Archive for July, 2012

Art Commission Adds Public Commentary

The monthly meetings of the Ann Arbor public art commission will now include another opportunity for public commentary, following action at AAPAC’s July 25, 2012 meeting. Commissioners voted to add a second three-minute public commentary slot at the end of its meetings. Previously, members of the public could formally address AAPAC only at the beginning of each meeting.

The issue of adding another public commentary slot was raised at AAPAC’s June 27, 2012 meeting by commissioner John Kotarski. The intent would be for people to have the opportunity to give before a decision by AAPAC, then provide feedback after that decision is made, he said. Before AAPAC made a decision about public commentary, the commission last month directed Aaron Seagraves, … [Full Story]

Art Commission OKs Strategic Plan

The Ann Arbor public art commission voted to support a four-year strategic plan, which identifies several major goals to pursue through fiscal 2016. The plan was discussed at AAPAC’s July 25, 2012 meeting. AAPAC chair Marsha Chamberlin, who drafted the plan based on previous commission discussions – including a February 2012 retreat – agreed to work on a final draft that incorporates changes suggested during Wednesday’s meeting.

Summaries of the goals are: (1) increasing the number of public art pieces throughout the city; (2) diversifying the public engagement and participation in selecting public art; (3) increasing the public’s support and appreciation for public art through PR efforts; and (5) pursuing private funding for public art. More detailed objectives are provided for … [Full Story]

Campaign Launches for Library Bond

A campaign to support the Ann Arbor District Library’s $65 million bond proposal for a new downtown building has officially launched. The Our New Downtown Library campaign committee has been working informally for several weeks. Some of its members attended the July 23 board meeting, when the AADL board voted to put the bond proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot. The $65 million bond would pay for a new building at the same location as the current structure, at 343 S. Fifth Ave.

Campaign committee members include Ellie Serras (chair), Mike Allemang, (treasurer), Sally Allen, Janis Bobrin, Leah Gunn, Debbie Herbert, Norman Herbert, Pat McDonald, Paul Morel, Omari Rush, Paul Saginaw, Ingrid Sheldon and Robin Wax. The group has already … [Full Story]

Washington & Fourth

Sign outside of Blue Tractor promotes July 26 opening of new lounge called Mash, located under the restaurant. [photo] Laith Al-Saadi Trio will be playing every Thursday, starting at 10 p.m. until 2 a.m.

Argo Cascades: Temporary Shut Down July 26

The city of Ann Arbor has announced that starting the morning of Thursday, July 26, 2012, the Argo Cascades (the bypass around Argo Dam) will be shut down temporarily  in order to keep the flow of water over the dam itself at the levels required by federal and state agencies. The Huron River has shown decreased flow for the past few weeks due to the lack of rain this summer.

At the city council’s July 16, 2012 meeting, public services area administrator Craig Hupy briefed the council on the fact that the city’s two hydroelectric dams (Barton and Geddes) were not generating electricity, due to the diminished river flow.

From the emailed communication sent by community services area administrator Sumedh Bahl to city councilmembers, the … [Full Story]

A Library is Not a City

A July 22, 2012 article about the Ann Arbor District Library board’s decision to place a $65 million bond proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot incorrectly characterized constraints on the ballot language for library bond proposals. The article stated that the requirements for the ballot language are laid out in the  Michigan Home Rule City Act. While the district library is a formidable institution, it is not a city. In fact, district libraries in Michigan are governed by the District Library Financing Act (Act 265 of 1988). We note The Chronicle’s error here, and have corrected the original article to include the template that libraries must use for their ballot language.

Washtenaw: Arts & Politics

The Ann Arbor-based Arts Alliance asked candidates in the Aug. 7 primary to respond to five questions related to their views on arts and culture. Questions include: “What arts and cultural activities have you or your family members attended, participated in, or supported in the past year?” and “What is your position on public funding for arts & culture?” [.pdf of candidate responses]

UM: Penn State

In the wake of NCAA-imposed penalties against Penn State related to the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and cover-up, the Detroit News interviewed officials at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University about the balance of athletics and academics. UM athletics director David Brandon is quoted: ”Yeah, we play football, we play basketball, we have rabid fans who enjoy that. … We’re pleased we’ve got people that really love it and are passionate about what we do. But if we ever get to the point where we think it’s more important than the real important things that take place on a college campus, we have lost our way.” [Source]

Ann Arbor Taxicab Board Can’t Meet

On July 24, 2012, the Ann Arbor city clerk announced in a regular email notification that all future city of Ann Arbor taxicab board meetings have been canceled, pending the appointment of new members. The announcement noted that Tim Hull has resigned from the board effective July 31 – so the board no longer has a quorum of members.

With Hull’s resignation, the seven-member body is reduced to four members – city councilmember Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3),  Tom Oldakowski, Tom Crawford (a non-voting ex officio member, as the city’s CFO) and Bill Clock (a non-voting ex officio member, as representative of the Ann Arbor police department). With only two out of five of its voting member positions filled, the board does not have … [Full Story]

Main & Liberty

Former Parthenon fixed up and now named “Lena” touting American food and a “help wanted” sign in window.

Review of New Blake Transit Center Continues

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (July 17, 2012): Two projects – one public, one private – dominated discussion at the most recent planning commission meeting.

Kirk Westphal

Kirk Westphal oversees a vote at the July 17, 2012 Ann Arbor planning commission meeting. He was elected chair at the start of the meeting. In the foreground is commissioner Eleanore Adenekan. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners reviewed a site plan for the new Blake Transit Center (BTC), the main downtown hub for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. A new two-story transit center will be constructed on the same parcel as the existing center, midblock between Fourth and Fifth avenues, north of William and south of the federal building. But the new building will be located on the east side of that site – near Fifth Avenue, opposite its current location – and the direction of the current bus lane will be reversed. Buses will enter Fourth Avenue into an eastbound lane that exits onto Fifth.

Commissioners voiced a variety of concerns and feedback, centered on improving the pedestrian experience and the appearance of the building and landscaping. They elicited the fact that although zoning would allow for a structure up to 180 feet tall – about 16 stories – the foundation for the new BTC is planned to accommodate only four stories, with a two-story structure to be built initially.

Kirk Westphal said he’d been a bit surprised by news that the AATA is interested in buying the adjacent Fifth & William lot from the city. That possibility was mentioned as part of a design review committee report. He urged AATA’s CEO, Michael Ford, to talk with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority about the AATA’s plans for Fifth & William, and to see if the DDA might be interested in collaborating to increase the footings and allow for a taller structure in the future. He noted that the DDA’s Connecting William Street effort, focused on plans to possibly develop certain city-owned sites, includes the Fifth & William lot.

As a public entity, the AATA does not have to follow the process for site plan approval that is required of private-sector property owners. The process is being conducted for review and input only. However, the planning commission did take a vote, unanimously affirming that the project does meet city requirements for private development, except for interior landscaping and driveway width. It will next be reviewed by the city council.

Another project that drew discussion is a private development proposed by Tom Fitzsimmons, for a three-story townhouse with five housing units at 922-926 Catherine St. During public commentary, several neighbors – including residents of the adjacent Catherine Commons condominiums – spoke in support of the project. However, some of them raised concerns about backups in the stormwater system, which is already a problem along Catherine Street. Staff indicated that those issues are likely tied to design flaws on the site of Catherine Commons. Members of the development team for the new project told commissioners that an underground stormwater detention system on their site could improve the situation along the street, and at the least would not make it worse.

Also at the July 17 meeting, three projects that had previously been considered by commissioners were back for various reasons. A site plan for a Speedway gas station at the northeast corner of North Maple and Miller had been postponed at the commission’s June 5 meeting, but was approved on July 17. Also approved by commissioners was a revised site plan for 2161 W. Stadium Blvd., where a Noodles & Co. restaurant is planned. Commissioners had signed off on the original project at their March 6, 2012 meeting – the revision involves shifting the building’s location 21 feet to the north. The former Sze-Chuan West restaurant there has already been demolished.

And parking for the Chalmers Place retail center on Washtenaw Avenue emerged again at the July 17 meeting. Commissioners approved a plan to increase the number of parking spaces on the center’s site from 88 to 112. A different parking plan had been rejected by the planning commission on May 1, after several neighbors spoke against it. There was no opposition to the new proposal. [Full Story]

A2: Bike Video

A video posted on the city of Ann Arbor’s new non-motorized transportation blog follows a bike rider with a helmet-mounted camera on a commute from Fifth and Ann, near city hall, down Fifth to Packard, then over to State – set to the tune of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” According to a city press release, the blog will serve as ”a platform for encouragement and education of the culture of non-motorized transportation.” [Source]

Chelsea: Online News

Lisa Allmendinger, a long-time local reporter, relaunched an online news site on Monday for the Chelsea area: Chelsea Update. In her inaugural post, Allmendinger writes: “This Chelsea-focused news site got its start with my neighbor, Heather Newman, who has entrusted me with ‘her baby’ by letting me buy it and relaunch it after a two-year hiatus. …Throughout my career, I’ve been a sports writer, editorial page editor, news editor, and regional reporter. I’ve also been a part of several different launches, which were owned, of course, by other people. Yet despite the risks, I’ve always wanted to launch my own publication. Today marks the beginning of this life-long dream for me.” [Source]

Park Issues Dominate Council Deliberations

Ann Arbor city council meeting (July 16, 2012): The bulk of the council’s recent meeting was related to parks – either directly or tangentially.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asks to be called on during the meeting.

Councilmember Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asks to be called on during the July 16 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The council considered a resolution that would have placed a question on the Nov. 6 ballot about a charter amendment affecting city parkland. The amendment would require a voter referendum not just for the sale of parkland, but also for leases or other contracts that have a practical effect similar to a sale.

The majority of the council wanted to allow time for the city’s park advisory commission (PAC) to weigh in before taking council action. To facilitate that timeline, PAC is convening a special meeting on Aug. 8 to consider the matter. The council’s postponement was until Aug. 9 – its next regularly scheduled meeting. That’s a Thursday instead of the usual Monday, pushed back because of the Aug. 7 primary election.

Some supporters of the possible amendment had hoped to bring the matter to a council vote before the August primary, because they wanted incumbent council candidates to be judged by the electorate based on their vote on the parkland ballot question. That led Sandi Smith (Ward 1), who is not seeking re-election to a third term, to call the resolution on the ballot question a “poorly disguised political stunt.”

Other park-related items on the agenda included approval of a $89,560 contract with Wally Hollyday Skateparks for the design and construction oversight of a skatepark to be built in the northeast corner of Veterans Memorial Park. The council also gave initial approval to the rezoning of two parcels recently acquired by the city for expansion of the Bluffs Nature Area at 1099 N. Main St., north of Sunset Road. On final approval, both parcels will receive the PL (public land) zoning designation. The city expects the additional land to make the entrance to the nature area more accessible.

The Leslie Science and Nature Center will get $115,309 worth of improvements to create accessible pathways at the city-owned site – the council approved a contract with JB Contractors Inc. for that work. The center is operated by a separate independent nonprofit on land and buildings that are owned and maintained by the city of Ann Arbor.

The possibility of a mixed-use park and art center at the city-owned 415 W. Washington property was given a chance to move forward, with the council’s authorization of $50,000 in general fund money to pay for physical surveys of the building on the property. The building, which would potentially house a space for working artists, would need environmental, hazardous materials and topographic surveys done, even if a decision were ultimately made to demolish the building.

Open space outside the city got a boost from the council’s acceptance of $396,900 in federal funds for the purchase of development rights (PDR) on properties in Webster and Superior townships. The federal funds will be matched with city funds from the open space and parkland preservation millage, which supports the city’s greenbelt program.

The wetlands at Plymouth Parkway Park that were impacted by last year’s railroad embankment washout along Plymouth Road will be restored through a $97,687 contract with Fonson Inc. authorized by the council. The funds will come from the city’s park maintenance and capital improvements millage.

Only tangentially related to parks was the council’s approval of the site plan for the Maple Cove development. Located on 2.96 acres at 1649 N. Maple, north of Miller Road between North Maple and Calvin Street on the city’s west side, the plan calls for combining two sites – 1649 N. Maple and 1718 Calvin – and demolishing an existing single-family home and detached garages there. Two 3-story apartment buildings would be built with a 64-space parking lot. The project also includes building a private street to serve seven new single-family houses near Calvin Street.

The parks connection to Maple Cove is that the city requested a $26,660 contribution from the developer to support the city’s parks – a voluntary contribution, with the amount determined by formula. The developer has declined to make that contribution.

The council also voted to appoint John Seto as chief of police and head of safety services – he’s now permanently in charge of policing the city, including city parkland. Seto has served since April as interim in the wake of Barnett Jones’ retirement.

In other action, councilmembers voted to suspend the use of construction unity board (CUB) agreements in construction contracts – after voting to restore their use earlier this summer. On the CUB issue, the council has been responding to a changing landscape of law, as state legislation is passed and court decisions are handed down. [Full Story]

Ypsi: Color Run

The Detroit Free Press curated photos from participants of the Color Run in Ypsilanti, which drew about 15,000 people. The event involved runners getting powdered with colored corn starch at intervals throughout the 5-kilometer course. [Source] The publication also posted a short video from the race. [Source]

UM: Solar Car

Quantum, this year’s entry for the University of Michigan’s solar car team, won the 2012 American Solar Challenge. A photo of the winning crew is posted on the team’s website, with a note to fans: “On July 21, 2012, we not only won our 7th National Championship, but we finished the race with the largest margin of victory in the history of the American Solar Challenge. We are proud to bring home the trophy to Ann Arbor for a 4th consecutive time, however, we are not stopping here! Believe it or not, before this race even began, we were already working on the next car.” [Source]

AADL Board: Renovation Not the Best Option

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (July 16, 2012): Following a discussion that focused on why rebuilding was preferable to renovation, the AADL board voted unanimously to put a 30-year, $65 million bond proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot to fund a new downtown library at its current location.

Ellie Serras, Ed Surovell

Ellie Serras talks with Ann Arbor District Library board member Ed Surovell after the board's July 16, 2012 meeting, when trustees voted to put a 30-year, $65 million bond proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot. Serras is part of a group working to support a bond campaign. (Photos by the writer.)

The issue of renovating had emerged during public commentary near the start of the meeting, when two speakers – Lyn Davidge and David Diephuis – urged the board to support renovation of the existing building rather than a new structure.

But board members all spoke in favor of rebuilding, citing the condition of the existing building and the need for features – like a raked auditorium – that couldn’t be incorporated into a renovated structure. Several trustees pointed to the library’s role as a community gathering place, and said that the building’s current configuration can’t be modified to accommodate the growing number of events, meetings and other activities that resulted in over 600,000 visits to the downtown library last year.

Some board members also noted that a new library building could be a catalyst for other downtown changes. Ed Surovell described the area around the library as an “architectural Sahara” dominated by parking, and said the library has the opportunity to build a monument that would be a centerpiece for the city. The site at 343 S. Fifth is south of a new underground parking garage and across the street from the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s Blake Transit Center, which is being rebuilt.

Surovell was also the impetus behind a debate about the term of the bond. The initial resolution proposed by Nancy Kaplan – who serves with Surovell and Prue Rosenthal on a special facilities committee that recommended the bond proposal – included a 25-year term. But Surovell, founder and CEO of Edward Surovell Realtors, argued strenuously for a 30-year term. A longer term would increase the total interest payment over the life of the bond, but lower the millage rate that taxpayers would pay each year – from an estimated 0.59 mills over 25 years, to an estimated 0.56 mills for the longer period. [Details on the interest and millage rates will vary, depending on market conditions when the bonds are issued.]

Surovell’s argument eventually proved persuasive to a majority of board members, and on a 4-3 vote the bond resolution was amended to a 30-year term.

The board also set a special meeting for Monday, July 30 at 7 p.m. to approve ballot language for the bond proposal. The deadline for filing the ballot language is Aug. 14. The board also voted to amend its charge to the special facilities committee. Rosenthal, Surovell and Kaplan will continue to serve on the committee through 2012, making recommendations to the board on issues leading up to the Nov. 6 vote, as well as on next steps after the bond proposal is approved or rejected by voters. [Full Story]

Artisan Market

Ypsilanti Town Band, in vintage dress, playing familiar songs from the 1880s-1920s.

AAPS Retreat Aug. 1: Evaluation, Budgeting

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education regular meeting/committee-of-the-whole (July 18, 2012): The AAPS school board met Wednesday to plan its annual retreat, and to take care of a small amount of business. The board will meet on Aug. 1 from 3-9 p.m. at a location yet to be determined – to evaluate its own processes, and set goals for the 2012-13 school year.

In planning for the retreat, the board discussed its support for moving the district to a zero-based budgeting system, a goal of AAPS superintendent Patricia Green. Trustees also suggested discussing student performance measures, as related to both superintendent evaluation and the possible restructuring of teachers’ compensation to include merit pay.

The one item of regular business conducted at the July 18 meeting was to renew the district’s membership in the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA).

Board chair Deb Mexicotte also confirmed at the meeting that she’ll be seeking re-election in November. Dale Leslie, a former local businessman, has also filed for election to that seat – the only one open this cycle on the seven-member board. [Full Story]

Washtenaw & Forest

These parked cars look like they’re about to careen down the hill onto Washtenaw Ave. [photo] The building in the background is 601 S. Forest, still under construction.

AATA Grapples With Health Care Issue

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority special board meeting (July 16, 2012): Although the board does not typically schedule a monthly meeting for July, a special meeting was called because the board had business to transact that could not wait until August.

AATA board members met in a work room at AATA headquarters for their July 16 special meeting. Clockwise around the table starting at 9 o'clock – Anya Dale, David Nacht (obscured behind Dale), Jesse Bernsetin, CEO Michael Ford, Sue Gott and Eli Cooper.

AATA board members met in a workroom at AATA headquarters for their July 16 special meeting. Clockwise around the table starting at the far left: Anya Dale, David Nacht (obscured behind Dale), Jesse Bernstein, CEO Michael Ford, Sue Gott and Eli Cooper. (Photos by the writer.)

However, the longest and most vigorous discussion took place on an item not actually on the published agenda: compliance by the AATA with Michigan’s Public Act 152, signed into law in September 2011, which limits employer health care contributions to a fixed dollar amount. At their July 16 meeting, board members took no further action on the issue, letting the vote taken at their previous meeting on June 21, 2012 stand – for now. An additional special meeting might be called sometime in the next week.

The board’s discussion of new information, obtained from the Michigan attorney general’s office, as well as additional analysis of Act 152, suggested a kind of vindication for the position of two dissenters – Charles Griffith and Roger Kerson – in the board’s June 21 action.

That action had been to limit the AATA’s contributions to no more than 80% of the non-union employee health care cost. Adopting the 80% limit is another way for a public entity to comply with Act 152. And the board had voted on June 21 to do that for its non-union employees – because open enrollment was fast approaching for those employees.

As part of that compliance decision, AATA put together a new health care option, which would allow its non-union employees to choose a health care option that would cost them the same as before – but increase their co-pays. And by the time of the July 16 meeting, employees were participating in the open enrollment process, using the boardroom for that activity.

So the board met in a smaller workroom to handle its business for the July 16 special meeting.

That business included a $60,000 increase in the contract with Steer Davies Gleave, the international consulting firm the AATA hired to assist with the development of its transit master plan. The work has included identifying new service options and financial analysis for AATA’s initiative to expand its governance and service area countywide. With this and other previous increases, the value of the contract now totals $780,622, from a deal first signed in April 2010 for just under $400,000. Some of the additional $60,000 will essentially be passed through to a local consulting firm, Carlisle Wortman Associates.

In other business, the board struck a task-order style deal for marketing and advertising with Quack! Media and Pace & Partners Inc. – a three-year arrangement that could be extended for another two years. The $500,000 total authorized by the board works out to $100,000 a year.

The board also authorized an increase in the contract it has with Blue Cab to provide its NightRide service, which operates after the hours when fixed-route service stops running. The increase is from $28 to $32 per service hour for a contract that extends through 2013. Of the $4 increase, $3 is attributed to the AATA’s relatively new living wage policy.

In a final piece of business, the board authorized a $104,000 contract with RBV Contracting to relocate a fire hydrant as part of AATA’s bus garage expansion project. [Full Story]