City Place Vote Postponed

Ann Arbor council considers transportation, environmental topics
Jayne Miller, Scott Munzel, Stephen Postema

In the background before the council meeting started, Jayne Miller (city of Ann Arbor community services director), Scott Munzel (attorney for the developer of City Place), and Stephen Postema, city attorney.

Ann Arbor City Council Meeting (June 1, 2009): In a move that contradicted expectations based on the previous evening’s council caucus, at which Mayor John Hieftje had indicated that the council would be voting on the City Place site plan, the item was postponed.

The remaining content of the meeting could be roughly divided into two major themes: (i) transportation – from a new transportation safety campaign, to walkable sidewalks, to street closings, to parking meters, and (ii) environment – from an update on the dioxane plume, to imminent demolition of the former Michigan Inn, to another postponement on the proposed plastic bag ordinance.

Receiving no discussion from councilmembers were two items added to the agenda on the same day as the meeting, involving a redirection of some $17 million from VEBA pre-funding into the retirement pension system.

Introductions to council included numerous awards made by the historic district commission as well as the public art commission. Chronicle coverage of the public art commission’s Golden Paintbrush awards will come in a separate article.

City Place

Hieftje announced at the beginning of the council meeting that in all likelihood the vote on the City Place site plan, which had been expected to be taken, would be postponed. He explained that the public hearing on the matter would likely be left open and continued at the next council meeting. That meant, said Hieftje, that anyone who spoke at that night’s public hearing would not be able to speak again at the next council meeting when the hearing was continued.

At the previous evening’s caucus meeting, Hieftje had indicated that there was no information suggesting that the council would not vote on the City Place site plan. At the start of Monday’s council meeting, Hieftje reported that the likely postponement had come to light only 45 minutes before the meeting started.

City Place Public Hearing

Libby Hunter: Hunter appeared at the podium and stated that she was there to sing a song, which she then delivered. It was an adaptation of “Whatever Lola Wants,” a tune from “Damn Yankees,” which included the line “Whatever developers want, developers get.” [Here's a YouTube posting of that performance by user gwhitthomp.]

Mike Campbell: Campbell presented a possible alternative to the City Place proposal that provided for 50 dwelling units with 144 bedrooms – the site plan under consideration includes 144 bedrooms, but only 24 units. The proposal would save the nicest four of the seven houses that are slated for demolition, Campbell said. He allowed that the proposal would require a zoning variance but said that the zoning variance could be granted in exchange for saving the houses.

Karen Sidney: Sidney said that she agreed with the opinion of the Germantown Neighborhood Association that the proposed project does not meet the zoning rules. Sidney adduced the example of Glen Ann Place, which had been approved as a nine-story building and resulted in the demolition of two houses on which now stands still an empty lot. She contended that two of the properties that are proposed to be demolished on Fifth Avenue have had taxes remanded to the county for collection. [On the city's property portal, The Chronicle verified that the property at 437 S. Fifth Ave. –  which is on the site of the proposed City Place, but is not currently owned by developer Alex de Parry – had not had its most recent taxes paid to the city of Ann Arbor and could now be settled only with the county.] Sidney concluded by saying “Your job is to protect the city, not to bail out developers.”

Thomas Partridge: Partridge made the point that equal attention should be given to very affordable housing and that not every lot can be assigned historic status.

Glenn Thompson: Thompson focused on the definition of building height in the building code as contrasted with the city’s ordinances. While the exact words are different, they should be interpreted in such a way so that they both gave the same result, he said. On such an interpretation, Thompson explained, the proposed design of the City Place project would not meet code. The problem, he said, stemmed from basing the height definition interpretation on architectural trim, not on structural elements.

Susan Wineberg: Wineberg recounted how the developer of the City Place project, Alex de Parry, served with her years ago on a project to give historic designation to individual properties, which included some of the houses along Fifth Avenue that he was now proposing to demolish. She noted that one of the homes at 403 S. Fifth Ave. had been honored with a historic preservation award in 1990. She described how her emotion had changed from disbelief to shock then to anger when she had heard about de Parry’s plan to demolish the seven houses. She asked the council to reject the proposed plan based on issues of sustainability, or preservation, and aesthetic considerations.

Lars Bjorn: Bjorn said he was disappointed that the percentage of owner-occupied houses in his neighborhood had not increased. He also said he wished for somewhat more support from the city for neighborhoods to encourage owner-occupied living. He said he sympathized with Germantown Neighborhood Association and the way that it had organized itself. He was opposed to the approval of the City Place site plan.

City Place Council Deliberations

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) moved to postpone the vote on the site plan until June 15, 2009. The motion included a provision to extend by 30 days the deadline by which city council must act on the site plan after approval by planning commission.

The reason for the postponement, said Higgins, was that the information published online in connection with city council’s meeting packet did not reflect the updated plans that the planning commission had approved.

As noted in The Chronicle’s report on the council’s Sunday night caucus meeting, attorney Susan Morrison had written previously on behalf of resident Tom Whitaker asking that the City Place vote be put off until it could be re-voted by planning commission. That request was a based on the lack of timely availability of the physical documents in the lobby of city hall. The more recent request for postponement of council action was based on the inconsistency of reference in the documents posted online as a part of council’s packet. [Here's the text of the more recent letter from Morrison, pointing out to council the problems with the online information: letter concerning City Place online information.]

Outcome: City Place site plan consideration was postponed until June 15, 2009.

VEBA, Pension Fund, Retiree Health Care Benefits Plan

Council considered two resolutions that were added to the agenda on Monday, June 1 – the same day as the council meeting. Council did not deliberate on either resolution. The memo describing the first ordinance change alludes to transfers made from the city’s pension system to the voluntary employees’ beneficiary association (VEBA) trust from 2003 to 2006, which totaled $21.6 million. The ordinance enacts a plan to direct future VEBA contributions to the pension fund to correct those original transfers. From the memo itself:

Attached for your review and approval is an amendment of Chapter 18, which is the Employees Retirement System (Pension) ordinance. The recommended ordinance changes revise the pension & VEBA plans to establish appropriate language for transfers to meet current IRS regulations and consistency between the provisions of both Code Chapters. To meet IRS regulations, the City needs to address an issue with respect to certain transfer of excess earnings from the Pension system to the VEBA trust.

These transfers occurred in the years 2003 through 2006 and totaled $21.6 mil. The IRS has approved a plan to correct the transfers over a five year period, which includes credit for previous contributions, interest, or those contributions and re-directing approximately $17 million of future VEBA contributions to the pension system.

The effect of these corrections will be to increase pension funding and restrain VEBA pre-funding for the five years. In short, the funds are just being re-allocated within the two systems.

A second ordinance added to the agenda on the day of the meeting involved specifying the appropriations necesssary to maintain the VEBA trust. In light of the first ordinance, which redirects money that would have otherwise gone into the VEBA trust, this second ordinance could be reasonably seen as intended to address the question: If we’re directing funds away from the VEBA, are we sure there’ll be enough in the VEBA trust? From the memo:

Attached for your review and approval is an amendment of Chapter 21, which is the Retiree Health Care Benefits Plan and Trust (VEBA) ordinance. The Ordinance currently provides that the City shall appropriate an amount sufficient to maintain the Trust. The City Attorney’s Office recommends that the ordinance be amended to more specifically detail the level of the appropriation necessary. This amendment conforms with Internal Revenue Service requirements related to the funding of the Trust.

Outcome: Both ordinance chances were approved unanimously.

Transportation: Walking, Parking, Flying and Street Closings


Transportation Safety Campaign: “Watch where you point that thing!”

During the introductions section, Eli Cooper, transportation program manager with the city of Ann Arbor, gave a presentation announcing the launch of a transportation safety campaign. It’s based on the premise that whether we walk, bicycle, ride the bus, or drive, we are all human beings who are entitled to a safe and attractive journey. Cooper gave an overview of the various kinds of conflicts that can arise between people who choose different modes of transportation for their journey. One of Cooper’s slides included this quote referring to motorized vehicles: “Watch where you point that thing!”

Cooper explained that the transportation safety campaign would include a collaboration of various entities, including the getDowntown program, the Ann Arbor public schools, the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, and others. Hieftje elicited from Cooper an update on the number of miles of bicycle lanes that are marked on Ann Arbor’s streets. Cooper reported that currently there are 24.7 miles of bicycle lanes and that with the economic stimulus dollars that had been received, the city expected to be able to increase that to 35 miles. Cooper said the city was targeting 50 miles of bicycle lanes as a goal.

Hieftje asked Cooper how the message about safe transportation would be transmitted to drivers, given that half of the drivers on Ann Arbor’s roads don’t live in the city. Cooper described how the effort would include web-based initiatives as well as public service announcements in the media throughout the Detroit metropolitan area. [Of possible interest to readers curious about how motorist-bicyclist interactions can be documented is this YouTube video.]

Parking Meters

[Responding to comments on a program to install parking meter in residential neighborhoods near downtown as a part of the FY 2010 budget, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) reported during her communications from council that she, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) had been looking at the issue of parking meter installation and considering various alternatives to revenue generation. She gave assurance that the topic was on their radar.]

Ray Detter: During public commentary reserved time, Detter spoke to two points: (i) he said there should be no parking meters installed in residential neighborhood areas near downtown but outside the Downtown Development Authority boundary, and (ii) he called for an accelerated residential neighborhood parking permit program in those same neighborhoods. Detter said that he recalled when the parking system was in disarray because its capital reserves were being drained to fund other aspects of the city budget. He described how the Downtown Development Authority had stepped forward and taken responsibility for the parking system and had restored it to good health. He expressed his hope that the DDA would step in again and “save us from another disaster.”

Bob Snyder: Snyder began by saying, “I know you’re getting tired of seeing the same old faces – we are getting tired, too.” Snyder criticized the Monday, May 18, 2009 decision, made in conjunction with the adoption of the FY 2010 budget, to install curbside parking meters outside the DDA boundary. Snyder noted that the sole stated purpose for installation of the meters was to raise revenues. Snyder also lamented the fact that there is no map yet of exactly where the meters are proposed to be installed.

Christine Crockett: Crockett was also there to speak to the issue of parking meter installation. Crockett criticized the construal of rental neighborhoods as commercial areas. She reminded the council that renters are also residents. She described feeling as though the neighborhoods were in a constant state of siege by the city instead of getting the necessary support from the city to enjoy living in their neighborhood. Crockett said that walking down East Kingsley Street there were at least a half dozen sidewalk slams that had been reduced to rubble. She asked that the near downtown neighborhoods be afforded the same respect that other neighborhoods were given.


Peter Warburton: Picking up on the theme of sidewalk repair, during public commentary reserved time Warburton noted that the maintenance and repair of sidewalks is the responsibility of the property owner in front of which the sidewalks are located. He acknowledged that such maintenance and repair needed to be organized in an efficient way. He added that he had no problem with the manner in which it was currently organized. But he noted the council was dealing with an all-time low in budget revenue due to reductions in property tax revenues and state shared revenue. The sidewalk repair program, he noted, goes on as if residents did not also have budget problems. He noted that a sidewalk slab with three hairline cracks met the threshold for required repair, but questioned whether it really represented a safety issue. He warned that when the next tax bills came around there were a lot of people who are going to have hard time being able to scrape together the money to pay their tax bill. He suggested that sidewalk sections that did not represent an immediate safety issue be excluded from required repair. “Our budgets are as constrained as yours,” he said.

John Floyd: Floyd also drew attention to walkability issues. He began by saying that he was so inspired by the various historic preservation awards that had been presented earlier in the evening that he felt compelled to truncate his remarks. He noted that the historic preservation awards had been given predominantly to efforts that had been made in areas that typified progressive, walkable, urban living – in the city’s historic neighborhoods. He suggested the same consideration be extended to the Germantown area so that it, too, could benefit from the same kind of preservation efforts and contribute even more to making the city more livable.

[In his communications from council, Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) reported that the work of exploring the possibility of a historic district for Germantown was ongoing. It's on the agenda for staff to handle later this year, he said.]


At the last few council meetings there has been public comment on the proposed runway expansion to the Ann Arbor municipal airport.  The proposal is currently undergoing an environmental assessment.

Michael Yi: Yi is a trustee for Pittsfield Township. He acknowledged that city council members had already gotten an earful from residents who live near the Ann Arbor municipal airport. He said that his mission that night was essentially to deliver a letter from Andrew Gill in response to a request from council to provide more detail about the concerns that had been raised during a public speaking turn on May 4. He said that he hoped for an open, honest discussion on the matter of the proposed airport expansion. He said, “We feel we have the facts behind us.”

[Here's a text file of the  letter that Yi conveyed: Airport letter. Among the letter's signatories is county commissioner Leah Gunn.]

Traffic Calming

Two traffic calming (speed bump) projects were approved, one on Gladstone and the other on Jewett Avenue. Sandi Smith (Ward 1) noted that as a part of the adopted FY 2010 budget, which council had approved at its meeting two weeks prior, only two such projects would be approved each year. Smith asked if council was, in effect, choosing these two projects from among others. It turns out to be the case that these two projects are in fact the two that will be funded in FY 2010. But indications from city staff were that the somewhat lengthy 10-step process meant the council was not in effect choosing projects on Gladstone and Jewett over other projects.

Street Closings and Carnival Approvals

In connection with a proposed street closing for the Rolling Sculpture Car Show (on July 10, 2009), Leigh Greden (Ward 3) said he had heard repeatedly from residents about the idea that Main Street should be closed more often during the summer. Hieftje echoed that sentiment and suggested some kind of “Green Zone” in Ann Arbor consisting of a section of Main Street closed for some regular period of time.

Hieftje noted that one complaint about the car show was the way that some of the owners revved the engines, causing a lot of extra noise. Sandi Smith (Ward 1) suggested that perhaps one section of the show could be designated as a “loud block,” noting that the revving of engines was part and parcel of the experience for some of the owners.

Not requiring a street closing – because it takes place on the Pioneer High School parking lot – but still needing council approval was the Ann Arbor Jaycees summer carnival. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) noted that in the past there had been some serious incidents requiring police action and wanted an assurance from community services director for the city, Jayne Miller, that residents could be kept safe. Miller noted that it was two years ago when there had been a number of issues. In connection with approval of the event last year, a requirement for added police protection and reduced hours had been included – but last year the event didn’t happen. [So this year is the first year the event will take place after the incidents to which Higgins referred.] Miller said that the same more stringent requirements would apply this year.



Plastic Bags

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) asked for another postponement to an ordinance that would ban plastic shopping bags. He asked Tom McMurtrie, the city’s solid waster coordinator, to come to the podium to explain where the project stood. McMurtrie said that city staff was compiling information that had come from focus groups conducted with representatives of the business community. He said that there’d been an online survey conducted for one month for both businesses and residents.

The result of the focus groups and survey, McMurtrie said, was that staff was getting a variety of good ideas about alternatives. Asked by Rapundalo if there would be staff recommendations made, McMurtrie said that they would try to narrow it down to those alternatives that seem to enjoy the most support. Noting that the measure had already been postponed a couple of times, Rapundalo asked his colleagues for a postponement until the second week in September.

Outcome: The measure was postponed again.

Michigan Inn Asbestos

Stephen Postema, Ann Arbor’s city attorney, announced that the final asbestos abatement had been completed at the former site of the Michigan Inn on Jackson Avenue and that it was ready for demolition, which was expected to take place as early as this week.

Argo Dam

In communications from the administration, Jayne Miller, the city’s community services director, announced that on June 15, the council’s regular meeting would be preceded by a work session on the Argo Dam question. The work session is scheduled to last from 6-7 p.m. Leigh Greden (Ward 3) noted that their questions could take the council well past 7 p.m. Miller said that such questions could also be addressed in the time period between June 15 and the public hearing on the matter, which is scheduled for July 6.

Dioxane Plume

In his communications to council, Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) reported that Pall Life Sciences had  proposed a change in their remediation plan for their dioxane 1,4 contamination. He noted that council member Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) had also been keeping abreast of the issue. [Rapundalo, as well as Mike Anglin (Ward 5), attended a recent public comment event held by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality at Haisley Elementary School.]

Hohnke described the change in a remediation plan as involving an expansion of the zone where a higher level of dioxane is permitted. Pall Life Sciences contends that a greater mass of dioxane can be extracted under the revised plan, but as Hohnke noted, this contention has not been verified. Hohnke went on to say that the Jackson office of the DEQ does not support the change in the remediation plan.

In his communications, Anglin noted that the period for public commentary was open until June 7, 2009. [Comments can be sent to Ms. Sybil Kolon, DEQ, Remediation and Redevelopment Division 301 E. Louis Glick Hwy., Jackson, MI 49201. E-mail: kolons[at]michigan[dot]gov. Phone: 517-780-7937. More detailed information is here.]

Water & Sewer Rate Increase

Related thematically to the Argo Dam issue and the dioxane plume – they’re all connected to water – was an item on the agenda for final approval of water and sewer rate increases.

Part of the non-general fund implications of the budget that the city council adopted at its last meeting were increases in the revenue requirements for utility funds. As a part of that budget, there was a safety service fee of 4% applied to utility funds (for police protection of water plant infrastructure).

The rate increases approved on Monday night were tied to capital improvement requirements, which Sue McCormick, director of public services for the city, described from the podium.

Water and sewage rates are based on a unit of 100 cubic feet of water, which is roughly 748 gallons. Water usage is measured at the meter. Sewer usage is calculated on the same volume as water usage, based on the assumption that the water used goes down the drain. The basic residential water rate is currently $1.10 per 100 cubic feet and will be raised to $1.14. The basic sewer rate is currently $3.01 and will climb to $3.10.

In her remarks, McCormick mentioned that the average quarterly bill was for 21 units. The city offers online tracking of water usage under the My Property tab. After keying in a street address and an account number, the screen that comes up looks like this:

city of ann arbor water meter online lookup

Result from city of Ann Arbor water meter online lookup.

Although a daily breakdown is available, it’s not given in gallons, but rather in 100 cubic feet units, which means that for the majority of days for a light user of water, the usage indicated is 0.

Development (Land and Economy)

In her communications from council, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) gave an update on the activities of the area, height and placement committee, which she reported had met twice. The initial community-wide meeting about the initiative to consider zoning regulations outside the downtown had been held on Wednesday, May 22, she said. It had taken place at the studios of the Community Television Network, had been taped, and would be replayed.

Higgins  alerted her colleagues to the fact that at their next meeting she would be bringing a resolution to extend the time frame of the project to October. It had originally been scheduled to finish up in September. Higgins also gave the schedule for the individual ward meetings, which is as follows [from the city of Ann Arbor planning department page]:

  • Ward 1 Meeting: Thursday, June 4 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Traverwood Branch Library Program Room, 3333 Traverwood Dr.
  • Ward 2 Meeting: Wednesday, June 17 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Traverwood Branch Library Program Room, 3333 Traverwood Dr.
  • Ward 3 Meeting: Wednesday, July 1 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm, 2781 Packard Rd.
  • Ward 4 Meeting: Thursday, July 23 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm, 2781 Packard Rd.
  • Ward 5 Meeting: Thursday, July 30 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Forsythe Middle School Media Center, 1655 Newport Rd.

In her communications, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) advised her colleagues to the fact that she planned to bring a resolution at council’s next meeting for a request for qualifications for development of the parcel on the library lot.

In his communications, Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) noted that he had recently been appointed to the Ann Arbor SPARK executive committee and was excited about hearing any ideas people had for how the city could move the knowledge-based economy forward.

Multi-Function Digital Machines: Purchase versus Lease

From the consent agenda, council member Sandi Smith (Ward 1) extracted an item on the purchase of two digital copy machines. She quizzed Dan Rainey, head of information technology for the city, on the merits of purchasing versus leasing. She said that based on her own experience in operating a small business, leasing made more economic sense.

Rainey explained that the typical lease for such devices ran for 36 months, upon termination of which the device would be returned for residual value. The purchase option, Rainey said, meant that there was more flexibility about when to upgrade, and typically they could get five years of useful life out of a such a device. Smith countered by suggesting that a shorter time between upgrades meant that it is easier to stay current with the prevailing technology without any of the upfront capital cost. Rainey said that replacement was budgeted and that the total cost when weighed over the life of machines was less on the purchase option.

Outcome: Purchase of two Canon digital multi-function devices was approved (not to exceed $35,000).

Historic District Commission Awards and Report

Jill Thacher, a planner with the city of Ann Arbor specializing in historic conservation, gave a quick summary of the historic district commission annual report. In 2008, she said, there had been 212 applications, of which 202 had been approved either at the staff level (administratively) or by the full commission. Year-to-date in 2009 from January through June 1 there have been 77 applications, she said. That matched exactly the number of applications for the same period in 2008. [Here's a .pdf file with a complete listing of historic district awards.]

For the Record

In a first-time event in The Chronicle’s institutional memory, a change was requested in the minutes of the previous meeting before their approval. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) noted that in the minutes for the May 18 meeting, one of the budget amendments had been duplicated and the second iteration of the item should have reflected the elimination of the historic district commission consultant and the re-allocation of the money to the Leslie Science and Nature Center.

[Note: City council meeting minutes are "action minutes" and thus do not reflect the content of deliberations. This contrasts with the detailed minutes kept by the planning commission, for example, for which there are commonly minor corrections or clarifications offered before a previous meeting's minutes are approved.]

Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Marcia Higgins, Carsten Hohnke, John Hieftje.

Absent: Margie Teall.

Next Council Meeting: Monday, June 15, 2009 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]

Work Session: Immediately preceding the June 15, 2009 council meeting, starting at 6 p.m., a work session on the topic of the Argo Dam will take place. [confirm date]


  1. By Karen Sidney
    June 3, 2009 at 11:19 am | permalink

    The problem with the VEBA and pension plan was disclosed in footnote 16 on subsequent events in the 6/30/08 audit. The city was funding the VEBA (retiree healthcare) by using assets in the pension plan. The IRS said the city took more out of the pension plan than allowed by the Internal Revenue Code. The city and the IRS then worked out an agreement under the IRS voluntary compliance program. The ordinance changes are just implementing that agreement.

    What is troubling is that the city says it cannot afford to repay the pension fund and make the required payment to the VEBA. That means that the debt for retirement benefits, which is the ultimate responsibility of Ann Arbor taxpayers, will continue to grow.

  2. June 5, 2009 at 11:45 am | permalink

    What are the total liabilities of the VEBA account now? $200M. Seems like the money is flowing the wrong direction! Some day they will have to start paying out and when there is not any money there they will turn to the taxpayers to bail the City out.

  3. By Karen Sidney
    June 5, 2009 at 12:05 pm | permalink

    The net VEBA liability (total liability less actual value of assets) was $162 million at 6/30/08. Projected net liability at 6/30/09 is $183 million.

  4. June 5, 2009 at 12:32 pm | permalink

    It probably will not change much as the investment returns from the period 6/30/08 to 6/30/09 will be essentially zero.

  5. By Karen Sidney
    June 5, 2009 at 5:16 pm | permalink

    The numbers I provided are from actuarial projections prepared for the city. The projections assume a negative 25% return on investments from 6/30/08 to 6/30/09. The net VEBA liability is projected to increase $21 million during fiscal year 2009. $9 million is from higher cost of providing future benefits and $12 million is from decline in investments.

    The net liability for the pension goes from $20 million on 6/30/08 to $151 million on 6/30/09. That’s a $131 million increase, with $14 million from higher cost of providing future benefits and $117 due to the decline in investments. The decline in investments hit the pension harder because it had $410 in investments at 6/30/08 compared to $64 million for the VEBA.