they approach protecting structures in historically designated areas;
Detter said that the chamber’s policy ran counter to much of what was contained in the downtown plan.
The board authorized $83,270 to support the creation of a business improvement zone (BIZ) on South Main Street. The amount includes roughly $75,000 plus a 10% contingency.
What is a BIZ? The zones, which are enabled by Public Act 120 of 1961, allow property owners within a district to assess themselves a higher property tax to be used to promote economic development. In this particular case, the area consists of the three blocks of Main Street from the north side of William to the South side of Huron. And economic development consists of funding services above and beyond what regular city services would provide: sidewalk snow removal, trash pickup, planters, and the like.
During public comment at the start of the meeting, Bob Dascola, owner of Dascola Barbers on State Street, spoke in favor of the appropriation for the BIZ, saying it was a step in the right direction for improving downtown. Steve Bean, who described himself as a “near downtown resident,” also expressed his support for the BIZ during public comment.
Local developer Ed Shaffran had initiated the BIZ idea along with Ellie Serras, former president of the Main Street Area Association. Although Shaffran had been scheduled to speak, Serras appeared to say that Shaffran could not attend until later due to an unforeseen circumstance. Shaffran arrived in time to see the vote, which was unanimous.
We caught up with Shaffran by phone later in the day to ask how things stood with the process – the DDA financial support does not actually create the BIZ. That’s a process that requires as an initial step that a petition be submitted to the city clerk signed by 30% of property owners in the proposed district. Here the percentage reflects a weighting of individuals based on the value of their property. One wrinkle in the weighting is that there’s a maximum weight of 25% for any one individual. After submitting the petition, there’s a required informational meeting, and a vote conducted by mail. To succeed, the vote needs a 60% majority – with the weighting of votes again based on property values. The city can recoup the cost of administering the election from the district.
Shaffran said that the petition had not yet been submitted, but that he thought they had probably already achieved 60% support, based on conversations with property owners. He clarified that while the district specified Main Street, the services provided would wrap around to the sides of properties that fronted Main.
Shaffran said that the intent of property owners on Main Street was to provide assurance – by undertaking to assess themselves a higher property tax – that the kind of services they wanted would actually be provided into the future. Shaffran went on to speculate that this could be a pre-cursor of “a la carte government” as revenues to municipalities dwindled. He suggested that the concept of a BIZ could be extended to residential neighborhoods as well. The strategy for providing services, he said, could evolve to be a system where a minimum baseline level would be provided by government, with BIZ-like affiliations electing to augment (or not) that baseline level.
What about other downtown areas that might want to form a BIZ? In board discussion of the proposal, Sandi Smith had explained that out of the current proposal the DDA would get a template for creating other areas. In our phone conversation, Shaffran suggested that another possibility was that other areas could be added to the Main Street BIZ. [The areas must be contiguous, according to the enabling legislation.] He said that the initial concept was to include the entire DDA district, but that they’d opted to start small and possibly expand.
Outcome: unanimously approved.
Two resolutions were passed addressing bicycle parking. Both came out of the transportation committee, chaired by John Mouat. It was board chair Jennifer Hall, however, who described the projects to the board. The first one authorized spending $20,000 for fabrication and installation of 100 “bike circles” on the parking meter posts that will become available when new E-Park stations are installed. The metal rings will be attached to the posts as a way to adapt the posts to the function of a bike rack. After the meeting, executive director of the DDA Susan Pollay said that the idea had come from a citizen who’d made the suggestion and provided examples of other cities that had implemented similar projects.
The second bicycle parking resolution dealt with in-street bicycle parking. Five racks at $1,200 apiece were authorized. The racks will be installed in on-street parking spaces. They will be temporary in the sense that they can be removed during the winter season, or moved to different locations as special events might dictate [example of in-street bicycle parking]. Asked by mayor pro tem Marcia Higgins who would move the racks and where they would be stored, Pollay said that arrangements had been made with Republic Parking to store the racks, and that the logistics of moving them had not been worked out in detail. [Higgins was filling in for John Hieftje, who serves on the DDA board as mayor of Ann Arbor – he's attending a conference on solar energy.]
Keith Orr expressed the hope that local fabricators could be found for the bike circles. Gary Boren asked that the liability issue be considered in light of who actually owns the parking meter posts.
In a public speaking turn at the start of the meeting, Steve Bean expressed his support for the bicycle circles, saying that they could help alleviate the problem with bicycles being locked to trees, which was not good for them.
Outcome: Both resolutions passed unanimously.
Discussion of Parking Agreement with City
[See previous Chronicle coverage for background on the upcoming discussions between the DDA and the city on the question of the parking agreement between those two entities.] The name of a committee appointed by board chair Jennifer Hall at the last board meeting is the “Committee to Discuss a Mutually Beneficial Financial Agreement with City Council.” It consists of board members Roger Hewitt, Gary Boren, Jennifer Hall, and Rene Greff. In her report on its first meeting, Greff, who chairs the committee, began with a light-hearted suggestion to shorten the name to the Mutually Beneficial Agreement committee – MBA – which would “make it sound very smart.”
Greff then ticked through what the committee had done. They had: (i) reviewed history of DDA parking agreements with the city, (ii) reviewed TIF (tax increment financing) capture, and (iii) reached a majority view – with dissent from Hewitt – that they should not re-open the discussion of the existing parking agreement. It was not the role of the DDA, Greff said, to cover gaps in the city budget. The committee had given some consideration to taking over city tax-funded activities (e.g., snow removal), and had contemplated purchasing the right to meter enforcement in downtown. The latter would allow the DDA to control a piece of the public’s experience with the downtown area.
Board member Leah Gunn asked about the city’s side of the committee. Greff explained that the city council had not yet seated their committee, and the DDA contingent had met so that they would have something more concrete to bring to the table when the first meetings with the city took place.
The theme of accessibility of information and the DDA came up on a couple of different occasions during the meeting. At the start, DDA executive director Susan Pollay announced that the meeting would be recorded with three wall-mounted cameras, with a replay schedule on CTN as yet undetermined.
Towards the end of the meeting, board chair Jennifer Hall suggested that the entire board packet – not just the agenda – be made available on the DDA website. For people who wanted to watch video of the meetings, she said, having the written materials to which discussions referred would be helpful. Pollay noted that the language of any resolutions was already available on the website. Board member Gary Boren asked if the supporting documentation [which typically includes the previous month's parking structure usage data, among other material] was also included – it’s not.
Board member Sandi Smith suggest that the partnerships committee, which she co-chairs with Russ Collins, could take a look general issues surrounding accessibility and the website.
During public commentary time at the start of the meeting, Tyler Erikson, who is a research scientist at Michigan Tech Research Institute, spoke to the issue of accessibility of online parking data.
Background: On signs outside parking structures are indicators of how many open parking spots are available in that structure. The DDA provides the same real-time data on availability of parking spaces on its website. A couple of different initiatives independent of the DDA recently took advantage of the availability of this data on the web to make parking space data available by phone to drivers planning to park – call a number, get automated access to parking availability at a structure. The DDA eventually blocked access to the parking data from servers making the queries to the DDA website for the phone application. As outlined in a response to a FOIA request by Edward Vielmetti – which could not be granted per se – access to the data for use in the phone application has since been conditionally restored. The number currently used by the automated phone application is 734-272-0909. In his update from the operations committee on Wednesday, Roger Hewitt said that the DDA had set up a customer service line to provide parking data [734-761-9477], administered in-person by an attendant. Hewitt said that the number could eventually be automated, but that the intent was to first gather information about what types of inquiries people had when they called.
Tyler Erickson: Erickson said that it was in January 2009 when he first became aware of the real-time parking availability data and thought it was interesting from the point of view of his work as a research scientist. Erickson specializes in the analysis of space-time data. He said that the problem identified was that people don’t drive around looking at a laptop computer or hand-held screen – which led to the development of the phone application. Erickson noted that the work had received a positive response in the tech community and in the media. Although the issue seemed resolved at this point, he said that the initial result of the DDA being unsure about who was accessing their website was to block access to the data. The resulting online commentary, he said, as well as an article in The Ann Arbor News about access getting blocked, was that six out of the first 10 search results on a Google query for “a2dda” were about blocking access to data. This was a negative association, he said.
Erickson said he’d like to facilitate a way to block that negative trend by explaining what the community of interest was: researchers, small-business people, students working on projects, among others. “There’s a lot of minds who would like to work on the data,” he said. If Ann Arbor wants to encourage students, he continued, and convince them that they can have a great IT career here, instead of leaving and going to Boulder and Portland, then the DDA needed to stop blocking access to data and be aware of the community interested in it.
Updates and Miscellania
415 W. Washington: John Mouat reported that Wendy Rampson, with systems planning at the city, had forwarded a new draft of the RFP, which would be re-issued sometime soon.
Giant Hole: Where will all the dirt go from the giant hole that will get dug for the new underground parking structure? Roger Hewitt said that it would be deposited in a hole at the city-owned airport, which had resulted from the Ellsworth road construction. Adrian Iraola of Washtenaw Engineering Co., who manages many of the DDA’s projects, said that a final decision was pending an analysis to see if the dirt to be removed from downtown meets criteria for clean soils. The 200,000 cubic yards of dirt represented about 5,000 truckloads, he said.
The LINK: The next transportation committee will take place as a “moveable mini committee retreat” on Wednesday, April 22 at 9 a.m. The committee will board the LINK, ride for a while, and then take a walk back through downtown to the DDA. This, after their last meeting with Chris White of the AATA, when they focused on The LINK and what options might exist for its futre – from killing it, to increasing its frequency, to expanding its geographic reach.
Present: Gary Boren, Rene Greff, Jennifer Hall, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, Joan Lowenstein, John Mouat, Keith Orr, John Splitt, Sandi Smith, Leah Gunn
Absent: Russ Collins
Next board meeting: noon on Wednesday, May 6 at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [confirm date]