Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Nov. 7, 2012): The board’s first-Wednesday monthly noon meeting often falls the day after Election Day, as it did this year. That left executive director of the DDA Susan Pollay with less sleep than others – as she did not conclude her duties on one of the city’s 11 absent voter count boards until around 3 a.m.
But the DDA board’s agenda was relatively light. It did not include any voting items, and consisted of a series of reports and commentary – some of it in preparation for the board’s upcoming annual retreat on Nov. 16.
Sketching out the retreat for the board, Pollay told them that for the first time in the nearly 17 years she’s served as executive director, there is no “next big project.”
A big project the DDA is just completing is the construction of the Library Lane underground parking garage on South Fifth Avenue. The construction bills for that project were included in last year’s (FY 2012) budget, but not all of them came in by year’s end. So as board member Roger Hewitt reported, the first quarter financial statements for this year include bills that were originally budgeted for last year. When all the construction bills are paid, a budget adjustment will be made, he said. In any case, he characterized the DDA’s financial position as strong.
The board was also briefed on the public parking system, which the DDA manages under a contract with the city of Ann Arbor. Chronicle coverage of the parking report came earlier in a preview article.
The board got an update on two projects recently proposed for the downtown, which have now undergone review by the city’s design review board, and for which citizen participation meetings have been held: 624 Church Street, next to Pizza House; and 413 E. Huron at Division Street. The next formal step for both of those projects will be submission to the Ann Arbor planning commission.
At the meeting it was reported that the developer of the 413 E. Huron project also has a possible interest in the city-owned properties that are included in the scope of the Connecting William Street (CWS) planning project, which the DDA is overseeing. The board got an update on CWS – the process is expected to result in a recommendation made to the city council before the end of the year.
The board also got an update on the review of an issue that mayor John Hieftje has pushed the DDA to address for the last three years: bicycle riding on downtown sidewalks. For now it looks like the DDA is not likely to move forward on that issue, until the problem is more clearly defined.
DDA Board Retreat
The board has scheduled its annual retreat for Friday, Nov. 16. The location will be Zingerman’s Events on Fourth from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Board Retreat: Executive Director
Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, previewed the board retreat. Pollay told the board that the facilitator for the retreat, Kerry Sheldon, would be meeting with board members in advance of the retreat as well as with other stakeholders to arrive at a framework for the discussion. What are the things the DDA could be doing to achieve its mission – which is to make investments in public improvements to strengthen the downtown area and attract new private investments.
This retreat is a chance to take a step back, Pollay said. For the first time in her nearly 17 years at the DDA, there is no “next big project.” So Sheldon is shaping an agenda to allow the board to take a few minutes to think about strategies and then to think tactically about how to implement those strategies. The DDA is really good at some things, she said, so what are those things and how can the DDA do more of them? Another important consideration is to think about what the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor SPARK and other organizations need from the DDA in order for help those organizations be successful.
Board Retreat: Public Comment – Culinary Institute
A suggestion to the board for a topic of discussion at their retreat came during public commentary at the start of the meeting – from Elmer White. He hoped the program he’d be describing could be up and running by September 2013 with a small student body of 6-12 students. The three basics in life are food, clothing and shelter, he said. The economy is turning from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, he stated. In one of the latest issues of the Ann Arbor Observer there’s coverage of the St. Andrew’s breakfast program that provides food to indigent homeless people. Another Observer article mentions a young chef from Ecuador who is now preparing fine food at the restaurant that’s located where the Parthenon used to be, he said. [The new restaurant at the corner of Liberty & Main is called Lena.]
It had occurred to White that we have schools of architecture for shelter, schools of design for clothing, but what about food services? He allowed that there’s a culinary program at Washtenaw Community College, and a culinary program at Schoolcraft, but those programs, as good as they are, prepare people to be able to put food on a lot of plates in a banquet context, he said – cafeteria and buffet-style restaurants. He described such restaurants as restaurants “with a small ‘r’.” He told the board that he frequently eats at Applebee’s, but described the menu there as “How many different ways can we prepare chicken breasts?”
The restaurants “with a capital ‘R’” are in downtown Ann Arbor, White said, and they’ve become a destination for people in surrounding counties. So how do those people get trained, who prepare food in downtown Ann Arbor restaurants? That food is prepared individually to order from a short menu that changes from week to week. He wondered if it were an apprenticeship program, or was accomplished through happenstance.
So White suggested creating something called the Culinary Institute of Ann Arbor, which he said would become the best culinary institute between Montreal and San Francisco. The word “cuisine” does not refer just to French food, White told the board, but rather it’s using food from the region. He saw the possibility of forming a partnership between Food Gatherers, St. Andrew’s and the Delonis Center, and other sponsors of a charitable nonprofit. [Though it does not appear to be exactly what White is suggesting, Food Gatherers currently operates a Community Kitchen job training program at the Delonis Center, a homeless shelter in downtown Ann Arbor.] That money would be used to purchase the food to be prepared. It would generate very good publicity nationwide for the Ann Arbor DDA, White concluded.
It’s not unusual at any given monthly meeting for development to occupy at least part of the discussion by the board of the downtown development authority.
Development: Church Street
Ray Detter reported from the previous night’s meeting of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council. The meeting was almost entirely devoted to two student housing developments. One is located on East Huron Street at Division and the other is located on Church Street in the South University area.
A 14-story project that was filed for design review is located at 624 Church Street, next to Pizza House. Dennis Tice, owner of Pizza House, is listed as one of the developers, along with 624 Partners LLC and Opus Group of Minnetonka, Minnesota. [.pdf of 624 Church Street proposal]
Detter noted that since the last meeting of the DDA board, both projects have gone before the design review board and have had citizen participation meetings. The Church Street project Detter described as having been treated “very gently,” supporting the DDA’s decision to accept the developer’s request to provide required parking offsite in the city’s public parking system, which is administered by the DDA. The major criticism of the project, Detter reported, was that it looked a lot like the two Zaragon projects.
Development: East Huron Street
By way of background, the 27-page proposal for 413 E. Huron calls for 213 apartments, about 3,000-square-feet of street-level retail space, and 163 on-site underground parking spaces. [.pdf of 413 E. Huron proposal to the design review board] The complex would consist of two main towers and an “inset upper level garden and pool courtyard,” according to the proposal. [.pdf of site rendering]
In the case of the East Huron project, the reaction of the design review board and the public was that the project needs to be redesigned. “Nobody likes this project,” Detter contended. The developer had made some minor changes after the design review board’s meeting and before the citizen participation meeting, Detter said, adding that most people present did not consider that to be nearly enough.
So the next morning, four members of the development team met at Sloan Plaza [an eight-story residential building standing just to the east of the proposed East Huron development] with seven members of the design guidelines citizen review committee – a group that is different from the design review board, and made up of representatives of the eight downtown and near-downtown residential organizations. The group included Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan college of architecture and urban planning. Detter described the meeting, held in a room on the eighth floor overlooking the location of the proposed project, as “very cordial.”
The message conveyed to the developers was in line with that heard at the design review board, Detter reported. Namely, the building’s massing and bulk needs to be reduced to allow sunlight to the north and improve the pedestrian experience on Huron Street. The project was trying to “cram too much” onto the site. It was suggested that the elevator be moved to the southwest corner of the building, with Detter suggesting that maybe the building could be built higher than the height limit constrained by by-right zoning, if the project were proposed as a “planned project” and provided for larger setbacks. The project should show greater respect to the character area where the site is located, he said. Detter noted that the developers had been mistaken about the character area initially – because they said they were supposed to design a building that related to the new Justice Center at Fifth and Huron.
The meeting at Sloan Plaza was followed by two additional meetings, both of which mayor John Hieftje had attended. One of those meetings was with the neighborhood groups and one was with the developer, Detter reported. The goal is to make the project better before it gets presented to the planning commission. Detter allowed that the design review board makes recommendations that have only voluntary – not mandatory – compliance. Detter said that the developer is also looking at the parcels in the Connecting William Street area, with an eye toward possibly developing one of those city-owned parcels. So the goal is to make the East Huron Street project as good as it can possibly be, Detter concluded.
Development: Connecting William Street
An update on the Connecting William Street (CWS) project was provided by DDA board member Joan Lowenstein. She reported that the public outreach phase has been completed. From August through October, a total of 20 events had been held.
The form of those events included traditional meetings, webinars, and small group presentations. [For Chronicle coverage of one presentation, see: "Planning Group Briefed on William St. Project."] Over 170 people participated, she said. History and context was provided, along with draft scenarios. Feedback on various components of the project as well as general thoughts were collected. The feedback has been summarized and is currently being digested, and will be available on the DDA website soon.
The CWS leadership outreach committee had met in October to start reviewing the feedback and begin thinking about the draft recommendations. The staff and the DDA’s consultant have been working on draft recommendations and will meet on Monday, Nov. 12 at 3 p.m. Lowenstein felt it would be one of the more important meetings, because the committee would see a draft of the presentation that would ultimately be made to the city council.
Development: Beyond Downtown
During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Ray Detter told the board that the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council had started considering the nature of who they are as a council, given that their interests goes beyond the downtown. He cited as examples the desire to be a part of conversations about rail transit and the future of the North Main corridor.
Financial Status Report
The quarterly financial report for the first three months of FY 2013 was presented by Roger Hewitt. He prefaced it by saying it had been anticipated that the transactions for the entire Library Lane underground parking garage were going to be completed in the previous fiscal year. That had been done to ensure there were no negative fund balances for the previous fiscal year. In fact, not all of the construction costs were billed during the previous fiscal year, so some of those costs are showing up as expenses on this year’s balance sheet.
The current year’s budget was set based on the assumption that the construction invoices would already be paid. So Hewitt described the quarterly report as “not overly helpful at this point.” As soon as all the bills have come in on the construction for the Library Lane garage and the Fifth and Division streetscape projects, a budget revision would be presented that accurately reflects what actual expenditures have been – he hoped that would happen in the next three months. [.pdf of FY 2013 first quarter financial statements]
After walking the board through highlights of the financial statements, he concluded that overall the DDA’s financial position, measured by fund balances, is much better than had been anticipated two years ago.
The TIF (tax increment finance) fund balance stands at $6.8 million. The housing fund balance is a little over $1 million. The parking fund balance is about $5 million. And the parking maintenance fund stands at about negative $0.5 million, because a transfer of funds to that fund has not yet been made. All those fund balances would decrease once the final payments are made in connection with the Library Lane parking structure, Hewitt said. Still, when all is said and done, the DDA would have healthy fund balances, he said.
Hewitt attributed the better financial picture to a combination of increased usage of the public parking system and rate increases. Hewitt also reviewed the parking report in detail, which The Chronicle previewed in earlier coverage: “Ann Arbor Parking Data: Slower September.”
Transportation was a theme common to a number of reports.
Transportation: Bicycles on Sidewalks
Reporting out from the operations committee, John Mouat summarized some discussion that the committee has had recently on the topic of bicycles on sidewalks.
By way of background, the issue has been pushed by mayor John Hieftje as one that the DDA should be addressing. He’s been bringing it up for at least the last three years, including mentions at the Jan. 6, 2010 and Dec. 7, 2011 meetings of the DDA board, and more recently at the Sept. 5, 2012 meeting.
Mouat reported that he and DDA research and planning specialist Amber Miller had talked through the basic parameters of the issue – which is perceived mainly as a safety challenge related to bikes on sidewalks downtown. They’d talked about where the problem areas are: South University, South State Street and Main Street. So it’s not all of downtown that is perceived as problematic. Miller has also pulled together information about existing ordinance information, and maps of bike routes and “sharrows,” as well as information about what other communities are doing.
Mouat told the board that in his mind, there are three elements to consider for this issue: education, enforcement, and design. He noted that Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, had touched based with the Ann Arbor police department on the topic of ordinance enforcement. But Mouat indicated that he thinks it’s a real challenge to define the problem. His understanding is that the police department doesn’t have a record of people calling in complaints or a record of injuries.
There are things that people hear about and feel, Mouat allowed, and there’s a real safety issue that someone could come out of a door and get hit by a bike. But there’s also a perception that’s involved. If you’re walking down the street and there’s a bicycle “bombing toward you,” do you feel endangered? But defining the problem is a real challenge – because asking the police to commit resources to enforcement is important to think about, he said. If a police officer is in a patrol car and sees a bicyclist riding on the sidewalk, is that something that the officer should stop and address?
Mouat reported that he’d talked to Stephen Dolan, executive director of parking and transportation services at the University of Michigan, to see if Dolan thinks bicycle riding on sidewalks is an issue on campus. According to Mouat, Dolan perceives it as a cultural and educational issue. “I don’t know quite where that leaves us,” Mouat said. It would be possible to talk about everything from signage to “this, that and the other thing,” he said. His own view is that very likely, a high percentage of people who are riding a little bit recklessly on the sidewalks are students. How you educate a new group of thousands of people is a challenge. Mouat concluded that he was a little bit at a loss as to how to proceed, until the problem could be better defined.
Transportation: Bicycle Cage
Mouat gave an update on the bicycle cage for the Maynard Street parking structure. By way of background, it’s a 50-bike storage facility that would have the footprint of two automobile parking spaces. [.jpg of footprint]
The authorization of $30,000 from the DDA’s parking fund – for design, fabrication and installation of the bicycle storage facility – was given at the board’s Oct. 3, 2012 meeting. Similar “cages” in other cities use a chain-link fencing material. However, the DDA hopes a more aesthetically pleasing option can be identified.
At the DDA board’s Nov. 7 meeting, Mouat reported that the cage is currently being designed.
Transportation: Connector Study
Roger Hewitt gave an update on the transportation connector study, noting that the Ann Arbor city council has now funded the final piece of the project. The $60,000 remaining for the $300,000 local match required by the $1.2 million grant to the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority had essentially been split 50-50 between the city of Ann Arbor and the DDA. The DDA board had authorized $30,000 for the study at its Oct. 3, 2012 meeting.
The corridor that’s the subject of continued study runs from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street and farther south to I-94. The funding approved by the council on Oct. 15 would support an alternatives analysis phase of the study, which will result in identifying a preferred mode (e.g., bus rapid transit, light rail, etc.) and the location of stations and stops.
The next steps will include public process, Hewitt said. A series of workshops will take place in the first part of December at locations like Briarwood Mall and downtown Ann Arbor. The format might be more of a “drop in” style, which would involve placing some dots on maps. The goal of the outreach is to get as much community input as possible about where people want to go.
Transportation: Blake Transit Center Groundbreaking
During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, getDowntown director Nancy Shore alerted the board to the groundbreaking that would be taking place for the new Blake Transit Center downtown – on Nov. 19 at 11 a.m. [The AATA board gave final approval of a roughly $8 million budget for the transit center at its Oct. 18, 2012 meeting. The location will house offices for getDowntown.]
Present: Nader Nassif, Bob Guenzel, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, John Splitt, Sandi Smith, Leah Gunn, Russ Collins, Keith Orr, Joan Lowenstein, John Mouat.
Absent: Newcombe Clark.
Next regular board meeting: Noon on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]
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