Business Section

DDA OKs Village Green Amendment

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Feb. 2, 2011): On a day when other government bodies scrubbed their schedules due to a blizzard forecast, the DDA board held firm to its regular first-Wednesday-of-the-month meeting time. The diminished activity downtown due to the snow led Roger Hewitt to quip during the meeting: “This will not be a particularly profitable day in the parking system, I think we can safely say.” The meeting achieved attendance of 10 out of 12 board members.

Gary Boren, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, Keith Orr

From left to right: DDA board members Gary Boren, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, and Keith Orr. (Photos by the writer.)

In their one business item, the board approved an amendment to the contract with Village Green to develop a 244-space parking deck as the first two stories of a 9-story, 99-foot-tall building, City Apartments – a 156-unit residential planned unit development (PUD) at First and Washington.

Once the parking deck portion of the building is completed and issued a certificate of occupancy, the city of Ann Arbor has agreed to issue $9 million worth of bonds to purchase the deck, and the DDA has agreed to make the payments on those bonds. The amendment to the contract provides DDA consultants access to the site during construction activities to check that construction methods conform to standards that will ensure a 75-year life for the deck.

On the city council’s agenda for Monday, Feb. 7, 2011 is their own approval of the same amendment to the Village Green contract. The contract amendment is part of a timeline put in place on Aug. 5, 2010, when the city council approved an extension of Village Green’s option to purchase the First and Washington city-owned parcel for $3 million. That timeline calls for Village Green to purchase the land by June 1, 2011.

The $3 million proceeds from the hoped-for Village Green deal were part of the financing plan for the city’s new municipal center, and would have no direct impact on the current general fund’s $2.4 million deficit that’s forecast for the FY 2012 budget. However, during deliberations some DDA board members accepted the point made by their colleague Newcombe Clark – that there are likely indirect connections between the completion of the Village Green transaction and the city’s overall budget picture, at least in terms of cash flow.

In reports and communications entertained by the board, highlights included: (1) a continued interest on the part of the University of Michigan to absorb a segment of Monroe Street into the UM Law School campus; (2) complaints from the property manager at 416 Huron St. about disrepair of an alley and adjoining sidewalks in the area, as well as a lack of maintenance on property owned by the railroad; and (3) an elaboration by the mayor on some remarks about Borders that he’d made and that had been reported in the media. [Full Story]

Column: Medical Marijuana – Drawing a Line

The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (old-tyme spelling courtesy of the Michigan legislature) has been in effect since December 2008, but it wasn’t until last summer that seemingly every stationary object and alternative newspaper in Michigan was plastered with pot-leaf emblazoned ads for dispensaries, compassion centers, and doctors willing to recommend medical marijuana.

Photo illistration of a prescription bottle for medical marijuana

Would you want your medicine dispensed like this? (Photo-illustration by The Chronicle.)

As the business columnist for the Current, I dropped in on one such business, hoping to sit down with the good doctor and get a sense of just how all this worked. To ensure accuracy, I always record my interviews, something the subjects of those interviews usually appreciate: No one wants to be misquoted.

I was shocked when this doctor declined to be recorded. In four years of writing that column no one had ever asked that I not record: burlesque dancers, roadkill-eating geeks, foreign-born restaurateurs with unpopular social stances, even those involved in actual criminal enterprises had all been fine with a recorded interview.

But this medical doctor didn’t want me to record her talking about her medical practice, nor would she tell me her first name – although LinkedIn outed her the next day when it showed me her picture and suggested we connect as business contacts. [Full Story]

Monthly Milestone: Snowfall of Information

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.

Yardstick measuring Feb. 2, 2011 snowfall in Ann Arbor

Despite dire forecasts, snowfall amounts by Wednesday morning were closer to five inches than 13 inches. But some of the words in this article were written before the snowstorm ended. And as this photo shows, it was not hard to find some deeper drifts. (Photo by the writer.)

It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.

Less often than I would like, I use a membership-funded co-working space on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor called The Workantile Exchange to write and edit the material in this publication.

But even when I do work there, I am not all that productive, if productivity is measured by the number of words I type. Of course, I do type some words there. Some of these very words you are reading right now were typed at the Workantile. But number-of-words-typed is not how I measure the Workantile’s value to me.

So how do I assess the value of what I accomplish there?

It’s like describing the result of a snowstorm. [Full Story]

UM Research Highlighted at Regents Meeting

University of Michigan board of regents meeting (Jan. 20, 2011): The university’s top research administrator, along with a faculty member who has successfully straddled the academic and entrepreneurial worlds, addressed regents at their January meeting about how university research is aiding economic development.

Stephen Forrest, David Lampe

Stephen Forrest, left, talks with David Lampe before the start of the Jan. 19, 2011 University of Michigan board of regents meeting. Forrest, UM's vice president for research, gave a presentation on the university's research efforts. Lampe is vice president for communications. (Photos by the writer.)

Stephen Forrest, UM’s vice president for research and chair of the board for economic development agency Ann Arbor SPARK, described the concept of an “innovation pipeline,” with the input of funding and ideas yielding an output of jobs, prosperity and expanded opportunities for faculty and students. The process has leaks and clogs, he noted, but the university has strategically applied patches – citing as an example the Venture Accelerator program that launched this month.

And Jim Baker, director of the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences, was on hand to embody the efforts of faculty who successfully translate research into economic development. Baker’s talk focused on the rewards of creating new businesses – he observed that one reason why students come to UM is to enhance their economic prospects and improve their lives. Baker talked about the importance of keeping those graduates in Michigan to aid in the state’s economic recovery – and doing that requires jobs. He noted that the four companies he has helped launch in Ann Arbor have brought in $160 million in investments and created 45 new jobs so far.

Regents took action on several items during the meeting, including approval of two projects related to the athletics department: A $52 million renovation and expansion of Crisler Arena – the second phase of a major overhaul of that facility, which was built in 1968; and a $20 million project to install video scoreboards at Michigan Stadium, Crisler Arena and Yost Ice Arena. David Brandon, UM’s athletic director, made a brief appearance at the meeting but did not address the regents publicly. And this month’s biggest athletic-related news at UM – that Brady Hoke was hired as head football coach – received only a mention as part of president Mary Sue Coleman’s opening remarks. He did not attend the meeting.

Seven people spoke during public commentary on a variety of topics. Among them were: (1) a call to reassess Fuller Road Station, a proposed parking structure and possible train station near UM’s medical campus; ( 2) questions about the medical leave of Ken Magee, executive director of UM’s Department of Public Safety (DPS); (3) thanks from the leader of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival for the university’s support of that annual event; (4) criticism of the use of live animals to train survival flight nurses; and (5) a plea for financial support for The Loyal Opposition to the Status Quo (LOSQ), a nonprofit launched to address disparities between African-Americans and Caucasians. [Full Story]

Site Plan OK’d for Avalon Housing Project

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Jan. 20, 2011): After a public hearing that included comments by some residents of 1500 Pauline, planning commissioners unanimously approved the site plan for an affordable housing project at that location, proposed by the nonprofit Avalon Housing.

Painting of blue houses

This painting of blue houses is not in Avalon Housing's site plan for its affordable housing proposal at 1500 Pauline. It's part of a display by fifth grade students in the lower level of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, where the Jan. 20 planning commission meeting was held.

The project will include demolishing the existing structure and constructing five one- and two-story buildings and a community center. Though commissioners supported the project, some raised concerns over the relocation of current residents and the fact that the new complex, when completed, will have fewer units – 32, compared to the current 47 apartments. Of those, there will also be far fewer one-bedroom units – six, compared to the current 21.

Representatives from Avalon told commissioners that the lower number was sustainable – 35% of the units will be set aside for residents who’ll receive supportive services. They also said the location was more suited for families, and that there’s more need for two- and three-bedroom affordable housing units in the city.

Another project on the agenda – a site plan and special exception use for 630 Oxford – was postponed, as recommended by city planning staff. The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity wants to turn an existing rental duplex into their chapter’s permanent home, housing up to 24 residents. The housing director and some board members for the neighboring Delta Gamma sorority came to Thursday’s meeting to object to the plan, saying they did not want fraternity culture to disrupt their quiet neighborhood.

Commissioners also unanimously recommended approval of the annexation of 1575 Alexandra Blvd., a vacant 0.82-acre lot now in Ann Arbor Township. The lot is surrounded by the city’s Riverwood Nature Area – its owner plans to build a single-family home on the site.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, Wendy Rampson of the city’s planning staff reminded commissioners of a public meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 26 to get community feedback on draft recommendations for R4C and R2A residential zoning district ordinance revisions. The meeting runs from 6-8 p.m. at the lower level of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [Full Story]

Marijuana Issue Lingers; DDA-City Deal Stalls

Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Jan. 18, 2011): At its most recent meeting, scheduled a day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the council was due to consider, for a second time, a first-reading of a licensing scheme for medical marijuana businesses that has been put forward by city attorney Stephen Postema.

Stephen Kunselman, Roger Fraser

In deliberations on a resolution that would have authorized the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to start designing a plan to develop city-owned surface parking lots, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), who's speaking here, said he did not want to tie the city administrator's hands. The hands in question are visible in the right of the frame, clearly still untied. (Photos by the writer.)

After amending the licensing proposal heavily at its Jan. 3, 2011 meeting, the council had decided to postpone the measure until Tuesday’s meeting. After a relatively brief attempt to undertake further amendments, the council decided to postpone consideration again – until its Feb. 7, 2011 meeting. They also voted to extend the moratorium on opening additional marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities through March 31, 2011.

Not relatively brief were Christopher Taylor’s (Ward 3) opening remarks about a resolution that would have authorized the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to design a plan to develop city-owned downtown parking lots.

In the end, the council decided to postpone consideration of the DDA parcel-by-parcel proposal – on a 6-4 vote, with some of those voting against postponement looking to vote it down. The effect of the postponement was likely similar to what outright rejection would have been. The clear message was this: Substantial revision to the proposal would be required to gain the kind of overwhelming support the measure will likely need to persuade DDA board members that the council is in agreement with the proposal.

Another piece of major business, which passed quietly, was approval of an overhaul of the ordinance language defining the city’s retirement system. An additional tax abatement for Edwards Brothers received a lot of discussion, but was ultimately approved.

The city also accepted a grant from the Home Depot Foundation for sustainability work, that earned praise for the city’s environmental coordinator, Matt Naud. In other city environmental action, David Stead was reappointed to the city’s environmental commission, and Steve Bean’s decision was announced that he had not sought reappointment to that commission, after a long tenure.

Th site plan for Lake Trust Credit Union at the southeast corner of West Liberty and West Stadium Boulevard was approved. And two additional parcels were added to the land that is protected by the city’s greenbelt program.

As budget season looms, Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), who serves on both the city council’s budget committee and the labor and administration committee, gave a status update on the city’s negotiations with its unions. [Full Story]

Lutz Rides Current Motor’s Potential

Editor’s note: The Chronicle first wrote about Current Motor back in April 2009.

On the second day of the recent press preview at the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, a group of Ann Arborites gathered around a sleek-looking, gleaming blue electric scooter and exchanged banter.

Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz, an investor in Ann Arbor-based Current Electric, plans to take one to the firm's electric scooters on the road when "the snow is off the highway." (Photos by the writer.)

“So, Bob,” says Erik Kauppi, founder and chief engineer of Current Motor, the maker of the scooter. “Are we going to see you tooling around Ann Arbor’s streets on one of these things soon?”

“Bob” is Bob Lutz, the father of the electric Chevy Volt, the sexiest young thing at the auto show – on four wheels, that is. “As soon as the snow is off the highway, I’ll stop by with my checkbook,” Lutz says.

Lutz is now retired from GM, but is far from quitting his advocacy of electric vehicles. He opened up his checkbook last year to Current Motor, becoming an investor in, and adviser to, the company. Just how much did he invest?

“It’s enough to demonstrate a solid interest and small enough so that if this fails I won’t be terribly distressed about it,” Lutz says. “That’s the way I like to invest.” But, he says, the leadership at Current is going about it the right way, so he is confident in their success. [Full Story]

Column: Accidental Auto Journalist

I am not a journalist – I just play one, as the saying goes.

Auto show media credentials

The author's media credentials for the North American International Auto Show. (Photos by the writer.)

So what was I doing at the Press Preview of the North American International Auto Show a few days ago at Cobo Hall? Even though I’m an architect in my day job, I also do some writing for, a blog focused on issues of technology and the environment. And I’ve also contributed to several other online media outlets in the past few years.

My writing sideline started with a focus on green building technology. But because of my proximity to Detroit, I found myself receiving forwarded invitations to auto industry events.

So while I’ve never particularly thought of myself as a “car guy,” I’ve come to find myself acting in the capacity of an automotive journalist. I have now attended the North American International Auto Show three or four times as a member of the press.

Despite having developed some familiarity with the process, I still feel like an interloper – as though I’m getting away with sneaking in someplace I’m not supposed to be. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Hotel First to Get Design Review?

On the evening of Jan. 5, 2011, First Hospitality Group Inc. hosted a citizens participation meeting for the hotel project it’s proposing at the southwest corner of Washington and Division streets. The proposal calls for a 9-story, 104-room, LEED-certified building, facing South Division. The meeting, held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, was required by city ordinance – before submitting a site plan for the city to review, developers must invite owners of property within 1,000 feet of a proposed project to a forum that describes the plan.

Four corners at Washington and Division

The corners of Washington & Division, clockwise from top left: NW (former Ann Arbor News building); NE (411 Lofts); SE (McKinley's Towne Center); SW (parking lot, site of proposed Ann Arbor Hotel). Image links to larger file.

Much of the conversation between residents and First Hospitality’s Ira Ury revolved around the city’s downtown design guidelines. Even before the meeting, as Ury and resident Ilene Tyler introduced themselves, Tyler wanted to know if First Hospitality had used the design guidelines to develop the schematics on display.

Ury explained that his team had used the draft of the design guidelines that is available on the city’s website. But that draft, which dates from late 2009, has undergone considerable revision since February 2010, when the council appointed a task force to undertake further study and make a recommendation. The task force has been meeting almost weekly for the better part of the past year.

The task force unveiled its draft at a city council work session on Monday, Jan. 10. One key difference between the 2009 draft and the version the task force has now unveiled is the re-introduction of the original design guidelines advisory committee’s October 2007 recommendation for a design review process. It would be a mandatory process overseen by a design guidelines review board, with voluntary compliance by petitioners. But as Ray Detter, president of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, put it to Ury on Wednesday, if a developer doesn’t comply with the recommendations of the review board, “Everyone will know!”

Depending on the timing of city council approval of the design guidelines, First Hospitality’s project could be the first site plan that undergoes a formal design guidelines review process. At the council’s work session, Ward 4 councilmember Marcia Higgins said she planned to attach the final draft to the city council’s Jan. 18 agenda as a communications item, and to bring it forward for council approval at the Feb. 7 meeting.

What exactly are these design guidelines? Where did they come from? When might they be approved? [Full Story]

Monthly Milestone: Tom, Huck in Ann Arbor

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.

Envelope addressed to a Newspaper Man

Newspaper Man almost rhymes with Superman.

Holiday mail received by The Chronicle this year included an envelope addressed to “Dave Askins, Newspaper Man.”

I knew who had sent it without looking at the Virginia return address. It was from a guy nicknamed “Huck.”

Inside was a bonus – Huck’s holiday letter. It was a two-pager. The second page featured a paragraph that drew my gaze in that way your own name will when rendered in print: “So I Googled all Ann Arbor newspapers and emailed the first one for help – three hours later Mr. Dave Askins of The Ann Arbor Chronicle …”

Long story short: Richard Huckeby – “Huck The Elder” – and his lovely bride Rita were traveling across the country in early December, and were hoping to visit their friend Tom Stockton in Ann Arbor. But they were having trouble connecting via email or phone, which they’d used reliably in the past to communicate with him.

Otherwise put, Huck was looking for Tom. And Huck had asked a newspaper man for help. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Task Force Consults Panhandlers

Editor’s note: At its Sept. 20, 2010 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council reappointed a downtown street outreach task force – aka the “panhandling task force” – which had existed in the early 2000s. The current group’s charge is to work for no longer than six months to identify cost-effective ways to achieve better enforcement of the city’s ordinance against panhandling, and to provide help to panhandlers who are addicted to drugs.

The sum of one panhandler's afternoon collection on Dec. 31, 2010 on the sidewalk next to Border's Bookstore on East Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor. (Photo by Dave Askins.)

Now that the task force is roughly halfway through that six-month period, The Chronicle attended its December meeting to check in on the group’s work.

You buy local, think global, pay it forward, recycle. You’re a good person.

So how do you respond to a panhandler? Is opening your wallet helping someone in need? Or is it enabling an addiction? Can you look the other way and still consider yourself compassionate?

At the Dec. 15 meeting of the city’s panhandling task force, three paid consultants gave their perspective on the issue – as panhandlers. Geoffrey Scott said he enjoys talking to the people almost as much as he appreciates the money they give him.

But one member of the city’s panhandling task force says people don’t realize the damage they do in the name of kindness. [Full Story]

Arbor Dog Daycare Returns – and Prevails

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Dec. 21, 2010): More than a year after making their initial request, the owners of Arbor Dog Daycare were granted a special exception use on Tuesday, allowing the South Main Street business to expand.

Chris Cheng, Jon Svoboda

Chris Cheng, left, of the Ann Arbor planning staff talks with Jon Svoboda, co-owner of Arbor Dog Daycare. (Photos by the writer.)

Several conditions were added, including requirements related to the number of dogs allowed outside, and action to be taken if there’s continuous barking. Noise concerns had been a reason cited by commissioners who previously voted against the request.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the commission granted a special exception use and approved the site plan for Allen Creek Preschool, which plans to tear down an existing house and build a larger one at its Franklin Street location.

Commissioners also heard several updates and communications, including a request for feedback on a draft resolution regarding a proposed development agreement between the city and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. [Full Story]

Active Use of Work Space: Film Premiere

On Wednesday night at the Workantile Exchange – a membership-funded coworking space on Main Street, between Washington and Huron – local video producer and urban researcher Kirk Westphal premiered his two newest films.

Workantile Exchange Urban Planning Council Manager Form of Government

Pre-premiere socializing at the Workantile Exchange for films on urban planning and forms of local government. (Photos by the writer.)

The first film, “The Great Street Toolkit,” focuses on urban planning. The second, “The Council-Manager Form of Local Government,” is an introduction to how the council-manager system is different from a strong mayor system. The city of Ann Arbor uses a modified version of the council-manager form.

As Westphal himself noted lightheartedly, it was the “true wonks” in the audience who stayed for the second film – on council-manager government.

And it turns out that most of the 30 people in the audience were true wonks.

But linked indirectly to the evening in multiple ways was one person who was not in the audience at all –  local developer and downtown property owner, Ed Shaffran. [Full Story]

Next Step Taken on Huron Hills Proposal

About 50 people showed up Friday morning in the city council chambers to hear a presentation by Miles of Golf partners about their proposal to assume operations of the city-owned Huron Hills golf course, and move their business there.

Doug Kelly, Andrew Walton, Chris Mile

Chris Mile, right, co-founder and president of Miles of Golf, discusses the firm's proposal for Huron Hills golf course with Doug Kelly, left, the city of Ann Arbor's director of golf, and Andrew Walton, the Huron Hills golf supervisor. (Photos by the writer.)

During the 90-minute meeting, president Chris Mile and other partners with the Pittsfield Township business gave a presentation and answered questions from a seven-member selection committee. Members of the public were allowed to submit questions, which city staff said will be answered and posted online within the next couple of weeks.

Much of the presentation covered the same material found in the Miles of Golf initial response to the city’s request for proposals (RFP), as well a separate financial report. [.pdf file of Miles of Golf RFP response] [.pdf file of Miles of Golf financial proposal] The business has proposed operating the 18-hole, 116-acre course essentially unchanged for three to five years. Then, it plans to build a new facility on what is now the front seven holes – land east of Huron Parkway – with a driving range, teaching center and golf shop. It would relocate its current operations, which are located off of Carpenter Road, south of Packard, and convert the remainder of Huron Hills into a 9-hole course. They’re also hoping to partner with Project Grow or Food Gatherers, to put in a community garden on land they don’t plan to use for golf.

To fund construction, the proposal calls for the city to issue a $3 million bond, which Miles of Golf would pay off over 20 years. The business proposes to pay additional funds to the city during that time, totaling about $1 million. Miles of Golf also estimates that the city would save about $5 million over the 20 years, since it would no longer be paying to operate the course – an estimated $250,000 per year.

During their presentation, Miles of Golf partners addressed concerns that have been raised in the community. They stressed that the project would not put up perimeter fencing or pole lights, and that the land would remain accessible for winter activities, like sledding. Nor do they plan to build a banquet center – though they do hope to eventually sell food and beverages on the site, including alcohol. Currently, Huron Hills does not have a liquor license, though the other city course, Leslie Park, does.

Miles of Golf submitted one of only two proposals that were made in response to the city’s RFP, which was issued in September. The selection committee rejected the second proposal, which had been submitted by a group called Ann Arbor Golf. It called for operating Huron Hills as a public, 18-hole golf course via a new nonprofit entity, the Herb Fowler Foundation of Huron Hills. [.pdf of nonprofit proposal]

In an email to The Chronicle, Paul Bancel – one of the leaders of Ann Arbor Golf – said they’d been told by city staff that their proposal was rejected because they hadn’t provided an adequate plan for staffing the golf course, hadn’t identified the roles of the key individuals in their organization and didn’t include any bank references. The group was disappointed the committee did not choose to interview their group, Bancel wrote – they were not asked any questions, nor were they asked to provide any clarifications about their proposal. [Full Story]

Monthly Milestone: To Address a Meeting

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider making a voluntary subscription to support our work.

submit comment button

For regular attendees of Ann Arbor city council meetings, this piece of art is easily recognizable as a "photo-illustration" – there's no "submit comment" button for the public commentary slot on the paper agenda.

I’m fond of using the milestone column as an occasion to highlight some of the work our readers do when they write comments about material we publish.

So I’d like to begin this month’s column with a request: Stop reading the words on this page and fetch yourself a stopwatch.

Now go read some different words – all 972 of them – assembled into a coherent comment by a reader, Richard Murphy, about a recent Chronicle column: Murph’s comment on the purpose of downtown development authorities.

How long did that take you? [Full Story]

Heritage Row Redux: Again

Based on its Dec. 6, 2010 agenda, on that evening the Ann Arbor city council will begin a multiple-meeting reconsideration of the Heritage Row proposal from Alex de Parry. The Heritage Row project was previously presented to the city council as a residential project for South Fifth Avenue that would renovate seven houses and construct three new 3.5-story apartment buildings behind those houses, with an underground parking garage and a maximum 82 apartments, with no more than 163 bedrooms.

The proposal to be reconsidered includes the following revisions: (1) The top floor the new south building would be removed from the design; (2) The density is reduced from 79 units to 76 units and the number of bedrooms is reduced from 154 to 147; (3) The project will include five affordable units at the 50% AMI (average median income) level, in addition to six affordable units at the 80% AMI level; and (4) The three new buildings will be LEED certified [.pdf of current proposal] Except for the removal of a top floor from one of the newly designed buildings, de Parry had in principle indicated agreement with the other revisions at a Sunday evening council caucus on Sept. 19. [Full Story]

Low-Income Housing Project Planned

Documents filed on Monday with the city of Ann Arbor’s planning staff show details of an affordable housing project at 1500 Pauline that includes tearing down the existing apartment buildings and rebuilding a combination of apartments, townhomes and a community center.

Apartments at 1500 Pauline

Entrance to the apartment complex at 1500 Pauline in Ann Arbor. (Photos by the writer.)

The project is being proposed by the Ann Arbor nonprofit Avalon Housing, though the property is still owned by the Washtenaw Affordable Housing Corp. Avalon took over operations of several WAHC properties, including 1500 Pauline, in 2009.

Also filing with the city on Monday was the Michigan Alpha Chapter of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, which is seeking a special exception use to transform the Memorial Christian Church building at the corner of Tappan and Hill into a fraternity house. [Full Story]

Column: Arbor Vinous

Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg

Although local restaurant wine markups vary widely, you might figure that wine prices in the cutthroat-competitive supermarket world would be more consistent, one to the next.

You’d figure wrong.

One fine example: Italy’s ubiquitous Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. Fuhgedabout its modest crowd-sourced ratings; the wine’s a staple on most grocery store shelves, including seven of the eight Ann Arbor supermarkets I visited in late October.

If you’re a west-sider who shops at Plum Market, you’ll pay $17 to take home the current 2009 vintage.

Wanna spend more? No problem. On the south side, Meijer sells the same bottle for $19. Joe’s will Trade one in exchange for $21. And if buying the wine at Whole Foods makes you no healthier, its $24 price tag is likely to perk up the chain’s bottom line.

But if you really have money to burn, head east toward Hiller’s for the daily double: you’ll settle for the prior year’s vintage and they’ll soak you for $26 – a whopping $9 (53%) more than Plum’s price.

This may be an outlying example, but it’s far from atypical. The survey found prices on individual bottles can vary as much as 80% among the eight local markets, and your total tab for the identical assortment of wines will be 30% higher or lower, depending on where you shop. [Full Story]

Monthly Milestone: Election Day Edition

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider making a voluntary subscription to support our work.

It’s election day, so I’ll start this monthly milestone – our 26th, for those keeping score – by badgering you to tell your family, friends and neighbors to go vote. (As a Chronicle reader, you will need no reminder yourself, of course.)

Participants at an Poynter Institute workshop

George Packer (right foreground), a staff writer for The New Yorker, spoke to a recent workshop for nontraditional journalists at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Observant Chronicle readers will spot me sitting at the back of the classroom.) (Photo by Jim Stem, courtesy of The Poynter Institute.)

Frankly, I’ll be glad to bid farewell to Election 2010. Regular Chronicle readers know that while we’re huge fans of good governance and the democratic process, our patience is pretty thin for typical horse-race coverage of elections – complete with endorsements and accusations trotted forth by candidates, which mainstream media then use to whip themselves into a breathless, panting herd.

I’ll also be glad to have elections behind us because the month leading up to Nov. 2 has been especially taxing for The Chronicle – in good ways. But I’m looking forward to a return to our baseline level of overwork. One reason for the extra effort relates to preparation for the first candidate forum ever hosted by The Chronicle. Held on Oct. 21 at Wines Elementary for Ward 5 city council candidates, the event took a nontraditional approach. Chronicle editor Dave Askins described our thinking behind the forum’s task-based format in a recent column. You can read about the forum itself in a separate report. And if you want to review The Chronicle’s election coverage, you can find a list of election-related articles here.

Another reason that the month was busier than usual relates to an out-of-state trip I made to The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was a visiting faculty member there at a workshop for nontraditional journalists. In this month’s column, I’d like to focus on the Poynter visit, with some observations about The Chronicle’s work, plus a national perspective based on remarks by George Packer of The New Yorker, who also spoke at Poynter. [Full Story]

University Bank Project Postponed

Ann Arbor planning commissioner meeting (Oct. 19, 2010): Three projects were considered at the Oct. 19 planning commission meeting, and commissioners voted to postpone two of them.

Hoover Mansion

The headquarters of University Bank, in the building known as the Hoover Mansion on Washtenaw Avenue. A request to increase parking on the site was postponed by the Ann Arbor planning commission at its Oct. 19 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

One of those projects – related to an expansion of Arbor Dog Daycare – has already appeared before the commission multiple times. Most recently, the proposal was rejected by commissioners in September, primarily due to concerns about noise generated by dogs using the outdoor dog run. Owners Jon and Margaret Svoboda had asked that their request be reconsidered, and commissioners agreed to the reconsideration. But after an hour of discussion on Tuesday evening, commissioners voted to postpone again, asking staff to explore possible conditions – such as an annual review or written policy requirement – that could be added to the special exception use to address the problem of continuously barking dogs.

Also postponed was a request to add more parking to the site of the University Bank headquarters in the building known as the Hoover Mansion on Washtenaw Avenue, and to allow up to 10 additional employees to work at that location. The planning staff had recommended denial of the request, stating that the project impacts natural features and doesn’t offer an overall benefit to the city. However, commissioners asked planning staff to work with bank officials to come up with an alternative proposal for locating new parking.

During a public hearing on the project, bank president Stephen Ranzini told commissioners that if the bank can’t get the additional parking, it could trigger a decision to leave that location and expand elsewhere. He noted that the building, which he said sat vacant for nearly three years before being acquired by the bank, is extremely expensive to maintain, and described himself as a good steward for the property.

A third proposal considered by the planning commission on Oct. 19 – adding parking spots to the Briar Cove Apartments complex on the city’s southwest side – was approved unanimously. [Full Story]

Medical Marijuana Zoning Heads to Council

Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (Oct. 5, 2010): Zoning for medical marijuana businesses was the main agenda item for the commission’s Oct. 5 meeting. The issue drew more than a dozen people to council chambers, and six people spoke at a public hearing on the topic.

Jill Thacher, Bonnie Bona

Jill Thacher, left, of the city of Ann Arbor's planning staff, has been the point person in drafting a zoning ordinance to address medical marijuana businesses. She outlined changes to the draft ordinance at the Oct. 5 planning commission meeting. Next to Thacher is planning commissioner Bonnie Bona. (Photos by the writer.)

The draft ordinance that was ultimately approved unanimously, and forwarded to the city council, contained several changes from the version that the commission considered at its Sept. 21 meeting. During the Oct. 5 deliberations, commissioners also approved three out of four proposed amendments, some of them in response to input from the public.

In a separate vote, the commission approved a motion to recommend that the city council institute a medical marijuana business license. Eric Mahler cast the lone vote of dissent. There was little discussion and no details about what the license would entail, aside from a general intent “to address issues that fall outside the scope of the zoning ordinance, such as building security and code compliance for electrical use, fire suppression, and ingress/egress.”

Commissioner Jean Carlberg questioned Kristen Larcom of the city attorney’s office about whether the license would only apply to dispensaries, or if it would be required of cultivation facilities and “home occupation” businesses as well. In reply, Larcom said she didn’t know – they hadn’t yet drafted it. Commissioner Kirk Westphal asked if the license might include a cap on the number of dispensaries in the city – Larcom said that it might.

In their final item of business, planning commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider a petition they had rejected at their Sept. 21 meeting – to a special exception use that would allow for the expansion of Arbor Dog Daycare, a business located at 2856 S. Main St., near the corner of Eisenhower. They then immediately tabled action on the item until their Oct. 19 meeting. The owners spoke during public commentary urging commissioners to reconsider, but later in the meeting commissioner Jean Carlberg said she’d spent more than an hour in the neighborhood near the business, and was disturbed by the level of noise coming from barking dogs there. [Full Story]

Washtenaw Faces $20M Deficit in 2012-13

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Oct. 6, 2010): Financial concerns emerged in a variety of ways at Wednesday night’s meeting.

Jeff Krcmarik, Martha Friedlander

Jeff Krcmarik, the county's environmental program supervisor, talks with Martha Friedlander, chair of the science department at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor. Friedlander was on hand to receive a county environmental excellence award on behalf of Greenhills, one of several such awards given out at Wednesday's meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioner Conan Smith, who’s leading a budget advisory team, gave a grim update on an anticipated deficit that’s facing the county for 2012 and 2013. Originally projected to be $16 million, the administration now believes the two-year deficit could be $20 million or more, with possible adjustments necessary to address a shortfall in 2011 as well. Declining property tax revenues and uncertain state funding are primary factors.

Smith said cuts made to deal with a $30 million deficit in 2010-11 had brought them down to the bone, and now structural changes will be needed. “Some of what the county does will likely disappear in the process,” he said.

Budget issues also were central to a public hearing on the proposed Act 88 millage, which commissioners have used previously to fund programs related to economic development. It’s a millage they can levy without voter approval. During the public hearing, commissioners heard from supporters of the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) and Ann Arbor SPARK – both groups have been funded from Act 88 millage revenues. David Klingenberger of The Brinery, for example, told commissioners that FSEP is helping him build a pickle empire in Washtenaw County. But two people from the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau spoke out against the millage, arguing that property owners are already burdened and that any new tax needs to be on the ballot for voter approval.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Tom Wieder spoke during public commentary to call for an investigation into per diem spending by commissioner Mark Ouimet. Based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Wieder contends that Ouimet claimed per diem payments to which he wasn’t entitled, and that his spending far exceeded other commissioners. Ouimet responded by saying that if any discrepancy is found in his expense reports, “obviously I’d want to know about it so I can take care of it.”

Ouimet, a Republican from Scio Township, is running for state representative in the 52nd District against Democrat Christine Green. Wieder is listed on a page of endorsements on Green’s campaign website. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Earth Closets

Editor’s note: Michigan’s economy in 2010 is in the crapper. So the theme of jobs growth and economic development is a part of political campaigns statewide – from city council contests on up to the gubernatorial race. Yet no candidate has identified indoor non-flushable toilets as a growth industry in Michigan – perhaps with good reason. We tried that before and it didn’t work out.  Local history author Laura Bien deftly treats this delicate topic with her trademark deadpan prose.


Description of William Heap's earth closet. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

In the late 19th century two University of Michigan professors of medicine and an Ypsilanti doctor championed a new sanitation technology. Despite their efforts spanning nearly 20 years, the earth closet turned out to be arguably the least enthusiastically adopted invention in Michigan history.

It was an era of primitive indoor toilets connected to odoriferous privy vaults – if you were lucky. Even elegant urban houses had backyard outhouses – such as Ann Arbor’s historic Kempf House.

Patented in England in 1873 by Henry Moule, the earth closet resembled a wooden box with a rear metal hopper. The hopper was filled with clean dry dirt. After using this commode, the user turned a small handle that dropped a small portion of dirt into the pail, covering its contents and rendering them allegedly odor-free. In time, the pail was removed and emptied, often on one’s garden. Lower-tech earth closets without a hopper had a nearby bucket of dirt on the floor.

It was a 19th-century composting toilet. [Full Story]

Monthly Milestone: Dough Re Mi

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a monthly reminder to readers who read The Chronicle’s material with a feed reader or some other ad-free mechanism to click through to have a look at the recent ad archive. Some of them are very pretty.

Physically attending various events for The Chronicle has its rewards. Had I stayed home and watched a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum on television, I would have missed the pre-event sound check at CTN studios where the event was taped. The Ward 2 and 5 city council candidate debate is now available online offered through CTN’s video-on-demand feature. [Chronicle coverage of that debate is forthcoming.]

The city council forum combined the races for the two wards. Seated on the CTN stage – at a table decked out with red-white-and-blue bunting – from left to right were the Ward 2 candidates, Democrat Tony Derezinski and Libertarian Emily Salvette, followed by Ward 5 candidates: independent Newcombe Clark, Republican John Floyd and Democrat Carsten Hohnke.

Before taping at the CTN studios, the mic check began with a request from CTN studio technicians for candidates to say something. They began with Tony Derezinski, seated farthest to the left. He deadpanned: “Doe, a deer, a female deer.” [Full Story]

Column: Arbor Vinous

Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg

In the far corner, wearing synthetic trunks: Steve Heimoff, west coast editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine. I pilfered part of the column title from him; fortunately, Steve’s pretty laid back about such things.

Unlike “natural, schmatural” wine, over which he turns apoplectic: “‘Greenwashing’ is the perfect way to describe a large part of the whole natural, green, sustainable, organic, biodynamic thing. Everybody wants to portray his practices as purer than the other guy’s practices. It’s a holier-than-thou world out there, and IMHO that goes for the whole greenie-natural crowd.”

And here in the near corner, Ann Arborites Stacey and Rob DeAngelis, dressed in the all-natural cloak of DeAngelis Cantina del Vino, whose tasting room opens later this month. It’s the only winery with an Ann Arbor mailing address, though you’ll find it deep in Scio Township.

Not for them, the typical 21st century winemaker’s arsenal of chemicals, sulfites, color enhancers and designer yeasts.

What’s in the wines? “Just the grapes,” says Stacey DeAngelis, whose picture appears on their label.

She’s not kidding. [Full Story]

Potential Bidders Eye Huron Hills Golf

About a dozen people attended Monday afternoon’s pre-bid meeting for those interested in responding to the city of Ann Arbor’s request for proposals (RFP) seeking a public/private partnership for the Huron Hills Golf Course.

Doug Davis, Doug Hellman

Doug Davis of Miles of Golf, left, and Doug Hellman of KemperSports were two of about a dozen people who attended Monday's pre-bid meeting for the Huron Hills Golf Course RFP. (Photo by the writer.)

Anyone who plans to submit a response to the RFP was required to attend the meeting, which lasted 30 minutes and was followed by a field trip to tour the course. Among those attending were Doug Davis and Chris Mile of Miles of Golf, Doug Hellman of KemperSports, Joe Spatafore of Royal Oak Golf Management, and William Arlinghaus of Greenscape.

Also attending were several citizens who have publicly opposed the RFP process, including Ted Annis, Nancy Kaplan, Myra Larson and Paul Bancel. Some are involved in the citizens group Ann Arbor for Parkland Preservation (A2P2).

The meeting, led by city parks manager Colin Smith, was a chance for potential bidders to ask questions or request additional information. The deadline to submit proposals is Oct. 29. [.pdf file of Huron Hills RFP] [Full Story]

Fuller Road Station Plan Gets Green Light

Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (Sept. 21, 2010): In a marathon meeting that lasted past midnight, the planning commission handled two major projects: Site plan approval for Fuller Road Station, and a medical marijuana zoning ordinance.

Rita Mitchell

Rita Mitchell and Peter Zetlin talk during a break at the Sept. 21 Ann Arbor planning commission meeting. Both spoke against the proposed Fuller Road Station during a public hearing on the site plan. (Photos by the writer.)

City council chambers were packed with people wanting to address the commission on those two issues, which were the final two items on the night’s agenda.

Before getting to those, commissioners dealt with several lower-profile items. One was a request by the owners of Arbor Dog Daycare asking for permission to expand their business. A neighbor came to oppose it, saying “to expand the operation means more barking.” The commission voted on it twice – an initial vote, then a reconsideration at the end of the meeting at the request of commissioner Evan Pratt, who arrived late and missed the first vote. In both cases, the project failed to get the necessary six votes for approval.

The commission also approved the site plan for a Lake Trust Credit Union branch at the southeast corner of West Stadium and Liberty, despite some concerns about tearing down the existing building.

Later in the meeting – after three hours of staff presentations, a public hearing and commissioner deliberations – Fuller Road Station’s site plan did win approval, with two commissioners dissenting. The project will now move to city council for a vote.

And the final public hearing of the night – on zoning changes that would regulate dispensaries and “home occupations” for medical marijuana – drew 15 speakers. All of them, to varying degrees, urged commissioners not to restrict safe access to medical marijuana. The planning staff had recommended postponement, and commissioners followed that advice. They voted unanimously to postpone action on the proposal, allowing time to incorporate feedback heard during the meeting’s public hearing. The commission is expected to take up the issue again at its Oct. 5 meeting. [Full Story]

Licensing or Zoning for Medical Marijuana?

At the Aug. 5, 2010 meeting of the Ann Arbor city council, councilmembers considered a resolution originally drafted by city attorney Stephen Postema to impose a temporary moratorium on the dispensing and growing of medical marijuana. The city council ultimately passed a modified version of the moratorium, with exemptions for patients and caregivers, a grandfathering-in of existing facilities in the city and a reduction in the length of the moratorium from 180 to 120 days. The moratorium ends Dec. 3.

Ann Arbor ordinance review committee

Ann Arbor planning staff and members of the planning commission's ordinance revisions committee discuss existing zoning areas and implications of ordinance changes at their Sept. 13 meeting. Clockwise from left: Wendy Rampson, Jill Thacher, Kirk Westphal, Jean Carlberg. (Photo by the writer.)

The resolution passed by the council also directed the city staff and planning commission to look at possible zoning ordinance changes, with the intent of regulating medical marijuana in Ann Arbor. The resolution does not mention other regulatory approaches, such as licensing.

Since then, the city’s planning staff and the ordinance revisions committee of the planning commission have been developing recommendations to change the city’s zoning code. The changes would regulate medical marijuana dispensaries as well as marijuana grown by registered caregivers as a “home occupation.”

At a Monday, Sept. 13 meeting of the ordinance revisions committee, the group mentioned a parallel track that’s being pursued by the city attorney’s office: licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries. Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning department, said that Postema has also been working with the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys regarding an approach to licensing medical marijuana. Postema is president of that group. [Full Story]

Zingerman’s Expansion Moves Ahead

Ann Arbor Historic District Commission meeting (Sept. 9, 2010): The last-minute addition of a closed session – which lasted nearly an hour, just prior to deliberations on the Zingerman’s Deli expansion – added a bit of drama to Thursday’s meeting. But ultimately commissioners unanimously approved all projects on their agenda, with only a few concerns cited.

Members of the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission talk with architect Ken Clein, right, in back of the Zingerman's Deli Annex on Sept. 7. Clein is with Quinn Evans Architects, which is handling the proposed expansion project. (Photos by the writer.)

The highest-profile of those projects, of course, was a plan to expand the Zingerman’s Deli operations at the corner of Detroit and Kingsley streets, in the Old Fourth Ward historic district. About a dozen representatives affiliated with Zingerman’s attended the meeting, including co-founder Paul Saginaw and managing partners Grace Singleton and Rick Strutz.

In 2008, commissioners rejected the company’s first attempt to gain HDC approval – in the form of a “certificate of appropriateness,” which included asking permission to tear down a small house on their property that had been gutted by fire. Since that initial rebuff by the HDC, Zingerman’s has been working on an alternative path, gaining approval from the city’s planning commission and city council, and returning to the HDC for a “notice to proceed.”

On Thursday, the commission granted the notice to proceed, which will allow the project to move forward. Several commissioners addressed concerns raised during public commentary about this project setting a precedent, saying that Zingerman’s is a unique business and this expansion is unique as well.

But commissioner Lesa Rozmarek, while noting that she would support the project and that overall Zingerman’s is an asset to the community, also said she wanted it on the record that she felt Zingerman’s had threatened the commission with the prospect of leaving the area if they didn’t get approval. The project sets a bad precedent, she said, adding that “it’s opening a big door that hopefully we can shut after this application.”

Later in the meeting Saginaw responded to Rozmarek’s comments, denying that anyone from Zingerman’s threatened to leave the city – though at one point they did consider moving out of that location to another site within Ann Arbor, he said. Saginaw said he believed the HDC was able to approve the project on its merits.

In other business, the commission issued certificates of appropriateness for three projects: 1) a solar panel installation at 217 S. Seventh St., 2) a request to add an exterior sign near the front door of 209-211 S. State St., where a CVS pharmacy is being constructed, and 3) a proposal for a 1.5-story addition on the back of 442 Second St.

The solar project is being installed on the home of Matt Grocoff, founder of Greenovation TV. Grocoff had attended last month’s HDC meeting, when two other solar panel installations were approved, including one at the historic Michigan Theater building on East Liberty. On Thursday, Grocoff told commissioners that when his solar panels are installed, his home will be the oldest in the nation to achieve net zero energy status, using only energy generated on-site. [Full Story]

Column: Seeds & Stems

Marianne Rzepka

Marianne Rzepka

The sky was full of fast-moving clouds – disappearing remnants of a morning’s rain – and temperatures were falling from a week of 90-degree weather into the 70s.

A breeze was the final touch to the perfect weather at Kirk Jones’ Good Scents Gardens in Ypsilanti Township.

“Being out here,” said Jones. “I like this.”

Good thing, because the flowers he grows there are his business. Jones uses the yarrow, zinnias, butterfly weed and agastache for bouquets he puts together and personally delivers to regular subscribers.

Jones explains it as a twist on the idea of community supported agriculture, or CSA, in which subscribers pay a set amount for one season of produce from a local farm. Instead of picking up a carton of vegetables once a week, Good Scents’ customers get a floral bouquet delivered to their home or business once a week.

Like a CSA, in which a subscriber’s take depends on what and how much the farmer raises over a season, Good Scents’ customers get what Jones chooses to plant and what comes up each year. No matter what, he said, they will get a bouquet of flowers each week over the 26-week season. [Full Story]