Ann Arbor City Council work session (Oct. 12, 2009): It’s a world where you can throw your newspapers, glass bottles and plastic tubs into one single recyclables cart and set it out for morning collection.
It’s a world where you can then board a bus that drops you off at the train station for your morning commute to Detroit.
It’s a world where during the work day you watch a foot of snow fall, but on your return home to Ann Arbor, you see that the snow hasn’t just been plowed on Main Street – it’s been completely removed – along with those handbills you’d noticed plastered on the lightpost.
It’s a world where later at home, you roll your empty recycling cart back to its place. Then you log on to the internet and see you’ve earned $250 worth of points tallied by the weight of the recyclables that the truck has been recording and crediting for the last year.
At its Monday night work session, Ann Arbor’s city council heard presentations on all the discrete elements of that world, which Ann Arbor could start to resemble in a couple of years.
Councilmembers got updates on three proposals they’ll be asked to act on soon: (i) the proposed Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) for Main Street, (ii) the Fuller Road Station, and (iii) a proposal for single-stream recycling.
Main Street Business Improvement Zone (BIZ)
Ellie Serras, the former executive director of the Main Street Area Association, Betsy Jackson, who owns the consultancy The Urban Agenda, and Ed Shaffran, a local developer who owns several downtown Ann Arbor properties, presented the concept of their Business Improvement Zone to councilmembers. The city council will be asked at their next meeting to give their stamp of approval to proceed with the election that’s required in order for the city to assess property owners in the proposed district – on Main Street between William and Huron.
Business improvement zones were enabled by Public Act 120 of 1961, and allow property owners within a district to assess themselves a higher property tax to be used to promote economic development.
At Monday’s work session, the trio of Shaffran, Serras, and Jackson outlined how in this case economic development consists of funding services above and beyond what regular city services would provide: sidewalk maintenance, snow removal, landscape improvements.
By sidewalk maintenance, they mean to include regular sidewalk vacuuming, power-washing and gum removal, handbill removal, and graffiti removal. The BIZ concept of snow removal would be triggered by snowfalls of 1 inch or more and would include application of snow melter, shoveling from doorway to curb, including curb cuts, and would (if necessary) include the removal of snow from the Main Street area by trucking it out. [In the late 1990s, Shaffran spearheaded the removal of snow in the downtown area, when it had accumulated to an excessive degree – he recounts that episode in this interview.] Landscape improvements would include a four-season program to address tree wells.
Some key milestones the BIZ proposal has already reached include:
- Formed the Main Street BIZ Initiative Board of Directors: Ed Shaffran (chair), Rob Spears (treasurer), Michael Martin (secretary), James Curtis, Ronald Dankert, Alan Freedman, Jeffrey Harshe, Keith Orr, Joan Lowenstein.
- Received Downtown Development Authority matching grant [See Chronicle coverage: "DDA: No Character District Zoning, Please"]. The DDA board authorized $83,270 to support the creation of a business improvement zone (BIZ) on South Main Street. The amount included roughly $75,000 plus a 10% contingency. It also included an expectation that a “template” will be provided for use by other areas of downtown that might want to form additional business improvement zones.
- Retained a director, consultant and legal counsel.
- Conducted four BIZ forums with more than 75 in attendance [See Chronicle coverage: "In the Business Improvement Zone"].
- Crafted a city council resolution and submitted a petition of support. The petition must be submitted to the city clerk signed by 30% of property owners in the proposed district. Here the percentage reflects a weighting of individuals based on the value of their property. One wrinkle in the weighting is that there’s a maximum weight of 25% for any one individual. After submitting the petition, there’s a required informational meeting, and a vote conducted by mail. To succeed, the vote needs a 60% majority – with the weighting of votes again based on property values. The city can recoup the cost of administering the election from the district.
The next steps outlined for city council are these:
- Oct. 19, 2009: Resolution of approval to proceed from city council.
- November-December 2009: Public meeting to present BIZ to a majority of property owners.
- January 2010: Public hearing.
- February 2010: Property owner election (60% majority required, weighted by taxable value of property).
- June 2010: BIZ assessment with July tax bill.
- July 2010: BIZ operations begin.
Councilmembers seemed on the whole enthusiastic about the BIZ concept. They were curious to know what the ballpark figure might be for the assessment. Shaffran said that with the city council’s resolution of support, they would continue work on the business plan, which would yield a budget that would then give a clearer idea of what the actual assessment would be.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) was interested in knowing what the nature of any dissent or hesitations might be on the part of property owners. Serras replied that there were some concerns with the BIZ proposal, as there are with anything new, and that the questions focused on the issue of what the possible cost might be.
Shaffran said that the response to those kinds of doubts was to talk about the return on the investment and the fact that they are not taking risk: the BIZ will lead to an environment that’s more conducive to business, would increase property values and increase tenancy. Shaffran stressed that it was an investment in a management program, not a one-time beautification program. That continued investment, Shaffran said, was appropriate for an asset like Main Street, which was recently recognized by the American Planning Association’s Great Streets program [See Chronicle coverage: "Approved: Earth Retention, Zipcars"]
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) was interested in knowing the raw numbers of people who might have qualms about the BIZ, so he asked for the unweighted percentage of property owners who’d signed the petition. In the presentation, the petition – which requires a weighted 30% of property owners to sign, with weight assigned by taxable value – was characterized as having more than 50% support, well more than the minimum threshold. The answer Hohnke eventually got was that the 50% figure held for the unweighted petition signatures as well.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) quizzed Shaffran on the nature of the “supplemental” services. Shaffran allowed that “supplemental” might not be the right word – he joked that Derezinski was trying to trick him. The point about the services, Shaffran said, was that they’d be providing services that the city was not. Derezinski got confirmation from Serras that the BIZ was an expandable notion. It would be possible to add geographic area to the BIZ, but it would require the same steps as with its formation – areas couldn’t be added “higgledy piggledy.”
Leigh Greden (Ward 3) drew out the fact that the DDA financial support was related to a specific plan to share the blueprint with other areas of downtown that might want to form their own BIZ. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) was curious to know about the potential for tension between tenant and owner, based on previous experience with BIZ-type programs. [The presentation alluded to 1,200 districts like this in North America.] Serras said that in general that kind of tension had not arisen where renters had pressed for dissolution of a district. She cited one case in Victoria, British Columbia, where the conclusion had been reached that “everything is done,” the district was dissolved, and shortly thereafter, they elected to reinstitute it.
Fuller Road Station (formerly FITS): “It’s a parking structure!”
Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the city, gave the city council an update on the results of a two-day workshop with stake-holders on the Fuller Road Station proposal and subsequent presentations to the park advisory commission, the city’s planning commission, and a public open house – events that took place through September. [For Chronicle coverage of the presentation to the park advisory commission: "City Seeks Feedback on Transit Center."]
In broad summary strokes, the Fuller Road Station project is proposed for a three-acre site – currently a surface parking lot – owned by the city of Ann Arbor, nestled just south of Fuller Road and north of East Medical Center Drive and the railroad tracks. It’s billed as a way to link automobiles, east-west commuter rail (demonstration due in October 2010), the north-south Plymouth-State Street corridor (study underway funded by AATA, UM, the city of Ann Arbor, and the Ann Arbor DDA), buses, and bicycle traffic via the Border-to-Border trail.
At the Ann Arbor city council’s Aug. 17 meeting, UM agreed to pay $327,733 of an estimated $541,717 cost for the initial stage of the project, with the city picking up the rest. The city’s portion of the cost will go toward an environmental impact study – they’d need that environmental impact data if they apply for federal funding. If the project moves ahead, it’s expected to cost roughly $65 million.
Part of UM’s interest in the project stems from a desire to solve a parking demand problem for patient visitors to the medical campus. For now, UM has put on hold plans to build a parking structure on nearby Wall Street. At Monday’s work session, Cooper estimated the total number of spaces at the Fuller facility to be around 1,100.
The major change in concept resulting from the design session with stakeholders, Cooper said, was that the single building had been split into the “intermodal facility” on the eastern part of the site and the train station to the west. He described the plan to divide the project into two phases: Phase I, which would include the parking deck, a bus waiting room, and bicycle hoops; Phase II, which would include the train station and other amenities, possibly including retail wraps.
Zeroing in on the fact that UM patients would be using the facility, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) elicited some assurance from Cooper than the entire facility would be ADA compliant.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) assured Higgins that efforts had been made to notify residents of Maiden Lane and Wall Street about the public forum on the topic of the Fuller Road Station. She also brought out the fact that the planned demonstration service for east-west commuter rail will use the Amtrak station on Depot Street. As that commuter rail service proceeds, Cooper said, the new Fuller station could be there to welcome it. Briere also got a clarification from Cooper that the plan would be for increased AATA bus traffic down Depot Street once the demonstration service launched.
Cooper provided a rough time line, when asked by Briere:
- October-November 2009: City council approval of concept for Phase I.
- Winter 2009-2010: Begin drawings for utilities work and start working with UM on designs for structure.
- End of 2010: Construction begins.
- 2012: Intermodal Facility Phase I complete.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) injected a little bit of levity when he said, “I hate to be too mercenary, but this is a parking deck!” This was the segue into a question about fee structures for the parking spaces. Cooper said that Amtrak was amenable to charging for parking at its stations – if the station were to move from Depot Street to the Fuller Road Station under a Phase II scenario.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) wanted to make sure that there would be public input on the design process – there would be.
Alluding to the suggestion made at the park advisory commission that a bar be put in the station, Margie Teall (Ward 4) weighed in for a market so that commuters could buy groceries before heading home. She allowed, though, that this kind of suggestion was at this point premature.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) wanted some clarification on whether UM and Amtrak were actually on board with the concept and asked for a breakdown of money spent to date by the city and the university. Cooper said that he couldn’t speak for the university, but that the correspondence from UM was positive. And Jim Kosteva, who’s director of community relations for UM, nodded in agreement from his seat behind Cooper. Cooper reported that he’d spoken with the Amtrak manager of station development in Washington, D.C. and that Amtrak was interested. As further evidence of support, Cooper cited the fact that the Michigan Department of Transportation had approached the city for support on an application for high-speed rail.
Mayor John Hieftje spoke of the “wonderful synergy” for the project. It positioned the city, he said, to be able to apply for federal funding for high-speed rail.
Ann Arbor residents currently enjoy curbside collection of their non-compostable waste in two different ways: (i) automated robot-arm pick-up of trash in blue carts, and (ii) manual dumping of two kinds of recycling tote bins – green for containers and gray for paper products.
At Monday’s work session, Tom McMurtrie, the city’s solid waste coordinator, introduced a plan to convert to a single container for recyclables, which would – like the blue bins – be emptied using an automatic, mechanical arm. That would mean no more curbside collection of batteries, motor oil, or oil filters. But that will be offset, McMurtrie said, by the ability to include additional materials in the recycle bins not previously allowed – basically all plastics except for #3. You could even toss broken plastic lawn furniture in the bin, he said.
To give people an added incentive to recycle, the new automated carts would be equipped with RFID tags, so that the frequency of each household’s recycling efforts could be measured and rewarded through RecycleBank. The rewards would come through coupons and deals offered through national, regional, as well as local business partners. Participants would also have the option of donating their rewards to a nonprofit organization.
In a follow-up interview on Tuesday, McMurtrie clarified that the weight of each household’s recycling wouldn’t be measured individually. Rather, the total recycling load would be weighed at the end of the route, and divided evenly among the number of households who recycled that day, as recorded by the RFID tag on their bin. He said that participation in this kind of route-weight system is almost as good as with an individual-weight approach, but is significantly less expensive to implement. The route-weight system allows for use of the automated pick-up – otherwise, the recycling cart would have to be manually rolled up to the truck to be weighed, an approach that’s much more labor intensive, he said.
According to John Getzloff of RecycleBank, who handled the incentives part of the work session presentation, in other communities, the average annual recycling reward to a household is around $240, with the high end around $540. The incentives, Getzloff said, improved recycling rates in communities with poor rates as well as those that already had high rates.
McMurtrie said that he expected the single-stream recycling effort to increase the amount of the residential waste stream that is diverted from the landfill from its current level of 50% to 70% by the year 2012.
The increase in recycling rates is expected to save money by allowing the elimination of one trash collection route – seven existing routes would reduce to six. How can incremental reductions at each household stop result in elimination of an entire route? After the meeting, McMurtrie explained that one of the main limiting factors on a route was the capacity of a truck – when they get full they have to be emptied out. Fewer trips to the landfill during the day means fewer trucks are needed, and that means fewer routes.
Through automation and elimination of trash routes, the expectation is that the total program operating cost will be reduced by $500,000 to $750,000 per year. Reduced operating costs will help offset the capital start-up costs associated with the program, which include the purchase of carts and trucks as well as upgrades to the city’s Material Recovery Facility. The building is owned by the city of Ann Arbor, but operated by a private company, Casella/FCR.
Estimated payback on the investment, which would be paid out of the $9 million solid waste enterprise fund balance, is projected to be 6.75 years, based on an average market.
The Ann Arbor city council will be asked to at its Nov. 5, 2009 meeting to approve: (i) Casella/FCR Contract Amendment (Materials Recovery Facility upgrades), and (ii) Resource Recycling Systems Consulting Contract.
In December 2009, the council will be asked to approve remaining elements of the plan: (i) Recycle Ann Arbor Contract Amendment, (ii) RecycleBank Contract, (iii) Automated Recycle Truck Purchases, and (iv) Recycle Cart Purchases.
Leigh Greden (Ward 3) stressed that the curb cart collection program was successful financially, but also from a customer service point of view. He said he felt that the same customer service benefit would be found with the single stream recycling program. Sandi Smith (Ward 1) sought clarification that the incentive program would work with multi-family living complexes. The answer is yes.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) was concerned about how the materials would eventually be sorted and wondered how people would get their batteries recycled – given that they’d no longer be collected curbside. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) also had some concerns about hard-to-dispose-of items – like fluorescent bulbs. McMurtrie said wryly, “Yes, these are compacting trucks, and fluorescent bulbs shouldn’t be compacted.”
He pointed out that Home Depot accepted such bulbs at no cost, as did the Washtenaw County toxics program. He said that the Recycle Ann Arbor drop-off station would accept fluorescent bulbs – for a small charge. [Rates charged at the drop-off station are: fluorescent light tubes (up to 4 feet), $1 each – $10 per dozen if pre-boxed; fluorescent light tubes (8 feet), $2 each; compact fluorescents, $1 each.]
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) saw opportunity for possible excess capacity at the Material Recovery Facility when it’s expanded, which could be sold to surrounding municipalities. McMurtrie confirmed this was the case, and said that it could be operated around the clock with three shifts.
A related question from from Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) clarified that Saline, which uses single-stream recycling, currently takes their materials to New Boston. [Taylor had noticed an apparent disconnect between a claim that Ann Arbor's MRF was the only facility from here to points west, and another statement that Saline currently has a single-stream program.]