Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Jan. 15, 2013): The city’s park advisory commissioners are embarking on a process to analyze the need for a possible downtown park or open space, with the goal of delivering recommendations to the city council later this year.
In a 90-minute discussion at PAC’s January meeting, commissioners talked about how they’d like to approach this effort, which stemmed in part from a request that mayor John Hieftje made last summer. Momentum for PAC to weigh in has accelerated in light of recommendations recently delivered to the city council on the Connecting William Street project.
Several councilmembers have expressed concern that those recommendations – made by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority on five city-owned sites – don’t include sufficient green space. PAC has already weighed in on that specific project, passing a resolution on Sept. 18 2012 that urged the council to seek additional evaluation on locations for a downtown park.
During public commentary, several residents – including supporters of the Library Green Conservancy – spoke in support of a substantial downtown park.
A PAC subcommittee plans to draft a plan for how to proceed, with the full commission continuing the discussion at their land acquisition committee meeting on Feb. 5. The process is expected to take 4-6 months.
Also at their Jan. 15 meeting, commissioners got an update on plans for locating a dog park at West Park, across from New Hope Baptist Church. PAC had recommended that location for a dog park, but – as The Chronicle previously reported – objections from church members have resulted in a decision to look for another location. The project had been slated for consideration by the city council on Jan. 22, but has been removed from the agenda.
PAC chair Julie Grand told her fellow commissioners that she was still committed to the concept of a centrally-located dog park, and that PAC and parks staff would pursue other options. A PAC subcommittee that had worked on identifying a new dog park location will be reconvened to bring forward another recommendation.
In other action, commissioners received a mid-year budget update. The parks system is doing better than planned, thanks to a combination of better-than-expected revenues and lower expenses. [.pdf of budget summary] The city’s fiscal year 2013 runs from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013.
Downtown Parks & Open Space
At PAC’s Aug. 21 2012 meeting, mayor John Hieftje asked PAC to help prioritize action on downtown parks. He highlighted possible improvements at Liberty Plaza and a process for moving that work forward. [.pdf of Liberty Plaza staff memo] But he also listed several other city-owned properties that he’d like to see as part of a greenway – including the 721 N. Main and 415 W. Washington sites – as well as the DTE/MichCon property that’s being cleaned up along the Huron River.
That same August meeting had included a briefing on the Connecting William Street effort. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has been asked by city council to create a plan that will guide the future use of five city-owned properties. Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, sought feedback from PAC on three possible development scenarios that were being considered. When several commissioners expressed disappointment that the scenarios did not include more green space, Pollay urged PAC to give specific feedback about where they’d like to see more green space and how they envision it being used, in the context of other downtown parks.
PAC responded to the DDA request by passing a resolution on Sept. 18 2012. Commissioners didn’t advocate that a particular site be turned into a park. Rather, the resolution recommended that the Ann Arbor city council seek additional evaluation on locations for a downtown park, the best mix of amenities for the population expected to use a downtown park, and the costs of developing and maintaining a new addition to the parks system. PAC also recommended that the council refrain from adopting plans for the five city-owned lots before resolving the question about open space in the Connecting William Street area. [.pdf of PAC's final Connecting William Street resolution]
At its Jan. 15 meeting, PAC picked up the topic again with a wide-ranging conversation aimed at laying out a process for eventually making recommendations to city council about a downtown park. The meeting came a day after a city council work session that included a presentation by the DDA with their final recommendations for Connecting William Street. Those recommendations call for a plaza on part of the Library Lane site. Other open space depicted in the final CWS plan includes mid-parcel space on the Kline lot, and mid-block connections that are to some extent hypothetical, because buildings currently exist where the connection would lead.
Downtown Parks & Open Space: Public Commentary
Ethel Potts told commissioners that she had attended the Ann Arbor city council work session the previous night and had heard people say that there was no deficiency of park space in the downtown area. She indicated her belief that the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan did, in fact, cite the need for parks and open space downtown. She asked PAC to clarify what is included when people talk about downtown parks. Do they include the University of Michigan Diag? The Allen Creek greenway? The DTE site along the Huron River? West Park? Potts wished that PAC would make it clear to the public and others that there is a deficiency of parks downtown, because the impression that people are getting is that the city has plenty of parks, she said.
Jamie Pitts identified himself as chief technology officer of a startup firm that now operates in Detroit [rapt.fm], although he lives in Ann Arbor. People in the community want a downtown park, he said. While there are several small areas, there’s no substantial place for people to hang out or bring their families. He wanted to assure PAC that if the city proceeds in establishing a large downtown park, ”people in the community will help you.” He said commissioners could see from the efforts of the Library Green Conservancy that there’s a lot of support.
Pitts also pointed to the city’s goal of developing the downtown into a place where more people live and work. To do that, people need places where they can do things like walk their pet or teach their kid how to ride a bike. If the city doesn’t have a substantial downtown park, he said, people won’t move downtown. It’s possible to do something great, Pitts concluded.
Alan Haber noted that Ann Arbor has been his hometown since 1936 and his sense is that this is a family town. But what it lacks is a center, he said. Haber urged PAC to create a downtown park, saying that the only place that would work is the top of the Library Lane underground parking structure. He noted that the proposal being developed by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority calls for a building on that site, but that will take a long time to do. In the meantime, the top of the structure is being used for surface parking, which he called counterintuitive. Library Green had held a block party on the site last summer, Haber said, and many other events could be held there, too, to demonstrate the vitality of a downtown park. He argued that there could be a skating rink on the site for the rest of this winter, creating a “Saturday Evening Post cover right in our downtown.” By pursuing this vision, PAC would be doing a great service for the community, he said.
Judy Bonnzell-Wenzel told commissioners that she lives on Braeburn Circle, on the south side of Ann Arbor. Within 20 minutes she can get downtown – it’s the easiest way to get there, because buses go by every 15 minutes. She felt that people like her should be considered in discussions about a downtown park. She takes the bus to the downtown library several times a week, and would like to visit a park, too. A downtown park isn’t simply for people who live and work downtown.
George Gaston said he wanted to add his voice to the idea of more open space downtown. He pointed to the summer concerts given at Liberty Plaza, noting they are so popular that streets have to be blocked off to handle the crowds. [Gaston was referring to Sonic Lunch, a weekly lunchtime concert series sponsored by the Bank of Ann Arbor. The occasional street closings were planned, on weeks when it was anticipated that a particularly popular musician would draw larger crowds.]
Gaston also indicated that the UM property shouldn’t factor in to the city’s calculation of downtown parkland.
Downtown Parks & Open Space: Commission Discussion
PAC chair Julie Grand began the discussion by noting that it was not typical for the commission to have a conversation in this way – not specifically tied to an action item or update. But it’s an important and timely topic, she said, especially in the context of the Connecting William Street project and the Library Green’s efforts. She hoped PAC would eventually be able to identify a deliverable about what kind of advice to give to city council on open space in the downtown, and what process commissioners would use to develop its advice.
Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, described the information that PAC members had been given as reference material: (1) maps of the city-owned 415 W. Washington site and the 721 N. Main site; (2) a map of the block downtown that’s bounded by Liberty, Fourth, William and Fifth; (3) a map of the MichCon site near the Argo Cascades; (4) a list of criteria for prioritizing parks and recreation projects; (5) a more general matrix of scoring criteria for city projects; and (6) two pages from the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, describing criteria for parkland acquisitions.
Grand wanted commissioners to include a broader context, and not to simply look at the downtown sites in isolation. She pointed out that the Allen Creek greenway fits into the discussion too, saying that several initiatives are coming together now that relate to parks and open space.
What followed was a wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion among commissioners. This report summarizes their comments and organizes the remarks thematically.
Downtown Parks & Open Space: Survey & Inventory
Alan Jackson noted that he, Ingrid Ault and Bob Galardi have been looking at the issue of a downtown park or open space. [Jackson and Ault serve on PAC's downtown open space committee. Galardi, Grand and Missy Stults serve on a committee focused on the greenway.]
Jackson described the DDA’s Connecting William Street process as focusing on a development plan for the area – that project wasn’t tasked with finding out what people wanted in general. He said he wasn’t sure people wanted a park downtown, but that’s something PAC should explore. However, he didn’t think PAC should be locked into the timetable that the DDA was following. At the same time, it’s important to remember that city assets might be sold, so commissioners should weigh in before the city council makes a decision about that, he said. That is, PAC could make a recommendation about whether any of the parcels in the Connecting William Street area should be considered for a park.
Jackson noted that there’s a “breathtaking” amount of development happening, and when land gets developed, the opportunity for using that land as a park or open space disappears, at least in the short term.
Jackson acknowledged that some citizens had voiced a desire for a park downtown, but he didn’t know if that group was representative of the average resident’s opinion. So he felt that some sort of survey should be conducted, to gauge interest in a downtown park. A survey might focus on downtown residents, to see if they’d use a park and if so, what kind of park might they want. He characterized the Library Lane site as too small to support a playground, which is one thing that might be useful to have downtown.
Missy Stults also voiced a strong interest in finding out what the public desires – it wasn’t clear whether that’s been done in the past. Grand agreed, saying she’s a fan of multiple data sources, both qualitative and quantitative. In addition to a survey, she suggested public forums would be helpful. Grand felt that what’s known as the Calthorpe process – named after the consulting firm that helped the city overhaul its zoning – had been positive and well-received. Interactive sessions for the public had been held, and that’s something PAC might want to replicate. Grand said she’d like to take that kind of approach even before developing a survey, because at this point, it’s still unclear what questions should be asked.
Grand observed that one of the biggest criticisms of the DDA’s Connecting William Street process is that people weren’t asked about green space in the survey. She wanted to make sure that PAC wasn’t dictating the results by the questions that are asked.
Ingrid Ault suggested taking an inventory of parks that already exist in the downtown area. Although attention has been focused on Liberty Plaza, there are other downtown pocket parks, she noted. For example, the park at the northwest corner of Packard and Division [Hanover Square, across from Blimpy Burger] has green space, she said, and is about the same size as Sculpture Plaza in Kerrytown, at Fourth and Catherine.
Ault felt that before asking the public for input, PAC should look at what the parks system already has, how those areas are used, and whether it’s working. If the park or open space isn’t working for whatever reason, PAC should consider how that might be addressed.
Ault cautioned that terminology is also important. When people say “parks,” they might mean different things – an area with large trees, or a grassy place to play Frisbee. In the DDA’s presentations, Susan Pollay has been careful to use the phrase “open space” rather than park, Ault said, probably so that she doesn’t “pigeonhole” anyone’s thinking.
Downtown Parks & Open Space: Geographic Scope
Tim Doyle advocated for narrowing the scope of PAC’s analysis as much as possible. With a more limited scope, the task is easier to tackle. Alan Jackson agreed, saying that if the scope was too broad, PAC would never get anything done. Tim Berla felt that the focus should not include 721 N. Main and 415 W. Washington.
But Julie Grand thought that just focusing on the DDA district would be too limited. Bob Galardi suggested an alternative way of looking at scope: Is the site located within a 10-minute walk from downtown?
Christopher Taylor indicated that focusing on the Connecting William Street area was appropriate, given that there’s been a focus on that project. However, he felt it was important to consider other properties as well, in PAC’s analysis, to provide a broader context. Sites like 721 N. Main and 415 W. Washington are relevant, he said.
Taylor said he felt like he understood what works in parks like West Park or Gallup Park. But those types of parks are a “different beast” than a downtown park, he said. Taylor indicated that he didn’t know how to fix Liberty Plaza – that’s a challenge, if the city decides another downtown park is needed. PAC and the public should keep in mind that they have an “experiential, informational deficiency,” he said, regarding what works downtown.
That may be true, Grand replied, but this town includes people who are experts and could be called on to share their knowledge and expertise. Their knowledge might be based on professional experience, she said, or from their experiences living elsewhere and seeing urban parks that work.
Downtown Parks & Open Space: Budgetary Issues
Tim Doyle asked if there were any parameters, in terms of budget impacts. For example, a recommendation for a playground would have more impact on the budget than simply open space.
Colin Smith replied that it was a hard question to answer. That’s why 721 N. Main, 415 W. Washington and the MichCon site need to be part of the conversation. The reality is that the city will likely do something with 721 N. Main that will include the parks system, he said, and that will impact the parks and recreation budget. And maintenance costs can vary wildly, depending on the scale of the project and what it entails. For example, he said he’s been asked to calculate the cost of maintaining urban hardscape, compared to areas that would need mowing.
Any recommendation from PAC will need to factor in costs, Smith said, as well as potential funding sources. Can the city find partners, for example, or should it be funded in the traditional way? He noted that it’s worth considering whether a project might be eligible for grant funding. Right now, he said, there’s grant funding available for projects that connect communities – like the Border-to-Border Trail. If grant funds are secured, that can offset the initial capital costs, at least.
Tim Berla reported that he’d received an email from someone who described a meeting where Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, made a Connecting William Street presentation. She had apparently avoided using the word “park,” he said, and she had indicated that there were not sufficient millage funds to support a park. He wondered if that was, in fact, a limitation.
Smith said that the parks millage can’t be used to fund anything that’s not designated as a park – it couldn’t fund streetscape improvements, for example. In general, the millage raises only a finite amount of revenues. If those revenues are spent in one way, that dilutes other possible uses, he said – unless other funding sources can be identified.
Bob Galardi clarified with Smith that the only way to raise revenues would be if residents voted to increase the parks millage rate, or if the city partnered with other organizations that provided funding. Smith added a third option: Generating revenues through special events or other fee-based uses of the parks.
Berla asked about estimates for operating costs of a downtown park. Smith replied that it would depend on several factors – things like the park’s size, how many trash cans are in the park, or the number of linear feet of pathways. There would be economies of scale, he said, given that any park would be handled in the context of the overall parks system.
Alan Jackson noted that First Martin, which has taken on responsibility for some of the upkeep of Liberty Plaza, has indicated that it’s a costly endeavor. [First Martin owns the building that's adjacent to Liberty Plaza.] He said PAC needs to be mindful so that any new park doesn’t end up with the same problems.
Doyle wondered whether a downtown park would be costlier than elsewhere, because of the potential for more people to use it. It depends, Smith replied. In some cases, the costs could be lower because more “eyes on the park” would help prevent things like graffiti.
Downtown Parks & Open Space: Next Steps
Colin Smith reported that he had attended a city council working session the previous night, when councilmembers had heard a presentation on the Connecting William Street project. It had been a long meeting with a fairly robust conversation, he said. One thing he’d taken away from the session was that councilmembers will be looking to PAC for reactions and input regarding what many councilmembers view as a lack of green space and open space in the Connecting William Street recommendations.
Smith said it would be helpful to establish a timeline for action by PAC, and he floated the possibility of using the more informal monthly meetings of PAC’s land acquisition committee – on which all commissioners serve – to continue the discussion.
Grand queried the two councilmembers who serve on PAC – Mike Anglin and Christopher Taylor. What were their thoughts about a desirable timeline, from the council’s perspective? Anglin indicated that the council wanted to take its time in deciding what to do. Taylor suggested 4-6 months as a reasonable time in which to deliver PAC’s recommendations to the council.
Karen Levin suggested gathering information about downtown parks in cities that are comparable in size to Ann Arbor.
Commissioners, led by Tim Doyle, crafted a draft statement of purpose and scope: To determine whether and what additional parks are wanted and/or needed in downtown Ann Arbor, focusing on city-owned parcels in the DDA district while maintaining awareness of additional nearby properties, like 721 N. Main and 415 W. Washington. The “deliverable” will be a set of recommendations for the city council.
Ingrid Ault suggested that PAC’s downtown open space committee should work with parks staff to come up with a plan to approach this project. Levin expressed interest in joining that committee, which also includes Alan Jackson.
Commissioners also reached consensus to continue the conversation at their next LAC meeting, on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 4 p.m. Meetings are open to the public, and typically held in the second-floor council workroom in city hall, 301 E. Huron. Grand indicated that the downtown open space committee should meet before then, to give some direction to the full commission.
Outcome: This was not a voting item.
Downtown Parks & Open Space: Follow-up Public Commentary
At the end of the meeting, Alan Haber spoke again to say that he applauded PAC’s efforts. But he also wanted to express some frustration. Commissioners had mentioned the desire to draw on community expertise, he noted. PAC has already received a report from the Library Green Conservancy, yet commissioners seem to be starting from scratch, he said. [.pdf of Library Green report] There’s been a process going on by citizens, and he felt that PAC should ask Library Green representatives to make a formal report at an upcoming meeting. Commissioners should see the Library Green’s slideshow and look at the survey that’s been done. He said the members of Library Green feel like they’ve been put off, and it frustrated him.
Colin Smith responded, reminding Haber that PAC was just starting this conversation, and that there are several new members on the commission. As they move ahead, PAC and parks staff will want to include all sorts of people, but right now the commission is trying to determine its focus. He asked that Haber and others allow that to happen.
Dog Park Update
At PAC’s Dec. 18 2012 meeting, commissioners had unanimously voted to recommend selecting a site within West Park as the location for a new fenced-in dog park. The site was roughly a quarter-acre in the park’s northeast corner, where the city recently bought and demolished a house near the entrance off Chapin Street. The decision had come after about 18 months of reviewing possible locations for a dog park that was more centrally located to the city.
Several members of the New Hope Baptist Church had spoken during public commentary at the December PAC meeting, objecting to problems with noise, smell and safety. The African American church is located directly across the street from the proposed dog park location. In response to New Hope concerns, PAC amended its original resolution to specify that parks staff and PAC would meet with church members to discuss a possibly temporary dog park at that location, and to review the status of the dog park a year after it’s in place, with particular attention to noise levels.
Two church leaders also spoke to Ann Arbor city council on the issue at the council’s Jan. 7, 2012 meeting. Tom Miree, a trustee with the church, had told councilmembers that the congregation wants to maintain the dignity of the worship services.
On Jan. 15, city’s parks and recreation manager Colin Smith updated PAC on the situation. Smith, PAC chair Julie Grand, and former PAC member John Lawter – who had led the dog park effort – had met with about a half dozen church leaders on Jan. 11. At that meeting, it emerged that the church concerns were more deeply rooted, and reflected cultural differences about what it means to have a dog park so close to their place of worship.
Smith told commissioners that based on that Jan. 11 discussion, staff had recommended the withdrawal of the dog park item from the council’s Jan. 22 agenda and had relayed that recommendation to city administrator Steve Powers.
In previous conversations, church leaders and congregants had identified issues that the parks staff felt could be addressed and fixed, Smith said. But it became clear during the Jan. 11 discussion that there were cultural issues at stake, and those were not issues that could be resolved.
Grand said that if a dog park were to be located across from the temple where her family worships, that wouldn’t be viewed as offensive to their religious practices. But for members of the New Hope Baptist Church, emerging from worship to face a dog park would be offensive – Grand said that when she realized this was the cause of their concerns, her perspective on the situation changed dramatically.
She noted that the church isn’t opposed to locating the dog park elsewhere within West Park, so those possibilities will be explored. “I’m not giving up on having a dog park downtown,” Grand said. But it’s important for the first one that’s more centrally located to be “wildly successful,” she added. If it fails, that would make it harder to add more dog parks in the future.
Missy Stults said she was very disheartened by the news. She wondered what the process would be to reevaluate possible locations.
Smith indicated that parks staff and PAC still have the goal of establishing a new dog park in an area that’s more central to the city’s core. Possibilities include other areas in West Park, or the 721 N. Main site that’s currently being evaluated as part of the city’s North Main Huron River corridor project. The issue could also be part of PAC’s broader discussion about downtown parks, Smith said.
He echoed Grand’s concerns about the social context of the dog park in relation to the church, and said he felt that moving ahead on the Chapin Street site would doom it to failure.
Ingrid Ault asked what the next steps would be. Smith replied that the committee previously led by Lawter should reconvene, working with park planner Amy Kuras to look at other locations. When an alternative site is identified, there will need to be additional public engagement, he said. Ault and Karen Levin are members of that committee. Ault suggested that new PAC members might consider joining the effort.
Grand stressed that PAC can rely on work that’s previously been done, and that they wouldn’t be starting from “square one.”
Members of the church had not yet been informed of the decision, Smith said – he had wanted to talk about it with PAC first.
Mid-Year Budget Update
Commissioners reviewed a mid-year budget report during their Jan. 15 meeting. Introducing the agenda item, Tim Doyle – chair of PAC’s budget and finance committee – described the report as having no surprises, and said the parks staff have done an excellent job in estimating revenues and managing expenses. The parks system is doing better than planned, he said, thanks to a combination of better-than-expected revenues and lower expenses. [.pdf of budget summary and .pdf of detailed parks general fund budget. A range of other budget reports can be downloaded from the city's Legistar system] The city’s fiscal year 2013 runs from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013.
Doyle highlighted several aspects of the report. Revenues are higher than budgeted for facilities rental (places like Cobblestone Farm), and the Argo Cascades has been “a roaring success – pardon the pun,” he said. For example, the city had budgeted $93,500 in kayak rentals from the Argo livery for the entire fiscal year. But year-to-date revenues have already reached $135,809. [Year-to-date rentals in fiscal 2012 had been $45,578 – a lower amount affected by the construction of Argo Cascades taking place during that period.]
Doyle noted that the additional rentals at Argo haven’t diminished rentals elsewhere. At the Gallup Park livery, kayak rentals were budgeted for $71,000 for the entire fiscal year, but have already reached $89,738 in revenues for the first six months alone.
The overall budget forecast shows the parks system with a net increase of $66,500 over the budgeted amount. This figure includes an estimated $982,936 transfer from the city’s general fund to support parks and recreation.
The three enterprise funds – for the farmers market, and city’s two golf courses at Leslie Park and Huron Hills – also show a net increase in the budget forecast. Doyle noted that the better-than-budgeted performance is due to controlled expenses. Revenues for the golf courses are less than expected by about $30,000, but staff costs were cut as well to offset that decrease in revenues.
Not including enterprise funds, parks and recreation revenues are forecast to reach $2.52 million, or $48,500 higher than budgeted for the year. Expenses are forecast at $3.5 million, or $18,000 lower than budgeted.
Mid-Year Budget Update: Commission Discussion
Tim Berla asked for clarification about the change in status for the golf enterprise funds. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, reported that the change will take effect at the start of the next fiscal year, on July 1, 2013.
By way of background, the Ann Arbor city council – at its Dec. 3, 2013 meeting – voted to move the accounting for the city golf courses back into the general fund. The council’s support of moving the golf fund back into the general fund was based in part on the idea that the golf courses should be evaluated on the same basis as other recreational facilities. As an enterprise fund, the courses were expected to eventually be self-supporting, without requiring additional support from the city’s general fund. However, the courses have been operating at a loss. [More details of council deliberations and additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "City Council Acts on Public Art, Golf Budget."]
Missy Stults asked how the overall budget forecast compares to previous years. Smith noted that revenues are higher than they’ve been in the last 5-6 years. The growth has resulted through increased usage of the parks system, he said – not because there have been significant fee increases. Meanwhile, he said, expenses are in line with what they’ve been historically.
Outcome: This was an item of information, and no vote was required.
Present: Ingrid Ault, Tim Berla, Tim Doyle, Bob Galardi, Alan Jackson, Graydon Krapohl, Karen Levin, Julie Grand, Missy Stults and councilmembers Mike Anglin and Christopher Taylor (ex-officio). Also Colin Smith, city parks and recreation manager.
Next meeting: PAC’s meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 begins at 4 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listing to confirm date]
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