Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Jan. 18, 2011): Commissioners were set to vote on recommending approval of the updated five-year Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan, but decided to postpone their vote until the February meeting to allow for possible additional public input.
A speaker during PAC’s public hearing on the plan had pointed out that the official public commentary period runs through Jan. 24. That prompted discussion among commissioners about whether to hold off until all possible commentary is heard – though some indicated there’d already been ample opportunity for feedback. Another public hearing on the PROS plan will be held at the planning commission’s Feb. 1 meeting, with a vote by that group set for Feb. 15. City council is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on the plan in early March.
Tuesday’s PAC meeting included two presentations. Mike Quinn, a board member of the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy, described the group’s efforts and asked PAC to convey a sense of urgency about the project to city council. And Scott Rosencrans, a former PAC chair, gave an update on the Ann Arbor skatepark: “The big news is that this is the year we build the skatepark.”
Updates from city parks staff included a quarterly financial report, during which parks manager Colin Smith reported that parks & recreaction is looking at 2.5% cuts during the next budget cycle. Commissioners also got briefed on the outcome of the Miles of Golf proposal to take over operations of the Huron Hills golf course – a proposal rejected by the city late last year – and an update on planned improvements at the Gallup Park canoe livery. Staff will hold a public meeting with concept plans on Tuesday, Jan. 25 at the livery, starting at 7 p.m. If the plan is approved, the city is poised to apply for state grant funding for the project, estimated to cost about $450,000.
Action on PROS Plan Postponed
The Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan, which provides an inventory, needs assessment and action plan for the city’s parks system, is updated every five years. The updated document is required by the state in order for the city to be eligible to apply for certain grants. The process – led by parks planner Amy Kuras – began in late 2009 and is nearing completion, with final input being solicited on a draft. A resolution was on the agenda at PAC’s Jan. 18 meeting to recommend approval of the plan, and a public hearing was held to get additional feedback.
[For additional details on the plan itself, see Chronicle coverage: "Planning Commission Weighs In on Parks" Files in .pdf format of the draft PROS plan sections: Intro and Section I: Community Description, Section II: Administrative Structure, Section III: Budget & Funding, Section IV: Inventory, Section V: Land Use Planning & Acquisition, Section VI: Planning Process, Section VII: Goals & Objectives, Section VIII: Needs Assessment, Section IX: Action Plan]
PROS Plan: Public Hearing
Two people spoke during a public hearing on the PROS plan. Alice Ralph said she was speaking on behalf of Rita Mitchell, who wasn’t able to stay long enough to participate. Mitchell had prepared written remarks, which Ralph read, stating that it would be premature for PAC to vote on the PROS plan at this meeting. The city has indicated that public commentary will remain open through Jan. 24, and that public hearings at PAC, the planning commission and city council would be held in February and March.
[She was referring to the following paragraph, posted on the city's PROS plan website:]
Comments may be submitted until Jan. 24, 2011 to be considered for inclusion in the plan. In February and March, public hearings will be held at the Park Advisory Commission, Planning Commission and City Council. Dates will be posted as they are confirmed. To submit comments e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reading Mitchell’s remarks, Ralph stated that PAC hasn’t yet heard from the public, and that insufficient notice has been provided to the public about the opportunity for input. Will another public hearing be held at PAC? How will additional public input be incorporated into the plan, if PAC votes on it now? In addition, there were several specific comments directed at the plan itself. She opposed the concept of public/private partnerships, stating that it could lead to the piece-by-piece dismantling of the parks system. She cited Fuller Road Station and the Huron Hills golf course RFP process as examples. The current draft uses 2000 census data – 2010 data should be used instead. She also said there is a lack of clarity on the budget that’s included in the draft. She described here remarks as the start of her comments, and that she’ll be sending more. [.pdf file of full remarks]
George Gaston spoke briefly, saying he wanted to echo the comments that Ralph had made. He urged commissioners to postpone their voting on the PROS plan until all public input was received.
PROS Plan: Commissioner Comments, Questions
Tim Berla asked Amy Kuras to review the public process that had been done so far for the PROS plan. She said it started about a year ago, when a steering committee was formed to provide guidance on updating the plan. An online survey was open for three months, yielding about 820 responses from the public. They held three public forums, which she said weren’t particularly well-attended – about 30 people in total came to those. In addition, CDs of the draft are available at parks facilities, she said.
The public comment period to respond to the draft itself is dictated by the state, Kuras said. There’s a mandatory 42-day period from the time that the draft is released – that period ends on Jan. 24. She noted that in addition to the public hearing at PAC, there will be one at the planning commission on Feb. 1, and another at city council in March. She’s also solicited feedback directly from PAC and planning commissioners at work sessions. [See Chronicle coverage: "Planning Commission Weighs In on Parks"]
Gwen Nystuen said she supported waiting until the public commentary period has ended before voting on the draft. In response to a question from Nystuen about timing, Kuras said they needed to have final approval of the plan by all entities on April 1. If the city doesn’t meet that deadline, it won’t be eligible for certain state grants, she said. It’s not clear whether the city would remain ineligible for an entire year, or for a shorter period.
David Barrett said it was important to point out that more than 820 people had responded to the online survey. He elicited from Kuras that the previous report had used a phone survey, with about 600 responses.
Mike Anglin, a Ward 5 city councilmember who’s an ex-officio member of PAC, clarified that amendments could be made to the plan even after it is approved. He noted that over the past few years, the city has been involved in rezoning efforts, changing the zoning of city-owned property to “public land,” and adding transportation facilities as a possible use for parcels zoned as public land. That “might be a very radical change that’s taken place,” he said.
Perhaps a five-year plan is a model of the past, Anglin said. The council might want to review the document more frequently. He noted that he doesn’t use the parks much himself, but he’s proud that the city has these amenities – PAC serves as a custodian of that legacy. Anglin concluded by saying he was glad to know the plan could be amended.
Colin Smith, the city’s parks manager, said that one option for PAC would be to pass the resolution at that meeting, but make it contingent on possibly incorporating additional public commentary. He also pointed out that even if commentary is received, that doesn’t mean it will automatically be included in the plan. “It will be considered,” he said.
Julie Grand, PAC’s chair, voiced support for that approach. She observed that Kuras had met with PAC members last week at their land acquisition committee meeting, and they’d given feedback to her then. There have been multiple opportunities for input, she said, and this isn’t the last one.
Karen Levin proposed taking a vote at PAC’s next land acquisition committee meeting, on Feb. 1. [LAC is a committee that includes all PAC members. Its meetings are open to the public, but are held at Cobblestone Farm and are not televised.] Berla observed that it would be unusual not to take a vote on such a public topic at their main meeting.
Tim Doyle suggested adding the word “draft” into the resolution, making it clear that they were voting on a document that wasn’t yet completed. With that change, he said he’d support voting on it at the current meeting.
Sam Offen felt uncomfortable taking action before all the public commentary had been collected. It might be the last comment they receive from the public that prompts discussion and revisions, he said. For that reason, he supported postponing a vote.
Saying he didn’t want to prioritize the “food chain,” David Barrett clarified that the normal process would be for PAC to vote first, then the planning commission, and finally city council. If it could be worked out, he’d feel more comfortable waiting until after Jan. 24 to vote. He also praised Kuras for the tenor of the report, saying the document reflected the public commentary that had been made so far, but didn’t judge that commentary.
Because the planning commission has scheduled a public hearing on the plan for its Feb. 1 meeting, that group could vote on it at their Feb. 15 meeting, Smith said. He suggested that PAC also take a vote at their Feb. 15 meeting. [PAC meets prior to the planning commission – their meetings start at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively.] That way the vote is televised, and there’s adequate time to incorporate public commentary, he said. Kuras said her plan is to compile a summary of public commentary by the end of next week, which she’d provide to both PAC and the planning commission.
Grand concluded the discussion by observing that consensus seemed to be reached on taking a vote at their next Feb. 15 meeting. She thanked Kuras for her work, saying “it’s a beautiful document.”
Allen Creek Greenway
Mike Quinn, a board member of the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy and a senior principal at Quinn Evans Architects, gave a presentation to commissioners and asked for their support of the walking/biking pathway. He described the greenway as ambitious, with the goal of transforming a stretch of land that’s now considered blighted – extending from East Stadium and South State, running north along the railroad right-of-way through town and ending at the Huron River. The transformation would have major economic benefits, he said, and the time is right to act – the economic downturn provides an opportunity, he said.
The conservancy – a 501(c)3 nonprofit – is trying to facilitate discussions between major property owners needed to make the greenway a reality: the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Railroad and the city of Ann Arbor. Quinn reported that board members Joe O’Neal and Jonathan Bulkley were meeting with mayor John Hieftje that day. Members of the group also met recently with the owner of the Ann Arbor Railroad, and got a positive response, he said. And officials at the university have said they won’t impede the idea, Quinn reported – a response that greenway supporters consider positive.
Quinn noted that the PROS plan mentions the greenway briefly, but the conservancy hoped that PAC could give the project more energy.
It’s critical to get a design in place so that people will have a proposal they can react to, Quinn said. There are three city properties that the conservancy hopes the city will commit to the project: 1) A surface parking lot at First & William, 2) the 415 W. Washington property, a former city maintenance facility, and 3) 721 N. Main, another city maintenance yard. He noted that all of the city land at First & William is located in the floodway, making it difficult to build there, but ideal for the greenway – the other two properties are partially located in the floodway.
In discussions last year, Quinn said city councilmembers had raised safety concerns, given that the proposed route would include crossing many streets. Conservancy members agree that it’s a problem, but it can be addressed, he said.
In response to a question from commissioner Tim Doyle, Quinn said the conservancy assumes the greenway would eventually become the responsibility of the city’s parks and recreation unit. He noted that it would connect with Washtenaw County’s border-to-border trail, and would promote efforts to create a more walkable, bikeable community.
After some wrangling with set-up, the presentation concluded with a five-minute video featuring community members – including Eppie Potts, Margaret Wong and Grace Shackman, among others – talking about why they support the project.
Quinn again asked PAC to convey to city council a sense of urgency about the greenway.
Ann Arbor Skatepark
Scott Rosencrans was in familiar territory at Tuesday’s PAC meeting. A former chair of the commission, he was on hand to make a presentation on behalf of the Ann Arbor skatepark project. He’s now a board member of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark, and told commissioners that he’s also the group’s project liaison. He thanked the public for voting in the December Pepsi Refresh competition, an online effort to win $250,000. Though they didn’t get the prize, they came in 20th out of 200 projects in their category, which was based on online votes throughout the month. He thanked the city for helping promote the competition, saying that even though they didn’t win, they raised awareness about the project.
Rosencrans reported that the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark recently added two new board members – himself, and Sam Saalberg, a teen who’s representing users of the skatepark. He also noted that Trevor Staples, a long-time leader of the skatepark effort, decided not to run for president, though he’ll remain on the board. Instead, Joe Galante was elected to that position.
Skatepark organizers are running a major donor campaign, cultivating five- and six-figure contributions, Rosencrans said. At the same time, there’s an active grant-writing program too. They’ve received a great deal of financial and logistical support from local businesses and individuals, he said, and are raising funds through selling merchandise, including items sold at Acme Mercantile on West Liberty.
But the big news, Rosencrans said, “is that this is the year we build the skatepark.” There are deadlines they need to meet – Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation has committed $400,000 to the roughly $1 million project, but that offer expires on Jan. 1, 2012 if skatepark organizers can’t raise matching funds. An agreement with the city of Ann Arbor has set aside land at Veterans Memorial Park until 2014 to use for the project, but city officials can reconsider that date if sufficient funding hasn’t been raised by 2012, Rosencrans said. He’s optimistic they can do it, but said there’s a tremendous amount of work to do.
Next steps will include writing and issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for a firm to provide construction drawings and technical oversight to the project. They’ll need to form an RFP review committee, get their funding in place, go through the construction bid process, “and then we’ll build the darn thing,” he said. The skatepark will be a world-class facility, Rosencrans told commissioners, serving an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 skateboarders. “I think this will be a project all of us can be proud of.”
Several commissioners had comments or questions. David Barrett asked about parking – when baseball or softball games are played at Veterans Memorial Park, the parking gets tight. Are there plans to expand it? Rosencrans said it wasn’t part of their design and he didn’t know of any plans by the city to expand parking. He noted that there was also a large parking lot at the shopping center across the street. Colin Smith, parks manager, confirmed that the city didn’t intend to expand parking. He noted that even at peak usage, the lots were rarely if ever completely full. He also pointed out that the park is on a bus line, and it’s anticipated that many users of the skatepark will take the bus or come from surrounding neighborhoods.
Sam Offen asked whether they expected to raise the entire amount this year – if not, would they start construction, even if they still needed additional funding to complete the project? Rosencrans said the preferred scenario is to raise all the money and build it this year. It’s possible to build it in phases, but that’s not optimal and would likely increase costs overall, he said.
Tim Berla asked what the commission could do to help the project. He said it was interesting that the PROS plan listed several parks capital projects with funding identified, but that the line item for the skatepark was unfunded.
Rosencrans replied that personal contributions are welcome – he offered to facilitate donations. Spreading the word about the project is also important, he said. Smith pointed out that the memorandum of intent between the city and the skatepark organizers – which PAC approved – was the same language used in the PROS plan. Berla asked whether PAC could ask council to try to find skatepark funding, if the organizers came close to meeting their financial goal, but fell short. Smith indicated that if it gets to that point, there’s nothing prohibiting the city from revisiting the question of funding.
Julie Grand asked how much they’d raised so far. Rosencrans said they it takes time to cultivate donors, and that there were several five- and six-figure donations that hadn’t yet been finalized. They’ve raised about $80,000 so far, he said. An invitation-only fundraiser is being planned for potential supporters, he said – mayor John Hieftje and Zingerman’s co-founder Paul Saginaw have agreed to speak at the event.
Gallup Park Livery Improvements
Amy Kuras, the city’s parks planner, gave commissioners a briefing on planned improvements for the Gallup Park canoe livery. Renovations are needed because the use of the facility has outgrown its original design, she said, and it’s outdated in terms of energy efficiency and other features. They hope to expand the facility’s meeting room, improve the safety of the path approaching the livery, and give people barrier-free access to the facility and dock area.
City staff will hold a public meeting with concept plans on Tuesday, Jan. 25 at the livery, starting at 7 p.m. If the plan is approved, they hope to apply for state grant funding.
Colin Smith, the city’s parks & recreation manager, elaborated on the issue of grant applications. As their staff has decreased over the years, he said, they’ve had less capacity to seek grants. The application process isn’t very time-consuming, but administering the grants takes staff resources that they don’t have. However, the state last year awarded about $100 million for 80 parks-related projects statewide, out of about 120 applications, Smith said. Given those good odds, it makes sense for Ann Arbor to apply, he said. City staff believes the Gallup livery project would have a good chance, given the livery’s high usage and clear need for improvements.
The city has some consultants on retainer, Smith said, who might be used to administer the grant. But even if a consultant’s fees are paid out of the grant, it would still be worth it, he said. The project is estimated to cost between $450,000 to $500,000. Kuras estimated that the cost of a consultant to administer the grant would be around $5,000.
Offen asked whether the city plans to tear down the existing building, or renovate it. Kuras described the current structure as beautiful – it wouldn’t be torn down, but it would be reconfigured. For example, they might add doors to open onto a patio area, to create an indoor/outdoor space for events.
In response to another query from Offen, Kuras said she had talked to the city’s energy office, and that there might be opportunities for other grants for features like solar panels.
Smith concluded the presentation by urging the public to attend the Jan. 25 forum and give feedback on the project.
Quarterly Financial Report
There are no surprises, Offen said. For the overall parks & recreation operations, expenses are $47,500 lower than budgeted, and revenues are $35,000 higher than budgeted, for a net gain of $82,500 over the first six months of the fiscal year. Revenues were $50,000 higher than budgeted at the two golf courses – Huron Hills and Leslie Park – and expenses were $15,000 lower than budgeted. Revenues were higher than budgeted at several other facilities, but down at Mack Pool, Fuller Pool and the Argo canoe livery.
Offen commented that the parks staff is doing an excellent job at maximizing revenues while keeping expenses down.
Parks manager Colin Smith reported that as of the first six months of the year, parks & recreation operations were $17,500 “to the good” of their anticipated $1.2 million general fund subsidy for the fiscal year. It was a small percentage under budget, he noted, but they were pleased that they are so close to their target.
Smith also described the process for the upcoming two-year budget cycle of fiscal 2012 and 2013. The city council has already started budget discussions, he said, including budget retreats they held in December and January. Parks managers will be going over the budget in detail with PAC’s budget and finance committee, then bringing a recommendation to the full commission in April. That recommendation would be reviewed and voted on by PAC, then forwarded to city council.
This year, in addition to that process, each service area of the city will be preparing “impact sheets” with ideas about how to cut expenses and raise revenues. They’ll be giving presentations at city council work sessions on those impact sheets, he said. Parks is part of the community services unit, which will be making its presentation to council on Jan. 31. He expects to get feedback and guidance from council at that point, which will be incorporated into the budget.
Smith reported that parks & rec has been asked to cut its budget by 2.5% – or about $93,000. He described this as a manageable number, which can be made up through a combination of increased revenues and decreased expenses. In particular, Smith said they anticipate revenue opportunities at the Argo livery in the wake of improvements being done there this year. [The city council recently approved a $1.17 million project to build a bypass channel in the Argo Dam headrace and add whitewater features. See Chronicle coverage: "PAC Recommends Argo Dam Bypass"]
Related to the Argo Dam project, Smith reported that earlier this month, the Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission had agreed to fund the full cost of border-to-border trail improvements being done in conjunction with the bypass channel, for $112,500. The city had hoped for half that amount, Smith said, and appreciated the county’s enthusiasm for this project.
Huron Hills Golf Course Proposal
Tim Berla asked parks manager Colin Smith to brief PAC on the outcome of the Huron Hills Golf Course proposal from Miles of Golf, which had been rejected late last year.
Last year, the city had issued a request for proposals (RFP) to solicit ideas for improving operations at the city-owned course. Two groups submitted proposals, but only Miles of Golf – a Pittsfield Township business – was chosen by a selection committee to move forward in the selection process. The business owners made a presentation at a Dec. 3 public meeting, but were informed later in the month that the city would not be pursuing their proposal.
At Tuesday’s PAC meeting, Smith said that the selection committee’s charge was to make a recommendation to Sumedh Bahl, the city’s community services area administrator, who would then decide whether to forward that recommendation further. The committee felt that the proposal didn’t make sense for the city, Smith said. It asked for a $3 million capital contribution from the city, and the project’s risk outweighed its potential reward. The proposal also didn’t factor in operating costs that the city would still need to cover even if Miles of Golf took over operations of the course, he said.
In addition, there was a heavy emphasis on the firm’s retail business, which made members of the selection committee uncomfortable, Smith said. And though the revenue projections in the financial forecast were very aggressive, they still didn’t hit the amount needed for proposed financial incentives to the city to kick in. For all of these reasons, Smith said, the committee didn’t believe the proposal was one that the city should pursue.
Julie Grand, PAC’s chair who also served on the selection committee, added that the RFP had indicated the goal of proposals should be to improve the game of golf in this community. The Miles of Golf proposal, with its retail focus, wouldn’t do that, she said.
Smith noted that the process had been a contentious one for the community, and he gave Miles of Golf credit for trying to put together a proposal that would address the city’s needs as well as their own. “That should be commended, regardless of the outcome,” he said.
John Satarino, a former PAC member, spoke against the proposed Fuller Road Station, a joint city of Ann Arbor/University of Michigan parking structure, bus depot and possible train station. He said a deed restriction placed on the property when it was bought by the city from a Detroit Edison subsidiary in 1931 requires that it remain for park purposes only. The city has spent more than $1 million on the project already, he said, partly with PAC’s blessing and partly because of the commission’s passivity.
He criticized the public forums held by the city about the project, describing them as heavily managed and reminiscent of the Third Reich. The station’s annual operations subsidy will cost millions, he said, but word about that hasn’t seemed to reach the Ann Arbor taxpayer yet. He concluded by saying that the city might have to sell off parkland to pay for it – and city officials are tooting their own horns “while Tree Town dies.”
Present: David Barrett, Doug Chapman, Tim Berla, Tim Doyle, Julie Grand, Karen Levin, Sam Offen, Gwen Nystuen, councilmember Mike Anglin (ex-officio). Also Colin Smith, city parks manager.
Absent: John Lawter, councilmember Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)
Next meeting: PAC’s meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011 begins at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]