Ann Arbor City Council Sunday caucus (Jan. 3, 2010): As construction gets started on the underground parking garage on the former surface parking lot next to the downtown library, the city of Ann Arbor is trying to answer the question: What goes on top?
A committee appointed to review the proposals submitted for the city-owned parcel, known as the Library Lot, recently dropped two of those proposals from consideration. [Chronicle coverage: "Two Library Lot Proposals Eliminated"]
The two proposals – one from Ann Arbor residents Alan Haber and Alice Ralph, and the other from a local developer, Dahlmann Apartments Ltd. – both envision the top of the underground garage primarily as open space.
At Sunday’s city council caucus, seven supporters of an open-space use for the Library Lot outnumbered the four councilmembers who attended: Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and mayor John Hieftje.
Conversation at caucus was devoted almost exclusively to the RFP (request for proposals) process and dissatisfaction with its preliminary outcome. On the council’s Monday night agenda is a resolution sponsored by Briere that seeks – “delicately,” in Briere’s words – to address some of that dissatisfaction.
Briere likened the winnowing down of the alternatives in advance of public participation to asking someone if they’d like an apple or a pear – you might get a different answer, she said, if you ask, “What kind of fruit would you like?” Maybe, she said, people want grapefruit.
Briere’s Resolution: Directing Proposers
Sabra Briere’s resolution that will be considered by the council on Monday night is a directive to the proposers who responded to the city’s Library Lot RFP. Its text reads:
Whereas, The RFP advisory committee is charged with making a recommendation to the entire City Council about the proposals submitted in response to the RFP involving the “Library Lot”;
Whereas, The City Council has the right to accept any proposal or reject all proposals; and
Whereas, The City Council should therefore have equivalent information about all six proposals;
RESOLVED, That City Council requests that any proposers eliminated by the RFP advisory committee submit all relevant financial information about their projects to the City Council at their earliest convenience; and
RESOLVED, That any proposers eliminated by the RFP advisory committee be prepared to respond to questions from the City Council in advance of City Council’s consideration of any recommendation the RFP advisory committee may make.
Asked at caucus to explain the rationale behind her resolution, Briere described it as: “This is me being delicate.” It was a way, she said, to get what she wanted, stepping on as few toes as possible.
What she wanted, Briere said, was all the information about all the proposals. She said that up until the last Sunday night caucus – when mayor John Hieftje had stressed that the city council could bring back any proposals it wished to – she’d been under the impression that the council would have to accept or reject the RFP committee’s recommendation. [Chronicle coverage: "Mayor: 'Council can bring back any proposal it wants.'"]
The mayor’s revelation at the last caucus, Briere said, made clear that the council would have the freedom to explore other proposals not recommended by the review committee. But if the council did not have equivalent information on all of the proposals, she said, it would be in no position to make a decision other than up or down on the committee’s recommendation. [City website with .pdf files of all six proposals]
The sense in which Briere’s resolution is intended to step on as few toes as possible is that it does not direct the RFP committee to undertake any action or to undo any of its work to date. Briere noted that she felt it was important as a general principle that committees appointed by the council be given independence to do their work, without interference from council. That did not mean, she cautioned, that the council needed to abide by any committee’s recommendation.
The resolution – by directing the proposers to take an action, as opposed to the committee – is intended to elicit information from eliminated proposers that might have come to light in the course of the next steps of the process. Those next steps include in-person interviews on Jan. 20, which allow 90 minutes for each of the four remaining proposals, during which time questions from the public will be entertained.
If the resolution does not pass, Briere said, then proposers whose projects had already been eliminated, or that were eliminated at future points along the way, could still expect questions from her, if not from the council as a body.
Objections to the Process to Date
It is the exclusion of the two open space proposals in the next steps of the process that residents attending Sunday night’s caucus criticized. The criticisms at caucus mirrored many of those cited in a letter forwarded to the council from several citizens – some of those who signed the letter were in attendance at caucus.
Chief among the objections was that there was an expectation – based on the resolution passed by council establishing the RFP review committee – that the public would be able to weigh in before any decisions on the proposals were made. At caucus, the decision by the committee first to eliminate two of the proposals, and then provide the public with an opportunity to react, was described as “backwards.”
Another objection, raised both in the letter and at caucus, is the membership of the RFP committee. There is no “citizen at large” on the committee who is not also a member of council, city staff, or an appointed city board or commission. Caucus attendees emphasized that they did not question the qualifications of Sam Offen – who’s on the RFP committee and also serves on the city’s park advisory commission – and allowed that “he’s a regular person.” But he was not a citizen who had no connection to other city entities, they said.
At caucus, mayor John Hieftje said that membership on the committee by a park advisory commission member had been seen as useful in light of the fact that the council had expected there would be proposals that included predominantly open space.
Centrally Located Park versus Greenway?
In the Sunday caucus discussion, mayor John Hieftje said that in weighing the merits of a park for the top of the Library Lot, he saw a connection between such a park and the city’s financial ability to realize the vision of a greenway along Allen Creek: “I can’t for the life of me figure how we can maintain a park [at the Library Lot] and a greenway.”
The choice between a centrally located park versus a greenway was rejected by one caucus attendee as an artificial one. She told the mayor that he should not connect the two, based on her support of both. Another caucus attendee suggested that the choice as yet “does not appear to be either-or, but rather neither.”
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) suggested that until the railroad came to the table – which they had not yet – the greenway was unlikely to happen.
When Hieftje expressed concern about security costs associated with a park on top of the underground parking structure, Mike Anglin (Ward 5) offered this solution: “You gate it!”
Vision for Ann Arbor: Where’s Its Heart?
A thread that ran through much of the caucus conversation was the community’s vision for Ann Arbor. When one caucus attendee asked that councilmembers individually and as a group articulate their overall vision for Ann Arbor, mayor John Hieftje noted that he’d done that before in response to a question from The Chronicle and that it could be found online. [Hieftje's vision for Ann Arbor]
Some of that discussion on vision concerned where the “center of Ann Arbor” is. Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Hieftje – who both grew up in Ann Arbor – pointed to the University of Michigan Diag as a natural place where the community gathered. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) allowed that when she’d moved to Ann Arbor in her early 20s, the Diag served that purpose. But she felt its role as a central gathering place for Ann Arbor – as opposed to the university community – was less and less significant.
Caucus attendees saw the Library Lot as an opportunity to define a “heart” of Ann Arbor, which it had not had since the old county courthouse was torn down and a new one built.
Hieftje noted that in a video produced by Kirk Westphal – who serves on the city’s planning commission – people were asked to identify the center of Ann Arbor and that people tended to point to the Main and Liberty intersection. [Link to that video, now available on YouTube: "Insights into a Lively Downtown"]
Another theme that ran through the caucus discussion was the question of public-private partnerships – which some of the hotel/conference center proposals would entail.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) was not bashful at caucus about his opposition to public-private partnerships, and proposed instead that the question of what goes on top of the underground garage could be settled without an RFP process. An alternative that he described would have a public process to determine how much of the area would remain public space and where that space would be located. Then, he said, you draw a line around that, and the rest is available for sale and development through the regular site planning and review process.
The idea of essentially fixing the location of buildable space above the parking structure was also mentioned at caucus by Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who described how other communities had built underground parking garages, placed supporting foundations in a way that dictated where things could be built, and then allowed proposals to be made under those constraints.
As for public-private partnerships and RFP processes for city-owned property, Briere observed that the city did not have a great track record – citing William Street Station (the old YMCA lot), 415 W. Washington, and Village Green as examples. The developer of William Street Station has filed a lawsuit against the city for canceling the project, no recommendation for one of the three proposals was ever rendered by the city’s RFP review committee for 415 W. Washington, and Village Green may or may not happen, depending on the developer’s ability to get financing.