Ann Arbor planning commission working session (April 12, 2011): Moving ahead on a project they’ve discussed for more than a year, planning commissioners gave feedback on a draft request for proposals (RFP) for a South State Street corridor study.
The RFP, which will likely be issued next week, will solicit a consultant to develop a comprehensive plan for the 2.15-mile section between Stimson Street to the north – near a railroad crossing and the Produce Station – and Ellsworth to the south.
The corridor is the city’s main gateway from the south – the stretch includes an I-94 interchange, entrances to Briarwood Mall, and other retail, commercial and office complexes. Although there is one large apartment complex along that road, it is not a densely residential area.
Also at Tuesday’s working session, commissioners and staff discussed plans for an April 26 retreat that will focus on another major corridor: Washtenaw Avenue.
State Street Study RFP
A comprehensive study of the South State Street corridor had been scheduled for the current fiscal year – it was an item discussed at the planning commission’s annual retreat held in April 2010. But the city’s planning staff didn’t have the resources to do the work, according to Wendy Rampson, head of the planning unit.
So rather than having planning staff tackle the project, the city plans to hire a consultant for this project. About $150,000 is available for the project, though it’s unlikely that entire amount will be used. Those funds, which are in the budget for the current fiscal year, would require city council approval if they need to be carried over into FY2012, which begins July 1, 2011.
Jill Thacher, the city planner who’s leading this project, plans to issue the RFP next week, and on Tuesday evening asked planning commissioners for feedback on the draft she’d crafted. [.pdf file of draft State Street Corridor study RFP]
The RFP includes a proposed process for developing the corridor plan – a process that’s expected to take 12 months, beginning in July 2011:
1. Data Inventory and Analysis: A large amount of preliminary data on the corridor has been collected by staff, and includes information on related planning efforts, existing conditions for land use, transportation, natural features, and infrastructure, and issues and opportunities related to these conditions. A database of building parcel information, and a large number of GIS maps specific to existing conditions have also been collected. The consultant will utilize existing data and identify additional data requirements, and collect that data.
2. Market Analysis: A market analysis to identify market demand and redevelopment potential will be undertaken by the consultant. The analysis may include, but is not limited to, examination of existing conditions, identification of trends affecting demand for various land uses, identification of market and non-market based forces affecting the corridor, future market demand, and/or other relevant market information.
3. Identification of Goals, Issues, and Opportunities: Upon completion of market analyses and data collection, the selected consultant should analyze the data and work closely with the public, as well as business and institutional stakeholders, to complete a full SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis for the corridor. This analysis will be used to craft a preferred vision of future land use in the corridor.
4. Identification of Alternatives and Priorities: The consultant will work closely with staff and the Planning Commission, considering public input, to identify alternative scenarios that could be implemented over time as the corridor develops/redevelops.
5. Preparation of Plan Concepts and Selection of Preferred Scenario(s): Using the alternatives and priorities identified via the ongoing public process, corridor plan concepts will be developed that address the priorities and needs identified. The consultant will work with staff and the Planning Commission to recommend and select the preferred future land use scenario(s).
6. Identification of Action Strategies, Plans, Policies, and Best Practices: The consultant will work with staff and the Planning Commission to identify action steps and strategies needed for successful implementation of the preferred future land use scenario(s). This could include outlining methods to work with City leaders, local, regional, and state planning agencies, business groups, and members of the community at large to best implement the corridor plans, preserve the desired current aspects of the corridor, and to embrace future anticipated growth.
7. Development of Final Corridor Plan Report: Deliverables expected from the selected firm will include a final corridor plan report, in a format suitable for publication, including intermediate studies which were used in the planning process, such as future development scenarios, alternative scenarios, and market analyses.
Thacher told commissioners that the RFP will likely have a mid-May deadline for submitting proposals, with selection of a consultant taking place later that month. The planning commission’s master plan review committee – consisting of Wendy Woods, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt and Erica Briggs – will help select the consultant. The goal is for work to begin in July 2011. Because the study is expected to cost more than $25,000, it would first require city council approval.
In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, Rampson said that the Ann Arbor city council had approved $70,000 to develop corridor design standards in FY2010 and $90,000 in FY2011 for consulting work on corridors. Of that, about $10,000 has been spent so far on inventory work, leaving $150,000 available. She said they do not intend to spend the entire $150,000 on this contract.
In addition, the council had allocated $85,000 for master plan revisions in FY2010 and $95,000 in FY2011. Following direction given by the planning commission, the city’s planning staff has not embarked on a full master plan revision effort, Rampson said, and they don’t intend to use the remainder of those funds.
[It was at its Oct. 18, 2010 meeting that the city council revised its FY 2011 budget by moving funds out of the general fund reserve and allocating them for corridor and master planning. The money had reverted to the general fund – after being previously allocated in the FY 2010 budget, but not spent. Because the unspent funds were not carried forward for FY 2011 when that year's budget was approved in May of 2010, the council needed to authorize the transfer back from the general fund reserve. That authorization came with dissent from Marcia Higgins, who represents Ward 4]
State Street Study RFP: Commissioner Feedback
Eric Mahler, the commission’s chair, began the working session discussion by looking at the eight deliverables listed in the RFP – items that the city will want the consultant to produce as part of the project. They include:
1. Data Inventory & Analysis: Interview and meeting summaries; analysis maps; narrative.
2. Market Analysis: Findings and summary report.
3. Issues/Opportunities/Goals: Overview of SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis; preliminary goals summary.
4. Choices/Trade-offs/Priorities: Summary of criteria and methodologies used; summary of choices
5. Recommended Plans/Policies/Practices: Draft plans and policies.
6. Action Strategies: Policy implementation and action strategies reports.
7. Draft/Final Corridor Plan: Draft and final plan text, illustrations, executive summary.
8. Two to four public meetings plus up to 25 targeted individual or small group interviews of key stakeholders.
Mahler said those are fine, but he noted that commissioners had also talked about incorporating sustainability goals into this project.
[By way of background, commissioners discussed sustainability and the State Street project at their April 2010 retreat, and more generally at a three-way joint working session of the environmental, energy and planning commissions that took place that same month. This year, the city was awarded a $95,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation to: (1) create a sustainability framework; and (2) develop an action plan based on the sustainability framework. The funds are paying for a temporary employee, Jamie Kidwell, who's keeping a blog about the project on the Sustainable Cities Institute website. The goal is to develop a framework of goals, objectives and indicators, and a State of Our Sustainability Report.]
Mahler told other commissioners that this project is ideal for making the city’s sustainability goals concrete, though they need to settle on what specific goals they’d want to achieve. It might vary from one end of the corridor to the other, he said. There might not be a better opportunity to do this for a long time, Mahler added, saying that at the very least, the outcome would be something they could critique.
Rampson noted that Kidwell is just beginning her year-long project to build a sustainability framework, but she might be far enough along by the time the State Street consultant starts that they could work together.
Bonnie Bona added that it would help even if they simply developed questions to ask themselves relative to sustainability goals, and to identify where potential conflicts arise between the different goals of economic, environmental and social justice sustainability. The goals don’t always work together, she said.
Moving off the topic of sustainability, Evan Pratt suggested asking for the consultant to come up with alternative scenarios for the corridor. What would it look like in the future if the city did nothing? What might happen if there were different types of zoning changes?
Bona pointed to the city’s transportation plan – it would be nice to coordinate the State Street study with that plan, she said. Pratt added that an overview of traffic management issues should be part of the study.
Rampson later noted that the city will be able to provide the consultant with previously collected traffic data. City staff have also taken soil borings from the medians along State Street near Briarwood Mall, she said. The aesthetics of those medians has been an issue, and soil samples provide information about what can be done there – possibilities such as bioswales or native vegetation.
Kirk Westphal asked whether the consultant should explore funding possibilities, like a corridor improvement authority (CIA) that’s being considered for Washtenaw Avenue. Rampson felt it was more appropriate to ask the general question: What tools are available to implement the plan? She said they’ve already encountered the “realities” of possibly implementing tax increment financing (TIF) in the Washtenaw Avenue project, and she was reluctant to suggest that as a specific option for the consultant to explore.
Erica Briggs suggested that the study include information about where commuters who use the State Street corridor are coming from and going to. Westphal said the proposed Costco site on Ellsworth west of State – which will likely have a large surface parking lot – presents a huge park-and-ride opportunity.
Related to alternative transportation, Briggs noted that riding a bicycle along State Street is a problem.
Jean Carlberg described the diversity of development along the corridor, from “dilapidated” student housing on the north end, to the huge impact that Costco could have if it builds a store near State and Ellsworth, in Pittsfield Township. She also noted that the topography of the area isn’t mentioned in the RFP, but should be – stormwater issues are a concern.
Thacher reported that she had attended a meeting in Pittsfield Township where the draft of the township’s master plan was presented. For the area near South State and Ellsworth, Costco would serve as an anchor retail store, but the plan also calls for offices, live/work units that are characterized as artist lofts, and a centralized parking structure.
Rampson said that when Pittsfield officials complete the master planning process, they’ll send out copies to adjacent municipalities – including Ann Arbor – for review. That will likely occur soon, she said. [At its April 13 meeting, the Pittsfield Township board of trustees approved release of the master plan for a 63-day public review period, beginning April 18.]
Diane Giannola clarified that land south of I-94 and to the west of State Street is in Pittsfield Township, while land south of I-94 to the east of State is in Ann Arbor. Rampson added that the road itself is in Ann Arbor’s jurisdiction.
Thacher asked for feedback about the public participation component – her draft suggested two to four general public meetings, plus smaller focus groups with stakeholders, including local businesses, residents at the apartment complex, and the University of Michigan, which has offices in Wolverine Tower near State and Eisenhower.
Pratt said they’ll probably need to knock on doors – getting meaningful feedback in that area will be difficult, he said. Mahler suggested that two public meetings would be sufficient.
Briggs noted that city staff had successfully used an online survey to get public input for the recent update of the Park and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan. The city could contact businesses along State Street, and have employers ask their workers to complete the survey, she said.
Westphal said he assumed that overlays would be a potential option for tweaking zoning in this corridor, as would a possible premium for building affordable housing. Rampson replied that it would depend on the commission’s goals. If they want more density, they could recommend changing the zoning to allow for that, she said. Westphal clarified that the corridor study would include a discussion of goals.
Briggs pointed out that the community hasn’t yet clearly articulated its overarching goals, whether those goals include density, affordable housing, transportation or other things. As the city’s resources become more limited, she said, it’s important to know the community’s goals and direct resources into those areas.
Maher suggested adding to the RFP an indication of what kind of modeling they’d like to see. Words on paper are dry, he said – the consultant should develop some sort of visual representation, either a computer model or physical 3-D rendering.
Thacher noted that the draft RFP asks for a market analysis. She asked for feedback – the analysis could be tailored, or quite broad. Mahler weighed in on the side of keeping it basic, saying he was reluctant to get into a protracted discussion about the underlying assumptions needed to do trending forecasts. “The simpler we keep it, the better.”
Pratt agreed, noting that if you ask for a 20-year forecast, you get what the Library Lot proposal entailed – a lot of caveats. Carlberg suggested looking at what a five-year build-out might mean, then identifying possible opportunities beyond that.
Rampson said these types of projects have rarely included market analyses in the past, but that in this case, because State Street is an employment corridor, it would be useful to see what’s on the horizon. They don’t need to do a fine-grain analysis, she said, but to get a sense of where the market is heading in this region, so that the corridor can identify a niche.
When Briggs said that one thing they can predict with certainty is rising gas prices, Mahler replied that there might be a viable alternative fuel that’s developed, to offset that factor.
Westphal observed that even if they aren’t hiring an economic development consultant, it would still be useful to ask for comparisons to corridors in other communities that were anchored by a large retailer and near an interstate. What other areas have made those assets into an opportunity? He also suggested looking at other corridors in Ann Arbor – making sure that their vision for State Street doesn’t detract from other areas, like Westgate, Arborland and the Plymouth/Green corridor.
They’d talked about the North Main corridor previously as well, Derezinski said. But there’s no question that in terms of priority, State Street was second in importance only after Washtenaw Avenue, he said. Pratt added that State Street stood out as an opportunity because changes there were likely to raise fewer objections from residents – there are few residential areas there now.
Derezinski noted that it was remarkable to see the businesses that have sprung up around the Birch Run outlet mall north of Flint, or around the Cabela’s store in Dundee, south of Ann Arbor. Briggs commented that she hoped that kind of development wasn’t in Ann Arbor’s future.
Some of that development could happen in Pittsfield Township, Rampson noted – and the city will need to work with the township about it, in a respectful way.
Planning Commission Annual Retreat
Part of Tuesday’s working session was spent talking about the group’s April 26 retreat, which will focus on the Washtenaw Avenue corridor.
Tony Derezinski, a planning commissioner who also serves on city council, along with commission chair Eric Mahler have been planning the retreat with Wendy Rampson and Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff. It’s set to begin at 3 p.m. at the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial, where they’ll get an update on the county’s transit master plan from Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO.
At least two hours are devoted to a bus tour with stops along Washtenaw Avenue, between the split at East Stadium in Ann Arbor, and as far east as Hewitt Road in Ypsilanti. Stops are likely to include the crossing at Arbor Hills; the Arborland shopping mall; Glencoe Hills, an apartment complex owned by McKinley Inc.; and the Washtenaw intersections with Golfside and Hewitt.
The group will return to the AATA headquarters for dinner and a discussion of the Washtenaw Avenue corridor improvement authority (CIA), a project that involves the four jursidictions that Washtenaw Avenue crosses through: Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti Township and Ypsilanti. [For background, see Chronicle coverage: "What Does Washtenaw Corridor Need?"]
In describing the agenda at Tuesday’s working session, Derezinski said they planned to invite other community members to participate. Albert Berriz, McKinley’s CEO, will be joining them for part of the retreat, he said, as will Anya Dale, a Washtenaw County planner and AATA board member. The broad theme of the retreat will be regional planning – looking at how communities can work together, Derezinski said, noting that it’s an effort the current administration in Lansing is stressing.
Erica Briggs said she hoped they’d have time to get off the bus and walk along some of the sections of Washtenaw, to experience it as a pedestrian. It’s difficult for pedestrians, especially along the US-23 interchange – and biking is even worse, she indicated.
Rampson said they purposefully picked rush hour to take the bus tour, so that they could see the corridor at its most congested.
Also during the retreat, the commission plans to discuss its work program priorities for the coming year. The retreat, which is open to the public, will run until 8:30 p.m. However, it’s not yet clear how the commission plans to make the bus tour portion of the retreat accessible to the public.
Planning commissioners present: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal.
Absent: Wendy Woods.