The Chronicle arrived about an hour late to the Oct. 19, 2009 board meeting for the Ann Arbor District Library, which began before the conclusion of an earlier meeting of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission.
When we arrived, however, the board was not in the downtown library’s fourth-floor conference room where these meetings are held – they’d moved into a closed executive session. Waiting for their return were Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and Adrian Iraola, project manager for the DDA’s Fifth Avenue underground parking project.
Pollay and Iraola were there to talk to the board about the city’s request for a utility easement on library property, to the east of the library’s downtown building. The easement is needed so that the DDA can install a new water main leading to a fire hydrant on Library Lane, a proposed east-west street that would lie between the library on the south and the DDA parking structure on the north.
When the board returned from their executive session, Pollay and Iraola got an unanticipated response – one that’s resulting in an adjustment of the DDA’s construction schedule on the project.
The DDA’s Request
In June 2009, Adrian Iraola of Park Avenue Consultants, who’s contracted with the DDA for management of construction projects, sent a letter to AADL director Josie Parker making the request for a utility easement.
As described in our meeting, the City of Ann Arbor Fire Marshall has requested that a new fire hydrant be installed to provide fire protection coverage for the interior of the block. And she anticipates that the Fire Department will use Library Lane for staging in the event of a fire. Library Lane will be designated by the City as a “private street”, and therefore it will not be possible to bring a water main for this fire hydrant from either Division or Fifth. Thus the granting of an easement to the City by the Ann Arbor District Library to accommodate this new fire hydrant is an essential element in planning for the new parking structure.
The letter also states that the DDA would be responsible for all costs of design, construction and installation, as well as pay for restoration of library property after the installation.
In addition, the city is asking that an electrical transformer and buried cable currently located on city property be relocated to library property, at the DDA’s expense. That line provides electricity to the library, and would serve the parking structure too.
Since the letter was sent in June, attorneys for the library and the city have been negotiating with the goal of drawing up a legal document for the easement. Generally, an easement gives an entity the right to use property that it doesn’t own. Both the library board and Ann Arbor city council would have to approve the easement agreement.
The board has been aware of this easement request for several months. Parker gave them an update at the board’s June 15, 2009 meeting. From Chronicle coverage of that meeting:
The DDA is requesting an easement on land that runs between the AADL building and the University of Michigan Credit Union, located at 333 E. William St. on the east side of the library. The DDA would use that easement to run water and power lines from William Street to serve the parking structure.
The library’s Fifth Avenue building currently gets its power through a line that runs under Fifth. Parker said that if the DDA’s plans for road improvements along Fifth move forward – a separate project – the library will have to get power from another source, such as a feed from William Street.
Parker noted that previously, the library also had been planning its own major project – rebuilding its downtown main branch at the corner of Fifth and William. Though the library board called off that project in late November, citing economic conditions, the DDA’s parking project is still moving ahead, although the authorized bonds have not yet been issued.
There are two requirements that the AADL has regarding an easement, Parker said. First, the library shouldn’t have to pay for any of the easement work – it’s the DDA’s project that requires the easement, she said, so the DDA should have to pay. Second, the library must be careful not to hinder its ability to do any kind of project in the future on its property, she said. No easements should be granted that limit AADL’s flexibility. She said she didn’t have a formal proposal at this time, but wanted the board to know that talks were under way.
Library Board Response
Returning from executive session – which included discussions with the library’s attorney, Jim Adams of Butzel Long – board secretary Margaret Leary said that the library would be happy to continue negotiating the water main easement, but that they also wanted to ask the city to grant an easement to the library for the proposed Library Lane.
Library Lane is an essential element for the library, Leary said, because vehicle access is critical for their programs and services.
Drop-offs at the library have been an issue at the downtown location, because the building’s front door faces Fifth Avenue, a busy one-way street. The design for a new library called for the entrance to face Library Lane. The board voted to suspend that project last November, however, citing the poor economic climate.
In the interim, two issues have arisen that worry the library board. First, the designation for Library Lane has been changed from a public street to a private street, and the library is unclear what the implications of that change might mean for them, including who would be responsible for maintenance and upkeep.
Second, the city has indicated that Library Lane is not a required design element for whatever might be built on top of the parking structure. That issue emerged at a Sept. 25, 2009 mandatory meeting for people interested in responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) for a top-of-the-structure development. [The deadline for submitting RFPs is Friday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m.]
At the Sept. 25 meeting, developers asked city staff whether Library Lane was a required component. City administrator Roger Fraser and Jayne Miller, the city’s community services administrator, urged developers to be creative, and said that the city was flexible in considering alternative designs.
At the library board’s Oct. 19 meeting, Pollay assured board members that the DDA – a city entity that manages parking as well as downtown improvement projects – is committed to building Library Lane as a through street, and recognized its importance to the library. She asked that the board not let the nomenclature of public/private color their understanding of the issue. It had been remiss of her not to bring in the project’s architectural drawings, she said, which would have helped explain the project.
Board vice president Jan Barney Newman said the board understood the DDA’s intention and current project design, but that it was the city – not the DDA – that would be making decisions about the development on top of the parking structure, and that would be contracting with a developer on that site. The library needed to protect itself by getting an easement, she said.
The easement, board members said, should give the library rights from curb to curb – both for the width of Library Lane, and its length from Fifth to Division. Library board member Ed Surovell said the easement was important for the future flexibility of the institution. “I want to be protected,” he said. “I do not wish to find that I fell short.”
Board president Rebecca Head told Pollay that they weren’t going to take a vote on the issue, but that the board was in full agreement. They’d leave it up to their attorney to negotiate with the city, she said.
Public vs. Private Streets
In a follow-up interview with The Chronicle, Pollay explained the rationale behind changing Library Lane from a public street to a private one. The street is designed to be pedestrian-oriented, she said, not car-centric. As such, it’s about two feet narrower than what’s required for a public street, per Michigan Department of Transportation standards. As part of its pedestrian focus, Pollay said, Library Lane’s sidewalks are designed to be wider than those located next to a public street.
In addition, public streets have a 25 mph minimum speed limit – that’s too high for the intended use of Library Lane, Pollay said. As a city-owned private street, the speed limit can be lowered to 10-15 mph, she said.
Another factor: The road is being built over the parking structure, and MDOT codes for public streets don’t accommodate that, Pollay said.
Strategically, the library can benefit from the private-street designation of Library Lane, Pollay added. It will be considered as part of the underground parking structure managed by the DDA. That means the DDA would handle snow removal from the street and sidewalks, giving it higher priority than the street would get if it were plowed by the city, which prioritizes major arteries like Stadium Boulevard and Washtenaw Avenue.
That said, Pollay says she understands the concerns of the library board. Rather than rush negotiations between the city and the library, she said the DDA was rearranging its construction schedule to buy more time. At this point, she said, there is no drop-dead deadline for reaching an agreement.