Ann Arbor Planning Priorities Take Shape

Will the accessory dwelling debate be revived?

Ann Arbor Planning Commission retreat (March 30, 2010): In a 3.5-hour retreat that covered topics from accessory dwellings to zoning, Ann Arbor’s planning commissioners started mapping out priorities for the coming year and beyond. The city’s planning staff also attended the informal session, giving background, updates and feedback for the discussion.

Kirk Westphal

Kirk Westphal, an Ann Arbor planning commissioner, adds a topic to the whiteboard filled with possible projects. Read this article to find out what word he's writing. (Photos by the writer.)

After reviewing ongoing efforts like the A2D2 design guidelines and sign ordinance revisions, commissioners brainstormed ideas that filled a whiteboard with potential projects, and spent much of their session trying to prioritize those ideas.

There was much overlap among the ideas and projects discussed, which included issues of sustainability, affordable housing, transportation, commercial corridor areas and the need for better citizen participation – or, as one commissioner suggested, citizen education.

The retreat, held at the Michigan Information Technology Center on South State, included a bit of a history lesson, too. Commissioners heard about previous efforts to allow more accessory dwellings in residential neighborhoods. In the late 1990s, a prior planning commission had seen accessory dwellings as a relatively non-controversial change. But backlash by some residents was harsh, with the mayor ultimately refusing to bring the recommended changes to council. Jean Carlberg, who was on city council at the time, recalled that period: “It was ugly.”

Updates on Current Projects

For the first part of the retreat, commissioners got updates from staff on several ongoing projects: A2D2 design guidelines; the R4C/R2A zoning district study; the Area, Height and Placement (AHP) project; sign ordinance revisions; historic district work; and the fiscal 2011 budget.

A2D2 Design Guidelines

Jean Carlberg asked for an update on the status of design guidelines for the A2D2 project. Alexis DiLeo, who’s managing that project, reported that a task force appointed by city council in February would be focusing on the review process – including what types of projects would be subject to design review, and who actually reviews them. The task force met on March 24 for the first time.

Wendy Rampson reported that two of the task force members – Norm Tyler and Peter Pollack – thought there would be more of a public input component to the group’s work. City councilmember Marcia Higgins made it pretty clear that the public input had already happened, Rampson said. [Other task force members are Tamara Burns, Bill Kinley and Dick Mitchell. Kirk Westfall is the planning commission representative.]

Rampson also said she sensed some relief on the part of Tyler and Pollack that the work done by a self-appointed citizens review committee, of which they’d been a part, was being respected. [The task force is charged with merging a draft of the A2D2 design guidelines, which were prepared by the consultant Winter & Co., with guidelines prepared by the citizens committee.]

Carlberg asked how much the two documents differed. DiLeo said there were wording changes – things like “provide social gathering areas” rather than “create a sense of community.” She described it as a lot of refinements. The citizens committee also didn’t like the photos in the report, so Tyler has volunteered to take new ones.

The meat of the citizens committee’s comments, DiLeo said, relate to process. They proposed that projects be reviewed by a design review board, which would provide a non-binding recommendation. Westphal clarified that they proposed a mandatory review, with voluntary compliance. He recalled that at a public forum held last year at the Kerrytown Concert House, it seemed that most people wanted a mandatory review, but there were split views about whether compliance should be mandatory or voluntary.

DiLeo said that the task force seems to be leaning toward mandatory review and voluntary compliance, but that “the lean might move as we get into it.”

[Previous Chronicle coverage: "Mandatory Process Likely for Design Guides" and "Downtown Design Guides: Must vs. Should"]

R4C/R2A Zoning District Study

Tony Derezinski, who also represents Ward 2 on the city council, wondered what the timeline was for the R4C/R2A Zoning District Study. Matt Kowalski is the project manager for that effort – he reported that they were planning to hold another community workshop in April. In addition, a survey was going out in April to students who live in the R4C/R2A areas, asking about their residential preferences and whether there are any issues related to where they currently live.

Wendy Rampson asked Derezinski – who’s a member of the study committee – whether the work was progressing as he’d envisioned. He told her that he was glad they’d had so much public input, and noted that Jean Carlberg – another committee member – had brought landlords into the discussion.

No additional timetable for completion of the project was mentioned. The Chronicle followed up in an email to Rampson, who responded that the project was originally intended to wrap up in September 2010, but it’s running several months behind schedule. The delay has been caused by taking time to meet with additional stakeholders, according to Rampson.

Area, Height & Placement

Commissioner Evan Pratt asked whether there were any substantive changes in amendments to the Area, Height & Placement (AHP) project. [For a primer on AHP, see Chronicle coverage: "Zoning 101: Area, Height, Placement"] The amendments would adjust the density, height, and setback requirements of existing zoning districts.

Jeff Kahan, AHP project manager, reported that there will be at least three more public meetings on the proposal: A community forum, a public hearing at planning commission, and a public hearing at city council.

For the community forum, Jean Carlberg asked how they’d ensure that commercial interests are represented. Public meetings on AHP tend to be dominated by neighbors, she said. “This is an imbalance.” Should they be doing a different kind of outreach?

Bonnie Bona, who chairs the planning commission, pointed out that the AHP technical advisory committee had several landlords and developers involved from the beginning of the process. Wendy Rampson asked whether they should reconvene that committee, or perhaps tap the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce’s public policy group to get feedback. Diane Giannola wondered whether it would be useful to have a meeting just for business owners.

Kahan noted that he gets a “fair share” of calls from property owners and developers who are waiting to see the revised amendments. Those amendments are likely to be ready for the planning commission to review in May.

Sign Ordinance

Commissioner Jean Carlberg questioned plans to dissolve the current Sign Board of Appeals and move their work to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Chris Cheng, project manager for efforts to amend Chapter 61 of the city code on sign and outdoor advertising, said one goal was to reduce the number of committees and boards. Alexis DiLeo pointed out that the Sign Board of Appeals had difficulty finding members to serve, and difficulty getting enough people to a meeting for a quorum. There will be additional training for the Zoning Board of Appeals about their new responsibilities.

Wendy Rampson reported that the former chair of the board, Steve Schweer, had quit because he was unhappy over a lack of enforcement of the sign ordinances. That’s about to change, she added – Cheng would be starting to ramp up enforcement in April. Looking somewhat glum about that prospect, Cheng said, “There are a lot of illegal signs out there.”

[The Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce has notified its members of the increased enforcement. From an email newsletter sent out on March 31, 2010:]

Beginning on April 1, 2010, the City Community Standards Unit and Planning Division will contact offending businesses. Businesses will be provided with written notice to remove illegal signage within 24 hours. If prohibited signage is not removed, City staff will pursue enforcement pursuant to Section 5:518 of the City Code. Prohibited signage will be removed, and misdemeanor citations with fines ranging from $100 to $500 will issue. Illegal signage in the public right-of-way may be removed and destroyed without notice.

According to a memo from Rampson to planning commissioners, amendments are being developed to Chapter 61 aimed at removing inconsistencies in language and making the ordinance more understandable. City council will receive recommendations for changes in the next few months.

Historic Districts

Wendy Rampson reported that Jill Thacher is doing a survey of the Old West Side historic district, identifying contributing and non-contributing structures. Jean Carlberg said it’s hard to get support on city council for historic districts, because most property owners within a proposed district don’t want it. She noted that Kristine Kidorf, who’s a project consultant on the South Fourth and South Fifth Avenue Historic District Study Committee, seems to have identified every building within the proposed district as historic. “It’s a big change,” Carlberg said.

Thacher clarified that for the proposed South Fourth/Fifth Avenue district, the boundaries were actually drawn with the intent of capturing as many contributing structures as possible, and avoiding non-contributing structures. The committee felt like all but one building – a garage – could be classified as contributing structures, she said. But because of concerns raised by Diane Giannola and others, the committee would be revisiting their recommendations. It seemed likely that by the time the proposal went to city council, a few more structures would be designated as non-contributing.

Responding to a query from one of the commissioners, Thacher explained that it was easier to do renovations – like replacing windows or adding a porch – if a structure in an historic district was designated as non-contributing.

The South Fourth/Fifth Avenue study committee plans to hold a public hearing on their recommendations in May, and submit their report to council in June. The planning commission will be discussing the committee’s draft report at their April 6 meeting.

Zoning Ordinance Reorganization (ZORO)

This project is underway to overhaul 11 chapters of the city code that are related to development. The goal is to present the material in a more concise, user-friendly way. The project is being handled by the consulting firm Clarion Associates – a draft is being reviewed by staff, and will likely be available for public review by early May. Commissioners did not discuss ZORO at the retreat, though it was noted in a list of ongoing projects.

Evaluations: A2D2 and Citizen Participation

Also on the planning commission’s To Do list is the evaluation of the city’s citizen participation ordinance, which took effect Jan. 1, 2009. [.pdf file of citizen participation ordinance] The commission will also be evaluating the new A2D2 zoning changes in the coming year. Wendy Rampson noted that a project being proposed by Zingerman’s Deli on Detroit Street is the first one that’s affected by the A2D2 zoning. [See Chronicle coverage: "Zingerman's: Making It Right for the HDC"] The second one coming along is Zaragon Place 2 at William and Thompson – developers are holding a citizen participation forum on April 12.

Fiscal 2011 Planning Budget

Responding to a query by Evan Pratt, Wendy Rampson reported that for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, the planning department’s budget includes $95,000 for a master plan update, $90,000 for a Washtenaw Avenue corridor study and $65,000 for a zoning code rewrite. The money is coming from general fund reserves for one-time projects, but they’ll use some of it for staff salaries as well, she said.

Pratt said the $95,000 for the master plan wouldn’t be sufficient to do the land use update, and Rampson agreed. It could take three times that amount for a consultant to do that work, she said.

As a final budget note, Rampson reported that the upcoming budget kept all five city planners – Chris Cheng, Alexis DiLeo, Jeff Kahan, Matt Kowalski and Jill Thacher – but they are losing some administrative support staff. She praised the staff, who all attended Tuesday night’s retreat. “You have an amazing resource with this planning staff,” she told commissioners.

Brainstorming: What’s the Big Idea?

The second part of the retreat focused on brainstorming projects that planning commissioners are interested in tackling in the coming year or more. Later there was an attempt to prioritize these ideas, which resulted in more of a conceptual exercise that revealed how some commissioners linked the different ideas being considered.

Section of a whiteboard with brainstorming ideas

Section of a whiteboard with brainstorming ideas generated during an Ann Arbor Planning Commission retreat. (Links to larger image of entire whiteboard)

First, we’ll present the brainstorming ideas as they were proposed:

  • Diane Giannola: A community-wide discussion about historic districts, and their impact on the city and on development. There can be community guidance about how strict or how loose the Historic District Commission should be. For example, she pointed out that the HDC basically ignores enforcement of paint colors.
  • Bonnie Bona: A community discussion about all aspects of sustainability, and how that should inform the city’s master plan.
  • Erica Briggs: Research on best practices as it relates to citizen participation. There’s frustration among some in the community that their voices aren’t being heard, she said, and frustration from staff that the same people are always in the room. City planner Jeff Kahan added a component of civil discourse – how to encourage it – and Diane Giannola said it was important to encourage people to come out in support of projects, not just in opposition.
  • Eric Mahler and Evan Pratt: Pushing forward with the Washtenaw Avenue corridor study, but also to expand that effort to other corridors, including the South State Street and Plymouth Road areas.
  • Jean Carlberg: Rezoning of non-conforming properties as it relates to lot size. Some older areas have very small lot sizes, she said, and that hampers what kind of work can be done in those areas.
  • Tony Derezinski: Graphic modeling of potential future downtown development. There’s been a focus on development for the city-owned Library Lot, he said, but there needs to be a broader look at that entire area, including the former YMCA site and the AATA Blake Transit Center. He pointed out that the modeling should include public and private land, noting that Bill Martin owns some “nice hunks of property there.”
  • Kirk Westphal: The role of land use and economic vitality, as a leg in the “sustainability stool.” The planning commission is charged with looking at land use, and in a way, he said, land is the city’s wallet – since the city gets revenue from property taxes. He wanted to see more information about budget impacts resulting from decisions on land use.
  • Wendy Rampson: The Allen Creek Greenway – it’s a topic that keeps coming up, she said, and she wondered if there was a role for the planning commission in discussing it. Sue McCormick, the city’s public services area administrator, is looking at the greenway as a stormwater issue, Rampson said. In that context, she added, Jerry Hancock – Ann Arbor’s stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator – could work to acquire land, tear down houses and string together properties for a greenway. Or is that a role for planning?
  • Jean Carlberg: Social sustainability, as it relates to a range of housing options. Rampson said this was known as full-spectrum housing – places to live in a wide range of affordability. Erica Briggs noted that part of the issue relates to how people spend their money – places might be affordable, but people instead choose a lifestyle that requires two cars, for example. Different transportation choices could make housing more affordable.
  • Tony Derezinski: A comprehensive look at all types of transportation, including non-motorized, and how that affects development. Assuming that mass transit plays a larger role in the future, how will that affect entrances to the city? It’s broader than just the Fuller Road Station project, he said.
  • Kirk Westphal: The role of TIF districts (tax increment financing) in the city’s commercial corridors, and how that relates to economic development. There are a lot of misconceptions about how the Downtown Development Authority is funded by TIF, he said. It’s worth exploring whether TIF districts would be an effective way to fund development of the city’s corridors, like Washtenaw Avenue and South State Street. The topic prompted Evan Pratt to observe: “All the entrances to town are ugly.” There need to be goals for those areas, he said, to improve them.
  • Wendy Rampson: The floodplain ordinance and brownfields as a planning tool were two additional topics that the commission might consider tackling, Rampson said.

Making Connections and Prioritizing

After taking a break for dinner, the planning commissioners and planning staff discussed in more detail many of the topics they’d raised earlier in the evening.

Corridors and the Master Plan

Eric Mahler took the first crack at trying to prioritize ideas from the brainstorming session, which Wendy Rampson had written down on sticky notes and posted on a whiteboard. He noted that concepts like sustainability, transportation, fiscal impacts and such were fairly malleable, but that they all related to things that were concrete – like zoning.

With that in mind, he pulled out the corridors project, and made that the hub from which other ideas – sustainability, transportation, full-spectrum housing, etc. – tied in as spokes on a wheel. [link to image of his "world view"] Approaching a project in this way would generate a lot of public discussion, he said.

Evan Pratt said that the corridors project was at the top of his list.

Bonnie Bona observed that when viewed in the way that Mahler had organized it, the corridors project was linked closely with the master plan. The master plan really focuses on commercial districts, and that’s what the corridors are. Pratt described it as a matter of scope or scale.

Rampson said that the master plan included a section on the West Stadium Boulevard corridor, but the others corridors weren’t well-articulated. Jeff Kahan suggested that a section on the city’s corridors could be added to the master plan – it’s a document that can continue to be supplemented, he said.

Kirk Westphal said it might be useful to think of areas as “nodes” rather than corridors. That way, areas like Lowertown and Westgate could be included in the discussion. To avoid getting people bogged down in labels, Pratt had yet another suggestion – refer to them as “opportunity areas.”

Sustainability: What’s It Mean?

Jean Carlberg asked Bonnie Bona what she meant by sustainability, which Bona had brought up in the brainstorming session. Bona replied that it was something the community needed to decide: “That’s the first question – what is it?”

She added that sustainability is an all-or-nothing concept – something is either sustainable, or it isn’t. Bona also identified three elements of sustainability: environmental quality, social equity, and economic vitality. “I don’t think we look at any one of them as a planning commission,” she said. [link to image of Bona's arrangement of topics, with sustainability at the hub]

Kirk Westphal said that tangentially, the commission does deal with those elements of sustainability. He also stressed the importance of looking at a “sustainability watershed” – that is, a broader geographic area within which a community is sustainable. For example, adding another resident to the city increases its carbon footprint, he said, but “do we take one for the team?” Westphal also noted that even the worst non-LEED building in the city is better than the greenest structure five miles outside of town, if you have to drive there.

The concept of sustainability also touched on fiscal impacts of development. Westphal noted that when he talked about “the city’s money” earlier in the discussion, Pratt had remarked that it’s everyone’s money. Pratt is right, Westphal said – it’s taxpayers’ money. But the positive aspects of adding to the tax base through development are rarely mentioned. People talk about “greedy developers,” but they don’t look at how the taxes generated from a development go toward plowing the streets, for example.

Pratt noted that as the tax base shrinks, the current levels of service are no longer sustainable – unless people are willing to pay more for the same services.

Jeff Kahan asked if they should care whether a project has financial benefits. Mahler said it’s a gray area. Westphal added that it’s also a question of who decides what “financial benefit” means.

Some communities talk about having the infrastructure and processes in place to be “development ready,” Rampson said. But in Ann Arbor, there tends to be a fairly antagonistic attitude toward development, with some members of the community saying they want high-quality development. In that case, Pratt quipped, “sustainability” means “don’t change anything.”

Tony Derezinski pointed out that there are generally two sides to the issue of financial benefits. Those that oppose development typically argue that the city can’t absorb more housing units, for example. Meanwhile, the developer argues that if they’re successful, they’ll generate tax revenue for the city.

Mahler noted that there’s also a distinction between residential projects and commercial projects. It doesn’t make him mad if a new residential development causes slumlords go out of business – they need to step up their game. But the same isn’t true for commercial developments, he said. At any rate, he wasn’t sure it was within the commission’s purview to make those considerations.

Diane Giannola said it seemed like they’d be overstepping their bounds to determine what types of businesses could be located in certain areas. Mahler pointed out that in a certain sense they already do this, with zoning.

Mahler then brought the discussion back to sustainability – how is it determined on a project-level basis?

Bona recounted a lecture she’d attended at the University of Michigan Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning. The speaker was developing computer-aided design (CAD) technology to model “interactive neighborhoods.” As an alternative to zoning districts, he’d written a program that would determine how much “happier” or “sadder” a specific site would become, depending on changes made to surrounding sites. Bona said that on a couple of recent planned unit developments (PUDs) that had been presented to planning commission, those zoning boundaries were difficult. Zoning is a hard line on the map, she said, but what difference does it make going a little bit beyond those lines? The CAD modeling approach made it possible to throw out those boundaries.

“It sounds expensive,” Mahler joked.

Rampson pointed out another issue – how would the city codify something like that? You can articulate goals, she said, but you also have to find a way to implement those goals using codes that can be applied generally.

Pratt suggested that coming up with incentives – a “bonus 2.0″ system – would be an easier way to achieve their goals, rather than changing the city’s zoning code. He noted that these ideas were all long-term visions, and he wondered where they should start. Also, he said, they didn’t seem to be winnowing down their list of projects: “We haven’t made our volume of work any less – we’ve expanded it,” he said.

Rampson told commissioners that if they wanted staff to focus on sustainability, they needed to say so – otherwise, it would be easy for staff to get diverted to other projects.

Pratt said although he’d enjoyed the conversation about sustainability, until they had even more discussion, he didn’t want to issue a staff directive to pursue it. He wanted to have a conversation about sustainability at the same time as they discussed the South State Street corridor, which he felt was a more pressing issue.

[Related to the issue of exploring sustainability, Bona has scheduled a joint meeting of the city's planning, environmental and energy commissions on Tuesday, April 13, 2010 in the lower level conference room of the county administration building, 200 N. Main St. The meeting is open to the public and begins at 7 p.m.]

Citizen Participation – or Education – and Civil Discourse

Tony Derezinski picked up the topic of citizen participation that Erica Briggs had introduced during the brainstorming session. Taking that as the hub, he arranged the other topics around it, noting that public input was central to everything they did. [link to image of Derezinski's organization of topics]

Erica Briggs, Tony Derezinski

Planning commissioners Erica Briggs and Tony Derezinski, who also represents Ward 2 on city council.

Right now, the community is at a threshold, as it tries to re-envision what it wants to become, he said. Regardless of the subject – whether it’s historic districts, or affordable housing, or alternative transportation – how does the planning commission overcome misconceptions to get out the truth?

Diane Giannola agreed, but added that instead of citizen participation, she’d call it citizen education. Derezinski suggested changing “citizen” to “community.”

Often, the public just doesn’t understand things like historic districts or accessory dwellings, Giannola said. She suggested incorporating a lecture or educational component into each of the commission’s meetings.

Alexis DiLeo recalled a project in the past – one that “withered on the vine” – related to “road dieting” and street standards. She said she spent a lot of time “educating” the engineering staff about the benefits of narrower roads, while they spent time “educating” her about the advantages of wider roads. She cautioned that while planning commissioners might think they needed to educate people about the benefits of higher density, some residents might think the reverse is true – that the planning commission should be educated on the value of low density.

Giannola said she thought of it more as trying to inform, rather than convince.

Pratt said he thought citizen participation was something they could work on constantly. The frustration he had was that after decisions are made, people who don’t like the decision continue to chip away at it. That’s the part of the process that could be more civil, he said.

Briggs contended that there were simple thing that could be done, like answering emails. Conspiracy theories develop when people send an email and no one responds, she said. Rampson said that responding was sometimes difficult when emails came at 6 p.m. on the evening of a planning commission meeting. She noted that they’d discussed setting up an automated response, something that would email a reply to the sender acknowledging that their message had been received.

Westphal expressed some skepticism that it was possible to reach everyone. He reported that he’d encountered someone he knew who was a graduate student in urban planning, and who lived close by to the proposed Moravian project. Even though she was a highly engaged person interested in urban planning issues, she didn’t know about it, he said. “I don’t want to rain on the education parade, but …”

Accessory Dwellings

City planner Alexis DiLeo floated what she described as a possible one-year project: The rezoning of non-conforming neighborhoods, and possibly revisiting the accessory dwellings issue. Though there had been “community discontent” over accessory dwellings the last time changes had been proposed, maybe in light of the economic downturn, she said, it was worth another look.

Kirk Westphal asked for a description of what happened the last time it was proposed, and Wendy Rampson provided a bit of background. People were using accessory dwellings illegally, she said – it was something the market was pushing. The proposal to change city code to allow for accessory dwellings came out of a 1999 blue ribbon committee on affordable housing, which proposed various strategies to increase affordable housing stock. It was seen as a way to achieve that goal without new buildings, she said.

Staff and planning commissioners at the time – including Margaret Leary and Sandy Arlinghaus – thought of it as “low-hanging fruit,” Rampson recalled.

As an aside, Leary had used that exact phrase at a meeting of the Ann Arbor District Library board in December 2009, when board members heard University of Michigan student proposals for development on the city-owned Library Lot. From The Chronicle report of that meeting:

Leary described her experience as a former Ann Arbor planning commissioner, noting that the commission couldn’t even get approval to allow accessory dwelling units in the city – a zoning change that was originally seen as low-hanging fruit, she said, but that was “flattened” after two years of public debate.

How is it possible to focus on the greater community good, she asked, when some people will pick apart each project based on their own pet goals, from affordable housing to green space? Even when those goals are desirable for the community overall, if every project is forced to address them, then creative development is stymied.

At Tuesday’s retreat, Rampson said that people on the Old West Side generally didn’t have a problem with it, since the area had a history of carriage houses and outbuildings. But some residents of North Burns Park and the Orchard Hills-Maplewood neighborhoods opposed the plan. They’d had problems with unscrupulous landlords packing houses full of renters, she said, and felt that accessory dwellings would be used to exploit their neighborhoods for student housing.

After intense debate – which Jean Carlberg described as “ugly” – the planning staff was directed to stop work on the project. “I’ve never had a situation where the mayor refused to take something before council, but that’s what happened,” Rampson said.

Because it was seen as low-hanging fruit, it’s possible that there wasn’t sufficient education and communication about the proposal, Rampson added. Jeff Kahan noted that student neighborhoods had been excluded from allowing accessory dwellings, but even so, people were concerned that duplexes would be allowed.

Accessory dwellings can be used to increase density incrementally, Rampson said, and it especially makes sense in times of economic distress. It would be useful for older adults who want to stay in their homes but who need some help, or for people who need some extra income to cover their mortgage. She reported that in California, the state legislature mandated that accessory dwellings be incorporated into local zoning laws – that measure was necessary because there was such resistance to change on the local level.

There is a way to achieve an accessory dwelling unit now, by applying for a special exception use. Only one such application has been made in more than a decade. Rampson said the process required to get the special exception – which includes a public hearing – likely has a chilling effect. The special exception use also differs from an accessory dwelling in that only someone who’s related to the property owner can live there, and no rent can be charged.

Who Takes the Lead?

Jeff Kahan wondered whether the city council had directives for planning that hadn’t been discussed so far. He noted that of the list of projects underway, half of them had been requests from council. What role do councilmembers want to play in this process – how much do they want to be involved?

Evan Pratt said he was leery of asking staff to pursue a major initiative, without having some kind of discussion with the city council. Tony Derezinski, who presents Ward 2 on city council and is a planning commissioner, said it was his role to keep his council colleagues apprised about what the planning commission was doing. But the council should show some deference to the planning commission, he said, just as planning commissioners should show deference to staff. “There’s a sequence of deference there,” he said.

Communication will also happen in other ways, Derezinski said – there’s a lot of informal discussion among councilmembers, so “council will know what’s going on,” he said, describing it as an “informal network of information.”

Rampson weighed in on the issue too. Planning commissioners have been appointed to be “the voice of planning in the city,” she said. City code supports that view, she added: “You’ve been appointed to provide that leadership in the community.”

Yet as the retreat came to a close, Rampson said her sense was that the group hadn’t reached a consensus about priorities, and others agreed they needed more discussion. Bonnie Bona noted that organizing the ideas by creating “wheels” had been helpful in showing the interconnectedness of topics, but that also made it difficult to pull out individual topics and prioritize them.

The commission plans follow-up discussions in the coming months.

Present: Commissioners Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal. Staff: Wendy Rampson, Chris Cheng, Alexis DiLeo, Jeff Kahan, Matthew Kowalski, Jill Thacher.

Absent: Comissioner Wendy Woods.


  1. April 6, 2010 at 3:06 am | permalink

    I have come around on the accessory dwellings issue, assuming that good safeguards are built in to be sure that the program achieves its stated objectives and not some unwanted outcomes. I can see how accessory apartments in neighborhoods where houses are too big for a couple or a single could actually help preserve neighborhood integrity and historic dwellings. After sitting through a number of hours of hearing frustrated “young professionals” say they didn’t want to live in student slums, I can see how accessory apartments could provide decent housing for this group while assisting the homeowner to maintain an older, larger house. (A separate problem that would need to be addressed is the adequacy of our rental housing inspection program.)

    The talk about “educating” the public has a chilling implication to me. Sounds as though those troublesome citizens would get on board if only they could just get the message – are the commissioners really talking about “re-education”?

  2. By suswhit
    April 6, 2010 at 5:08 am | permalink

    Completely agree with Vivian. Especially on the idea of certain planning commissioners thinking they need to teach us how to think. After attending a few meetings, I’m not sure all of them are adequately educated for placement in their own chairs let alone qualified or insightful enough to teaching anybody anything. One might think that they could stand to learn a little (or a lot) from the citizens they supposedly represent.

  3. By abc
    April 6, 2010 at 8:24 am | permalink

    VA wrote, “I have come around on the accessory dwellings issue…” I guess this means you were against it ten years ago.

    VA further wrote, “After sitting through a number of hours of hearing frustrated “young professionals” say they didn’t want to live in student slums, I can see how accessory apartments could provide decent housing for this group…” It looks like that ‘number of hours’ was just what you needed to be educated.

    It is indeed too bad that eleven years of doing nothing to bring about accessory dwelling units leaves us where we are today. After another year or two of planning and adopting ordinance language (assuming of course the others who were against this concept have also spent a ‘number of hours’ thinking about the issue) it will be years before ADUs get knitted into the city.

  4. April 6, 2010 at 10:07 am | permalink

    Re #3, I was not active in the opposition to accessory dwellings though I had friends in the two neighborhoods mentioned who were and I sympathized with their position.

    Actually, my “education” has been over years of listening to our density debate and Murph (Richard Murphy) finally swung me around to a definite support position when he made some good points in a recent public forum, which I have tried to reflect in my comment above. I’m ready to advocate for this concept now.

  5. By abc
    April 6, 2010 at 11:18 am | permalink

    With all due respect Ms. Armentrout saying, “I was not active” but that you sympathized with friends who opposed this reads as disingenuous. I was not actively lobbying for or against ADUs ten years ago either but I had an opinion, and so did you. I made no reference to whether you were actively persuading anyone to agree with you.

    Also with all due respect to Mr. Murphy I will guess that his ‘recent’ arguments are not based on ‘recent’ revelations that were not available ten years ago (or more). ADUs have been a good idea for a long time. Many east coast cities have them by default because they did not want to see all of their carriage houses and accessory buildings torn down. In many neighborhoods in the Midwest that are not that old you have to build the accessory structure rather than adapt it.

    I think Mr. Murphy is offering the same arguments as were made ten years ago and for many years before that. I point this out because you, Ms. Armentrout, want to say that it is the citizens who know better, and by inference then knew better ten years ago. You are ‘chilled’ at the thought that maybe citizens need to be educated and ‘chilled’ that city officials made reference to educating them (us). But then you turn right around and admit to being educated yourself by listening to a city official who knows something about planning and who has been trying to get the word out for some time.

    The arguments for ADUs have been around for decades (heck, I could argue centuries) and now you are a convert and a willing advocate even. So just how do you plan on being an advocate …and will that come with a side of education?

  6. April 6, 2010 at 12:07 pm | permalink

    Re #5: at least I post under my own name. I don’t understand how I have now assumed all the blame for this policy debate. But I guess you need to vent.

  7. By abc
    April 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm | permalink

    “I don’t understand how I have now assumed all the blame for this policy debate.”

    I am not blaming you for this policy debate. I am pointing out that your story about coming around to ADU’s contradicts your fear about professional planners (in this case) educating the public. You admit those planners (Mr. Murphy in this case) educated you, yet you also want to sow fear about people learning more. Re-read the last paragraph of your original post and ask yourself what you were trying to accomplish.

    Oh and …”at least I post under my own name.” You’re kidding right? While he may have changed recently, Mr. Murphy does not post under his name, neither for that matter did (does?) Dave Askins (outside the Chronicle). I missed where you chided them for it. There is a great tradition of writing fictitiously and anonymously. There are also many reasons for doing so. Would my comments take on a different meaning if I signed, Abraham Clark?

  8. April 6, 2010 at 7:55 pm | permalink

    Always interesting to find oneself a major topic of discussion around a meeting one wasn’t at. Hmmm.

    And, just to make sure things are clear to innocent passerby, as I’m possibly being given more credit than I deserve by all involved,

    * ABC, I am not, nor have I ever been, employed by the City of Ann Arbor. (Boy, that sounds defensive, doesn’t it? And I was once an intern at the DDA, which is similar to city employ.) A minor point, but Vivienne was not educated, or re-educated, or what have you, by a city official.

    * Second, I wasn’t involved in the ADU discussion /at all/ when it first came up in 2001(ish?). I came late to that party, picking it up as one of my personal cause celebres a few years later.

    * Third, Vivienne: you sounded like you’d pretty well convinced yourself when we talked after the forum. I’ll have to remember what exactly I said that crystallized it.

    * And, finally, for what it’s worth, I have been posting under my name for as long as I’ve been online (16 years?) – if not my full name, then at least the one that my coworkers and employers know me by. (And have disclosed and discussed my online presence to potential employers – their being cool with it tends to be among my conditions for employment.) But that doesn’t mean I grudge anybody who comments more opaquely – I tend to think that, relative to how I’d consider a statement on its content, attribution sometimes lends credence to a statement, but anonymity rarely detracts from it.

  9. April 6, 2010 at 8:47 pm | permalink

    Murph, remember that we also had a discussion about this on Arbor Update a few months ago. You made (as always) some very cogent points. (Everyone posting regularly on Arbor Update knew who Murph and HD were. It was part of the game to have code names. Parking Structure Dude!, step forward!)

  10. April 7, 2010 at 8:55 am | permalink

    What I read in the discussion about education is that there is both a place for the planning commission and department to explain their reasons and to gather input from citizens, that there is a place for both education and dialogue.

    I don’t think the planning department has done a good job at either. What I heard from people like Jack Eaton at the AHP process was that they were not understanding the impetus behind the project. Or, said differently, the planning department had not done a good job educating people about the reason for the proposed changes.

    I saw them try, I just don’t think they accomplished it well.

    That set up a dynamic where the public engagement and dialogue was already polarized. I heard a culture of mistrust among many members of the public in the AHP forums, and it’s hard to have constructive dialogue in that kind of setting.

    (And I say this as someone who generally supports the AHP process.)

    I suspect that this mistrust is part of why the talk of “educating” has a “chilling implication” for Vivienne.

    I wasn’t part of the conversation at the Commission meeting, but I wonder if the sentiment could be described as, “in the planning process, we both need to make a case for the changes we propose and then engage in a constructive, good-faith interaction with residents and other stakeholders to refine, or if necessary to abandon, the proposed changes.”

  11. By abc
    April 7, 2010 at 9:20 am | permalink

    Mr. Murphy, you are not the major topic, you were first referenced by Ms. Armentrout. You were however a city official until very recently; I did not place you in Ann Arbor (that part does seem defensive). I also did not say you were involved in the ADU discussion in 2000 or so. I said you were probably using the same arguments used in 2000; those would be the arguments that Ms. Armentrout did not sympathize with in 2000.

    I am glad that Ms. Armentrout has seen the light of the ADU argument however she readily admits it was a result of participation in discussions and listening to individuals such as yourself who, dare I say, educated her. But then she feels the need to castigate the outreach efforts of officials, like the city’s planners. Why would a person who has sought city office make such a statement? If Mr. Warpehoski’s observation is correct as to “why the talk of “educating” has a “chilling implication” then what good comes from Mr. Armentrout’s aspersions. [Take note that after three visits since posting Ms. Armentrout did not feel compelled to comment on SUSWHIT’s post (probably not their real or complete name) that took her comment to a more insidious place].

    What is in a name? A name is a code, a game, Ms Armentrout? Is it that you only like the game when you know the answer? Ms. Armentrout this is simply about the last two sentences of your original post (#1) where you characterize an effort to communicate on the part of the city as an Orwellian manipulation. And of course it is interesting to note that it is a manipulation you also seem want to be successful.

  12. April 7, 2010 at 9:50 am | permalink

    I don’t think the population should be “educated” (propagandized) at its own expense about the benefits of more big ugly buildings.

  13. By mr dairy
    April 7, 2010 at 9:51 am | permalink

    Is the issue Ms Armentrout? Although I don’t always agree with her, Ms Armentrout is one of the informed, intuitive and thoughtful commenters on issues relevant to the city, county and region.

    If ABC wishes to make a relevant comment to the topic instead of harping on Ms Armentrout, I think we’re all ready, willing and able to listen.

  14. April 7, 2010 at 10:24 am | permalink

    I’m beginning to see that abc has some personal investment in the city’s planning apparatus and took my comments to be critical of those individuals.

    First, I believe that we are fortunate to have well-trained, hard-working, and highly competent planning staff. I know a number of them (Wendy Rampson and I first met in approximately 1987) and have a high regard and respect for all of them as professionals. They do their job well and I had no intention to criticize them. I will add that I have a high regard for the discipline and profession of urban planning. I have served on a planning commission, the county Planning Advisory Board, and edited three books on planning as well as the county comprehensive plan. It is a discipline that informs our present and future in useful and important ways.

    Second, I have observed that the presently appointed Planning Commission consists of individuals who seem to take a pro-development stance more often than not, and I have not been in agreement with a number of their recent decisions. I do not mean to imply that they are not well-intentioned or hard-working but that their policy stance is one I am not comfortable with.

    My remarks (written at 3 in the morning after the Moravian debate) were colored by the repeated insistence on the part of some members of council that we should simply swallow the advice of the staff and the decision of the Planning Commission in recommending that PUD for approval. It was actually said that we should simply accept the view of these “experts”. But planning decisions are both technical and policy-based, that is, there can be legitimate differences of opinion about outcomes.

    That is why such decisions are ultimately up to the City Council. If they were simple technical decisions (like, for example, enforcing building codes), the Council would not be involved. Council must serve both as a judge (interpreting the law, not merely enforcing it) and as an arbiter of different viewpoints and interests. This means that politics and citizen action become involved.

    I probably interpreted the commission’s “education” remarks in a negative light. We certainly do need to be educated about the law and the appropriate processes. But after the display Monday night of a remarkable grasp of technical details and legal definition, as well as the presentation of a whole array of arguments, on the part of the Germantown neighborhood, I would say that the citizens of Ann Arbor are up to the task.

  15. April 7, 2010 at 10:55 am | permalink

    ABC – Just wanted to make sure nobody got the incorrect impression that I’m one of Wendy Rampson’s goons, sent around to “learn” Ms. Armentrout a thing or two about ADUs, if she knows what’s good for her.

    I do find it unfortunate that Vivienne and Suswhit made the mental connection from “education” to “indoctrination” so quickly (and David’s contribution may have been unnecessarily cynical).

    What I’d envision as “education” in a situation like this, where there can be anticipated some concern, is some sort of workshop or panel discussion – something more than / prior to a public hearing situation. Rather than, “Here’s an ordinance – react,” things like, “Here’s a tool that other communities have successfully used to address concerns similar to ours. How might it have a use in addressing some of our concerns? (entry-level homeowner affordability, aging-in-place, energy/material efficiency in larger historic homes, preservation of historic carriage barns, etc. etc.) What concerns might there be? (abuse, enforceability) How have other communities addressed these? What parts of the city might this tool be appropriate for?”

    The planning staff having already done a lot of the research on this, it should be reasonably easy to find answers to the questions that arise.

    Chuck, what do think would help avert the “polarized dynamic” you observed?

  16. April 7, 2010 at 10:58 am | permalink

    Oops, Vivienne ninja-ed my comment. Everything sounds a little more sinister at 3am, I suppose. :)

  17. April 7, 2010 at 11:41 am | permalink

    Everything sounds more sinister, Murph, is this part of a vast anti-left-hander conspiracy? What are you “planners” planning for us south paws? ;-)

    Regarding the “polarized dynamic,” I have few thoughts:

    1. Take a deep breath. Assume good intent.

    2. Introduce the issue before formulating a specific policy, including the possible benefits, drawbacks, and alternatives (rather than starting with, “Here’s what we’re going to do…”

    3. Engage broadly, trying to find ways to get input from specific groups in ways that work for them AND to get the different groups together. The retreat talked about engaging property owners, but I think part of the problem is that investment property owners, new homeowners, and renters are rarely in the room at the same time as established homeowners are in the room, so there is rarely a chance for back-and-forth between stakeholder groups.

    Also, I would recommend looking into ways to address unequal access to participation. It does take a lot of time to educate yourself on these topics, with or without the benevolent hand of the planning commission ;) That means that people who work 2nd shift, single parents (or most any parents), and others are at a disadvantage compared to retirees, empty nesters, and other people who have more time to invest in the process. The retiree and empty nester voices should be heard, as should the other voices.

    [steps on soapbox]

    That’s not to give people with barriers to participation a free pass. I heard a younger community member ask “can we Facebook this or tweet this? Millenials don’t get active by coming to public hearings.” Tough s***. If you want your voice heard, you have to show up. A good public process would remove barriers to participation, but that’s not an excuse for you saying you don’t want to come to a public hearing.

    [steps off soapbox]

    4. Ask the question, then find the data to answer it. Right now, partisans on all sides start with the answer they want, then manufacture the data to support their point. I think the role of the planning staff should be nonpartisan in some ways to help provide the data to support sound decisions, not to support a particular partisan role.

    5. Increase the visibility of when planning commission and staff say “no” and when the ‘community’ says “yes.” Right now some members of the committee seem to have the perception that the planning staff and commission just approve any developer proposal, even though many get rejected and many (like the Moravian) get revised a lot before they get recommended. Likewise, people who support increased development in the central area just see the “no” responses to City Place, the Moravian, Near North, etc., so they don’t see projects that are accepted and move forward (Zaragon, 411 Lofts, etc.). Thus, each side, like a Cyclops, only has one eye and only sees how they are affronted. Mistrust builds.

  18. April 7, 2010 at 12:52 pm | permalink

    ABC, many of us take a while to notice our own words (which reflect our thoughts) and how they sometimes conflict with our true intentions. I look forward to you being around next time I’m the one doing it.

    Murph and Chuck, great comments, thanks. I’ll be posting similar thoughts when I get my campaign web site up. (It may be a while yet.) In the meantime, you and others might be interested in the comment I just posted on on the Moravian vote — [link] —that touches on some of those thoughts.

  19. By suswhit
    April 7, 2010 at 6:07 pm | permalink

    @Steve-I’m very intrigued by your comments on the A2com site. The right to solar energy (not to mention vit D) are thought provoking. And your points about public transportation/walk-ability to affordable housing are entirely on target, I think.

    @Chuck-Having suffered through the Moravian and the City Place processes, I am less inclined to “assume good intent.” It seemed abundantly clear that there were behind the scenes machinations that had little to do with the rules (master plan, bldg code, central area plan, dda, community development….) or what is best for the long term health of the city and its neighborhoods. Heck, they couldn’t even figure out how to measure a roof height. In a perfect world, planning staff would be given the autonomy to write reports that are free of politics. Sadly, we live in an imperfect world. The reports for the two projects referenced above were highly subjective. You’d be hard pressed to convince me that staff wasn’t /told/ how those reports should read. So you are right on when you say “mistrust builds.”

    #5 is a good point. Good projects are quietly approved while certain developers who don’t get their way make a big stink. And so the “news” greases the squeaky wheel.

    And I’d add one thing to your #3 which is that an open bar is not an appropriate enticement to participation.

  20. By LiberalNIMBY
    April 7, 2010 at 9:28 pm | permalink

    “In a perfect world, planning staff would be given the autonomy to write reports that are free of politics.”

    Were you privy to any of the discussions and staff reports that *rejected* all previous iterations of City Place/Madison/Moravian over the past 4 years? Were those political too?

    The conspiracy theories are getting so tired. Anyone who even half listens to staff will understand the “motivation” for any particular effort. When facts and content are lacking, the strategy of motive-questioning predictably follows: distract and deconstruct to the point of absurdity. Works for the Tea Party!

  21. By mr dairy
    April 7, 2010 at 11:43 pm | permalink

    For about 10 years, there have been mixed messages, a clear lack of leadership and direction in the Planning Department. None of it, repeat none, has been because of front line staff. It became that way despite their work and dedication. Everyone knows how dysfunctional the development process from planning to permits to inspection and certificate of occupancy has become in Ann Arbor. This is how I think it got that way.

    The changes to the development process began when Hieftje, about the time of his election to Mayor, decided he favored increased, albeit politically safe, development. It’s well known that his split with Doug Cowherd, who helped elect him to council, has roots in Hieftje’s change of heart regarding development. It’s not news that Hieftje’s views of development “matured” over time.

    Inside City hall, the internal development process mapping (planning/development process “streamlining”) and departmental reorganization, both conducted by consultant Kerry Laycock, were made during the citywide workforce restructuring that put Jayne Miller in charge of Planning. She hired Mark Lloyd. And purchased Etrakit, the software that was supposed to produce staff reports based on developers info and fewer staff comments, just by pushing a button. It hasn’t worked as the administration planned.

    The workforce reorganization and new management style seemed designed to limit planning staff input. Staff was encouraged to be more customer friendly which was intimated and interpreted as helping developers find ways around the existing codes and Master Plan, like PUD’s. (When did PUD’s become more popular in Ann Arbor?)

    Hieftje continued making appointments to the Planning Commission and other influential boards and commissions and help elect council members who shared his new views on development. Planning Commission’s power and influence increased over that of professional staff with the help of increasingly employee hostile city administration. Hieftje had loyal votes on council. Politics trumped bureaucratic professionalism.

    I’m not saying that this was conspiratorial on his part or that Hieftje did not have the political power or assumed right as mayor to rebuild the development process to favor his views. What I’m saying is that the dots can be easily connected in a way that asks questions about how and why it changed under Hieftje’s tenure.

  22. By John Floyd
    April 8, 2010 at 4:46 am | permalink

    I haven’t followed the planning staff and Commission as closely as is possible. When I have gone to/spoken at/watched hearings, read reports, participated in forums, I have been led to the conclusion that these bodies, for whatever reason, are out of touch with the community, and are not interested in being in touch. This may not be at all the intention of staff and Commissioners, but that’s what their words and actions have looked like every time I have been exposed to them. For example, the Commission’s 2008 vote to change building height from 6 to 12 stories along South University comes to mind: after encountering much community resistance to 12 story zoning, Ms. Bonilla tabled the initiative, claiming that “It’s important that we get this right”. The implication, in the context of strong opposition at the public hearing, was that citizen opinion needed to be better reflected in the building height recommendation. 6 weeks later, after the Council Party won its primary elections, the Commission suddenly passed 12 story zoning with nary a comment.

    The top-down nature of planning does not work well with democracy and self-government, unless it is informed by humility and a genuine desire to understand what the public wants. Comments such as ‘[attempts by planners to allow accessory apartments were ]“flattened” after two years of public debate’, apparently complaining about the existence, robustness, and effectiveness of public debate on planning issues, or “Would [it] be useful to have a [AHP] meeting just for business owners?” do not help engender trust and good will towards either the Planning Commission or planning staff, however great their technical skills, and however worthy their humanity.

    Our current local political culture, that relies on low-turnout, often-uncontested primaries to select public officials, is not effective at keeping public officials engaged with the public at large, and this disengagement flows down to the city’s bureaucracy. The effects of this culture are not always immediately apparent, but over time they have created a sense of entitlement and a habit of secrecy by those in power, and a sense of distrust (vs. mere disagreement) by many members of the public. The ultimate solution to our planning problems, as with so many of our local government’s problems, lies with a return to contested general elections – partisan, or non-partisan – that force elected officials to engage with the public, and to be accountable to voters.

  23. April 8, 2010 at 6:17 am | permalink

    #21: Excellent analysis.

    #22: Do you mean Bonnie Bona, the current chair?

  24. By logicNreasoning
    April 8, 2010 at 9:49 am | permalink

    @ john Floyd: “Would [it] be useful to have a [AHP] meeting just for business owners?” do not help engender trust and good will towards either the Planning Commission or planning staff, however great their technical skills, and however worthy their humanity.”

    You appear to be against business owners having input into city issues even though they are actually part of the community.

    Do you hold the same sentiment for landlords? Especially those landlords who live 50 miles away and only use there property here as an investment and really don’t care about other city issues. Did they have your full support in the Moravian project?

    The Moravian debate was actually about the will of “business owners (landlords)being greater than the will of the public benefits. 90-95% of that neighborhood is rentals.

    In my opinion, whether you rent property or own a business they are both investments and should be weighted the same.

  25. By mr dairy
    April 8, 2010 at 10:14 am | permalink

    Thanks Vivienne. Finally, the narrative that I’ve constructed, through first hand knowledge, is making some headway. Everyone in PDS knows the story, but there is much more that needs a good dose of sunlight. Management of PDS has been atrocious since the citywide reorganization and everyone, internally and externally, knows it.

    I believe that a lack of clear direction and competent management coupled with politicization by city hall administration, their political masters and the Planning Commission results in the mixed messages, back tracking and contentious decisions we see for virtually every large scale development. It’s almost seems like the process was designed to confuse and irritate all stakeholders.

    The many months spent mapping the process were supposed to clarify and simplify the development process. PDS and the process had to fit Fraser’s scheme for a corporate style reorganization of city hall. It was about being prepared to attract and grease the skids for bigger development. I fell that many people misread the city and were basing their decisions on Ann Arbor becoming something other than what it is. Their vision was to be like Chicago, Portland or some other place where we felt the grass was greener. Was there a method to this madness? Or was is just short sightedness with a dash of greed (power, influence, a higher office)?

    I feel that the reasons for this are that everyone at the top levels in city hall including elected officials, possibly with everyone’s best interest at heart (I’m being generous here) imagined that the city would grow at some exponential rate and we should have a planning and development process to handle development on a larger scale. The reorganization of PDS and the “streamlining” of the development process was premised on the (unsustainable) boom of the decade before the economic collapse. Unfortunately, it appears that the politicians and developers who still believe that bigger is better (building and bureaucracy) have not yet digested the message.

    What I find disturbing is that it seems we’re more concerned with planning and development wonkery (heights, density etc) than restructuring and depoliticizing the planning and development process in ways to allow it to serve everyone who has a stake in the outcome. I guess the only way to do this is to have candidates with strong, independent voices and vote.

  26. By abc
    April 8, 2010 at 10:21 am | permalink

    Mr. Dairy, my points are contained above. It is lamentable that nothing has been done to implement ADU’s in the last 10 years; they are a great way to add vitality and flexibility to our city and, by definition, cannot be big. Ugly is another issue. Even if the city moves ahead (and as characterized by the first paragraph above I would not hold my breath) we have another few years to wait for ordinance language to be crafted. By then Ms. DiLeo’s perceived opportunity due to our economic situation will probably be different; and who is to say if it will be better or worse.

    My other point is that I find the way people talk about change here (and it is not isolated to here) is many times not helpful; it feels a lot closer to what you would expect in Washington than a town hall discussion among neighbors, and it starts with the hyperbole. That’s exactly Mr. Warpehoski’s first point and I agree with it. Facts are distorted, there is no ‘assume good intent’. I believe there is truth to the idea that AA citizens need more information to be able to accept ADU’s. Ms. Armentrout admits that through discussion and consideration she has come around but I do not assume that the rest of the people who opposed ADU’s attended the same debates and forums. I consider the Orwellian references in the first two posts to be the wrong way to start a dialogue about something one of the posters says she thinks is a good idea.

    But moving on to your analysis in #21, staff is indeed caught up in this, not due to incompetence but due to a lack of communication. It has been clear for years that the staff has little sense of what the PC wants, who have little sense of what the Council wants. Numerous proposals have worked to satisfy staff and then moved on to get overwhelming PC approval only to be denied by council. That’s not ‘the system is working’. That’s dysfunctional and it stems from a lack of communication. And specifically the communication tool lacking is a functioning and well used master plan.

    “When did PUD’s become more popular in Ann Arbor?” I do not believe planners or developers are big fans of PUDs. A PUD is much more difficult to set up, to pitch, and to own; once you agree to the terms you cannot change them without re-writing the PUD. So why are they more popular? I think because they allow the lack of communication to exist without resolution, because they allow projects to be built without reference to a big picture; that is that master plan. A PUD is an exception it can be looked at as an isolated event.

    A PUD is also a kind of an anchor. The building codes get updated as should a community’s zoning code and master plan but a PUD, which is a code written for a specific parcel or parcels, does not unless the owner choose to update it. So if you agree to the building’s use, as say a hotel, you cannot change it to a bed and breakfast, or a boarding house, or an apartment even 20 years later without re-writing the PUD and going through the process. Also if you write into the PUD that you will use a particular new and highly efficient heating system that everybody loves today you cannot change it when the technology gets better without the process. If a fountain is your public benefit you must keep the fountain regardless of people’s tastes for fountains in the future.

    [Also, is your real name Mr. Dairy? I once knew a Mr. Produce.]

    Mr. Bean (#18) I do not understand your point.

    Ms. Armentrout (#14), sorry no personnel investment.

  27. By abc
    April 8, 2010 at 10:23 am | permalink

    Just to clarify, I did not see Mr. dairy’s #25 before I posted.

  28. April 8, 2010 at 10:26 am | permalink

    #22: “Our current local political culture, that relies on low-turnout, often-uncontested primaries to select public officials.” Increasingly primaries have been contested, but I agree turnout is low. What I find interesting in the low-turnout primaries is, “what voting groups does this process strengthen?” I think it strengthens the voices of senior citizens and other older voters who consistently vote in higher numbers, and especially vote in higher numbers in lower profile elections like primaries.

    The importance of August primaries also disadvantages student participation since many are out of the community during the primaries (you can argue if this is a good thing or not). I suspect this will be a barrier for Yousef Rabhi’s campaign for county commission.

    #21: Interesting points. You describe the mayor as supporting “increased, albeit politically safe, development.” I think this is a fair assessment of they mayor. When some portray him as an out-of-control development hound, I look at his actions such as the “no” vote on the Moravian, his appointment Erica Briggs to the Planning Commission (who has tended to be development-skeptical), and his support for the proposed Germantown Historic District.

    There are multiple ways to interpret these actions by the Mayor. He could be responding to constituent concerns or demonstrating a nuanced position on development are two that come to mind, I’m sure there are others.

    #19: I know several of the planning commissioners, including some on both sides of this divide. I’ve seen them as thoughtful people who are volunteering their time to support a more vibrant community. Yes, there are disagreements about what that looks like, but that doesn’t mean they are out to get either neighborhoods or developers.

  29. By mr dairy
    April 8, 2010 at 12:18 pm | permalink

    I’m all for ADU’s and have been for a long time.

    I too believe that Planning Commissioners have the city’s best interest at heart, but the process of choosing them is highly political and the balance of power has changed, and not in a good way, in the recent past. Checks and balances between the PC, internal city hall staff and council need to be restructured and realigned.

    One of the worst things that happened to PDS as a result of the reorganization was to put the planning department with construction and inspection services under the same management. They are separate functions and should be managed separately with all managers working together as equals. Each department should be structured around teams of employees and not according to a predetermined corporate hierarchy with several layers of management between the decision makers (not front line staff) and the users of the service.

    I believe it was Fraser’s attempt to consolidate all departments related to planning, development, construction and inspection services under several layers of management that led to the problems. Instead of keeping the service providers and services close those who use them, the department became highly bureaucratized and unable to effectively respond to customers individual concerns. It became too complicated for everyone to navigate. Employees were limited in their decision making ability because all decisions came from the top. The one size fits all corporate structure was a bad fit for what are essentially personalized services.

    The development/planning process could be simplified by undoing most of what Fraser and Miller attempted and decentralizing each department’s activities. Allow the managers and staff, working with their specific customers, to determine what works best, rather than by edict from on high. Most front line staff is experienced and knows what works. They also know how best to serve the needs of their customers because they share similar experiences and talk the same language. It’s not wise to assume that a clerk in planning knows what a construction permit holder or a rental property owner needs or wants. The same goes for planners and inspectors. Cross training at that level is a failure because of the different knowledge bases needed for each skill set. Planning and construction processes are not like paying a water bill or a parking ticket.

    What we have now is a dismal failure and everyone who does business with PDS knows it. To continue down this bureaucratic path is to invite more planning, development and construction inspection headaches.

  30. April 8, 2010 at 8:45 pm | permalink

    @26: ABC, I was referring to your pointing out the inconsistency between Vivienne’s words and her stated experience. Not so much a point as a ‘thanks for trying’ and a ‘keep it up, we all need it at times’.