Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (Nov. 3, 2010): Banks provided a leitmotif for the most recent regular meeting of the planning commission.
A request to add a parking lot at the University Bank headquarters in the former Hoover Mansion was revisited during public commentary – the proposal had been discussed and postponed at the commission’s Oct. 19 meeting. Bank president Stephen Ranzini returned and spoke during public commentary on Nov. 3, citing additional reasons why commissioners should grant the request, which planning staff had recommended rejecting.
Later in the meeting, commissioner Kirk Westphal reprised a cheeky slideshow he’d given during the recent annual conference of the Michigan Association of Planning. One slide showed an image of a bank robbery taking place, as Westphal narrated: “I contend that what this thief is stealing from the bank doesn’t even come close to what underused banks, like this one, steal from the vitality of a downtown.”
Commissioner Evan Pratt also gave a presentation that he’d delivered at the conference, focused on the use of roundabouts as an alternative to a traditional intersection, or the “axis of evil.” Their presentations were given in the “Pecha Kucha” style – Chronicle readers might be familiar with a similar format if they’ve attended Ignite Ann Arbor events.
Intersecting the topics of parks and planning, but without the playful overtones, commissioners passed a resolution recommending that city council distribute a draft of the Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan to neighboring communities and stakeholders, as required by state law. The draft plan, revised every five years, will be posted on the city’s website for public feedback after council approves distribution.
University Bank: Redux
At the commission’s Oct. 19 meeting, a proposal by University Bank had been postponed. The request was to add more parking by creating a new parking lot behind the bank’s headquarters in the building known as the Hoover Mansion on Washtenaw Avenue. The proposal would also allow up to 10 additional employees to work at that location. The planning staff had recommended denial of the request, stating that the project impacts natural features and doesn’t offer an overall benefit to the city. However, commissioners asked planning staff to work with bank officials to come up with an alternative proposal for locating new parking.
At the Nov. 3 meeting, bank president Stephen Ranzini spoke during public commentary, making a case for why the commission should approve the bank’s request. He covered many of the same points made in a letter he’d sent to commissioners, dated Oct. 21. [.pdf of letter from Ranzini]
He told commissioners he’d returned to speak to them to highlight some points that he didn’t have time to cover at the previous meeting. To make the building site and grounds sustainable for the long-term, “something must change,” he said. “The status quo is not sustainable.” The 3.4-acre site in Ann Arbor Hills consists of potentially 12 lots, which in today’s market are worth $300,o00 each, he said. But the building on that site was recently appraised at only $2 million. In addition, the cost of operating the building as an office, on a per-square-foot basis, is more than triple the market rents of offices elsewhere in the city. He said that when the bank bought the building, they beat out another potential buyer who would have put in a condo project that would have caused substantial damage to the building.
Ranzini noted that the idea of putting parking on the circular drive in front of the building was discussed at the Oct. 19 meeting. He read a statement from a local attorney, who said that parking on the driveway will increase the likelihood of collisions, and isn’t a good solution.
Ranzini also responded to another proposal mentioned during the Oct. 19 meeting – that bank employees be encouraged to use the AATA bus system. Ranzini stated that two-thirds of the bank’s employees live outside of Washtenaw County. He read a statement from one of his employees who lives in Canton, and who said that it’s unreasonable to suggest that they take public transportation. The employee would have to leave his home two hours earlier and take two buses in order to get to work, even if he used the Park & Ride lot at Plymouth and US-23.
Since the October meeting, Ranzini said he’d talked to the couple who had spoken during public commentary against the project. [They are Gerald and Sheryl Serwer, and had cited concerns over aesthetics and drainage issues.] Ranzini said that prior to the Oct. 19 meeting, he’d talked with them and they didn’t mention their opposition. Another speaker during public commentary at the Oct. 19 meeting, who lives behind the bank, had never responded to any communications from the bank, Ranzini said. And a third speaker, he said, had previously been offered $10,000 worth of landscaping to screen his property. “He’s unreasonable, and we’re never going to reach agreement with him,” Ranzini said.
Ranzini said he thinks the couple who opposed the project might change their minds. In addition, he was meeting on Monday, Nov. 8 with the city’s planning staff “to see if we can get their opinion changed also.”
Finally, he said there are many more Ann Arbor voters among the bank’s employees and customers than the four neighbors who expressed opposition to the project.
There was no discussion among commissioners about the project.
PROS Plan Distribution
The one action item at the Nov. 3 meeting was a resolution to recommend that the city council approve the distribution of the revised Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan to neighboring communities and stakeholders. Jeff Kahan, in his staff report, told commissioners that state law requires that adjoining communities and other stakeholders be given the opportunity to comment on master plans like this, prior to adoption. After distribution, these groups have up to 42 days to respond. After comments are received, the planning commission is required to hold a public hearing prior to adopting the PROS plan as an element of the city’s master plan. It’s then forwarded to city council for final adoption.
The planning commission will have the opportunity to discuss the content of the plan in early 2011. Amy Kuras of the city’s parks and recreation unit has been working with an advisory group for the past year to update the PROS plan, which was last revised in 2006.
No one spoke during the public hearing on this agenda item.
PROS Plan Distribution: Commissioner Deliberations
Bonnie Bona asked Kuras how the distribution list was determined – who decided what groups should be asked for input? Kuras said that state law requires distribution to adjoining communities and entities like utility companies. The city staff has added others to the list, including the University of Michigan and the Washtenaw County health department.
Bona said she noticed that the Norfolk Southern Railroad was included, but not Ann Arbor Railroad. Kuras agreed that Ann Arbor Railroad should be added.
Noting that the commission had held a working session on the PROS plan with suggestions for changes, Evan Pratt wondered whether the commission could get a document highlighting changes that had been made as a result of those discussions. [For Chronicle coverage of that June 8, 2010 session, see "Ann Arbor Planning with the PROS"] Kuras said she could provide a summary of changes that are being recommended, compared to the 2006 plan.
In broad strokes, Kuras said, she tried to align the PROS plan more closely with the city’s master plan documents, such as the land use element plan. The previous PROS plan included several subjective statements about the administration and structure of the city, she said, and they tried to take out that subjectivity. In addition, the PROS chapter on the parks action plan more closely reflects the city’s overall goals and activities, Kuras said, particularly related to capital projects.
After city council approves distribution of the draft plan, Kuras said she’ll post it online and in other venues, such as local libraries, for public input.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to recommend that the city council approve the distribution of the revised Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan to neighboring communities and stakeholders.
Pecha Kucha: Fast, Funny, Edgy
The Ann Arbor-based Michigan Association of Planning (MAP) held its annual conference last month in Detroit, and participants included several Ann Arbor area architects, urban designers and other planning professionals. Sessions presented by local experts included:
- LED billboards and LED signs, with Don Wortman of Ann Arbor-based Carlisle/Wortman Associates and April McGrath of the city of Ypsilanti.
- Planning and community-based food initiatives, with Larissa Larsen of the University of Michigan.
- Integration of design into the community planning process, with Norman Tyler of Eastern Michigan University and Ilene Tyler of Ann Arbor-based Quinn Evans Architects.
In addition, two Ann Arbor planning commissioners – Evan Pratt and Kirk Westphal – and city planner Jeff Kahan participated in a “Pecha Kucha” session. At the Nov. 3 planning commission meeting, Pratt explained that Pecha Kucha events were started by young urban designers in Tokyo. Presenters have seven minutes to cover their topic, and can only display their 20 slides in their presentation for 20 seconds each. The idea is to make your point quickly and inject some energy and humor into the talk. [It's a similar format to the popular Ignite events, including those held in Ann Arbor.]
At the Nov. 3 meeting, Pratt and Westphal gave a reprise of their Pecha Kucha presentations. Visuals are a crucial element of the presentations, which can be viewed on Community Television Network’s video-on-demand: Westphal’s talk begins at the 31:35 minute timecode; Pratt’s begins at the 39:45 mark.
Pecha Kucha: Why Too Many Banks Are Bad for Downtown
Westphal began by noting that ever since the financial crisis of the early 1900s, it became customary for banks to build lobbies much bigger than they needed to be. That way, even when banks were busy, it would never feel crowded and remind people of a panic. That wasn’t so bad when people actually did their banking at the bank, Westphal said.
He showed a slide of what appeared to be a surveillance camera shot of a bank robbery taking place. “What I’d like to convince you of tonight is that there are two crimes being committed in this photo,” Westphal said. “I contend that what this thief is stealing from the bank doesn’t even come close to what underused banks, like this one, steal from the vitality of a downtown.”
His talk would focus on why too many banks are bad for your downtown, what you can do to break free, and how you can justify taking action.
Banks are oversized and generate little pedestrian traffic. They were oversized even before ATMs and direct deposits, he noted – now, there are mostly tumbleweeds blowing around inside them. The buildings are a hugely inefficient use of space in general, but the really sad thing is that bank buildings are usually ugly and always boring, he said. [He illustrated this point with an image of the former National City bank, now PNC, at the corner of Main and Huron in Ann Arbor.] At worst you get marble-clad fortresses that have been known to frighten small children, he quipped. At best, you get a couple of windows with ads for high-yield CDs and a bouquet of silk flowers, if you’re lucky.
The last reason that banks are bad is that they’re dead at night, Westphal said. Can you think of any successful downtown that didn’t begin as an active night spot? he asked. Every bank displaces a business that’s more likely to be open past five o’clock. And once one comes in, they typically like company – banks tend to cluster. So the question is, how many banks does it take to make a street not worth walking down?
Downtowns have an edge over malls and suburbia only when there are interesting things to see between your car and your destination, Westphal said, and each dead area interrupts a good downtown experience. So a lot of communities feel that banks run amok are bad, he said, but the good news is that cities can embrace banks without letting them kill our streets. We can’t wait until they’re a problem, he noted, because it’s too hard to undo this kind of damage.
There are two ways to be pro-active, Westphal said. One way is to implement a spacing requirement between banks to keep too many from moving in – Chicago, for example, has a 600-foot requirement. That compares to Ann Arbor, which in some places has five banks within 300 feet. Other cities prohibit banks from being on first floors.
The other strategy is to limit the percent of linear street frontage that banks or other inactive uses are allowed to occupy. The “dead” use has to be wrapped by active uses, like shops and restaurants, so that it doesn’t create a dead zone. Dozens of cities across the country have applied these types of ordinances to banks, Westphal said.
How do you justify these types of regulations to property owners? he asked. The fact that even the game Monopoly has moved to electronic banking likely isn’t persuasive, he noted. You might hear the argument “Let the market decide who I rent to.” Most people are free-market advocates unless it comes to externalities, he said. An externality is a side effect of something you do that doesn’t affect you personally, he explained. Pollution from factories is one example – the polluter might not care that people outside the factory are getting sick, so the government has to regulate this externality. Likewise, a property owner who rents to a bank and kills foot traffic around them is imposing a huge negative externality on surrounding businesses who need walk-by traffic for their livelihoods, Westphal said.
When the planning staff proposed an active-use ordinance a couple of years ago, Westphal said, he was intrigued and did a straw poll of three businesses near his office – two restaurants and a bookstore – that seemed to be cut off from the “good” part of Main Street by inactive uses. [He showed a slide of the block of Main north of Washington, on the west side – Citizens Bank is located at that northwest corner.]
He asked them if they had any observations about being located next to a bank. He said he wasn’t expecting to hear much, but the first person told him without hesitation that it’s “terrible” – people see a building without activity and don’t cross the street toward their businesses. The next manager related a story about walking behind a guy who was showing his parents around town. When he got to that corner, the guy told his parents that “Main Street kind of ends here – let’s go down the other side.” Hearing that was like a kick in the stomach, the manager said.
Hurting your neighbor’s business is an externality, Westhpal said. During the debate about the active-use ordinance in Ann Arbor, a property owner [Ed Shaffran] wrote a letter to the editor of the Ann Arbor News, saying that to describe a bank as not being an active use “borders on national socialism,” Westphal reported. [Westphal also wrote an opinion piece, published by The News, in support of active-use regulations.]
An online commenter on the Ann Arbor News website wrote: “Better yet, the granola-and-tofu fascist set should pack their bags and move to a country where the government can control the minutiae of their lives.” But what the commenter may not know, Westhpal said, is that young professionals are leaving Ann Arbor in droves for a fascist country that does control banks – it’s called Chicago.
Ann Arbor’s proposed active-use ordinance was opposed by property owners and was dead-on-arrival at city council, Westphal said. Some say that incentivizing active uses might have worked better, and they may have been right, he said. But city officials can’t afford to be wimps about controlling the business mix downtown, he added.
“Let me be scandalous and suggest that we take a page from the shopping center playbook,” he said. “Like it or not, they continue to take traditional downtowns to the cleaners.” Westphal said he personally doesn’t think shopping centers capture the best of a downtown, but they’re certainly good at eliminating the worst. If you want to make a mall manager laugh, ask if they allow panhandling or banks inside, he said.
He then showed a slide of the inside of Briarwood Mall, and challenged his colleagues to find the mall’s version of the bank in the photo – it was an ATM kiosk. “Mall fascism at work!” he quipped.
Westphal said that one of the things he loves about downtowns is their truly organic feel. But like any garden, he concluded, you have to control the weeds.
Pecha Kucha: Roundabouts
Pratt, an engineer by trade, began by saying the point of his presentation was to identify elements that people should consider in situations where it’s reasonable to contemplate having either a roundabout or a traditional intersection.
Roadways are the most dangerous facilities on the face of the earth, he said – in the U.S., 650 people die each week on roads, or the equivalent of three jumbo jets going down. What if three jets crashed each week – what would the media do with that? He noted that a quarter of these fatalities occur at intersections, or the “axis of evil.”
So what are the alternatives? There are social benefits to improving safety and mobility for everyone, he said, as well as to eliminating delays at intersections. Financial and environmental gains are also goals.
But some roundabouts don’t work, he said, showing a slide of congestion around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. We can do better, he said.
Conventional wisdom says that you can move more cars by adding more traffic lanes, Pratt said. He showed a slide of an intersection where 22 lanes converged – as a pedestrian, how would you like to walk about that? he asked.
In many cases, it’s not the best solution to add lanes. Maybe there isn’t space, or you’ll be taking away property that could be developed as taxable property. He paraphrased Einstein, saying we can’t solve problems using the same thinking we used to create them. “Just adding lanes is really not the best way to go in all situations,” he said.
So what are people doing? One example Pratt gave is a roundabout “retrofit” at the intersection of Geddes and US-23. The main benefit is that you don’t have to install a wider bridge. A case study at US-23 and Thompson Road showed an $8 million savings to put in a roundabout, he said, compared to a traditional intersection. There are no right-of-way issues, and there’s a financial impact for having fewer crashes, he said. The social benefit is a 90% reduction in fatalities – what if there were only 65 fatalities every week, rather than 650? There’s also a savings in health care costs for the serious injuries caused in accidents, he noted.
Where should roundabouts be considered as an option? In situations where there are capacity issues, safety issues, right-of-way or other issues that constrain the number of lanes, or where there are a lot of left turns, Pratt said. But the real benefits, he added, are for pedestrians. Roundabouts typically include “splitter islands,” so pedestrians have to cross only a few feet of traffic at a time.
Roundabouts also mean just 25% of the decisions to make compared to a traditional intersection, Pratt said. Rather than 32 vehicle-to-vehicle conflict points in a typical intersection, he said, there are only eight in a roundabout. There will still be accidents, he said, but typically they’ll be just sideswipes.
Pratt showed an example of the conversion of an intersection in Ashley, N.C. As a traditional intersection, pedestrians had to cross six lanes of traffic – it would take him 24-30 seconds to walk across, and he’d get the “Don’t Walk” sign well before crossing. Seniors and disabled people don’t want to navigate more than three lanes, he said.
As a roundabout, there are two eight-second crosses to make, buffered by a “refuge island” in the middle. There are also “aesthetic opportunities,” he noted – landscaping in the islands.
For larger roundabouts, you can install HAWK signals for pedestrians to use to control traffic flow, Pratt said – he noted that Ann Arbor’s first HAWK is being installed at Huron and Chapin. [A presentation on the signal was given at the Nov. 4 city council meeting. There are currently no traffic signals there – nor is it a roundabout.]
Pratt concluded by saying there are alternatives to traditional intersections, and people should consider the triple-bottom line of sustainability – the social, financial and environmental benefits – when considering their options. His final slide showed an image of a hospital in Bahrain that was located in the center of a roundabout – Pratt said he didn’t recommend it, but he wanted to show that “there are a lot of crazy things that people have done in the middle of these roundabouts.”
Present: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Absent: Tony Derezinski, Eric Mahler
Next regular meeting: The planning commission’s Nov. 16 meeting has been cancelled. The group next meets on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers of city hall, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]