Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission (Oct. 20, 2009): Last week’s meeting of the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission (PAC) was in many ways a buffet of updates and tutorials, accented with a soupçon of art and a dash of dog park.
City staff talked to commissioners about special events planning and facilities rental at the parks, and gave an overview of how the city’s natural areas are prioritized for restoration. PAC also got a time line for the state-mandated rewrite of the Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan, known as PROS.
But we’ll start with the saga of a man and his dog, and what he’d like the city to do to make their time together more enjoyable.
Public Comment: Olson Dog Park
During the public commentary portion of the meeting, Otto Freitag told commissioners that he and his wife take their poodle Heidi to the Olson Dog Park nearly every day. Inside the fenced-in area there are two picnic tables for people to sit, but no covering over it, he said. In the summer, “we sit there and literally cook in the sun.”
But just outside the fence, two other picnic tables are covered by a canopy, he noted. “I have never seen anybody even with a Coke sitting there,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have that inside park?”
Freitag said he appreciated the city’s park system, and used it frequently even though he is a resident of Webster Township. He said he was willing to help pay to move the canopy, if necessary. “I’m retired but I have $200 for the left side of the table,” he joked.
Scott Rosencrans, PAC’s chair, told Freitag that they’d actually met before at the park – Rosencrans recalled that Freitag had brought water bowls for the dogs, and grease for the gates. Yes, Freitag said, noting that he’d also replaced the latch on the gate, “but I don’t do windows.”
A separate dog-park note came up later in the meeting. Colin Smith – the city’s parks and recreation manager – reported that Swift Run Dog Park will be temporarily closed starting at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27, through 6 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31. The staff will be doing maintenance work and making improvements in the holding pen area to make it more accessible for people with disabilities, he said.
Public Comment: Art on the River
Speaking during the meeting’s public commentary time, William Dennisuk introduced himself as a visiting artist and lecturer at the University of Michigan, who’d recently arrived from Finland. He’s proposing a project called Vessels – a series of art installations along the Huron River, and at sites on UM’s campus. The project could serve to bring together the city and campus communities, he told commissioners. A handout he provided to PAC puts it this way:
“In my own project I would like to raise subtle questions about our interaction with the watery world; how we contain it, divide it and structure it for our own purposes. I am interested in how we impose, or overlay, our man-made order on the natural order. In this case I am specifically interested in how the so-called “town and gown” structures might cooperate when it comes to a discussion of the use of water. In this respect I am hoping that art might facilitate, or become part of a larger dialogue on our various uses of the natural world and our relationship to the environment.”
The art installations would be built of a grid-like mesh of welded bronze, about 6-7 feet high and of differing diameters. A concrete base for each piece would sit on the riverbed, covered with natural stones. He said he’s hoping for a late March-early April installation, with the artwork in place during the summer, then removed.
Dennisuk referred PAC members to his website for more background on his work. He said he hopes to return to PAC next month for a more formal presentation.
Commissioner Sam Offen asked whether Dennisuk had contacted the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission as well. Dennisuk said that he had, but that they had told him to come to PAC as a first step.
Update: Special Events and Facility Rental
Jessica Black, supervisor for the parks and recreation customer service center, gave a presentation on rentals and special events at the city’s park properties. Rentals of park space and shelters are increasing, she said, from 394 in 2007 to 763 in 2009. [Rental revenues for fiscal 2010 are projected to be $280,706 – link to budget sheet showing rental revenues.] Black attributed the increase to better promotion and marketing, as well as better use of a scheduling database.
The most popular parks for events are Gallup, Bandemer, Island and Allmendinger. Size and impact varies, she said, from special one-time events like races or festivals, to large scale affairs such as weddings, corporate picnics and family reunions, to smaller gatherings like birthday parties. Film industry activity is also increasing – Black cited this summer’s filming of “Flipped” at Virginia Park as an example.
The University of Michigan is the No. 1 user of park facilities, Black reported, specifically citing groups from the Ross School of Business and the School of Social Work. There are also regular events that rent space, like the Sunday Artisan Market, which uses the Farmers Market area, as does the Kerrytown District Association’s Trunk-a-Palooza, which runs on Thursdays from July through early September.
Other events have included an annual fundraising dinner for Ozone House, held in the Farmers Market space; the HomeGrown Festival and Kerrytown Bookfest, also held at the Farmers Market; the outdoor Sonic Lunch series held at Liberty Plaza; and the A-Square Fight Club’s fundraiser “Boxing at Buhr Park,” held during the summer at the ice arena there.
The recently renovated Cobblestone Farm is another popular location, Black said. All Saturdays from March through October of 2010 are already booked, she said. The facility can be reserved up to 18 months in advance, and is used for weddings, fundraisers, and corporate meetings, among other things. Starbucks held a regional meeting there, and the company’s CEO spoke with roosters crowing in the background, Black said. General Motors held a team-building exercise and the parking lot was filled with the automaker’s newest vehicle models.
Black told commissioners that her office, which is located at Cobblestone Farm and has a staff of two full-time employees, is the first point of contact for people who need to book a parks and recreation facility. They review the applications, insurance and permits, as well as answer any questions from the general public.
After Black’s presentation, several commissioners had questions or comments. Sam Offen asked whether Cobblestone Farm had a liquor license. It’s possible to serve wine and beer there, Black said, but an event organizer needs to get a temporary license if they want to serve hard alcohol.
Mike Anglin, who’s a representative to PAC from the city council, asked for an assessment of the filming at Virginia Park. He noted that the community’s perception was colored by the fact that the film crew required some tree trimming, but that the positive outcome was the formation of a tree conservancy.
Colin Smith said that the filming of “Flipped” was extremely advantageous to the city, bringing in around $7,000 plus a $5,000 donation to the parks scholarship fund. The production company also built a new basketball court, which would have cost the city around $25,000, and hired a local contractor to build a road in the park, then remove it and restore the property, which the workers “thought was pretty funny,” Smith said. He also noted that about 300 people in town for the shoot stayed in local hotels and ate in local restaurants – another benefit to the economy.
As for the tree trimming, Smith said the branches that were trimmed on a sycamore in Virginia Park were no more than 1.5 inches in diameter. The trees in the park are “just fine,” he said. “They’ll be in the movie, too.”
Commissioners also discussed a complaint that someone had made who had reserved Cobblestone Farm for an event, then canceled and wanted more of their money refunded. The city’s policy is to refund 50% of the amount if the cancellation occurs 90 days or more prior to the event; after that, no refund is given. Black said the policy is clearly spelled out in writing when people sign a contract, and that staff makes it clear verbally. Tim Berla urged the staff to consider refunding more money if the facility is re-rented to someone else after the cancellation.
Berla also said he’d noticed vehicles parking around the West Park bandshell and on the paved walkway during this summer’s Radio Free Bacon series, which was held at West Park. He wondered what the rules were for parking. Black said there are strict rules against parking inside the park, which is one reason why it’s not use more heavily. She planned to meet with RFB’s Terry Farmer and said she’d discuss it with him.
Natural Area Preservation: Priorities
Dave Borneman, manager of the city’s Natural Area Preservation program, or NAP, gave a presentation on how the staff assesses the quality of more than 1,200 acres of natural areas that the city owns, and how they evaluate land for potential acquisition. One reason for such an assessment, he said, was to help staff prioritize which properties – or portions of property – to work in, and what type of work to do, given limited resources.
The primary method they use is called floristic quality assessment, or FQA. Indicators used in this assessment include the total number of plant species at a site, both native and non-native; the number of native species only; and the number of endangered, threatened or “of special concern” species, as designated by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
In addition, each area is given an average “coefficient of conservatism” based on the plants in the site. This scale of 1-10 reflects the botanical quality of a site, and is used – along with the other factors mentioned above – to calculate a Floristic Quality Index, or FQI. The FQI is determined by multiplying the average coefficient of conservatism by the square root of the number of species in a site, Borneman said. The higher the number, the higher the site’s quality or diversity, from a botanical perspective.
FQIs higher than 35 are generally thought to be worth protecting, Borneman said. Natural areas within the city have a range of FQIs. A chart provided to commissioners showed that Gallup Park’s wet prairie has an FQI of 51.7, for example, while the Bandemer prairie rates an 18.4. Most of the woodlands have FQIs above 30, except for Dhu Varren Woods, which has a 29.6.
Borneman noted that plants aren’t the only factor that determines the quality of a natural area. Dolph Nature Area, for example, has an FQI of 39.1 but is considered even more valuable than that number might indicate because it’s a great habitat for birds. A few of the other factors used to assess a site include survey findings on butterflies, breeding birds, frogs and toads; whether the site provides a buffer for existing natural areas; or whether the land is a greenspace in an urban area.
The staff also give the city’s natural area sites a conservation priority of 1-4, a ranking which helps focus the city’s restoration efforts, Borneman said. Sites are given a priority ranking based in part on FQI, but also factoring in the percent of woody invasives, herbaceous invasives and herbaceous native plants on the property. In addition, factors such as the amount of volunteer interest in a site, animal populations, educational uses and visibility are considered.
The city has 120 acres with the highest-priority ranking. These areas are given priority for invasive species control, prescribed burns and stewardship workdays.
Restoration efforts can make a dramatic difference, Borneman said. As an example, he showed an old photograph of Cedar Bend Nature Area, the city’s oldest park dating back to 1907. In the photo, the forest is relatively open and sunny, he noted. But by the 1990s, non-native species had taken over and created a denser environment. Staff and volunteers worked to open up the woods, Borneman said, and now native plant species are returning that haven’t been recorded there in decades.
Following Borneman’s presentation, PAC chair Scott Rosencrans said that he’d requested the talk so that commissioners could use these rankings as tools when discussing land acquisitions.
Responding to a question from commissioner David Barrett, Borneman said the current millage that funds NAP expires in 2013, so it will likely be on the ballot for renewal in November 2012.
Borneman also invited commissioners and others interested in NAP to attend a volunteer potluck on Thursday, Oct. 29. The event begins at 7 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm, 2781 Packard Road.
Quarterly Budget Update
Colin Smith reviewed the budget for parks and recreation, just after PAC unanimously elected commissioner Sam Offen as chair of the group’s budget and finance committee. [.PDF of PAC meeting packet – budget information is provided after the minutes from PAC's September 2009 meeting.]
Much of the discussion focused on the city’s two golf courses, Huron Hills and Leslie. Smith noted that revenues at Huron Hills Golf Course are projected to be $10,000 higher than originally budgeted, due to increased play there. But the golf courses are still being subsidized from the city’s general fund reserves, Smith clarified, responding to a commissioner’s query.
“I had the impression the golf courses were doing better,” Scott Rosencrans said. Smith reminded commissioners that the city projected the golf courses would take six years or so to break even meet their financial goals. The courses are moving in that direction more rapidly than expected, he said.
For fiscal 2009, Leslie Golf Course had revenues of $780,537 and expenses of $904,103 – “so it’s moving in the right way,” Smith said. In 2008, revenues were $626,130 but expenses were lower too, at $737,752. Commissioner Julie Grand explained that expenses were higher in 2009 because of implementing recommendations made by a golf course task force appointed to find ways to make the courses self-supporting. Those recommendations included bumping up staffing levels, which added to administrative costs. [Link to spreadsheet for Leslie Golf Course.]
Since Leslie has more options for revenues – last year the city granted it a liquor license, for example – the staff expected it to do better than Huron, Smith said. Revenues from concessions were up $40,000 in 2009 compared to the previous year. Smith said that food sales were up as a result of the liquor license, and during the off season, the staff plans to evaluate the menu and look at the configuration of the space in the clubhouse, to see if they can improve sales even more.
Commissioner Gwen Nystuen asked Smith whether there was anything on the horizon that concerned him. He said there was nothing out of the ordinary happening with the budget forecast, but there are certain things that always worry him, like the overall economy. However, revenues are keeping steady, he said.
Update: PROS Plan
Amy Kuras, a city of Ann Arbor planner, told commissioners that it’s time for the state-mandated update of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan – a document that’s about an inch thick, she noted. Known as the PROS plan, it must be updated every five years, and needs to be completed by the end of 2010. Since the process takes about a year, they’ll start in December 2009, she said.
The city will appoint a task force, that will include two to three PAC commissioners as well as city staff, Kuras said. The last time the city overhauled the plan, they hired a consultant to help, she said, adding that they might forgo the consultant this time, based on initial staff discussions.
Other steps include:
- Develop an email survey – rather than the phone survey that was used five years ago – and a marketing plan to notify the public about this process.
- Review the existing PROS plan to see what’s been accomplished, and to determine what needs to be updated.
- Update the data, which includes census information, park inventory, a description of the city’s administrative structure, and maps, among other items.
- Conduct a needs assessment with the staff.
- Hold focus groups with the public, as well as public meetings for broader input.
- Based on input, update the plan and write new chapters, if necessary. The last rewrite added a section on greenways, Kuras said – this time, it might be appropriate to add a section on downtown open space.
The goal is to finish the rewrite by May or June, then send it out to various governing bodies – including PAC, the city planning commission, SEMCOG, city council and others – for review in the summer and early fall.
Sam Offen asked if there was already money in the budget for a consultant. Kuras reported that there was $180,000 budgeted for a consultant on the PROS plan, but that the full amount wouldn’t likely be needed.
Mike Anglin, one of the city council’s representatives on PAC, asked whether the plan would reflect last year’s ballot initiative. A change in the city charter was approved, requiring that the city seek voter approval for the sale of any city-owned park property. Kuras said that the task force would likely address that in the update.
Senior Center, Mack Pool
Colin Smith reported that the task force for the Ann Arbor Senior Center would be holding two public meetings – one on Oct. 23 (see Chronicle coverage: “Seniors Weigh In On Fate of Center“) and another on Tuesday, Oct. 27, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., at the Burns Park facility, 1320 Baldwin Ave.
Similar meetings would be held for Mack Pool, Smith said, probably in mid-November – no date has been set. Both the senior center and Mack Pool were slated to close in a budget proposed earlier this year by the city administrator, Roger Fraser. Groups have mobilized to find alternatives to closure.
Leslie Science Center
Commissioner Sam Offen reported that Kirsten Levinsohn, director of the Leslie Science Center, who has worked there since 1989, is planning to leave next spring. He said the center has started the search for a new director. Offen is on the board of that nonprofit.