Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (June 18, 2013): The desire to make a proposed Hampton Inn more accessible to pedestrians and bicycles resulted in a unanimous vote by planning commissioners to postpone the project, located on Jackson Avenue near Weber’s Inn.
Commissioners had been asked to recommend approval of a “planned project” site plan, amended development agreement and modifications to the city’s landscaping requirements. This kind of project requires a public benefit, and commissioner Bonnie Bona argued strongly that the benefit should be a site that’s pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented. It’s especially important given Ann Arbor’s standing as one of the top 10 cities in the country for bicycle use, she said, and given that demand for pedestrian amenities will only increase. But as designed, sidewalks are an afterthought and their configuration within the site doesn’t make sense, Bona said. “There has got to be a better way.”
Bona said she couldn’t support this project unless the site plan addressed that design deficit. She proposed postponing it so that modifications could be explored, and other commissioners agreed – despite urging from the design team to recommend approval.
The meeting’s other main agenda item entailed adopting a master plan resolution and list of resource documents used to support the master plan. This is part of an annual evaluation of the master plan that’s required by the commission’s bylaws. Commissioners had held a public hearing on suggestions related to the master plan at their May 21, 2013.
Bona again brought forward a pedestrian-oriented issue, proposing to amend the list of resource documents to include the Allen Creek Greenway task force report from 2007. Commissioners unanimously approved that addition, along with two others: (1) the Downtown Vision and Policy Framework (known as the Calthorpe study), adopted in 2006; and (2) the Huron River Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP), as adopted in 2009. [.pdf of resource document list]
In other action, commissioners approved a work plan for the fiscal year starting July 1, identifying short-term as well as long-range projects. [.pdf of FY 2013-14 work plan] One high-priority project is the review of A2D2 zoning as directed by the city council, with a deadline of Oct. 1 to deliver recommendations to the council. The primary focus of that directive is the downtown D1-D2 zoning – especially in light of the controversial 413 E. Huron development, which the council recently approved. The plan is to bring in a consultant to manage that zoning review.
June 18 was the last meeting for planning commissioners Tony Derezinski and Eric Mahler. Mahler has been appointed to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and attended his first board meeting for that group on June 20, 2013. Commissioners praised the two attorneys, citing their combination of practicality and forward thinking. “I feel like our ballast is leaving,” Bona said.
Mahler will be replaced by Paras Parekh, who was confirmed by the city council at its May 20, 2013 meeting. Parekh attended the planning commission’s June 18 meeting as an observer, and will be joining the group after July 1. Jeremy Peters has been nominated to replace Derezinski, and is expected to be confirmed by the council on July 1. Peters works in creative licensing and business affairs with Ghostly Songs.
Hampton Inn Proposal
The June 18 agenda included a proposal for a new Hampton Inn at 2910 Jackson Ave. Commissioners were asked to recommend approval of a “planned project” site plan, amended development agreement and modifications to the city’s landscaping requirements.
The proposed four-story hotel, located on an 8.8-acre site north of Jackson and south of I-94, would include 100 bedrooms and 51,608 usable square feet. A 163-room Clarion Hotel is locaded on the same site, east of the proposed new hotel. The entire site would include 337 parking spaces for both hotels, as well as 10 new bicycle parking spots for the Hampton Inn and 8 at the Clarion. A driveway into the Hampton Inn would be across Jackson from the entrance to Weber’s Inn, which is located to the west.
A previous site plan for that location had been approved in 2008, and a Super 8 motel there was demolished. The foundation was laid for a new Hampton Inn, but the project was never completed and the building permits and site plan expired in 2011. The site is zoned R5 (hotel district).
The developer is seeking planned project status so that the existing foundation can be used. In 2008, no maximum front setback had been required. Now, however, a maximum front setback of 50 feet is required on at least one of the site’s three front property lines. A planned project status would allow that requirement to be waived. The existing foundation is set back 72.4 feet from the north property line.
A public benefit is required in order to secure the planned project status. The developer cited the benefit as using the existing infrastructure.
According to a staff report, a pedestrian crossing on Jackson Avenue is proposed from the Hampton Inn site to Hilltop Drive, which runs parallel to and south of Jackson and is separated by a landscaping island. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority plans to relocate a bus stop on eastbound Jackson Avenue to be near this crosswalk, which would be just west of Mason Avenue.
Because Jackson Avenue is under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, MDOT must review the plans for this development. The planning staff memo also states that footing drains of 10 homes must be disconnected to offset the project’s increased sanitary sewer flow.
In giving the staff briefing on June 18, city planner Jill Thacher noted that a large berm runs the length of Jackson along the site, creating a steep hill with nine landmark trees and other landscaping. Over 200 trees stand on the site, she said. Stormwater management is handled through a series of three ponds, with a spillway onto the MDOT right-of-way along I-94.
Thacher also noted that the draft development agreement will need to include language related to the new crosswalk and sidewalks, indicating the responsibilities of the Hampton Inn for snow removal and maintenance.
Also requested was a modification to requirements of Chapter 62 – the city’s landscape and screening ordinance. That ordinance requires that at least 50% of the site’s interior landscape area be depressed bioretention and used for stormwater management. This site plan proposes 39% bioretention in one large area in front of the Hampton Inn.
The city’s planning staff recommended approval of the project.
Hampton Inn Proposal: Public Hearing
Andy Wakeland – the project’s civil engineer with Giffels-Webster Engineers of Washington Township, Mich. – introduced himself and others involved with the project, including Jeff Ryntz of Victor Saroki & Associates Architects of Birmington, Mich.
Wakeland reviewed the project’s history, noting that the foundation had been put in place just as the “economy tanked” in 2008, leading to a suspension of construction. The intent was always to continue when the financing became available, “and now is that time,” he said. Wakeland reviewed other aspects of the project, including parking and bioretention.
Ryntz brought a rendering of the hotel and a sample board of masonry and other materials that they plan to use. He described the design and explained how the project goes beyond the standards that are required by the Hampton Inn franchise.
Akram Namou of A&M Hospitality and Executive Hospitality introduced himself as the owner. The project shows his firm commitment to the city of Ann Arbor, he told commissioners. Several years ago because of the recession, there was no financing available. Even so, with his own personal funds and personal loans, he started the project, hoping he would be able to continue it with other financing. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen “and I had to take a break,” Namou said. Now, however, he has secured financing to pursue the project. The Hampton Inn, which is owned by Hilton, is an upscale brand, he said, and it will make a nice addition to the area.
The final speaker was Steve Beisheim, an Ann Arbor resident. It sounds like a good project, he said, but he had some concerns about walkability. He urged commissioners to think about who uses the sidewalk, and about the impact of the parking lot in terms of pedestrians and the quality of life for everyone who lives in that area. He understood that parking needs to be located somewhere, but would it be better to have it out in front or out of the way? It might sound trite, he said, but those kinds of things add up. The planning commission needs to put these things into their rules, he said, because people won’t come up with it themselves unless there’s some kind of guide.
Hampton Inn Proposal: Commission Discussion
Diane Giannola started by raising a concern about the driveway into the Hampton Inn, noting that it was directly across the street from the entrance to Weber’s Inn. She asked if it was considered better planning to align the driveways this way, or to have them offset slightly. Jill Thacher replied that it’s better to align driveways, to create fewer conflict points for freeflowing traffic. Giannola worried that drivers would try to go straight across Jackson Avenue from Hampton Inn to Weber’s, and that the configuration would encourage them to do that. Thacher noted that the Hampton Inn exit onto Jackson would be right-turn only, but she could envision people trying to cross over into Weber’s.
Sabra Briere asked several questions about the sidewalks. She first asked what kind of sidewalk maintenance would be required in the development agreement. Thacher said it would entail keeping the snow shoveled in the winter, and keeping it open to pedestrians year-round. She noted that a section of sidewalk is on the MDOT right-of-way, so the development agreement would need to clarify “who’s responsible for what, and where.”
Thacher also clarified that the sidewalk doesn’t connect to other sidewalks. On the site’s east side it stops at the eastbound I-94 ramp, and on the west side it stops at the property line, adjacent to a vacant parcel. Briere asked whether a sidewalk would be required on the vacant parcel when it’s developed. Yes, Thacher replied, if the property is in the city.
Responding to remarks made during public commentary, Ken Clein noted that the sidewalk is close to the road, between the road and the parking lot. Because of the landscaping there, he didn’t think the parking lot would have a big visual impact on people who used the sidewalk. Clein, an architect, also asked some clarificational questions about the building materials that would be used, as well as the building’s design.
Wendy Woods asked how the two hotels would work together. The owner, Akram Namou, noted that he’s been in this business for many years. Based on his experience, these two hotels will complement each other perfectly. The Clarion is a full-service hotel, with meeting rooms, banquet rooms and a restaurant, he explained, while Hampton Inn is a limited-service hotel for strictly transient and corporate business. There are economies of scale for management, staff and marketing, he said.
Woods also noted that there are bicycle parking spaces planned for the site plan. Would bikes be made available for guests? she asked. Andy Wakeland replied that the bike spaces are required by city code. Normally, he said, there would unlikely be many pedestrians or bicyclists coming to the site. Planning manager Wendy Rampson added that it’s likely those bike parking spaces would be used by the hotel staff.
Woods also asked about the AATA bus stop that would be located on the south side of Jackson. How would traffic be handled, so that people could cross the street between the bus stop and Hampton Inn? She wondered if MDOT would put in a crosswalk signal there – like the high intensity activated crosswalk (HAWK) traffic signal at the intersection of Chapin and Huron. Thacher indicated that MDOT isn’t planning to do anything like that, other than installing pedestrian crossing signs.
Woods said her concern is that this is one of the worst places she could imagine a pedestrian trying to cross, given the entrance ramp to I-94, which she felt would cause people to increase their speed. Other factors include people coming off of I-94 onto eastbound Jackson, and people trying to turn into Weber’s. She indicated that it might be one of the first issues that Eric Mahler will take up as he moves from the planning commission to the AATA board. Wakeland responded, saying the location of the proposed crosswalk was the best possible place for it, because it goes to a center island between westbound and eastbound Jackson – rather than going across all lanes at once. He ventured that people might actually slow down to turn onto the I-94 ramp.
Bonnie Bona clarified with Thacher that only one public benefit is listed in the staff report because that’s the only public benefit claimed for the project. That category of benefit is: “An arrangement of buildings which provides a public benefit, such as transit access, pedestrian orientation, or a reduced need for infrastructure or impervious surface.” Bona wanted to know what the other possible benefits might be, in order to qualify for a planned project.
As outlined in Chapter 55 (Zoning) of the city code, in the section regarding planned projects:
(b) The proposed modifications of zoning requirements must provide one or more of the following:
1. Usable open space in excess of the minimum requirement for the zoning district. Where no minimum usable open space standard is required by the zoning district, a minimum usable open space standard shall be established by the approval of the planned project.
2. Building or parking setback(s) in excess of the minimum requirement for the zoning district. Where no minimum building or parking setback is required by the zoning district, a minimum setback standard shall be established by approval of the planned project.
3. Preservation of natural features that exceeds ordinance requirements, especially for those existing features prioritized in the land development regulations as being of highest and mid-level concern.
4. Preservation of historical or architectural features.
5. Solar orientation or energy conserving design.
6. An arrangement of buildings which provides a public benefit, such as transit access, pedestrian orientation, or a reduced need for infrastructure or impervious surface.
7. Affordable housing for lower income households.
8. A recorded conservation easement or similar binding instrument providing for permanent open space of 20 percent or more of the planned project, in any residential zoning district allowing 3 or fewer dwelling units per acre.
Bona voiced concern about pedestrian and bicycle access to the site. The site plan looks like a lot of emphasis was put on vehicular circulation, “and the sidewalk is an afterthought,” she said. Bona accepted that it makes sense to put the building on the existing footings – it was a benefit to the property owner. But when the list of public benefits provided by a planned project mentions infrastructure, it’s referring to the city’s infrastructure, not the infrastructure of private landowners. “So I’m not going to take this as a benefit. I’m going to try to get something else instead,” she said – transit access and pedestrian orientation. “There has got to be a better way.”
Ann Arbor is one of the top 10 cities in the country for bicycle use, as a percentage of the population, Bona noted. So she didn’t want to hear excuses about how no one would use the sidewalk along Jackson. It might take a while for the rest of the sidewalk connection to be built, but there are a lot of cyclists, she said. Ann Arbor also has a growing retiree population too, and the need to use the bus services will only increase. Bona said she was setting the stage for putting more emphasis on the sidewalks. She clarified with the owner that the building is expected to last more than 20 years, and noted that pedestrian and bicycle use will only increase during the hotel’s lifespan.
Bona suggested that the site plan could be designed first by looking at the best ways to incorporate pedestrian walkways, then looking at how to work in parking around that – rather than the reverse. For example, how would a pedestrian get from the Clarion to the Hampton, or from the bus stop to the main entrance of the hotels? She expressed skepticism that pedestrians would actually use the proposed sidewalks, indicating that they’d likely just cut across the parking lot since that’s a more straightforward route to the hotel.
Wakeland noted that Hampton Inn officials would be reviewing the site plans too, and would want to reduce liability by making the pedestrian walkways as safe as possible. Bona argued that constructing sidewalks along routes that people would actually use is a safer approach. “If [pedestrians] are going to cut across anyhow, you’ve created an unsafe situation, because you have not provided a [sidewalk] where they’re going to walk,” she said.
Bona said she didn’t see a benefit in the site plan, so she wouldn’t be able to vote in favor of the project. She suggested postponing the item, with direction for the project team to design sidewalks “that make more sense” for everyone, including employees.
Bona also wondered why the proposed sidewalk along Jackson Avenue did not run next to the parking lot. When Wakeland indicated that they were trying not to impact landmark trees, Bona replied: “I don’t know when someone decided that you can’t put a sidewalk somewhere because of a landmark tree, but you can take landmark trees down for a building … or parking lot.”
Briere noted that it was a good thing to be talking about sidewalks, because it showed that commissioners were concerned about future access to the site. Sidewalks aren’t decorative, she noted – they’re useful. And if they’re going to be useful, they need to actually lead people somewhere.
Responding to queries from Briere, Namou indicated that the Clarion has about 5,000-6,000 square feet of conference space, and a conference might draw 200-300 people. It’s important to make traveling between the two hotels as attractive as possible, Briere said. She urged Namou to consider making the sidewalks attractive as an amenity – for exercise, or to take a break during a conference. As designed now, the sidewalks don’t lead anywhere, she noted. In order to be an amenity for the city, the sidewalks need to serve a purpose.
Wakeland made a suggestion for changing the sidewalk configuration to include a sidewalk that would lead to the Clarion entrance. He hoped the commission would give approval contingent on working with planning staff to make those changes.
Mahler wondered how the sidewalks would be lit, especially from Jackson Avenue. Wakeland noted that the lighting will be on the hotel site – and the city code prohibits light from spilling off site.
Mahler said Bona had posed an interesting challenge, to make the site pedestrian-oriented rather than car-oriented. He’d support seeing some alternative designs. He joked that he wouldn’t mind postponing, especially since he wouldn’t be here to deal with it later. [It was Mahler's last meeting as a planning commissioner.]
Giannola and Clein also weighed in to support postponement to address pedestrian issues. However, Clein urged commissioners to keep in mind the site’s location – between an MDOT business route [Jackson Avenue] and I-94. Although it might be different in a future world that doesn’t have cars, he said, the site now doesn’t connect well with other things. Most people don’t walk to a hotel, he said. “It’s not a downtown site. It’s a car-oriented site.”
Kirk Westphal said he was struck that the proposed sidewalks don’t acknowledge that people might want to walk from the Clarion or Hampton Inn over to Weber’s. People will probably want to do that, he said. Wakeland noted that a sidewalk such as one that Westphal proposed would need MDOT approval, since it would be partly in the MDOT right of way.
Wakeland reported that the site plan design had gone through several iterations, in part to make the sidewalks as amenable as possible. “I’m a walking fan myself, and a biking fan as well,” Wakeland said. “So I get what you’re going for.” He noted that this area is for a hotel use, and again hoped commissioners wouldn’t postpone the project. He offered to work with city staff on alternatives, and hoped that the commission would recommend approval contingent on that.
Responding to a question from Westphal, Rampson reported that the city has no standards for parking lot layout other than the aisle width and parking space size. Nor are there standards for pedestrian configuration within a parking lot. So the planning staff tends to look for the safest pedestrian crossings, with factors like visibility, the least amount of traffic and turns, and logical connections. Regarding sidewalk access to the Weber’s site, Rampson noted that the entrance into Weber’s off Jackson is not a clean turn – it’s a slip ramp. It’s something that the staff can continue to look at, she said, regardless of the commission’s decision on postponement.
Bona said she appreciated Briere’s perspective. Bona stays at hotels often when she travels – driving to the hotel, then going for a walk or a run after she’s there. She could imagine someone going for a run in the residential neighborhood south of Jackson. The idea of making a pleasant pathway through the hotel site was appealing to her, and she suggested that it could be made of asphalt, which would be cheaper than concrete. She stated that if the owner wasn’t interested in changing the site plan, she’d just vote against it.
Woods suggested looping the sidewalk through the landscaped area, so that it could be a kind of nature path – that might count as a public amenity. Wakeland cited issues with the steep grade and landmark trees.
When no commissioners put forward a motion to vote on the project, Wakeland said if the project was postponed, he hoped it could be put on the agenda for the commission’s next meeting, which falls on July 2. When Woods expressed concern that the project still needs MDOT approval, Bona pointed out that the only thing requiring MDOT approval related to the crossing on Jackson. Clein added that anything in the MDOT right of way – including landscaping or sidewalks – would also need approval.
Wakeland reported that MDOT has already reviewed the plan and has indicated that the plan is “approvable,” although the agency won’t officially sign off until it sees the final civil engineering plans.
Bona made a motion to postpone.
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone action on this proposal.
Master Plan Review
Planning commissioners were asked to adopt a master plan resolution and list of resource documents used to support the master plan. This is part of an annual evaluation of the master plan that’s required by the commission’s bylaws.
Commissioners had held a public hearing on suggestions related to the master plan at their May 21, 2013. That hearing drew six speakers on a range of topics, including development in Lowertown, a park in downtown Ann Arbor, and adequate sidewalks, cleared of vegetation, so that kids can walk to school safely. On May 21 commissioners also had discussed possible revisions, primarily related to supporting documents. However, on the advice of planning staff, commissioners postponed action until their June 18 meeting.
Seven documents constitute the city’s master plan: (1) sustainability framework, adopted in 2013; (2) parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, as adopted in 2011; (3) land use element, as adopted in 2013 to add the South State corridor plan; (4) downtown plan, as adopted in 2009; (5) transportation plan update, as adopted in 2009; (6) non-motorized transportation plan, adopted in 2007; and (7) natural features master plan, adopted in 2004.
In briefing commissioners on June 18, planning manager Wendy Rampson noted that changes to the master plan include updating the date for the land use element from 2009 to 2013, to reflect this year’s addition of the South State corridor plan.
In addition, the June 18 resolution stated that in the coming fiscal year, the planning commission will: (1) complete the non-motorized transportation plan update; (2) continue to develop a corridor plan for Washtenaw Avenue and begin to develop a corridor plan for North Main Street to address land use, transportation and economic development in these areas; and (3) assist in developing a sustainability action plan, in coordination with the energy commission, the environmental commission, the park advisory commission, the housing commission, and the housing and human services advisory board.
There is also a list of resource documents that are used to support the master plan. [.pdf of resource document list]
The June 18 recommendation from staff, based on feedback from the May 21 meeting, was to adopt a revised list of resource documents, with two new additions: (1) the Downtown Vision and Policy Framework (known as the Calthorpe study), adopted in 2006; and (2) the Huron River Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP), as adopted in 2009.
Earlier this year, on March 5, 2013, the planning commission had voted to add the Connecting William Street study to the list of resource documents – a move that generated some controversy.
Master Plan Review: Commission Discussion
Bonnie Bona noted that at the May 21 meeting, she had indicated interest in adding the 2007 Allen Creek Greenway task force report to the list of resource documents. She proposed to amend the resolution updating the list of resource documents. Her rationale was that work is being done that affects the greenway, including proposals for the city-owned site at 721 N. Main, which will have a pathway through it.
Planning manager Wendy Rampson explained that the greenway task force report covered three city-owned properties, including 721 N. Main. Bona noted that the other two sites – 415 W. Washington and property at First & William – are still undeveloped. “The major piece is the concept of connectivity along that path,” she said. That concept is also incorporated into the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, Bona noted.
Bona thought the greenway report would be useful for discussions about how property that’s adjacent to the greenway gets developed – especially related to the floodway. The report included a lot of public input, she noted.
Wendy Woods and Sabra Briere both indicated support for adding the greenway report. Briere cited the usefulness of the report, primarily to inform zoning and planning of the areas adjacent to the greenway as it begins to form. Right now, much of that area is zoned for a certain type of residential development, she noted. But some people are looking at the area of a future greenway for commercial or higher-density housing, she said. It would be valuable to incorporate the greenway report along with the Calthorpe report, which also touched on the idea of a greenway. “How the city interacts with a proposed greenway will be a very valuable thing for us to think about as we keep our master plans refreshed,” Briere concluded.
Responding to a query from Kirk Westphal, Rampson described the greenway report’s recommendations as a starting point for discussions about modifying the master plan. She noted that the master plan is the official planning document, which can be informed by these supporting resource documents.
Outcome on amendment: Commissioner unanimously approved the amendment adding the Allen Creek greenway task force report as a resource document.
The remainder of the discussion was brief. Woods asked whether the resource documents were available online. Rampson replied that the documents can be downloaded from the master plan’s website, and that she would update that site with the added documents.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the master plan resolution and master plan resource document list, as amended.
Planning Commission Work Plan
At their June 4, 2013 working session, planning commissioners had discussed a work plan for both staff and the commission in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Commissioners had identified projects and issues to tackle, as well as longer-range goals. [.pdf of FY 2013-14 work plan]
The most pressing of those short-term projects is the review of A2D2 zoning as directed by the city council, with a deadline of Oct. 1 to deliver recommendations to council. The primary focus of that is the downtown D1-D2 zoning, especially in light of the controversial 413 E. Huron development, which the council recently approved. The plan is to bring in a consultant to manage that zoning review, because the planning staff right now doesn’t have the capacity to take it on.
In addition to the A2D2 zoning review, other short-term efforts in the work plan related to master planning and ordinance revisions are:
- An action plan for the city’s sustainability framework. Completion target: September 2013.
- Implementation of sustainability action plan. Completion target: To be determined.
- Evaluation of the citizen participation ordinance. Completion target: October 2013.
- The non-motorized plan update. Completion target: October 2013.
- Amendments to the Zoning Ordinance Reorganization (ZORO). Completion target: December 2013.
- Capital improvements plan (CIP) – second year update. Completion target: December 2013.
- Amendments to R4C/R2A zoning. Completion target: March 2014.
- Floodplain ordinance/flood insurance impacts. Completion target: March 2014.
- “Redevelopment Ready Communities” certification. Completion target: March 2014.
- Amendments to the land use element of the city’s master plan for two corridors plans – Washtenaw Avenue and North Main/Huron River. Completion target: June 2014.
- ZORO Phase 2. Completion target: June 2014.
- Sign ordinance amendments. Completion target: June 2014.
Several longer-term efforts are on the commission’s work plan too, including amendments to the city’s accessory dwelling unit ordinance and neighborhood outreach.
Bonnie Bona asked if the planning staff could support this schedule, and wondered what the challenges might be. Planning manager Wendy Rampson said the major challenge is the unknown of development reviews and permit reviews – it’s difficult to know what projects might be coming forward. For example, a project on a 54-acre parcel on Nixon Road will be coming in August, she said. That will be a fairly substantial review. And the staff has already started a Traverwood Apartments review, which is another substantial project.
“If we only have one of those a month, that’s fine,” Rampson said. But if three or four major projects are submitted each month like in “the old days,” she said, then that will limit the staff’s time that can be spent on items in the work plan. It’s possible to use consultants when appropriate, she said, although someone on staff would still have to manage the project. For example, the city staff doesn’t have the expertise to handle the sign ordinance amendments, so that’s probably a project that will require a consultant.
Rampson noted that when city planner Alexis DiLeo goes on maternity leave, the city will hire a temporary planner during that period. Even though there will be a learning curve for that person, she said, at least the staff will have the same number of people.
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the FY 2013-14 work plan.
June 18 was the last meeting for planning commissioners Tony Derezinski and Eric Mahler. Mahler has been appointed to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and attended his first board meeting for that group on June 20, 2013.
He’ll be replaced by Paras Parekh, who was confirmed by the city council at its May 20, 2013 meeting. Parekh attended the planning commission’s June 18 meeting as an observer, and will be joining the group after July 1. He is director of marketing and membership for the University of Michigan alumni association, and received his undergrad degree in economics from UM. He has worked in marketing for about a decade, and spent two years as a legislative aide in the U.S. House of Representatives working for Congresswoman Lynn Rivers.
Derezinski, a former city councilmember, had been expected to be reappointed. His name had appeared on the list distributed to the council at its June 3 meeting as a nomination to the planning commission, but mayor John Hieftje did not read Derezinski’s name aloud that evening as a nomination. Instead, at the June 17, 2013 council meeting, Hieftje nominated Jeremy Peters to replace Derezinski, whose term ends June 30. Peters works in creative licensing and business affairs with Ghostly Songs. A council vote to confirm his appointment will take place on July 1.
On June 17, the council did vote to reappoint planning commissioner Bonnie Bona. Also reappointed was councilmember Sabra Briere, who serves as the council’s representative on the commission, for a term through Nov. 7, 2013. At that point the membership on the new, post-election city council will be settled. Briere is running for re-election and is unopposed in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary, but might face opposition in November from independent candidate Jaclyn Vresics. Vresics has taken out petitions for the Ward 1 seat but has not yet filed them with the city clerk’s office. The deadline for independent candidates to submit petitions is Aug. 7.
Near the start of the June 18 meeting, planning commissioners and staff said farewell to Mahler and Derezinski. Kirk Westphal, the commission’s chair, said the commission was honored by their service and saddened by their departure.
“I feel like our ballast is leaving,” Bonnie Bona said.
There are a lot of idealists on the commission trying to get things done, Bona noted, and the two attorneys have provided a lot of common sense practicality that’s useful – especially when some commissioners “wander off into areas that are more of our personal desire than something we can actually do,” Bona said. She’d miss that quality, and said their absence would likely make her become more practical.
Diane Giannola appreciated their “forward thinking,” especially regarding the Washtenaw Avenue and South State Street corridor studies. They’ve been more future-driven, she said, rather than “trying to just have the city stay the same. Even though sometimes that’s unpopular, I for one as a resident have always appreciated that.” She also said their legal orientation will be missed.
Wendy Woods agreed that the commission would miss the “wise comments that you gave to us, even if we didn’t always agree with you.” She thanked them for their service, and looked forward to seeing them in their future endeavors.
Sabra Briere acknowledged that she never really got to know Mahler, although she got to observe him across the table. She hoped to get to know him better as he continues his service to the city on the AATA board. However, she did get to know Derezinski, she said, because she sat next to him for four years on city council. The fact that there are different voices and viewpoints at the table, all trying to do the best for the community, “is what makes this board so rich, this community so wealthy,” she said.
Westphal highlighted Derezinski’s emphasis on collaboration. It seems to be getting more difficult to do these days, he said, but Derezinski has always “stayed the course.” Westphal appreciated Derezinski’s “quiet work” outside of the commission, citing the Reimagine Washtenaw project and issues related to aging. Those efforts bear great fruit in the long run, Westphal noted, but it takes a lot of work to get there. He cited Mahler’s service as planning commission chair as helping Westphal’s current tenure in that position. Westphal also appreciated Mahler’s ability to keep the commission on task and ensure that projects moved forward, as well as his legal expertise.
Westphal said commissioners would miss both Mahler and Derezinski, “both faithful co-pilots of the Blue Tractor as well” – a reference to the fact that some commissioners go to that local bar after meetings adjourn.
Planning manager Wendy Rampson told Mahler and Derezinski that she had valued their leadership on the commission. It’s a citizen body that demands a lot of its members, she noted, meeting almost weekly. She knew that sometimes Mahler wanted things to move forward more quickly, “but you are eminently patient.” It will be great to see his service continue on the AATA as that agency grows and becomes more important to the region, she said.
Rampson noted that Derezinski is “always good for a new idea.” Sometimes, that would cause her to brace herself when she saw him approaching, Rampson joked, but he brought enthusiasm and commitment to all his work. His emphasis on regional planning was a great vision. Both of them will be “sorely missed,” she said.
Derezinski told commissioners that he had to leave the meeting early for a family responsibility, “so I’m leaving not with a bang but with a whimper.” He thanked commissioners for the pleasure of their company. The commission is unique, he said, in that it works on tough decisions and respects each other. Strong feelings never escalate to personal, ad hominem attacks – it’s always been collegial and civil, he said, which is important. He recalled the ritual that he and Briere had on council, when they would bring each other coffee. Little things like that helped bridge the gap when they disagreed on issues, he said. It’s the kind of thing that makes government work well.
Derezinski also praised the city’s planning staff, saying that they were incredibly smart and hard-working. That’s not an accident, he said – it’s the result of leadership, goodwill and friendship. He thanked everyone for the wonderful time he’s had on the commission over the last four and a half years.
Regarding their gatherings at the Blue Tractor, Derezinski said they should remember the words of a poet whose name he couldn’t recall [A. E. Housman]: “And malt does more than Milton can. To justify God’s ways to man.”
Mahler thanked everyone, saying he enjoyed every minute on the commission. It’s mind blowing how much has been accomplished over the last six years, he said. He’s proud of that work, which was done respectfully and collegially. His work takes him around southeast Michigan and the state, and people envy Ann Arbor, he said. That envy in large part reflects the results of work by the planning staff and commission, he said.
Other commissioners gave the two outgoing members a round of applause.
Communications & Commentary
During the meeting there were several opportunities for communications from staff and commissioners, as well as two general public commentary times. Here are some highlights.
Communications & Commentary: Public Commentary
Steve Beisheim spoke during the first opportunity for public commentary. He’d been reading a book called “Suburban Nation,” and watching a lot of videos by the authors. It’s mind-blowing, he said. The way that cities have been built out, the tax base doesn’t cover cost of the infrastructure. Even if federal funding is available to build infrastructure, local governments can’t afford to maintain it. From what he’s read, all the cities are doing things the same way, with regard to zoning, he said. That’s why every gas station is the same across the country, he said. There are other options, even though people tend to go against their best interests. He told commissioners that he’s trying to educate himself and see how they work, and hopefully he can be a positive influence in the future.
Present: Bonnie Bona, Sabra Briere, Ken Clein (arrived at 8 p.m.), Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Absent: Eleanore Adenekan.
Next regular meeting: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]
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