Ann Arbor City Council caucus (Aug. 5, 2009): The city council caucus, which typically falls on the Sunday before council’s regular Monday meeting, was rescheduled for Wednesday this week to match the rescheduling of the council’s regular meeting to Thursday. That schedule change had been prompted by the Democratic primary elections held on Tuesday.
Four council members attended caucus – John Hieftje (mayor), Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5). They heard from residents on a variety of issues, from a complaint about thaw-and-bake products at the farmers market, to the Near North PUD proposal that is on council’s agenda for Thursday night, to questions about the constitution of the council’s budget and labor committee.
Also on council’s agenda is a moratorium on new development in districts zoned R4C (multi-family dwelling), and councilmembers heard from one resident at caucus in support of that moratorium, which was postponed from council’s last meeting.
Rounding out caucus topics were two plant-related issues. There’s an oak tree in Wurster Park that councilmembers were advised could have its life prolonged considerably. Finally, a resident framed problems with foliage obscuring sight lines for vehicles as a bicyclist safety issue.
Farmers Market Baked Goods and the DDA?
Luis Vasquez Vazquez served for five years on the Ann Arbor Farmers Market commission and chaired it for two of those years. Vazquez began by asking the councilmembers present if they had had a chance to review materials he had sent them outlining his concerns about the farmers market. He summarized those concerns at caucus by saying, “My contention is that there are rules being violated.”
He also expressed a general dissatisfaction with the way the farmers market was being administered by the city’s parks program. Vazquez’s dissatisfaction with the administration of the farmers market stems in part from what he contends is a violation of rules that require products sold at the farmers market to be produced by the vendors themselves. With respect to baked goods sold by Kapnick Orchards, it is Vazquez’s contention that Kapnick offers baked goods at the farmers market that are prepared using a thaw-and-bake product from Lipari. Vazquez allowed that his relationship with Scott Robertello of Kapnick Orchards had been long and contentious, and acknowledged that his current complaint could be seen by some as a “continuation of a feud.”
Mayor John Hieftje told Vazquez that he appreciated the fact that Vazquez had acknowledged how some might construe Vazquez’s complaint. Hieftje noted that city staff had inspected Kapnick Orchards last year and had found no violations, and asked Vazquez what specifically he wanted to be done. Vazquez’s answer: Re-inspect based on his complaint and enforce the rules. He asked that city staff require Kapnick Orchards to demonstrate how they made their baked goods.
Further, Vazquez asked that a formal policy on baked goods be adopted. He went on to say that instead of bringing a complaint about a vendor, “I would much rather be a promoter of the market.”
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said that she frequented the market herself and that she had not been aware that thaw-and-bake products were on offer, but said that she had seen some offerings that, to her, appeared to be “mass-produced.”
In concluding his speaking turn at caucus, Vazquez offered an additional suggestion: Turn over the administration of the market to the Downtown Development Authority. The market is located within the boundaries of the DDA district.
The Chronicle followed up Vazquez’s speaking turn with a question to councilmembers about Vazquez’s suggestion to charge the DDA with the responsibility of administering the market: Was this an idea that had any history of being kicked around before? None of the four councilmembers present at caucus had any recollection of such a proposal. When, prior to caucus, The Chronicle had asked around informally in a non-exhaustive way with DDA board, DDA staff, and the current market commission, there had been a similar response – the idea of the DDA administering the farmers market seems to be a new one.
If the DDA were to administer the market and absorb the current city staff assigned to the market as DDA employees, the effect would be to move a cost from the city’s budget to the DDA’s budget. That’s a similar effect that negotiations between the city and the DDA are meant to achieve in the course of the next year as the parking agreement between the two entities is restructured. To date, the issue has been framed not a cost transfer from the city to the DDA, but as a cash transfer from the DDA to the city.
Asked if they might consider a budget-based argument for a possible transfer from the city to the DDA of farmers market administrative responsibility, Hieftje and Smith – both of whom also serve on the DDA board – seemed at least willing to entertain the possibility of looking into it. Smith indicated that she’d be willing to have a DDA committee look at the idea, but said that there was a fundamental question: To what end would that move be undertaken? Hieftje pointed out that it’d be a fairly complex idea to implement, noting specifically that the issue of where the revenue from the market would go (to the city or to the DDA) would need to be sorted out.
Briere, for her part, said she was “not enthusiastic” to add the farmers market to the set of responsibilities of the DDA, saying that administering the parking system was enough for the DDA to handle.
On council’s agenda for Thursday is the first reading for the Near North PUD (planned unit development). Representatives of the development team at caucus included Bill Godfrey of Three Oaks Group, along with Michael Appel from Avalon Housing – a nonprofit that’s is partnering with Three Oaks on the project – and the project architect, Damian Farrell. They were at caucus to provide a laptop-and-projector presentation on the project.
Hieftje and Briere said they’d seen the presentation that had been made to the planning commission, and seemed somewhat unenthusiastic about seeing an unabridged version again. [See previous Chronicle coverage of the planning commission's June meeting when they voted 5-2 for the project, which constituted a recommendation for denial, because they did not achieve the required 6-vote majority.]
However, Briere invited the developer’s team to present what they wanted to present, saying, “I hate to stomp on anybody’s fun!” Asked by the development team what the councilmembers would like them to focus on in their presentation – statistics or the rendering – Hieftje replied, “Show us the building.”
The building, proposed for the east side of North Main Street just south of Summit Street, comprises 40 residential units (44 bedrooms total) to be built in a five-story apartment building with 2,950 square feet of commercial space and 1,645 square feet of office space attached to the building. Forty parking spaces would be provided below the building, with an additional 10 spaces not under the building.
All of the units are proposed to be affordable under Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) standards, which target rents for income levels at or below 50% of area median income (AMI). In addition, 14 of the units are designated as “supportive housing” for individuals having no more than 30% of AMI.
Representatives of the North Central Property Owners Association also attended caucus to express their continued opposition to the project, which has a history they trace back five years to when it was originally proposed to neighbors as a condominium project without an affordable housing component.
They countered some figures provided by Appel at the caucus about the city’s needs assessment for affordable units. The figures for “the rest of Ann Arbor” where the Near North project is located indicate a need for 20 newly-constructed rental units targeting the 0-30% area median income (AMI) range and 100 newly-constructed rental units in the 30-50% AMI range. Appel had given numbers that included units that should be preserved as opposed to newly constructed. In response to the figures provided by NCPOA at caucus, Appel said he deferred to their numbers, saying he’d been working from an executive summary.
For councilmembers, one key concern was the developer’s intention to make the building LEED certified. Sandi Smith wanted to know what level of LEED certification their target was. Farrell said it was difficult to make a commitment to a particular level, given the number of unknowns. One example: Would the geological analysis of the possibilities for a geo-thermal heating system come back positive?
Appel stressed that while there was not a threshold that MSHDA used to limit the construction cost per unit, when Avalon brought projects to MSHDA, they typically began by “howling at the costs,” which are generally much higher for Ann Arbor – both for land and for construction – than other Michigan cities. Appel said he felt at some point MSHDA would simply say, “No way!” That meant, Appel cautioned, that they could not simply agree to whatever LEED standard the council wanted, just for political reasons. At the same time, Appel said, he wanted to hear from council what they wanted to see in terms of LEED certification.
The discussion of LEED certification relates to the fundamental issue that the council will confront: Does the project offer adequate public benefit to compensate for the exceptions in zoning that the developer is asking for? Energy efficiency, here reflected in the form of LEED certification, is considered to be a possible public benefit for evaluating the merits of a PUD.
NCPOA representatives at caucus indicated that they had developed an alternative proposal that would have roughly 30 units at around the same size (750 sq ft) as the developer’s version. Though the alternate version would still require a PUD rezoning of the site, a key difference would be that it would have a maximum of three stories, as contrasted with Near North, which includes a section of the structure that is five stories tall. The alternative would thus be a “stick-built” structure, as opposed to the steel frame structure that’s currently proposed. A meeting is scheduled between NCPOA and the developer to discuss the alternate plan.
Foliage Issue vs. Bicyclist Safety Issue
Kathy Griswold had attended caucus previously to express her concern about foliage along Glazier Way that was obscuring sight distances for motorists. On Wednesday evening she told councilmembers that she had thought it was a vegetation issue, but had now concluded that it’s a bicycle safety issue. She noted that Ann Arbor had achieved distinction as a bicycle-friendly community. [On May 1, 2009, Ann Arbor earned a Silver ranking from the League of American Bicyclists. In 2008, Ann Arbor received a Gold Level award in the Promoting Active Communities Assessment.] What did those communities do that were ranked even higher, she asked? She pointed to Davis, California, and Boulder, Colorado, as cities where there are good sight distance requirements.
She criticized the relevant Ann Arbor ordinance as one where a property owner could not self-determine compliance, because when there’s a complaint about foliage obscuring sight distance, a traffic engineer comes out and inspects to make a determination of adequate sight distance.
She pointed out that the city’s online citizen request system did not have in the drop-down menu an item about overgrown vegetation that obscures sight lines. For concerns not in the drop-down menu, the instructions specify a telephone number to be called. When she had called the number, Griswold reported, she’d been referred to forestry, which was not the right department within the city to handle the issue, she said.
Asked by Hieftje if there was a specific suggestion she would like to make, Griswold said that vegetation obscuring sight lines should be added to the drop down menu.
Wurster Park’s Chinquapin Oak
A resident presented to caucus his concerns that a Chinquapin oak tree in Wurster Park on the city’s west side was being allowed to die through forest succession. After consulting with arborists at Nichols Arboretum and botanists at the University of Michigan, he said that implementation of various specific suggestions could allow the tree to live hundreds of years longer. Among those suggestions are to prune the tree correctly, to use mulch out beyond the tree’s drip line, to cut down a neighboring ash tree, to cut down competing maple trees, and to recognize the tree as a resource and stop the abuse that’s reflected in the ropes dangling from the branches and the steps that have been nailed into the trunk.
In response, Hieftje said he had some recollection of climbing on the tree as a youth. He said the materials that had been provided by the resident on the oak tree had been forwarded to city staff – he suggested that one possible response was that the maple trees should be retained so that there would be something there when the oak died.
One west side resident chimed in from the caucus audience, describing the tree as “so big that when you’re under it you don’t know it’s there.” She described the abuse of the tree as a case where people “like it a little too much – they treat it like a toy.”
The Budget and Labor Committee
At Wednesday’s caucus Harvey Kaplan picked up on a topic he’d raised at the Democratic Party’s forum with city council candidates in the primary election: the council’s budget and labor committee. [See Ward 5 candidate responses and Ward 3 candidate responses to his question posed there.] He stated that his understanding of the committee was that not all the five wards are represented in the committee’s membership. [The current committee's membership is Hieftje (mayor), Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Margie Teall (Ward 4), Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), and Leigh Greden (Ward 3). In terms of councilmembers representing specific wards, the budget and labor committee lacks representation from Wards 5 and 1.]
Hieftje responded by saying that the budget and labor committee had five members, and that the committee did not make decisions, but rather only made recommendations. He characterized much of the work as dealing with the labor section of things. Asked by Kaplan whether the committee’s meetings were open to the public, Hieftje said they were. The mayor characterized the typical meeting time for the committee as 5:30 p.m. on the same day as council has its regular meeting. When Kaplan suggested that the meeting time be published, Hieftje replied that the meetings were posted on the second floor. Kaplan suggested that publishing the information on the city’s website would be appropriate.
Moratorium in R4C Districts
One item on the city council’s agenda for Thursday, postponed from its last meeting, proposes a moratorium on any new development in a district zoned R4C (multi-family dwelling) that requires site plan approval. One resident appeared at caucus to encourage the council to approve the resolution and to include the City Place project in the scope of the moratorium.