Ann Arbor City Council Meeting (July 20, 2009): Postponements of decisions on A2D2 zoning, the City Place “matter of right” site plan, and a proposed moratorium on development in R4C and R2A zoning districts meant that the most controversial items on council’s agenda were delayed.
Even an apparently mundane proposal from Leigh Greden (Ward 3) to allow for an additional exception to parking on front lawns was not acted on by council. In that case, they referred it to the planning commission.
However, the council did accomplish a substitution of taxable Build America Bonds for the tax-free general obligation bonds already authorized for the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure, plus a site plan approval for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s park-and-ride lot at Plymouth Road and US-23.
And finally, Mayor John Hieftje gave an interpretation of council public hearing speaking rules that precludes audience members from joining in a group chorus when a speaker at the podium is singing: To the strains of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah, Density is coming to ya,” Hieftje warned he might “clear the room.”
The meeting was also notable for the closed session conducted in the course of the meeting to discuss attorney-client privileged information – it lasted over an hour, but provided a chance for attendees to mingle.
We begin this report in a somewhat unconventional spot: the Communications from Council. They were noteworthy, because the first communication – from Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) – put that section of the meeting to one of its potentially more important uses: notification of council and the public of upcoming openings on boards and commissions.
Communications from Council
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) alerted his colleagues and the public to the fact that there were two slots that were expiring on the Greenbelt Advisory Commission (GAC). One of the open GAC positions is specified to be the representative of an environmental group, while the other is to be filled with a plant biologist or animal biologist. He encouraged those with an interest to step forward and apply.
He also alerted the public that the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) was in the process of revising its bylaws, which would lead to an expansion of that body to include a wider range of transportation users. There would, therefore, potentially be additional seats on WATS.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) reminded the residents of Ward 4 that their Area Height and Placement community meeting would take place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 23 at Cobblestone Farm.
Higgins also addressed a concern about scheduling a status report on the Stadium bridge replacement. She wanted to explore the possibility that a status report could be combined with an early August meeting about the concept and design process. City administrator Roger Fraser had expressed his preference to combine that update on the bridge’s status with the design work at the council’s Aug. 17 meeting.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) alerted the public to a meeting on Wednesday, July 22 from 6-7 p.m. at Slauson Middle School on the subject of a pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of Seventh & Washington streets. He thanked his Ward 5 colleague Carsten Hohnke for bringing it forward. He said there would be a series of ordinance changes undertaken to help alter the perception that in Ann Arbor, cars ruled. When a pedestrian is in the crosswalk, Anglin said, cars should stop.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) alerted his colleagues to two different infrastructure projects, one that had just been completed and the other which was just beginning. He commended city staff for the completion of the Nixon/Huron roundabout. He noted that many initial naysayers were now champions of the design. Rapundalo reported that the East Washtenaw/Huron Parkway project had begun that night and would continue for a number of months.
A2D2 Rezoning Package
A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) is a multi-year process to improve zoning, urban design, transportation and development in the downtown area. Several people spoke during public commentary reserved time at the start of the meeting, addressing the A2D2 item on the agenda.
John Etter: Etter said that he was there once again about the reconsideration of the proposed zoning of East Huron Street from D1 to D2. Etter supports the zoning of the area as D2 (a buffer zone between commercial and residential neighborhoods), not D1 as currently specified. He cited a letter written from the Michigan Department of Transportation opposed to the rezoning of the area as D1. In response to criticism that the author of the letter lacked experience, Etter cited the author’s 18 years of experience in the Michigan Department of Transportation as head of the Kalamazoo County office, plus five years of experience with the Indiana Department of Transportation. How can anyone defend your argument as reasonable, he asked?
Lazar Greenfield: Greenfield commended the council for their decision to review the downtown zoning. He noted that the Calthorpe study recommended enhancing pedestrian scale, whereas a D1 designation for East Huron violated that recommendation. He noted that the University of Michigan North Quad construction, together with the Children’s Hospital expansion, had not been factored into the D1 rezoning. He said that he supported further development, but only that which did not threaten Ann Arbor’s quality of life.
Hugh Sonk: Sonk introduced himself as the president of the Sloan Plaza Condominium Association. He cited various specific points of the 2005 Calthorpe study that he said argued against a D1 zoning for East Huron Street. Among them was on page 13, where it is noted that the non-pedestrian scale of Huron Street is described as a “negative.” Page 20, he said, recommends buildings that are somewhere between three and 10 stories tall for East Huron Street. A D1 zoning, he pointed out, would allow buildings much taller than that. He then went on to suggest the formation of a political action committee based on the 465,000 alumni from the University of Michigan that would be dedicated to the protection of quality of life in Ann Arbor. That suggestion drew applause from the audience.
Work on the A2D2 zoning package, which includes a comprehensive rezoning of downtown Ann Arbor, can be traced back at least to 2005. In council’s deliberations on Monday, it was Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), the council’s representative to the A2D2 oversight committee, who suggested the postponement. The rationale was based on the fact that work on design guidelines would commence in earnest at a Sept. 14 work session and that it was essentially an opportunity to bring the two processes – zoning and design guidelines – into closer chronological alignment. In addition, it will give councilmembers more time to consider adjustments to building height and mass specifications suggested by the DDA board.
Outcome: A2D2 was postponed to the council’s Sept. 8 meeting.
Moratorium on Development in R4C/R2A Zoning Districts
Several people spoke during public comment about a proposed moratorium on building in districts zoned for multi-family residential dwellings (R4C) and two-family dwellings (R2A).
Mozhagn Savabieasfahani: She noted that she had been coming to city council meetings for many years asking for a boycott of Israel. She suggested that if Ann Arbor wanted to decide for itself how our city looks, that we could take a lesson from the democratic movement in Iran by simply stating, “This is how we want our city to look!” Referring to the City Place project on that night’s agenda, she described the removal of seven homes as “despicable.” It’s shameful, she said, to demolish part of our history. She encouraged the council to place a moratorium – also an item on the council’s agenda – on demolition. She then transitioned to talk about what she described as another demolition site – Palestine. She reflected on 25 years of Ann Arbor activism against the continued financing of Israel by the United States. She described Israel as the second biggest warmonger in the Middle East, behind United States. She warned that Israel was now planning to bomb her own country, Iran.
Vivienne Armentrout: Armentrout began by noting that the previous speaker, Hugh Sonk, who had suggested a political action committee based on University of Michigan alumni, would be “a hard act to follow.” Armentrout stated that she was there that evening to support a moratorium on development in R4C and R2A districts. She said that to her, it represented a rational planning process: to ensure that a zoning category fits the master plan. With regard to that fit, she said everyone acknowledges that there are currently deficiencies. She described the 180 days of the proposed moratorium as a relatively short period. The tension between the Central Area Plan on the one hand and “matter of right” development on the other could be solved, she continued, by leaving the R4C/R2A study committee to do its work. She noted that the proposed moratorium had a built-in appeals process, and that the city council could repeal it at any time. Although the moratorium had come up in connection with the City Place project, Armentrout pointed out that the council was now contemplating a postponement of City Place that evening, so there was no longer a connection to a particular project. She concluded by encouraging the council to see the moratorium has an example of good government and good planning, not as anti-development.
Hatim Elhady: Elhady began by thanking Vivienne Armentrout for the sentiments she had expressed, and commended councilmember Anglin for bringing forward the notion of a moratorium. “Let’s try not to emulate Southfield,” he joked. He described a moratorium simply as taking “a breather.” He stated that he was not anti-development except when it endangers Ann Arbor’s quality of life. [Elhady is running as an independent for the Ward 4 council seat currently occupied by Marcia Higgins.]
Maureen Sloan: Sloan spoke on behalf of the Homebuilders Association of Washtenaw County. She asked that the proposed moratorium be tabled, citing questions about its legality because it did not address issues of health, safety, or welfare. She then ticked through various service problems with the city’s building department connected to issuance of permits and inspections. It had a negative impact on contractors and homeowners alike, she said. Among complaints that she cited were (i) delayed inspections, (ii) lack of consistency among inspectors, (iii) new items cited on re-inspection, (iv) a lack of mutual respect and (v) poor communication about scheduling appointments.
Beverly Strassmann: Strassmann spoke in favor of the proposed moratorium on R4C zoning, saying that it protected against unplanned development – sprawl. She warned the council that a vote against the moratorium was a vote for sprawl. She noted that while other communities were trying to engineer a sense of charm and history, Ann Arbor already has a sense of charm and history. As an argument for the moratorium, she cited the fact that currently there are no R4C projects before the city. If councilmembers did not support the moratorium, she told them that they would be “declaring war against your own constituents.”
Claudius Vincenz: Vincenz has spoken frequently in public hearings on the City Place project and thus introduced himself by saying “I’m afraid you know me by now!” He stated that his neighborhood was under assault. Because of the tension between the Central Area Plan and the definitions of R4C zoning, he said, it’s time to call a timeout – by applying a moratorium. Among the specific problems that he pointed out with the R4C zoning district was the number of bedrooms allowed – six. The city code did not define exactly what a six-bedroom apartment actually is. The result, he said, could be an apartment complex where 200 people had only 36 parking spots.
The basic idea of declaring a moratorium on development in R4C/R2A is to hedge the possibility that there would be a rush to push projects forward in advance of any changes to zoning definitions and districts that might come from the work of a recently created study committee to look at the R4C/R2A districts citywide.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5), who brought the initiative forward, led off deliberations by addressing, in part, one of the objections raised during public comment by Maureen Sloan, who suggested that public safety and welfare was not at issue. He contended that psychological welfare of the public was at issue. About the council’s fear of a lawsuit in connection with a moratorium, Anglin contended that if the fear of a lawsuit was council’s primary guidance, they would never get any change.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) suggested that the idea of a moratorium warranted very serious consideration. He noted that previously the city had never granted such a moratorium. And in connection with the discussion about the legality of a moratorium, he noted that the historical examples that had been cited were fraught with litigation. He described a moratorium as a “the nuclear option.” Said Derezinski, “You don’t drop the bomb without serious consideration.” He thus proposed a postponement until the council’s Aug. 17 meeting.
Mayor John Hieftje and councilmember Sabra Briere convinced Derezinski to move the postponement to the Aug. 6 meeting, saying that at that time they could extend the postponement to Aug. 17 if necessary.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) suggested that until the council took up the matter again, that they contemplate whether there were other zoning districts that needed to be included in the moratorium as well. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said he was in favor of the postponement to Aug. 6, noting that there were 1,300 property owners throughout the city who would be affected by such a moratorium.
Briere, who favors a moratorium, echoed Taylor’s sentiments. She said that although she supported a moratorium, she also had an obligation to represent her ward’s views. “My ward has not been heard on this,” she concluded.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) asked if the city had any obligation to notify the 1,300 property owners of the impending moratorium. City attorney Stephen Postma indicated that in fact there was no requirement that the property owners be noticed.
Outcome: Consideration of the moratorium on development in R4C/R2A districts was postponed until Aug. 6. The voice vote was unanimous with except for dissent from Anglin.
Coda: During the public commentary open time – at the end of the meeting – Vivienne Armentrout noted something in the proposed language of the moratorium that might have assuaged some of the councilmember’s concerns about homeowners being affected who had possible renovation plans. She pointed out for councilmembers concerned about property owners – specifically homeowners – that the language of the proposed moratorium explicitly excludes any activity that does not require a site plan.
Plymouth and US-23 Park-and-Ride
Jim Mogensen: Speaking during public comment time, Mogensen suggested to councilmembers that there were two different policy points that can be made on this fairly pro forma approval. The first, he said, was that the pedestrian walkway – an “escape hatch” – and 28 bicycle spots reflected a commitment to the political correctness of having a multi-modal facility, when in fact it was not clear how bicyclists or pedestrians would get to the lot. The other policy point, he said, was that if the AATA reconfigured the bus routes and the new park-and-ride so that it is less easy for people who live here to get around using the bus, then that creates a tension. The tension is based on the fact that it’s the people who live in the urban area who pay for the buses through their millage.
Thomas Partridge: Partridge said that before this particular park-and-ride facility was put forward there should have been a plan for a coordinated city and countywide system for park-and-ride lots. He called for a coordinated countywide regional bus service with attendant para-transit service. This park-and-ride lot, Partridge contended, reflected a piecemeal approach.
Chris White, director of service development with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, was on hand to explain details of the site plan for the park-and-ride at Plymouth and US-23. The primary motivation, he said, was that the Green Road park-and-ride was now over capacity. It was being paid for with stimulus funds, he said. They anticipated starting construction in the fall, with completion sometime in November and service starting in January 2010.
White underwent close questioning from Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), who wanted to know if there had been any discussion with the University of Michigan about simply expanding the existing Green Road lot instead of picking an entirely new site. Part of the rationale, said White, had to do with issues concerning barriers to attracting drivers to use a park-and-ride lot. One of those is that drivers tend to prefer not to go much out of their way to get to the park-and-ride lot, White said. The proposed new lot’s location right off of US-23 corresponded to a phase change for drivers coming off of US-23 highway-style driving and going into the city roads. The location was thus ideal for attracting users, he concluded.
Acknowledging Rapundalo’s point that UM now owned all the property adjoining the Green Road lot as a result of Pfizer’s sale of the land to the university, White said that the planning for the park-and-ride lot had taken place before the sale.
Outcome: The site plan was unanimously approved.
City Place Site Plan Approval
The public hearing on City Place – a project proposed on the east side of South Fifth Avenue just south of William – included many of the same speakers and touched on many of the same themes that have appeared from the start of the meandering path that the project has taken through the city’s planning process in its various forms. Here’s a timeline:
- Jan. 15, 2008: Conditional rezoning – Ann Arbor Planning Commission recommended denial.
YES: None. NO: Bonnie Bona, Craig Borum, Jean Carlberg, Ron Emaus, Joan Lowenstein, Eric Mahler, Ethel Potts, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal.
- May 20, 2008: PUD (planned unit development) – Planning Commission recommended denial.
YES: Emaus. NO: Bona, Borum, Carlberg, Lowenstein, Mahler, Potts, Westphal. ABSENT: Pratt.
- Sept. 4, 2008: PUD – Ann Arbor Planning Commission recommended denial.
YES: Borum, Lowenstein. NO: Bona, Carlberg, Potts, Pratt, Westphal, Woods.
- Jan. 5, 2009: PUD – City Council denied on a unanimous 0-10 vote. NO: Hieftje, Briere, Derezinski, Rapundalo, Greden, Taylor, Teall, Higgins, Hohnke, Anglin. ABSENT: Smith.
- April 21, 2009: MOR (matter of right) – Planning Commission recommends approval on 6-3 vote.
YES: Bona, Carlberg, Derezinski, Mahler, Westphal, Woods. NO: Potts, Borum, Pratt.
- June 1, 2009: MOR – City Council postponed due to inconsistencies in drawings provided on website.
- June 15, 2009: MOR – City Council sent it back to Planning Commission due to technical errors with drawings provided at the Planning Commission April meeting.
- July 7, 2009: MOR – Planning Commission recommended denial on 5-1 vote to approve (needed 6).
- July 20, 2009: MOR – City Council postpones until January 2010.
The matter-of-right (MOR) project before council on Monday night was a 24-unit project with six bedrooms per unit.
The public hearing was noteworthy for its musical component. Libby Hunter sang a song as her contribution to the public hearing. [This is the second time Hunter has treated council to a singing public commentary.] For the final chorus, sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” several members of the audience joined it.
This provoked Hieftje to threaten to “clear the room.” Before he could follow through, the song ended. [When The Chronicle followed up later, city attorney Stephen Postema clarified that the phrase simply meant that council would have taken a break and allow things to settle down.]
When the song ended, Hieftje stressed that only one person could speak at a time and the rules needed to be followed. At subsequent public speaking turns several speakers addressed Hieftje’s reaction.
Among them was Karen Sidney, who began her remarks with an apparent allusion to the recently FOIA-ed emails among councilmembers during meetings, saying: “Council will get the respect from citizens that they give to citizens.” Glenn Thompson, for his speaking turn, suggested that council needs a sense of humor, saying, “Your iron fist will rust and crumble someday.”
Charles Loucks noted that when people join in singing, there’s chaos – because it breaks the rules. So why, he asked, can we allow developers to break the rules?
Chip Lind, after apologizing for singing – he didn’t know the rules, he said – referred to the proposed design of the project by saying: “If it looks like a giant square, we become square.”
Also worth noting as somewhat different from previous public hearings was the presentation of a new 3-D model of a hypothetical building by resident Tom Whitaker, who has previously brought a different model to public meetings on City Place. The new model demonstrates the interpretation of roof height that city planning staff uses to determine conformance with the zoning code. Whereas his previous model was constructed so that he could lift off the narrow strip corresponding to the “roof,” the new version is constructed so that he can add something – a piece of “trim” – that results in a “reduction” of the building’s height.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) began deliberations by describing the City Place project as having been a “contentious issue.” He said that one thread running through the history of the project was the possibility that some of the disagreement might be resolved to the potential satisfaction of neighbors, the city council, and the petitioner, Alex de Parry.
He therefore suggested a postponement of the City Place matter of right project until the council’s second meeting in January of 2010. The postponement included a provision that the city of Ann Arbor accept a PUD application for a project that might reflect the kind of compromise the various parties hoped to achieve.
Outcome: The postponement was approved unanimously.
Build America Bonds
The general obligation bonds that had been authorized for issuance at city council’s Feb. 17, 2009 meeting are tax-free. That is, for the purchaser of such a bond as an investment, the typically lower interest rate earned from a municipal bond is somewhat balanced by the fact that the earnings are tax-free. Build America Bonds, explained the city’s CFO, Tom Crawford, are taxable and thus have a somewhat higher interest rate – on its face more expensive for the city. But what is special about Build America Bonds is that they provide coverage of some of the debt service. The direct federal subsidy payment to local governments is equal to 35% of the total coupon interest paid to investors.
In brief deliberations, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) clarified that switching from one kind of general obligation bonds to another would not require council to wait an additional 45 days before issuance. The time requirement had already been met, she said, in the time that had passed since Feb. 17. The 45-day time window allows for the possible circulation of the petition that, if successful, would require a voter referendum on the bond issuance.
Outcome: The issuance of $49 million to $50 million worth of Build America Bonds was unanimously approved.
Front Yard Parking
Leigh Greden (Ward 3) introduced a resolution that would revise how parking in front yards is controlled. Parking cars in front yards, Greden explained, is currently prohibited except for two cases: University of Michigan football Saturdays and art fairs.
The change he was proposing would allow churches and other houses of worship to park cars on their front lawns up to two times a year and would require a permit, he explained. He said that the second reading was proposed for Aug. 17 instead of at the council’s next meeting in two weeks, because of a staff request that they be given enough time to inform the public about the change.
In subsequent deliberations by Rapundalo, Anglin, and Higgins, it was determined that it would be best to refer the matter to the planning commission. What really seemed to seal the deal was input from community services director, Jayne Miller, who said that revisions to Chapter 59 of the city code do normally go through the planning commission.
Outcome: The proposed change was referred to the planning commission.
The council’s agenda included an item to allow temporary outdoor sales and displayed goods and services as a special exception use for C3 commercial zoning districts. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) thanked the city staff for moving the change along quickly. The impact of the change included the ability to hold a farmers market in the Westgate parking lot next to Zingerman’s Roadhouse.
Outcome: The change to allow uses to include outdoor markets was unanimously approved.
Leah Gunn and and Russ Collins were nominated for reappointments to the Downtown Development Authority board.
Chip Lind: Lind said he wasn’t really planning to speak at the concluding public commentary session, but he had missed his bus and figured, why not. He suggested that the city think about making compost bins available. He also suggested that Ann Arbor have its own currency.
Tim Hull: Hull alerted Council to the problems at Arborland in connection with the eviction of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority bus stop from that parking plaza. He suggested that a crosswalk be installed to ensure pedestrian safety to bus riders who had to cross Washtenaw Avenue to get to the bus stop that had previously been located in the parking lot. On a separate topic, he also addressed a bar ID policy, noting that his attempt to purchase a drink at Bar Louie had foundered on the fact that he had a Michigan state ID but not a driver’s license.
Thomas Partridge: During public commentary reserved time at the start of the meeting, Partridge introduced himself as a Democratic uniter on the local, state, and national level. He gave endorsements in the Democratic primary races for city council: Ward 3 – LuAnne Bullington; Ward 5 – Mike Anglin. He said he perceived both of those candidates to be decent people with progressive policies. On a separate note, he urged council that for all the resolutions they were considering that evening, that amendments be passed to ensure democratic access, singling out a special need for access to transportation and affordable housing. He allowed that there had been disagreements over the zoning of a particular site, but that they needed to unite with the goal of democratic access.
Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Marcia Higgins, Carsten Hohnke, John Hieftje.
Next Council Meeting: Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]
Note the different day, Thursday – a schedule revision to accommodate the Aug. 4 primary elections.