As John Splitt walked in to greet me at the Espresso Royale on State Street, his familiarity with the shop and street was immediately apparent.
Splitt strolled into the cafe, having walked from his dry-cleaning business, Gold Bond Cleaners. “It’s located on Maynard Street, just on the other side of the arcade,” he said, motioning toward Nickels Arcade, a covered passage connecting Maynard and State.
State Street holds a special significance for Splitt as the gateway to his community involvement. In 2004, Splitt joined the board of the State Street Area Association, an experience he described as an educational process, that “opens your eyes to some of the larger downtown issues.” Once on the association’s board, his interest in community service continued, and in 2006 he was appointed to the board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
Splitt has served on the DDA board since then and for the past year has served as chair. Joan Lowenstein was elected the new chair at the board’s recent annual meeting, which immediately followed the board’s monthly July meeting.
When asked what issues have been especially memorable during his time on the DDA, Splitt cited the underground parking structure currently under construction on the city-owned Library Lot at South Fifth Avenue. The project, which began construction in October 2009, will include 600 parking spaces. The bond payments for the project are planned to be made out of the DDA’s parking revenues.
The garage includes environmental elements, with the DDA project website touting LED lights and recharging stations for electric cars. The underground parking structure is only part of what the DDA’s website hails as a “new core area redevelopment project,” including “new water mains and electric capacity, a new alley, midblock street and extensive pedestrian improvements.”
The parking structure has been a central focus of Splitt’s time on the DDA, as he is chair of the DDA’s capital improvements committee. Though the underground structure has already begun construction, an ongoing and vibrant discussion remains on what to put on top of the structure once it’s built. During our conversation at Espresso Royale we didn’t discuss that topic explicitly.
However, city officials have been struggling to find an appropriate development proposal for the 1.2-acre lot. In late November last year, six proposals were made for the lot, ranging from an urban park to a hotel and conference center. By January, the Library Lot Request for Proposal (RFP) Advisory Committee – of which Splitt is a member – had eliminated four of the proposals, leaving two proposals for a hotel and conference center.
Recently, the conversation about what goes on top has been revived as steps are being taken to hire a consultant to evaluate the financial merit of the remaining proposals, using $50,000 provided by the DDA. Stephen Rapundalo, a city council representative for Ward 2, gave an update indicating a re-start to the months-dormant process at a July council council meeting.
As part of current talks, the city and the DDA have been considering how the DDA might take on the primary role in spurring downtown development, specifically that of city-owned surface parking lots within the DDA district boundary. That empowerment of the DDA may impact how future committees similar to the Library Lot RFP Advisory Committee are organized. While Rapundalo chairs the Library Lot RFP Advisory Committee, it’s conceivable that DDA members might chair similar committees in the future.
Though the DDA’s future leadership in downtown development is uncertain, Splitt’s commitment to the DDA has been clear. Before adding community involvement to his list of other obligations, Splitt paused to clear his extracurricular plate. He admitted, “I was pretty involved in my other hobbies and work up until five or six years ago.”
One such hobby: softball. Having grown up playing baseball, Splitt resorted to fastpitch softball due to the lack of opportunity to play baseball as an adult. “It’s amazing how much time that occupied, both in the summer and the rest of the year,” he said. Yet Splitt quit the sport in favor of the State Street Area Association board and, ultimately, the DDA. Splitt describes a simultaneous dry-cleaning decline since 2006, which he said “works out well for the DDA and volunteer work, because I have a little bit more time to devote to that.”
Nevertheless, Splitt said he always finds time to appreciate Ann Arbor. When asked what it is he enjoys doing downtown, Splitt answered simply, “Walk, eat, and drink,” echoing the State Street Area Association website’s motto: “Shop, eat, live, work, and enjoy entertainment in the heart of Ann Arbor.” Soon, Splitt will find it even easier do just that, as he and his wife are planning to move into the downtown area from one of the leafy neighborhoods near Eberwhite Woods. They’ll relocate to the western edge of downtown, just inside the DDA district.
He explained the decision to move, saying, “I think that we [he and his wife] both are downtown people. We like being close to our businesses, we like the energy of downtown and have grown tired of yard work.” Splitt’s wife, Judy Splitt, is the owner of Salon 344 on the corner of Ashley and William.
While Splitt’s enthusiasm for his yard might be slack, he is still entirely industrious in his involvement with the State Street Area Association. Most recently, he volunteered at the State Street Art Fair, one of the main events the association runs. When I relayed a personal story of being stuck in the basement of the Michigan Union because of tornado sirens while recently trying to go to the art fair, Splitt eagerly interrupted, adding “A false tornado warning! They sounded the sirens by mistake. That was not a good thing. It hurt sales, certainly.” He continued by saying the State Street Art Fair is especially “cool” because of the mix of artists and merchants.
Splitt’s four-year term on the DDA is done this year, though he has made it clear to the mayor that he hopes to be reappointed. He says with an amiable smile, “So I keep showing up until I’m either reappointed or replaced.”
[Editor's note: The city council agenda for Aug. 5, 2010 indicates a nomination of Bob Guenzel to serve on the DDA board. Guenzel retired as Washtenaw County administrator in May 2010. There's no indication if Guenzel is to replace Jennifer S. Hall or Splitt, both of whose terms ended July 31.]
About the author: Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.