Ann Arbor City Council Sunday caucus (Jan. 31, 2010): At its Sunday night caucus, four city councilmembers heard thoughts from residents on a range of topics. In attendance were John Hieftje (mayor), Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5).
Much of the conversation focused on a resolution added to the council’s Monday agenda on Friday, which calls for restarting a process to develop a city-owned parcel at 415 W. Washington. The land is currently used as a surface parking lot – net revenues from that lot were recently adjusted so that they go to the city of Ann Arbor, not the Downtown Development Authority.
Caucus attendees were generally skeptical about the 415 W. Washington resolution on the council’s agenda. They said it was merely a diversionary tactic to distract attention from the Library Lot, another city-owned property where some are advocating for an urban park. Hieftje disavowed the idea that there was a trade-off – open space at 415 W. Washington, but no urban park at the Library Lot. Hieftje left the Library Lot decision as still open, saying that he “would bet” that none of the submitted proposals would be adopted by the council.
Caucus conversation covered a range of other topics, including: golf, historic districts, and design guidelines for new construction in downtown Ann Arbor.
On the council’s Monday agenda is a resolution to appoint a task force which would oversee the formulation of design guidelines for new projects in downtown Ann Arbor. Those guidelines are the final piece of the A2D2 rezoning project for downtown. The city council recently dissolved the A2D2 oversight committee, with its work largely complete. [See previous Chronicle coverage on design guidelines: "Downtown Design Guides: Must vs. Should," "Another Draft of Downtown Design Guides," and "Zoning, Design Guides on Council's Agenda."]
At Sunday’s caucus, Ray Detter said he thought there was little opposition to the appointment of a task force to look at the final formulation of design guidelines and a plan for their implementation in the planning process. He said that he and numerous other people had been working for years on the idea, and alluded to their participation in the Calthorpe planning process in 2005. When the concept of a design advisory board did not show up in the final draft of the design guidelines document presented in September 2009, Detter said, they were “shocked.” That document had nothing to do with what they had been discussing, he said.
Detter, who serves on the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, reported that this had prompted 16 citizens to meet and go over the design guidelines document to suggest corrections and refinements and additions. They welcomed the appointment of the task force, he said, which he hoped would move their work forward.
He felt that the resulting document would be better than what the city originally proposed. It would include specification of the design guideline review board, an outline of the board’s operation, and a mandatory process with voluntary compliance. Detter wound up his remarks with praise for councilmember Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) for her participation in the A2D2 planning process, as well as for Hieftje. Detter stressed that the board needed above all else people with expertise, people who know what they are talking about.
Norm Tyler sketched out the contents of a handout he had provided to the city council concerning the appointment of the design guidelines task force. He said the document covered (i) problems that have been identified in the city’s original document, (ii) an outline of the responsibility of the task force, and (iii) a sketch of what the design review board could look like. Hieftje said he thought it would be good to take a couple of existing buildings and run them through the proposed process as a way of testing the process. Tyler replied that it was a good idea – this what his group had suggested.
Peter Pollock told the caucus that the job of the design guidelines task force was to prepare guidelines for the council to approve. But he stressed that two things were key: (i) more research needed to be done into how other communities dealt with design guidelines, and (ii) the guidelines needed to reflect the sentiments of this community in Ann Arbor. He echoed the sentiments of Detter in saying that there needed to be people with expertise on the design guidelines board, who understand what a design process actually is.
Part of the work of the task force, Pollack said, would entail determining what specific questions would be on an application for a project – the questions would largely determine the kind of answers that developers would give. Pollack also stressed the importance of making sure that the public was aware of the task force’s process throughout their work. He expressed the hope that the design guidelines would stimulate conversation about quality of design and what is important in a project.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) clarified that the task force would be charged with creating the ordinance and at the conclusion of their work, the entity would be dissolved. But the ordinance would specify the creation of a design guideline review board, which would then have a role in the review of new projects.
Tom Whitaker addressed the caucus on the design guidelines as well, saying that he threw his support to them, echoing remarks that others had made on the subject.
415 W. Washington and the Library Lot
Although mayor John Hieftje explicitly disavowed at Sunday’s caucus any trade-off between the Library Lot and the resolution the council will be addressing on Monday concerning the 415 W. Washington parcel, caucus attendees drew a connection. The idea of restarting a process for development of the 415 W. Washington lot – partly as a park – was a way of directing attention away from the Library Lot, they said.
Last year, the city solicited proposals to develop the top of an underground parking structure that’s being built on city-owned property on South Fifth Avenue, just north of the Ann Arbor District Library. After formal interviews with proposers, the review committee set aside two projects that proposed open space on the Library Lot. The two remaining proposals that will move forward to city council are for hotel/conference centers.
Much of the caucus conversation centered on either the 415 W. Washington resolution, the Library Lot, or the connections people saw between them.
Alan Haber requested additional information about the cost of the footings to be installed in the underground parking structure so that he and his group, which had put forward a Library Lot proposal called the Community Commons, could develop a more precise business plan. The Community Commons, as well as the Ann Arbor Town Square – the two open-space proposals submitted in response to the city’s RFP (request for proposals) for the Library Lot – are not being recommended by the RFP review committee. But Haber pointed out that the council would have his group’s proposal in front of them to consider, even if it did not come in the form of a committee recommendation. [The city council is free to consider any of the proposals.]
Regarding the 415 W. Washington resolution , Ethel Potts said that it “just appeared” and was not on the city clerk’s printed agenda yet. That made things hard to follow, she said, when items were added to the agenda on Friday. At that, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) mused that Friday was better than Monday [the day of the meeting].
Rita Mitchell also spoke about the 415 W. Washington parcel. Mitchell said she appreciated the attention to the greenway, but noted that the parcel is located in Ward 5, said that the resolution should have included both city council representatives of Ward 5. [The sponsors of the resolution are John Hieftje (mayor), Margie Teall (Ward 4), and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5). Teall and Hohnke were absent from the Sunday caucus.]
Mitchell went on to describe the resolution as “loose” and having “no teeth.” She said that she hoped for something “more toothsome.” She emphasized that she hoped that any community involvement in the development of open space at 415 W. Washington would not preclude open space in other areas. This was an apparent allusion to the still-hoped-for outcome for the top of the Library Lot – that one of the two open-space proposals would be considered and adopted by the city council.
Nancy Kaplan followed up on Rita Mitchell’s point, stressing that she felt it was not a matter of shifting energy for community participation towards the 415 W. Washington front but rather it was a matter of shifting away from the Library Lot. “It could be a diversion,” she said. She noted that having an “innovative process of community collaboration” as specified in the council resolution was something that had been explicitly rejected in the two open-space proposals for the Library Lot. “Why now?” she asked. The timing, she said, made it seem like a decision on the Library Lot had already been made. She said she hoped it was not merely a diversion. She echoed Mitchell’s sentiments that there was “not much tooth” in the resolution.
Bob Snyder said he was taken aback by an article that he’d read in AnnArbor.com over the excitement for a process to start planning for 415 W. Washington. He described it as a diversionary tactic. There were 16 “whereas” clauses and four “resolved” clauses, he said. For some of the “whereas” clauses, Snyder said, he couldn’t tell if they were “good, bad or indifferent.” He said he felt like the resolution was simply putting up a straw man while the Library Lot RFP review committee does its deliberations. Why, he wondered, was there no discussion on the agenda about the Library Lot?
Sabra Briere replied to Snyder by saying that the Library Lot would not be coming before the council until March. About the resolution concerning 415 W. Washington, Briere said she did not find out about it until Friday afternoon, just before she met with the mayor. She said she took the resolution to mean that the 415 W. Washington RFP process is broken. She recounted how the RFP review committee for 415 W. Washington had concluded in its final report that none of the three proposals the city had received were good enough to warrant a recommendation, as they did not meet all of the site objectives. And then nothing had happened, she said.
By way of background, the 415 W. Washington RFP review committee made a recommendation in its final report that the vision for the site be revised. They made a recommendation for how the vision should be revised, and said that the revised vision should be provided to the three proposers with an opportunity to respond by the end of March 2009. Asked whether she thought this “ball” from the committee had been in the city council’s or rather the city staff’s “court,” Briere pointed to it as city staff’s responsibility.
Hieftje described the 415 W. Washington resolution as stemming from a look at the greenway task force’s report, combined with his expectation that the historic district commission would not allow the demolition of the 415 W. Washington building. He described the first task of the groups identified in the council’s resolution as raising enough money to fund a full-time person who would then write grants – the mayor felt that there was a lot of money out there, energy grants for example, that could be found. The idea would then be to get matching funds for those grants. This process of writing grants and getting matching funds, he said, could be applied to other properties that could become a part of the greenway.
In response to Kaplan’s question of “Why now?” Hieftje said that the conversation around the Library Lot had inspired the 415 W. Washington resolution, and that it was not a matter of a diversion or any kind of “bait and switch.”
Hieftje said that he himself predicted that the council would recommend “none of the above” after evaluating the proposals for a Library Lot. He said he would bet the top of the underground parking garage would simply be a surface parking lot as a “holding pattern.” As far as the 415 W. Washington resolution, he said he had been in conversation with both the Arts Alliance and Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy, and that both of those organizations were ready to go.
Jack Eaton engaged the mayor in an extended conversation on the 415 W. Washington resolution as compared to the Library Lot. In response to remarks made by Hieftje earlier in the caucus, Eaton said he was happy to learn that the mayor didn’t think there was support on the council for any public financing of the project on the Library Lot. But he pointed out that $50,000 had been allocated by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to pay for a consultant to study the two remaining proposals, which involved public financing. In that light, Eaton said that he hoped that the $50,000 could be saved.
With respect to the 415 W. Washington resolution, Eaton said he hoped the public participation process outlined there would address the shortfall on public participation for the Library Lot process. At that point Hieftje interrupted Eaton, saying there had already been lot of public process around the 415 W. Washington parcel, which had included work by the greenway task force. Eaton acknowledged the previous public process, but noted that the resolution talks about “groups,” saying that the general public also needed to be included. There was then some back-and-forth among the mayor, Briere and Eaton about the exact language of the resolution and whether “individuals who are willing to invest time” was the public that Eaton was talking about.
Eaton summarized his point by saying it was simply important to seek public input early – from taxpayers generally. Hieftje then seemed to suggest that what Eaton meant was that all of the previous work involving public process with the greenway task force should be re-done. Apparently trying to move on to a different point, Eaton offered that they would have to agree to disagree on that point. At that, Hieftje declared, “I’m not disagreeing at all!” The mayor then went on to say that it was the second alternative suggestion for 415 W. Washington from the greenway task force that the resolution was exploring, and that it was clear that’s what they were doing. “It’s clear,” he concluded. To which Eaton replied, “It’s not clear.”
Eaton then transitioned to the topic of the Library Lot. With respect to the Town Square proposal [one of the open-space propsals – an urban park design submitted by Dahlmann Apartments], Eaton said that one argument against it had been that policing it – providing security – was an impediment. However, he noted, policing the proposed 415 W. Washington green space was not seen as having the same kind of impediment. That, contended Eaton, exposed the security argument as a fiction.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) followed up on the point about security by saying that the council was now asking for data from the police chief about resources required to provide security. Eaton continued on the security theme, saying that the underground parking structure itself would need to be policed anyway, with its entrances and exits – it’s not as if an urban park at that location would need separate and distinct policing resources.
Hieftje then told Eaton that Eaton might not have been as aware of the process that the 415 W. Washington parcel went through as those who had been working on it longer. Hieftje said he did not understand what Eaton meant regarding the Library Lot – there was not a trade-off between 415 W. Washington and the Library Lot, the mayor said. Eaton then reiterated his point that the argument against a downtown urban park based on police policing was, he felt, just a reason to claim that the proposals were not economically viable.
Emergency Moratorium in Historic District Study Area
Ethel Potts urged the council to extend the emergency moratorium associated with the historic district study committee for South Fourth and South Fifth avenues. She reported that the committee had been working as fast as it could and that they had been doing their own work.
Tom Whitaker confirmed what Potts had said about the historic district study committee – Whitaker is a member of that committee, but stressed that he was speaking there just as a member and not on behalf of the committee.
Whitaker advised the council that he’d sent them a message regarding state enabling legislation for historic districts. The legislation allows that projects coming before the city during a period of review can be reviewed by the historic district commission, even before a historic district is established. He pointed out that the Heritage Row project [a proposed housing development on South Fifth Avenue previously known as City Place] was coming before the city’s planning commission on Feb. 18.
There was then some discussion among Whitaker, Briere, and Hieftje about the proper sequencing of review for projects that are brought forward in a historic district. There seemed to be a consensus among the three that the project should first go to the historic district commission, followed by the planning commission, and then city council for final approval. The Glen-Ann project was cited as an example of a project that did not follow that sequence – a lawsuit was filed and eventually settled over that project.
Included in the caucus conversation were some development topics not related to 415 W. Washington or the Library Lot.
Tom Whitaker, who touched on a variety of topics, also alerted the council to the fact that a project called The Moravian [proposed on East Madison] would be coming before them as a planned unit development. [See Chronicle coverage: "Moravian Moves Forward, Despite Protests"] Whitaker said he did not think that the Moravian rose to the level of what a PUD requires in terms of the public benefit required by city code. LEED certification, Whitaker said, should be a matter of course, and environmental certification was not a public benefit in the sense of the code. A PUD project, he continued, should benefit the use of immediately surrounding parcels. Required elements – like storm water retention – should not count as a public benefit, he said.
General State of Real Estate
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) conveyed the concerns of a resident of Ward 5, which he represents, who was unable to attend the caucus. The resident lives on Jackson Road, where there are hotels. In contemplating the possibility of a hotel built on the Library Lot, the resident wondered, “Who do we want to put out of business?” Anglin noted that hotels are currently only about 50% occupied.
Another concern of the resident, Anglin said, was that there was a lot of empty commercial square footage for rent, in and around downtown Ann Arbor. Mayor John Heiftje replied to concerns about empty space for rent by citing the hour and a half that a PBS television crew had spent with him last year, saying that they had told him they were surprised by the relatively low rates of unoccupied space. They were impressed, Hieftje said, by how well Ann Arbor was doing in comparison to other places they had seen.
Nancy Kaplan also asked about the city’s golf courses and the municipal service charges, as well as the IT charges, that had been assessed to the enterprise fund out of which they are operated. “Why can’t there be cuts made there, instead of cutting services or selling land to generate more revenue?”
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) offered an explanation of the municipal service charges and IT charges by saying that they were “kind of mythical.” She described them as being included in financial reports for the “enlightenment of council.” But she said it was not a matter of literally taking money from one place in the general fund and putting it in another place in the general fund. “They’re not real charges,” she stressed. “We are assured that they are not real charges, we are told that the charges reflect what it would cost if they were assessed.”
Kaplan said that the charges were confusing. Briere allowed that municipal service charges for the golf courses versus other funds, which had more employees than were accounted for in the golf fund, made the charges for the golf enterprise fund seem “a bit high.” Briere said that efforts to combine IT services with the county should result in some savings and that she expected to see IT charges go down.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) drew on his previous experience serving on the city’s park advisory commission, pointing out that golf is the only recreational activity assigned to an enterprise fund. If golf were handled within the general fund, Kunselman contended, it would not have municipal service charges and people could not point to the golf fund as failing. Golf as a recreational activity had been “set up to fail,” he said.
Referring to Kaplan’s suggestion that attempts be made to cut the amount of useful service charges and IT funds, Kunselman described the situation as “not a matter of cutting – it’s a matter of accounting.” Referring to Kaplan’s objection to the selling of any parks, Hieftje said that he would be surprised if she could find any councilmember in favor of selling a park.