Ann Arbor DDA Continues Planning Prep

To Do list: facilitate, educate, get real, find consensus

At its regular partnerships committee meeting on June 8, 2011, members of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board continued their discussion, begun a month earlier, about how to implement the city council “parcel-by-parcel” resolution passed on April 4, 2011. That resolution gives the DDA responsibility for leading a process to explore alternative uses for downtown city-owned parcels: the Library Lot, old YMCA Lot, Palio Lot, Kline’s Lot, and the Fourth & William parking structure.

Doug Kelbough, Kit McCullough

Doug Kelbaugh and Kit McCullough at the June 8 partnerships meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

The parcels are currently used for parking – except for the Library Lot. It’s the construction site for an underground garage that, when completed, will offer around 640 parking spaces. The structure is engineered to bear the weight of a building on top of it that’s as tall as 180 feet.

The main event of the June partnerships meeting was a formal proposal to lead a public engagement process that would take place starting this fall. The proposal came from Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning, and Kit McCullough, who teaches at the college.

The two had attended the May partnerships meeting and given a more conversational, informal version of the proposal. As laid out by Kelbaugh and McCullough this month, the process would include three phases: (1) a data gathering phase; (2) a public meeting phase – one in October to solicit input, and one in November to present two or three concepts for the public’s response; and (3) a presentational phase – in January 2012, they’d consolidate feedback into a final concept plan, which would describe massing, ground floor uses, public/civic uses and pre-schematic site design.

Before Kelbaugh and McCullough presented their proposal, the conversation among committee members and other attendees ranged across several topics – the nature of suburban versus urban, the conceptual compared to the real, and the contrast between consensus and unanimity. The attendees, both at the table and in the audience, were a formidable group. They included local developer Peter Allen, who with his brother Lane presented a more elaborate version of the “four corners” concept that Allen had briefly sketched for the DDA board at their June 1 meeting. Those corners are the Allen Creek greenway (Ann Arbor downtown); the riverfront of the Huron River; the proposed Fuller Road Station near the University of Michigan’s medical complex; and the university’s central campus.

Also in attendance was Albert Berriz, CEO of McKinley Inc., a real estate development and property management firm. When asked for his advice, Berriz emphasized dealing with real people who had real capital and real ideas. He pointed to the McKinley Towne Centre renovation at Liberty and Division streets as an example of the kind of capital and commitment that’s required. Now eight years into that project, Berriz said, it’s really only just beginning. He anticipated it would take 20 years altogether to bring the project to full fruition.

Jesse Bernstein – chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board, and former head of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce (now the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor Regional Chamber) – drew on the AATA’s experience over the last year or more in transit master planning. That had included a significant investment in educating the public as well as the AATA board, he said, simply in terms of what transit options are available. He also stressed that for him, “consensus is a special word.” It’s not about unanimity, he said, but rather about what you can live with.

DDA board member Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theater, revisited a theme he’s highlighted before at DDA board meetings over at least the last year: Suburban versus urban development. The U.S. has seen 70 years of investment in suburban development, he said, and part of the idea of a downtown development authority is to direct at least a trickle of reinvestment in the existing infrastructure of urban centers.

Collins summed up his view of a path forward, based on the morning’s discussion, by saying, “We need to facilitate, educate and get real.” Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, suggested that the next partnerships meeting in July should be treated more like a retreat. The committee could settle in and figure out exactly how the DDA would meet the city council’s directive to facilitate a public engagement process to find alternate uses for downtown city-owned property.

Peter Allen:  Cheerleading

Peter Allen had attended the partnerships committee meeting in May, and had at that time begun to articulate the role he’d like to play in the process. Asked by DDA board member Bob Guenzel at that meeting what the nature of his involvement was, Allen explained that he’s spending his own money as he’s talking with property owners in and around the 500 foot x 500 foot block bounded by Liberty, Division, William and Fifth.

Peter Allen's "Schematic of Relationships." (Image links to higher resolution .pdf file)

At June’s partnerships committee meeting, Allen identified various categories of risk associated with development, rules for developing walkable neighborhoods, and emerging trends he saw. Throughout his remarks, some recurrent themes emerged.

Chief among them was the significance of the role the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location, at the northeast corner of Fifth and William. [Ken Nieman, AADL associate director, also attended the meeting, sitting in the audience.]

Allen returned often to the point that the library is a major anchor on the block. In Allen’s schematic of relationships among local entities, laid out geographically and functionally, the library enjoys a big blue circle in the middle of the graphic. The library, Allen said, needs to be nurtured more than any other idea. Allen felt that AADL director Josie Parker understood that the library of the future is not primarily a place just for storing books. What happens with the library’s future building plans will set the tone for what happens on the block, he said.

By way of background, the AADL board has weighed a plan to construct a new building on the same site as its current downtown location, but paused those plans in late 2008, when the economy took a sharp downturn. The library board had an in-depth public discussion about revisiting those plans most recently in February 2010. And the possibility of building a new facility surfaced indirectly as the library board made investments in a new chiller for the existing building in September 2010. At the board’s January 2011 meeting, outgoing board president Rebecca Head described the current building as “crumbling,” and said she expected the board to take up the issue again in the coming months. [Chronicle coverage: "Citing Economy, Board Halts Library Project," "Board Renews Library Building Discussion" and "Library Board: Invest in Current Building?"]

At the June 8 DDA partnerships meeting, Allen speculated that the library could partner with The Ark – a nonprofit  folk music venue on Main Street. [DDA board member Bob Guenzel also serves on The Ark's board.] And Allen reported that Herb David, whose guitar studio is located in an historic house on the corner of Fifth and Liberty, is interested in staying right where he is, but would like access to more performance space nearby.

Another recurrent theme in Allen’s remarks was the importance of rationing newly constructed space to the needs of the marketplace. Newly constructed space needed to be pre-leased and pre-sold, so that it does not wind up sitting empty like roadkill from the last economic cycle, he said. At the moment, pre-leasing and pre-selling is a challenge for new office space, he said, because rents currently are around $20 a square foot, but would need to be around $30 to support new construction.

Also recurring throughout Allen’s remarks was the importance of transportation connections. He identified four different transit connections that are crucial: (1)  the Ann Arbor-to-Chicago rail connection; (2) the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail connection; (3) the planned Plymouth-State street high capacity corridor connector; and (4) countywide transit currently being planned by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

For the Chicago connection, Allen said he thought that reliable service in under four hours should soon be a reality – we can plan on that, he said. For the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter connection, not all funding is in place, but he felt like the political support is there. For the Plymouth-State street connector, he said, the question is what happens when it gets to downtown. Would it go down Liberty Street? Would it go down William Street?

Jesse Bernstein: Education, Consensus

For his part, Jesse Bernstein said that the lesson the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority had learned in its transit master planning process – which it has conducted over the last year or more – was the importance of education.

Almost two years ago, the AATA decided they needed to engage in a process. And they’d looked at the Ann Arbor community, and at the norms and ways it’s historically gone about planning. The AATA had concluded it’s critical to involve people personally in groups or over the Internet. Bernstein noted the AATA had held more than 60 meetings that were open to citizens over the last year and a half.

The AATA had looked at a 30-year vision. It’s a chicken-egg situation, he said. Folks won’t move to a place the minute the buses start running. It will take a while to figure out where the routes will be. There are also short-term details to be worked out. In redesigning the new Blake Transit Center, for example, there was a recognition that to maintain tight time schedules, easy access to bathrooms for drivers would be a requirement – the building design was modified to accommodate that.

On a short-term basis, the AATA will continue to provide the same services it provides now, Bernstein said. When the new Blake Transit Center is constructed, the BTC will still have a lot of buses coming together in one spot, so they’d also started looking at the first floor of the Fourth and William parking structure as a potential site for transportation use.

But that has to be discussed in terms of all the sites the DDA will be looking at – it’s not helpful to do one site at a time, Bernstein cautioned. When he was president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, he said, national developers knocked on his door, but when they looked at the way Ann Arbor does its planning and processes, he said they shook his hand and walked away.

In terms of shorter-term expansions of the services AATA might be able to provide, Bernstein said the AATA is looking to beef up the corridor between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. Another short-term possibility is to add express buses and speed up the Ypsi-Ann Arbor trip.

Bernstein said he would love to restart the LINK – a downtown circulator bus service. He said his understanding was that the number of stops was determined based on the number of letters in the alphabet and that created a structural problem (too many stops to maintain on-time efficiency). When it’s restarted, he quipped, perhaps the number of stops could be based on the number of letters in Susan Pollay’s first name. Pollay joked back that it would mean only four stops, because one of the letters repeats.

Bernstein also reported that AATA is working intently on getting airport shuttle service up and running. The current strategy is to work with Michigan Flyer, which is already running buses from the Sheraton hotel in Ann Arbor to the Detroit Metro airport. So Bernstein said the AATA hoped to be able to use the top of the Fourth and William parking deck for parking spaces for Michigan Flyer airport shuttle patrons. AATA is talking to the University of Michigan – for UM affiliates who need to travel, such an airport shuttle service could be a boon, he said.

In the course of the conversation at the table, a point to which Bernstein returned was the importance of education and understanding the real meaning of consensus. In engaging the public about transportation planning, he said, the AATA needed to make sure the public understood what’s possible. By way of example, he said that before joining the AATA board, he had no idea what bus rapid transit (BRT) was. That’s when you use “big monster buses that bend in the middle” that can carry 180 people at one time, which travel on a dedicated lane or in regular traffic, he explained. The same kind of educational component needs to be included in planning for the downtown, he said.

The last point Bernstein made was a process point. He talked about how, to him, “consensus” is a very special word. It doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with the outcome – it means that they’ve agreed they can live with the outcome. In Ann Arbor, he said, people are very sensitive to the minority. But it should not be the case that they keep asking: “Is anybody objecting to this?” If they don’t ask people if they can live with it, they’re doomed to failure, he concluded.

Albert Berriz: Realist

Asked for his thoughts at the partnerships committee table, Albert Berriz noted that McKinley Inc. had around 170 active projects. With respect to the planning work, he suggested if the DDA had well-capitalized, legitimate developers, “they’ll do this for you.” They needed to be grounded in pragmatism, he advised. As an example of a development that was not grounded that way, he offered the proposed Broadway Village at Lower Town development. [Proposed by East Lansing-based Strathmore Development, the project stalled after the old Kroger store was demolished, and now sits as an empty field bounded by Broadway, Maiden Lane and Nielson Court.]

A parking lot for Lower Town should not be the outcome, Berriz said. The people who attempted the development at the site “weren’t real,” he said. The project was misrepresented, and undercapitalized. At the corner of Liberty and Division street, he said, McKinley had created the Towne Centre by getting “real people with real capital.” He said that project would take a total of 20 years to bring to fruition. Already eight years into it, he said, it’s still really at the beginning. If someone doesn’t have the capital to hang with you for 10 years, they shouldn’t be in the room, he concluded.

The area the DDA has been asked to look at, he said, is a “superb opportunity.” He cautioned the DDA: “Don’t go too long in a fantasy world.”

Collins: Suburban-Urban

Russ Collins said he and the rest of the DDA board had done a lot of reflection in the last few months. He suggested that Ann Arbor has a larger community issue to think about: Understanding what an urban center is.

He felt that the nature of an urban center is not well understood  by citizens – or even by the DDA board or the Ann Arbor city council. The reason for that lack of understanding, he said, is that for the last 70 years, governmental policy has been to build suburban infrastructure. Building highways and making it easy to develop greenfields discouraged reinvestment in urban centers, he said. That resulted in “donut holes” [areas with abandoned urban centers]. That’s been not just government policy, but also the expectation of citizens. The strategy has not been to re-use the investment that was already put into urban centers, he said. That approach is deeply seated in the way we live and move: “Suburbanization is the way you develop if you develop in America.”

Downtown development authorities were formed in the 1980s to help deal with this lack of reinvestment in urban centers, Collins said, but instead of directing a stream of funding to the urban centers, it’s been a trickle, which is better than nothing at all.

Kelbaugh and McCullough: Facilitators

Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning, and Kit McCullough, who teaches at the college, attended the partnerships committee meeting to deliver a formal proposal they’d been asked to present after the conversation they’d had at the previous month’s partnerships committee meeting.

Their formal proposal to the DDA to lead a public engagement process includes three phases:

  1. July-September 2011: Preliminary analysis, data gathering. This would prepare Kelbaugh and McCullough for the first public meeting.
  2. October-November 2011: Public meetings. The public meeting in October might be conducted in two separate but identical sessions to allow for a broader range of people to attend. They’d start with a presentation on the opportunities, constraints and possibilities, using examples from other communities. The conversation would be both broad, touching on the community’s aspirations for the downtown and a longer-term visions, as well as getting input that’s specific to the parcels. Kelbaugh and McCullough are proposing to focus on the Library Lot (the top of the South Fifth Avenue underground parking structure), the old YMCA Lot (at William and Fifth), and the Palio Lot (at William and Main). They’d leave the Kline’s Lot (along Ashley, north of William) aside for now. For the November meeting, Kelbaugh and McCullough would return with two or three concepts to get response from the public.
  3. January 2012: Final concept plan. Feedback from the public will be consolidated into a final concept plan that describes massing, ground floor uses, public/civic uses, public space and pre-schematic site design. This concept plan could be used to craft future requests for proposals (RFPs) for the sites. The plan would then be presented to the DDA and the city council.

Kelbaugh cautioned that he and McCullough would not be providing their services in their capacity as University of Michigan employees, but rather as independent professionals. The proposed fee for their scope of work is $30,000.

Drawing on the basic elements of advice from different people they’d heard that morning, Russ Collins declared: “We need to facilitate, we need to educate and we need to get real!”

As the meeting wound down, Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, encouraged the partnerships committee members to think of their next meeting in July as more like a retreat. She said she might discuss the idea of extending the meeting into the transportation committee’s regular slot, which immediately follows the partnerships committee meeting.

Kelbaugh cautioned that if he and McCullough were going to do the work they were proposing, they needed to begin in July, or August at the latest. Waiting until the spring term was not an option, because McCullough would have teaching responsibilities then – she’s got the fall term free. [The full DDA board meets once a month. The soonest the board could approve the Kelbaugh-McCullough proposal would be at its July 6 meeting. Committee meetings take place after the full board meeting, which falls on the first Wednesday of every month.]

Responding to Kelbaugh’s concern about the timeline, Collins noted that he’d previously said they needed to “get real.”

Collins concluded: ”Timelines are real.”

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  1. By Tom Whitaker
    June 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm | permalink

    “When he was president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, (Bernstein) said, national developers knocked on his door, but when they looked at the way Ann Arbor does its planning and processes, he said they shook his hand and walked away.”

    This is a ridiculous, anecdotal statement, irresponsibly presented as fact. First, the data I’ve seen shows that approval for the vast majority of projects submitted to the City comes quickly and without much opposition, even in (gasp!) historic districts. The new Downtown Plan and zoning makes this process even smoother. Those who run into snags are those who look to circumvent current ordinances and policy and try to force things that are not supported by the community’s master plans.

    Secondly, when there is money to be made, the “real capital” as Mr. Berriz calls it, will be in it for the long haul. If they have to jump through a few hoops along the way, so be it. Developers and entrepreneurs with real capital, real plans, and a real vested interest in the community and its values will stay and be successful. There is no need to throw out all the rules for, or give public money to out-of-town strangers with their empty promises of jobs, riches, and economic ripples. Mayor and Council have tried this approach before and the result has been vacant lots and boarded up buildings all over town—an outcome that leads me to the conclusion that we need MORE careful planning and processes, not less.

    On the subject of community engagement, I think it’s fine to call a few public meetings and see who shows up (usually those with a specific interest, time or sometimes an agenda of their own). But REAL public engagement takes the discussion to the people where they live: schools, houses of worship, civic organizations, neighborhood associations, etc. Sixty public meetings sounds impressive, but just setting up in a room and posting a notice on a website will not result in an accurate representation of true public sentiment. All one has to do is compare the unenthusiastic results of the scientific poll commissioned by AATA (showing skepticism of county-wide transit and majority opposition to a new millage to support it) with the hyper-supportive feedback they say they’ve gathered from their recent meetings and their voluntary (and easily manipulated) online poll.

  2. June 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bernstein’s perception might be influenced by the (finally) conclusive rejection of the hotel-conference center project that he long espoused.

    The development of the city-owned lots downtown has indeed had a fractious history, including the drama of the 3-site plan and the confused RFP process that led to both the 415 W. Washington and Library Lot efforts ending inconclusively. I think that this type of development effort differs from straightforward commercial development on privately owned property. I hope that the DDA is able to put together an effective comprehensive plan with “robust” public participation – one that truly takes in the big picture of the future of Ann Arbor’s downtown rather than merely trying to satisfy the usual “stakeholders” who have often claimed primacy.

    I won’t try to best Tom Whitaker’s excellent points on what public participation should mean.

  3. By Jesse Bernstein
    June 13, 2011 at 8:32 am | permalink

    Mr. Whitaker has every right to voice his opinion and interpretation of the facts. I do not understand how my experiences do not count as facts? The interactions with developers occurred and since Mr. Whitaker was not present, his denying them as facts basically calls me a liar. Perhaps Mr. Whitaker would like to rephrase that comment.

    Also, I’m confused by his remarks about the AATA Transit Master Plan process. We did meet at churches, schools, with neighborhood associations and many others. If Mr. Whitaker disagrees with the outcome, that’s fine, but the process complied with his definition of community engagement. I suggest anyone who is interested in reviewing both the process and content of the Transit Master Plan, go to the AATA website – As always, as an AATA Board member and current Chair, I am available to discuss any issue anyone has regarding AATA.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    June 13, 2011 at 11:46 am | permalink

    Your bringing up those facts in the context you did suggests that they are general truths about developers’ feelings about Ann Arbor’s process. Tom’s skepticism about their anecdotal (and hearsay) nature seems entirely justified to me. We have no way of knowing whether they’re representative, or indeed, whether they’re even telling the whole truth. Some self-interested developers succeeded in getting you to see things their way–they could be giving you their sober assessment, they could be telling you a story and hoping that you’ll be credulous enough to spread it around. The point is, we don’t know.

    Also, the literal version of your story is, as Tom points out, ridiculous. Did developers really “knock on your door,” look at Ann Arbor’s process, then “shake your hand and walk away”? It’s doubtful that events proceeded in such a fanciful manner. So the nuances of exactly which developers, which projects, how they came to you, how they engaged with the process, what their specific objections were, in what context, in what economic conditions, and why they decided to “walk away” are all missing here–all we have is an oversimplified, and therefore slanted, anecdote. And of course, it makes no mention of all the developers who *did* choose to continue with the process, and succeeded.

    Tom’s quite right in pointing out that this kind of testimony is a bad basis for making public policy, even if it *feels* like a true description of the situation to you. That’s not a slur on your integrity–it’s pointing out that your story, as presented, is not credible in a way that a public body needs to make good decisions.

  5. By Jesse Bernstein
    June 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm | permalink

    I guess, Mr. Johnson that Mr. Whitaker’s is guilty of the same transgression when he refers to developers jumping through hoops; those who run into snags are those who look to circumvent current ordinances; giving money to out of town strangers with their empty promises of jobs, riches,and economic ripples; and where are the vacant lots and boarded up buildings all over town?

  6. By Rod Johnson
    June 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm | permalink

    Fair enough. Maybe we need more facts and fewer broad-brush characterizations.

  7. By john floyd
    June 13, 2011 at 6:00 pm | permalink

    This thread is the closest thing to a genuine public discussion about development and Ann Arbor’s future that I have seen. I hope Mr. Bernstein and the others will continue this discussion. Thaks for what has been started here.

  8. By Tom Whitaker
    June 13, 2011 at 10:09 pm | permalink

    I’m not guilty of any transgressions and I have not used any broad-brush characterizations that I can’t back up with specifics. Further, I do not represent a public board as its chair at public meetings.

    Mr. Berriz spoke of developers (himself included) with real capital who have committed to investing over the long term in Ann Arbor. Clearly they see enough potential return on their investments to put up with our allegedly cumbersome processes. Or, put another way, they are willing to jump through the hoops because they see the opportunity for long-term gain.

    Ask the planning department for their spreadsheet that documents submitted projects, their approval status, and the time it took them to get through the process. The data may surprise you. It did when I saw it about a year and a half ago. The vast majority of stalled projects in Ann Arbor were not those that could not make it through the process. The stalled projects were those that were approved, but could not be financed. State law enables the City to require a performance guarantee of developers, but the City has not enforced this. The result? Existing housing and businesses were taken out and replaced with vacant lots with much lower property taxes.

    Broadway Village is probably the best example of out-of-town developers coming in, demanding public money and special zoning, promising the moon, and not delivering. There is a fenced vacant lot (still contaminated) at Maiden Lane and Broadway to commemorate this for us all. Several businesses, with their jobs and tax revenues, are no longer there.

    Board ups can be found at Main and Catherine (former Greek church), site of the failed Gallery project, as well as Main and Summit, where several affordable houses have been boarded up for years–one recently burned. Glen and Ann is another vacant lot close to downtown, where businesses and houses once stood, paying taxes and providing jobs and housing. Now it is a fenced eyesore with the out-of-state developer/owner paying only minimal property taxes for vacant land. That project (Glen Ann Place) was granted approval by City Council instead of Council backing up the Historic District Commission in court. The developer was just granted an extension to keep his vacant lot for a couple more years. There are several more examples.

    Developments that ran into snags because they tried to work around zoning included The Moravian, Heritage Row, Near North, 42 North, the Elks PUD, and even the aforementioned Broadway Village.

  9. By Peter Zetlin
    June 14, 2011 at 6:28 am | permalink

    Great discussion! Thank you all.