Ann Arbor City Council Sunday night caucus (Sept. 19, 2010): Most residents who attended the council’s informal Sunday night meeting seemed to be keen to focus the night’s discussion on one of two topics: a possible ban on porch couches; or the future of the Library Lot on Fifth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor. An underground parking garage is currently being constructed there, but no decision has been made about what, if anything, to build on top.
A specific suggestion for one of various amenities that could be constructed on the lot came from Haskell Rothstein: giant chess boards, with giant pieces. Already during pre-caucus chatter, Rothstein had opened the topic of giant chess boards on the Library Lot, and that conversational gambit prompted an interesting revelation from Alex de Parry: It turns out that de Parry’s father was a chess player of some distinction, once playing Bobby Fischer to a draw.
De Parry, of course, is developer of a proposed 154-bedroom residential project called Heritage Row, which would have been located on Fifth Avenue, a few squares south of the Library Lot. Heritage Row was rejected by the council at its June 21, 2010 meeting, on a 7-4 vote in favor of it, falling one vote short of the super-majority needed to approve the planned unit development (PUD) project. The super-majority was needed because of a protest petition filed by nearby property owners.
Heritage Row was brought back for reconsideration at a subsequent council meeting on July 6, 2010, but again failed, that time on a 7-3 vote. It was nearly brought back a third time – on that same evening. But Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) abandoned the effort in the middle of a parliamentary procedure that had appeared momentarily would result in another vote, this time with Hohnke providing the deciding vote in favor of Heritage Row. Hohnke had voted against the project on both previous occasions.
De Parry has an already approved “matter of right” 144-bedroom project in the same location as Heritage Row – called City Place. Approved last year, the City Place project contrasts with Heritage Row in that it would demolish seven existing houses and replace them with a streetscape consisting of two buildings separated by a parking lot. In the Heritage Row project, the seven houses would be renovated, and three additional buildings would be constructed behind them, with parking located under the site.
De Parry would like to begin construction in May 2011 – on either Heritage Row or City Place – and he indicated at the caucus meeting that the necessary lead time for permitting means that work on construction drawings needs to start now. So de Parry’s negotiations with city councilmembers to bring back Heritage Row for reconsideration have entered the end game.
During the caucus conversation, de Parry discussed with Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) – the only two councilmembers present at the caucus – the meetings and correspondence they’d had with each other and other councilmembers on the possibility that changes to Heritage Row might win a third consideration from the council. Previously, Anglin and Briere had both voted against the project, as did Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). So one of those four would need to see significant enough modifications in Heritage Row to change their vote.
On Sunday evening, however, Briere told de Parry: “As near as I can tell, nobody is budging.” De Parry then indicated to Briere and Anglin: “We’re going to start on the other project [City Place].” Briere’s reply: “I mourn that.”
Additional topics discussed at the caucus included porch couches, panhandling, the future of the Library Lot, religious tolerance, and the format of the caucus meeting itself.
The discussion of Heritage Row came relatively late in the the caucus, but developer Alex de Parry, along with his wife Betsy de Parry, had chimed in on the idea of a public commons at the Library Lot, and had contributed to the porch couch discussion. Alex de Parry said he supports a ban on upholstered furniture on porches, if those are intended for indoor use.
When Sabra Briere brought the discussion on the Library Lot to a close, pointing out that de Parry had not yet had a chance to address the caucus with his concerns, de Parry deadpanned, “Is it my turn?”
De Parry noted that around a month ago he’d met with Briere and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) to discuss Heritage Row and the modifications to the project that might be undertaken in order to bring the project back. Kevin McDonald, senior assistant city attorney, attended the meeting as well.
In broad summary, the proposed changes resulting from that meeting, which Briere helped tick through at the caucus, involved: the affordable housing component of the project and the actual number of bedrooms in the units; the environmental standards to which the new buildings would be constructed; the height of the new buildings.
The Heritage Row proposal on which council has already voted included up to 163 bedrooms in 82 total units – distributed in three newly constructed buildings and seven existing houses. Of those 82 units, 14 would have been offered as affordable, based on 80% annual median income (AMI) of renters. Under the modified version, the total number of bedrooms dropped to 154 and the unit count dropped to 79, with 12 units offered as affordable, but six of the 12 would be offered to renters earning lower incomes – 50% AMI.
In the modified version of the proposal, the “greenness” of the project would be boosted, by having the new construction certified according to the LEED standard, and by increasing the insulation and upgrading windows in the existing houses.
Under the modified proposal, the height of the three new buildings would be reduced by two feet.
At the caucus meeting, however, Briere told de Parry that she thought Heritage Row should change more before it gets approved. Specifically, she would like for one story of the south new building to be removed, eliminating an additional seven bedrooms from the project. As for the other three councilmembers who’d voted against the project, Briere said, one of them could change their vote and she was okay with that, but “as near as I can tell, nobody is budging.” Anglin, who’d voted against Heritage Row, was seated just to Briere’s right at caucus and did not dispute her assessment.
At that, de Parry sighed: “We’re going to start on the other project [City Place].” Briere’s equally sad reply: “I mourn that.”
Betsy de Parry lamented the fact that the Heritage Row project included only 10 bedrooms beyond what the matter-of-right City Place project called for. Thinking about the seven houses that would be demolished for the City Place project, instead of renovated through Heritage Row, Betsy de Parry said, “I’m already starting to weep over it.”
Briere pointed out to de Parry that he’d worked hard against the proposed historic district in the neighborhood, and that if Heritage Row were built, those seven houses would be renovated but the remaining houses in the neighborhood would have no protection. De Parry replied that he’d worked hard to make sure that people followed the law and he would not have minded if the city had approved a historic district, because he was prepared to take it to court.
Later in the caucus, resident Brad Mikus indicated that he’d understood de Parry to mean that he’d wanted the historic district to be approved so that he could sue the city. While Mikus allowed that he did not know de Parry personally, he said he found that idea “despicable.” De Parry turned to Mikus seated behind him and said, “There’s rules to be followed, but if the rule makers don’t follow the rules, what do you do?”
Mikus also suggested, based on some quick calculations, that the seven bedrooms that Briere wanted removed, when considered over a 20-year period, would not amount to that much money.
Betsy de Parry stressed the fact that the neighbors who’d opposed the project deserved a lot of credit – Alex had not originally even considered preserving the houses, she said, but through the efforts of the neighbors, he’d come around to a proposal that did. As Anglin talked about the back-and-forth communications he’d been part of, he allowed that de Parry had done a good job in attempting to save the houses.
Anglin noted that there were a group of neighbors who were no longer interested in engaging in the discussion on Heritage Row. And as the caucus conversation began to turn speculative about what specific neighbors might think of specific elements of the project, Briere admonished Anglin that he needed to talk directly with his constituents.
Heritage Row lies in Ward 5, which Anglin represents, along with councilmember Carsten Hohnke, who is seeking re-election in November, having won the Democratic primary in August. Opposing Hohnke are Republican John Floyd, who has expressed support for Heritage Row [as well as for a historic district for the neighborhood], and independent Newcombe Clark. Clark, a real estate broker, has a financial connection to Heritage Row or City Place, because he’s earned a commission for his role in bringing de Parry and his partners together.
Library Lot: The Commons
Along with Haskell Rothstein, several other residents attended Sunday’s caucus in support of the idea of constructing a public commons on the city-owned Library Lot, located atop the new underground parking garage currently under construction on Fifth Avenue.
Chief among them was Alan Haber, who had helped put together a proposal for a commons in response to the city of Ann Arbor’s request for proposals (RFP) for the lot, which it issued last fall. That review process had led to a winnowing of the six proposals down to two for final consideration.
Haber expressed frustration that the city’s RFP advisory committee had not delivered a report back to the council on its findings.
As Briere pointed out to Haber, she and Anglin had done their best to ensure that the commons proposal had been given every possible consideration – they’d convinced the RFP review committee to re-include the commons proposal in the review process after the committee had initially eliminated it. The committee had subsequently eliminated the commons proposal again, along with three other proposals. The two remaining proposals are for hotel/conference centers. Briere indicated to Haber that she did not think the best move would be to try to curtail the current RFP process or to bring back all six original proposals.
Paul Lambert expressed at the caucus his belief that the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority was the main force behind a push for a hotel/conference center, based partly on the fact that the DDA is paying for the consultant [Roxbury Group] that is now reviewing the final two proposals. Briere rejected the idea that the DDA was the main force behind a hotel/conference center, allowing that some DDA board members supported the idea. Still, she said, “the DDA is not driving this horse.”Instead, she attributed the push to members of the city council, the chamber of commerce, the library board, and merchant associations.
Brad Mikus expressed skepticism that the outcome of the consultant’s review would not be controlled by the DDA, if the DDA was paying for the consultant. Briere responded that the goal of hiring an outside party was to get an objective analysis.
Where do things stand with the RFP committee about which Haber expressed frustration? At the city council’s July 19 meeting, councilmember Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), who chairs the RFP review committee, gave an update on the committee’s activities, which had somewhat stalled since the spring:
At Monday’s meeting, Rapundalo indicated that concerns centered on the “glitch” that had arisen on the consultant’s part – the staffing change – had now been eliminated. They were in discussions with the consultant to develop a work plan, he said, and they’d determined that the DDA would also use an intern to provide additional comparative analysis. In the coming week, Rapundalo said, they would sit down with the two Library Lot finalists, Valiant and Acquest, and “with a little bit of luck,” he concluded, by late August the committee would be able to pick things back up and continue their work.
At a recent candidate forum, Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) expressed the view that the community conversation should begin anew with a completely clean slate.
Based on John Splitt’s report out to his DDA board colleagues at their Sept. 1 meeting, the target date for resumption of the committee’s work is now the end of September:
Splitt gave essentially the same kind of update on the committee that Rapundalo has given his city council colleagues at recent meetings. The committee has not met in about four months, Splitt said. A consultant [Roxbury Group] has been hired and is doing due diligence on the two proposals that are still under consideration. The consultant’s meetings with the proposers should be concluded in time for the committee to meet sometime towards the end of September, Splitt said.
Splitt serves on the RFP advisory committee representing the DDA.
At the Sunday caucus, Briere indicated that she did not believe the city council would be ready to move forward with either of the two remaining proposals, and assured Haber that no decision had been made. Haber replied that no decision on a proposal for what goes on top meant that effectively a decision had been made to go ahead and pave the top of the parcel as a surface parking lot. Instead of paving the area as a surface lot once the garage below is completed, Haber said it would be better to set the stage for constructing a commons.
At the caucus, Haber presented conceptual sketches for the commons from various angles, which had a receptive audience. Skipper Hammond noted that she’d lived in Cambridge, Mass. for several years and that the Boston Commons was a center of cultural life and had a positive impact on the economic growth of the area. Later Betsy de Parry wondered if an economic feasibility study had been for done for public open space on the Library Lot. Briere indicated that no such feasibility study had been undertaken – either for public open space or for a hotel/conference center. The last time that had been done was pre-1983, Briere said.
At one point, Briere told Haber that she and Anglin were not the people he needed to sell on the idea of a commons – they’d told him that what he needed to do was to go find the money to build the commons. Haber identified hotel owners and the University of Michigan as possible financial supporters of the idea.
Before the council for its second reading on Monday night is a proposal to ban the placement in outdoor locations of upholstered furniture that’s designed for indoor use. The proposal had been postponed at the council’s previous meeting. [For Chronicle coverage, see "Couch Ban Smolders"]
Sabra Briere reported to the caucus that she’d met the previous Thursday with several members of the Michigan Student Assembly, at the invitation of those MSA members. All councilmembers had been invited. She and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) – who sponsored the couch ordinance – had attended the meeting, she said.
That meeting – then upcoming – was mentioned as a part of MSA president Chris Armstrong’s report to the University of Michigan board of regents last Thursday. From The Chronicle’s report of the Sept. 16 regents meeting [emphasis added]:
Chris Armstrong, president of the Michigan Student Assembly (MSA), gave his monthly report to regents, highlighting events on campus and MSA-sponsored activities. He reported on the Ann Arbor city council’s proposed resolution to ban porch couches, saying that while the fire at a South State Street house that killed a student earlier this year was tragic, the council’s response has been “skewed.” He noted that there are other ways to address fire safety, and that the council didn’t involve students at all before proposing this resolution. Armstrong said that representatives from MSA would be meeting with some councilmembers that night to talk about how students might be more involved with these kinds of decisions in the future.
Briere’s caucus report of the student sentiment at the meeting was consistent with Armstrong’s remarks to the regents. Students are interested in a more comprehensive approach to safety in rental housing, she said. For that reason, they were hoping that councilmembers would agree to postpone consideration of the couch ordinance for a few months in order to take a broader look at the issue of rental housing safety.
At the caucus, Brad Mikus inquired about the statistics supporting the idea that couches are a fire hazard. Briere said that after the meeting with MSA representatives, she’d requested some data from the Ann Arbor fire department:
Upholstered Furniture Fire Data (furniture outside of structure/on porch) 124 Total fires 2000 – present 80 Total fires April 2003 – present 7 Significant structure fires 1 Civilian deaths 7 Civilian injuries
Briere noted that the 80 upholstered-furniture-related fires compared to 373 total fires in multifamily residences. For Mikus, hearing that there were 80 total fires in the last seven years flipped his position on the couch ban – he said he now supported it, especially in light of the percentage of fires attributed to upholstered furniture.
Briere updated the caucus on the panhandling task force that she was working to reconstitute. A resolution forming that task force will come before the council on Monday night. Briere noted that the idea was to build on what they’d learned from the city’s task force on panhandling that had worked from 2001-03. What they’d learned, she said, was that very few of the panhandlers are homeless.
She indicated that this time in a six-month timeframe, they were looking for short-term solutions, with the following two goals: (i) without increasing the budget, achieve better enforcement of the city’s panhandling ordinance, and (ii) identify ways of helping those panhandlers who are feeding their addiction.
Briere noted that the proposed task force was smaller than the previous one, with the smaller size partly reflecting a de-focusing of the issue as a legal problem – there’ll be only one representative from the Ann Arbor police department compared with three previously, and there’ll be no representatives from the city attorney’s office or the courts.
Briere reported at caucus that the resolution in support of religious tolerance that Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) had spoken about at the council’s last meeting did not yet appear on the agenda, but still might well be brought forward at Monday’s meeting. From The Chronicle’s report of the council’s Sept. 7 meeting:
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) indicated that the city’s human rights commission had asked that the council address the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had received national attention recently, partly in the form of threatened burning of the Quran. He indicated that he would be bringing forward a resolution to the next meeting to condemn that kind of rhetoric. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) also expressed his support for that kind of resolution. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) commended Hohnke for bringing forward the resolution.
Part of the discussion at the caucus concerned the nature of the event itself. Skipper Hammond said that before she’d moved to Ann Arbor, she’d read a piece in the Ann Arbor Observer that suggested the best place to get a hearing of issues of concern to residents was the Sunday night caucus. Haskell Rothstein expressed his appreciation for the fact that Briere and Anglin were there. Hammond said she was surprised that only two councilmembers had attended.
Briere indicated that mayor John Hieftje had told her that he had family visiting from out of town and that he could not attend. [Hieftje, along with Briere and Anglin, are somewhat regular caucus attendees, with other councilmembers only rarely making an appearance.]
But Briere also indicated that there was some dissatisfaction among councilmembers about the productivity of attending the caucus – some feel it’s more efficient to respond to 20 constituent emails than to sit and listen to only a few people speak, especially when those people might not be voters in their wards. The caucus, said Briere, had evolved to be more about people petitioning the council on various issues, rather than about councilmembers working through agenda items amongst themselves.
Briere said that before she was elected to the council, the caucus had been tilted more in favor of council discussion, and that once members of the public had addressed councilmembers, they were “encouraged to leave” so that councilmembers could discuss the upcoming agenda. Briere indicated she was not in favor of that.
On Sunday, Ethel Potts expressed the same sentiment she’d previously expressed at the May 2, 2010 city council caucus:
Resident Ethel Potts observed that for councilmembers to have a discussion amongst themselves at the caucus on their upcoming business would be a challenge, because “we take up most of your time.” [The caucus has evolved to be, practically speaking, an additional opportunity for public commentary by residents, not the kind of event described on the city's website: "... meetings of the mayor and members of council to discuss and gather information on issues that are or will be coming before them for consideration." Chronicle commentary: "Column on Caucus: Make It a Real Event"]
Asked if she’d be willing to trade some of the opportunity for the public to comment at the caucus for watching the council engage in discussion amongst themselves, Potts allowed that she would. The same three-minute time limit that is enforced for public commentary at regular council meetings would be fine, she said.