Downtown Development Authority board meeting (May 6, 2009): At its regular Wednesday meeting, the DDA board passed a resolution expressing skepticism about a new city plan aimed to generate an additional $380,000 in parking revenue. The plan, which was introduced to the board by Mike Bergren and Pat Cawley of the city, would achieve the additional revenue by installing more parking meters in residential areas adjoining downtown.
The resolution was amended in a way that, for the time being, headed off a direct confrontation between the DDA and the city over control of DDA dollars.
Another theme running through multiple parts of the meeting – including a discussion among interested parties afterward – was the issue of access to data, and the use of technology to share information.
In other business, the board heard a presentation on a city pilot plan to install automated trash cans in the downtown area, plus heard the usual reports from its subcommittees, including one from the operations committee that portrayed the DDA’s finances still in good order, despite the gloomy economy.
Does More Parking Meters Mean City v. DDA?
Background: At its Jan. 20 meeting, city council passed a resolution asking the DDA to open discussions on the parking agreement between the DDA and the city. Then, at its Feb. 17 meeting, city council asked that the DDA put forward a plan to increase its revenue to ensure adequate reserve funds. These two requests provided the background for the DDA boards’ operations committee meeting on Feb. 24, which resulted in forming a resolution to seat a committee to begin discussions requested by the city. That resolution was considered by the DDA board at its March 4 meeting, with an ad hoc committee appointed, consisting of Roger Hewitt, Gary Boren, Jennifer Hall, and Rene Greff. Greff was appointed committee chair by Hall.
Subsequently, the DDA’s ad hoc committee met, and Greff gave a report at the board’s full meeting on April 1. She said that the committee had reached a majority view – with dissent from Hewitt – that they should not re-open discussion of the existing parking agreement. It was not the role of the DDA, Greff said at that meeting, 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 city administrator’s proposed budget, first previewed on April 13 at a city council work session, includes strategic cuts to police positions. Many of the jobs to be cut are community standards officers, who enforce parking meters, among other responsibilities. City administrator Roger Fraser said at that work session that patrol officers would do ticket enforcement.
City council has not seated a committee of its own to begin the discussions it requested with the DDA to talk about the parking agreement between the city and the DDA. While the term of the agreement does not expire until July 2015, the DDA has met its financial obligation as specified under the terms of that contract, which has payments ending by July 2010.
The city’s proposed budget for FY 2011 assumes about $2 million – not specified under the current parking agreement – would be transferred from the DDA to the city.
The city’s website indicates that the chair of the DDA’s ad hoc committee, Rene Greff, would need to be reappointed by Mayor John Hieftje in order to continue to serve past July 31, 2009, when her term expires. Asked by The Chronicle after the May 5 board meeting if she has indicated to Hieftje a willingness and interest to continue her service on the DDA board, Greff said that she had. Last fall, board member Dave Devarti had indicated to Hieftje an interest and willingness to continue service on the DDA board too, but was not reappointed. In a December 2008 interview, The Chronicle asked Devarti’s replacement, Keith Orr, if he had a sense of the process employed by Hieftje to arrive at a decision to nominate him or to not reappoint DeVarti. Orr said simply, “I really don’t know. It seems to be very closed.”
Presentation: Field services staff from the city, Mike Bergren and Pat Cawley, appeared before the DDA board to explain a new city proposal to install parking meters where none currently exist adjacent to DDA meters, but outside DDA boundaries. There are an additional 208 meter locations proposed in the central business district, in many cases adjoining the University of Michigan hospitals system. Bergren said that the city would like to explore the possibility of having the DDA do the management – the DDA administers the city’s existing parking program. He also indicated that options were being considered for addressing the negative impact on free parking availability for residents in the area.
In addition to the new meters, Bergren described a new loading zone permitting program. He explained that every loading zone removes two parking spaces and that anything commercial can park in them. There would be a fee to be paid to obtain a permit, but the city would be divided into geographic sub-districts so that a vendor who needed to deliver only to a specific part of downtown would not need to pay the higher-priced permit for all of downtown.
Bergren noted that as a part of the budget proposal currently before city council [they'll be voting on it on May 18] there’s a proposal to install parking meters on some service drives. But that’s been put on hold, he said, because the locations adjacent to downtown make more sense – they project higher revenues than on the service drives.
Board Discussion on New Parking Meters: Board member John Mouat led off the board discussion by asking what the University of Michigan thought – given the proximity of the new meters to UM hospital facilities. Bergren said that UM had not weighed in on it, but that their input would be solicited.
Because the DDA is currently engaged in a process to replace some, if not most, of its parking meters with E-Park kiosks, Sandi Smith (a member of the DDA board member and city council) asked if the idea was to install kiosks or individual meters. Bergren said that was an ongoing conversation. Smith joked that she knew where some used parking meters could be sourced. Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, wondered playfully if they should be priced at $2 million each. [See background above.]
The resolution the board had before it included a “whereas” clause noting the confusion that would result from two different on-street meter systems and the duplication of services. This was a point emphasized by Hall and Joan Lowenstein in deliberations.
Smith questioned whether the projected revenues were realistic. Bergren said that the $380,000 in revenue was based on current revenues of meters in the same geographic vicinity. Cawley confirmed that the analysis was done segment by segment and not based on an overall average. Board member Roger Hewitt sought and got confirmation that the cost of collection was built into the revenue estimates. Smith was joined by board colleague Gary Boren in expressing great skepticism about the projected revenues, saying, “It’s not easy to take a parking meter and stick it in the ground and make money.”
In an apparent allusion to the request from the city to change the parking agreement between the city and the DDA, Boren also suggested that the issue of adding meters should be a part of a “larger horse-trading discussion.”
Greff weighed in on the same theme, saying that the discussion was more complicated than whether there were two parking systems or whether they’re inside the city or not. It was complicated, she said, by the fact that the city had asked the DDA to begin discussions to reconsider the parking agreement, but had not yet formed its part of the committee to have those discussions.
One resolved clause in the resolution considered by the DDA board included language that forced the issue of the city’s formation of its own committee:
The DDA suggests that this [the new meters] would be an excellent topic of discussion for the “Mutually Beneficial” subcommittees of the DDA and City to discuss when they meet to discuss the January 2009 city council resolution requesting that the DDA engage in a dialogue with the city to determine mutually beneficial opportunities to direct new funds to the city.
Greff wanted to know from Hieftje if city council was planning to negotiate the parking agreement before it adopted the budget and asked him point blank: “When are you seating the committee?” Hieftje responded by saying that it wasn’t the city administrator’s plan to have negotiations before the budget was adopted, adding, “I don’t think council is going to change any of that.”
Board member Leah Gunn suggested that the resolved clause be deleted and be replaced with one stating that the DDA would discuss the issue at its May 22 May 20 retreat and prepare a recommendation to city council. When Smith pointed out that the budget vote is on May 18, Gunn replied that budgets are living documents and can be changed. The recommendation to council would be along the lines of “You may have passed this, but we’d like you to think again.”
Hall Lowenstein responded to Gunn’s suggestion by saying that the retreat discussion would not define policy. Gunn then offered that the next regular board meeting could be specified instead of the retreat.
Greff brought the focus back around to the ad hoc committee. It was put into place, she said, at request of city council. “What are we doing with this resolution?” she wondered, “Are we just making a recommendation? They asked us to put the committee together!” Hieftje engaged in a bit of verbal sparring by saying that it was Smith’s committee – an apparent allusion to the fact that it was Smith who brought forward the Jan. 20 council resolution calling for the conversation between the city and the DDA (along with co-sponsors Margie Teall and Leigh Greden). To that, Smith offered a rejoinder to the effect that it’s Hieftje who appoints the committee. [The language of the resolution doesn't explicitly specify the formation of a committee to undertake the conversation.]
Hieftje then suggested an amendment of the resolution to specify just the partnerships subcommittee of the DDA instead of the “Mutually Beneficial” ad hoc committee. He pointed out there is a council representative [Leigh Greden] who attends those meetings.
Russ Collins said he’d be supporting the resolution, because it doesn’t really matter. The DDA has the intention to communicate something to city council, he said, “I don’t know it’s necessary at all.”
Lowenstein countered by saying that she thought it did matter, because the board can only speak through its resolutions. The alternative, she said, was to speak in “whispers” from individual board members to individual city council members and staffers.
Without the reference to the “Mutually Beneficial” ad hoc committee, Greff characterized the resolution as “de-fanged” but said she’d still vote for it. She said that the city is trying to renege on a contract that the DDA had paid out all the money on.
The text of the resolved clauses in the final resolution was:
RESOLVED, The DDA asks that the City reconsider the plan to install many dozens of new parking meters as part of its 2009/10 and 2010/11 budget approvals;
RESOLVED, The DDA suggests that this would be an excellent topic of discussion for the Partnerships Committee.
RESOLVED, The DDA will add this matter to its midyear retreat agenda for discussion, and will make a recommendation about this at an upcoming DDA meeting.
Outcome: The resolution was unanimously passed.
Data Access and Communication
The issue of data and communication surfaced in two significant ways during the meeting and afterward. The board heard from Connie Pulcipher in the city planning department and Kevin Eyer in the city’s IT division about the range of new communication methods the city was deploying to engage citizens. As a first method, Pulcipher mentioned the city’s new citizen participation ordinance [effective Jan. 1, 2009], which requires developers proposing a new building project to engage neighbors at a very early stage in the process.
She also mentioned the city’s email notification system, which allows people to sign up for updates on particular topics, or on all topics for which information is available. On one of the planning department pages, for example, residents can sign up for email updates on new petitions, subscribe to an RSS feed with the same information, or view the new petitions plotted out on a map.
Eyer demonstrated how the mapping out of new permits and petitions was available to visitors to the webpage using GoogleMaps or Microsoft Live Maps. The two systems are integrated into the city’s project tracking software, so there’s no additional work required to make the project appear on the map plot, once it’s entered into the city’s project tracking system.
Thematically, the city’s sharing of petition data through mapping technology is linked to the subject of the DDA’s sharing of parking data with the public.
And during public commentary, the DDA board also heard from a local software developer, Trek Glowacki, on the importance of not blocking access to that data. First some background on why the DDA collects and shares parking data.
Additional Background on the Role of DDA Parking Data: Looking to the future, the DDA’s parking management plan is to adopt a “demand management” strategy – allocating supply and adjusting pricing to encourage efficient use of parking facilities. For example, with the new E-Park stations, which will replace individual parking meters, the pricing assigned to individual spots through the city can be programmed based on time of day and geographic location, and tweaked to adjust rapidly to motorist behavior. If a price is set higher in high-demand areas, but it turns out to be so high that nobody parks there, then a new, lower price can be assigned via the wireless technology in the E-Park stations.
Status on other demand management tools currently being deployed by the DDA were reported from the operations committee at Wednesday’s meeting by board member Roger Hewitt. They include a valet parking pilot program (which has been “less than wildly successful”), and an AVI payment card pilot program, which is to replace structure permits with a way to bill actual usage straight to motorists’ credit cards.
Key to all these demand management programs is usage data. Some of that data is directly observable in the form of the electronic signs on parking structures indicating the number of spaces available in that structure. In time-series aggregated form, that data provides a useful picture of how much and when particular structures are getting used.
But even as shown on the signs, the numbers can be more than a novelty – if there’s hundreds of spaces indicated, then motorists can fairly conclude that the three-car backup at the entrance driveway is likely due to a temporary blockage, not a full structure. Or if there’s a low number, motorists can prepare themselves psychologically for a long circular drive to near the top of the structure.
The DDA also sends that real-time data to its website. What if that data could be put in front of motorists who are not in view of a sign? Or if not in front of them, then in the ear of them? 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.
In an email communication to The Chronicle on May 7, 2009, the DDA’s deputy director, Joe Morehouse, said that access to the website by software protocols (like those used by the independent initiatives) had been blocked temporarily, then restored in mid-March. According to Morehouse, his understandng was there were never any specific users who were denied access – it was software protocols, not IP addresses that were targeted. [Chronology of DDA parking data denial]
At the DDA board’s April 1 board meeting, Tyler Erickson – a research scientist with Michigan Tech Research Institute who specializes in space-time data analysis – appeared at public commentary to comment on the blocking of the data. Erickson acknowledged that the technical issue of the blocking seemed resolved at that point, but discouraged the board from contemplating future blocking. He cited the community of interest in the data, which includes researchers, small-business people, and students working on projects, among others.
At the May 6 meeting’s public commentary time, the board heard from Trek Glowacki, a local software developer, on the subject of access to the data. [Editor's note: On a pro bono basis, Glowacki has provided code for The Chronicle's events listing page that enforces the correct chronological sorting of events. This assistance was rendered at an open office hour attended by Laura Fisher, who minds the Chronicle's code.]
Trek Glowacki: Glowacki introduced himself as a local software developer who doesn’t own a car, thus does not park. He walks into town, he said. Glowacki described himself as an information activist – someone concerned about the availability of information, in particular public information. Blocking access to the data, he said, is an affront to how the internet is set up, and alluded to continued denial of data by the DDA on a targeted basis.
Glowacki described the tech community of which he was a part as individuals and smaller companies who represented the “long tail.” This community wanted to attract other tech companies to come to town, he said, but when access to data is blocked, there’s negative publicity. Sometimes open access garners uses you don’t like, he concluded, but sometimes you get uses you never thought of. The remainder of the four minutes Glowacki allotted to questions – but board chair Hall explained that typically the board didn’t entertain discussion during that period.
However, in a brief interaction that ensued as Glowacki concluded his speaking turn, board member Rene Greff and executive director of the DDA Susan Pollay expressed their puzzlement about any continued blocking of the parking data. Pollay asked: “Can you clarify who is being excluded from access?”
Glowacki allowed he could. The details would have to wait until the end of the meeting.
Conversation after the DDA meeting: Glowacki waited until the end of the meeting, when Rene Greff and Susan Pollay, joined a little later by board member Keith Orr, approached the row of chairs against the back of the room where Glowacki was seated. Glowacki had waited there through the meeting with Bill Tozier and Brahm Windeler. The Chronicle was sitting next to Tozier. Pollay didn’t stay for the whole conversation, and Windeler didn’t engage much, as he was typing at his laptop, presumably taking notes on the conversation.
The conversation could fairly be described as a healthy back-and-forth. Or an energetic exchange. A spirited discussion, an inspired interaction. We won’t attempt to render a blow by blow account, but rather summarize in editorial fashion in a way that’s not meant to be comprehensive.
Mending Fences, An Editorial Aside: One thread woven into the conversation was the idea (advanced by Tozier) that there was a difference in cultures – a theme he’s written about in greater detail here, where the shorthand for the two cultures is “geeks and suits.” To underscore that difference, a few times during the conversation Tozier would occasionally deploy a two-handed gesture, which is hard to describe, but means roughly, “Here’s a fence, and you’re on that side, and other people are on the other side.”
Much of what was said on the DDA side of the conversational fence, though, could be interpreted as something like, “But we’re not so awfully different on this side of the fence than you are.” For example, Greff at one point said that on the board they were a bunch of liberals who were all about transparency and openness and access to data. The board had made a decision that the data would no longer be blocked and it was upsetting for her to hear that someone’s access might still be blocked.
For his part, though Orr didn’t say so explicitly on Wednesday, he handles the website for his bar and might have some claim to have at least a toe on the geek side of the fence, based on his background programming BASIC for Tec-Ed in the ’80s. Orr did say that when he saw something on a website, his natural inclination was: “I want to be able to grab it,” which could be interpreted as, “There’s a bit of the geek in me, just like you.”
And towards the beginning of the conversation, Pollay expressed the frustration that since the time the blocking was lifted, it did not appear this had been acknowledged. She said felt there was a responsibility for them – those on the geek side of the fence, as it were – to share that information accurately, too.
The individual Glowacki had identified for Pollay as having his access still blocked was Ed Vielmetti. We previously reported that Vielmetti had received a response to a FOIA request denying that specific request, but which indicated that data access had been restored.
In trying to independently answer the question of whether blocking of Vielmetti’s access persisted, during the conversation along the back of the wall, I called the automated telephone number Vielmetti had set up with Fred Posner, and confirmed that it was working (734.272.0909). I also emailed Vielmetti twice later that evening, but I could not discern in his replies a confirmation that he had access to the data.
Fred Posner, with whom Vielmetti had joined forces on one of the phone projects, said in a phone conversation with me that data access per se was no longer a technical problem – though Posner takes issue with the attitudes that led to the blocking in the first place. What’s still somewhat of a technical problem, said Posner, is that the accuracy of the data is a little dubious. Posner indicated that on occasion there were significant time gaps in updates to the data feed, which made it somewhat difficult to demonstrate that a software application would match the parking structure outdoor signage numbers. Is that even important for a demonstration? Opinions will vary, but I thought it was for this conversation I conducted with Fred in my venue of choice.
In response to a query from me, Tyler Erickson sent along some test results that he ran the morning of May 7, 2009 that show that the DDA server was no longer blocking requests from the Google App Engine. In the interim he’d gained access by feeding the server a user-agent string different from the Google App Engine.
The sore point of the missing acknowledgment by the geeks that data access had been restored is, I think, in some ways comparable to the missing acknowledgment on the DDA’s side of the positive contribution the various projects have made to the community. Glowacki compared it to an act of volunteerism like picking up trash and then having a police officer stop you. Tozier amplified the point by describing the currency of compensation on the geek side of the fence as coming partly through the development of a reputation – a reputation for making generous contributions to the community by developing cool, useful software tools. By cutting off the access to the data, Tozier said, the DDA had cut off access to that kind of compensation.
Another missing piece, as far as the geek side is concerned, is a statement on the DDA website – a policy articulating the DDA’s position on access to the data. And it’s that statement that Glowacki will now be working with the DDA to help craft for eventual posting on the website. He described it as a “license.” The DDA’s partnerships committee takes up the issue on Wednesday, May 13 at 9 a.m. at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301.
If the blocking of the data is like a broken fence, then it’s fair to say that this license, or information policy, or whatever it turns out to be, is an attempt to fix it. But what kind of fix is that really? I think it’s temporary and will need to be followed up with something more. For example, a broken metal DDA fence can be fixed temporarily with a ziptie, but needs to be followed up with a stronger weld.
In this case the stronger weld could take the shape of the small RFPs that Jennifer Hall described at the DDA board’s October 2008 annual retreat. Here’s how we reported that then:
Later in the meeting, Hall would articulate the idea that the DDA need not itself take on these smaller initiatives, but rather could identify a particular problem to be solved, solicit proposals, and fund whatever entity could solve that problem. To illustrate how this might work, she drew on her experience as a parent, saying that many parents bring their children to the Hands-On Museum, enjoy their time there, but then do not stay and do anything else downtown. The problem, she said, is that these parents don’t know where there’s a kid-friendly place to go eat, or where there’s a nice quiet place to spend time with their kids downtown. Solutions to that problem, she said, could be the kind thing DDA could fund – but not necessarily do itself.
The example Hall gave is an information problem. Otherwise put, it’s a data problem – the kind of thing geeks might have a geeky solution for that might result in people enjoying more than just the Hands-On Museum when they visit downtown Ann Arbor.
At Wednesday’s after-meeting conversation, Greff and Orr said that there hadn’t been follow-up on the idea yet. But they seemed receptive to that kind of thing.
Automated Trash Cans
Tom McMurtrie, solid waste coordinator with the city of Ann Arbor, introduced the board to a pilot program to install 25 trashcans in the downtown area that can be serviced with the same automatic arms that trash trucks already use for residential blue bins.
He began by ticking through the current level of service for the downtown, which includes emptying of litter containers 3-7 times a week, refuse collection 3 times a week, and recycling collection 3 times a week. All of the collection, said McMurtrie, is manual and labor-intensive. While recognizing that the DDA area is a special place, McMurtrie noted that this represented a higher level of service than for the rest of the community.
McMurtrie walked the board through the selection process for the exact model of automated trashcan, which included three bids. He’d called around to other communities that had installed such trashcans to get their feedback: Minneapolis, Louisville, San Diego, Detroit, and Akron. The cans got generally favorable reviews. Akron, for example, is ordering 200 more. In Minneapolis, they don’t use them in student areas, because they can be tipped over. Apparently it’s the tipping per se that’s at issue – the tops are configured to prevent trash from spilling out. The lids can only be opened by turning the container upside down, as when the automatic arm grabs a can, lifts, then dumps the contents into a truck.
The cans come in a variety of colors. McMurtrie brought along sample color chips.
Board discussion came at the end of the meeting, which meant that McMurtrie stayed through a variety of other presentations, committee reports and resolutions, in order to be available for questions. The board’s discussion was thorough. The Chronicle can attest that a few minutes into the board’s conversation on trashcans, audience member Bill Tozier speculated that the color chips would be requested for inspection, and within seconds of his remark, board member Joan Lowenstein asked to see the chips, which were then passed around.
Board chair Jennifer Hall had a mild criticism of the green color sample, saying that it felt more like a suburban park than a downtown aesthetic. McMurtrie responded by saying they’d identified a dark grey granite color as a likely choice. Partly at issue was the texture – nubby or not? Answer: they did not seem to be perfectly smooth.
The material was of concern to board member Roger Hewitt on account of poster/flier removal techniques, which typically entail slicing through them with utility knife. Over time, Hewitt said, the plastic surface would get gouged up. He also cautioned that they shouldn’t be deployed in student areas, because they’d be easy targets for tipping. Board member John Splitt joked that they looked a little bit too much like tackling dummies. McMurtrie said that even the stone-base cans would occasionally get tipped over – people like a challenge. He said the current trash cans were the solution a previous solid waste coordinator had come up with. Board member Leah Gunn indicated that student areas were exactly where the trash cans were needed.
The locations for the pilot program of 25 cans were chosen partly based on the condition of the current receptacles there. Those receptacles were mostly in need of replacement anyway, because many of their lids were missing. That means a real challenge for manual emptying in winter months, when snow accumulates in the lid-less containers and then freezes.
Locations were also chosen partly based on the accessability to the cans by a trash truck’s automatic arm, which needs overhead clearance in addition to horizontal access.
Lowenstein inquired about the possibility of something like the Big Belly Solar Compacter, which the University of Michgan has installed at North University and South State. McMurtrie allowed that it was an interesting solution, but that they cost around $3,500 per unit as compared with $300 for the cans they were considering.
Pollay suggested that sign tags with requests for feedback on the cans be affixed in a way that’s similar to the tags on the downtown LED street lights.
Board member Russ Collins asked a procedural question: “Why are you asking us about this? Are you going to be asking for funds?” McMurtrie said that he was introducing the cans to the DDA board just to make sure they were okay with them. Collins responded by saying, “That’s really darn nice! I mean that. I don’t think you have to do this.” Collins weighed in for installation of some of the cans in front of the Michigan Theater.
Present: Gary Boren, Rene Greff, Jennifer Hall, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, Joan Lowenstein, John Mouat, Keith Orr, John Splitt, Sandi Smith, Leah Gunn, Russ Collins
Next board meeting: Noon on Wednesday, June 3 at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [confirm date]
Retreat: Friday, May 22 Wednesday, May 20 on the Michigan Theater stage from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. [confirm date]