Meeting Watch Section

Transit Board Acts on Policy, Infrastructure

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (April 17, 2014): The board had two voting items on its agenda: a policy on determining disproportionate impacts of fare and service changes on disadvantaged populations; and a contract for small concrete work associated with pads for bus stops, approach walks and ramps. Both items were approved.

Eric Mahler

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board member Eric Mahler was discussing the potential for disparate impacts on different populations as a result of service changes. (Photos by the writer.)

The issue of the May 6 millage vote came up during public commentary. In addition, CEO Michael Ford delivered some prepared remarks meant to dispel what he called myths about the AAATA that are being promoted by opponents of that millage. [.pdf of press release from opposition campaign]

One myth is that the AAATA is inefficient, Ford said, when in fact the AAATA has 17% lower cost per passenger and has 18% fewer employees per passenger than its peers. Another myth, Ford said, is that the AAATA has 52 managers. “It’s just simply not true,” he said. Ford explained that the AAATA has 52 employees who are non-union – 11 of whom are managers. That includes administrative assistants, IT staff, customer service, human resources, safety and security personnel, dispatchers and others, Ford said.

The assertion that the AAATA will use millage revenue to fund a train service is untrue as well, Ford continued. The AAATA had intentionally not put rail service in the ballot language. AAATA has been acknowledged in USA Today, by CNN, and by independent transportation associations as one of the nation’s best-in-class in terms of ridership, operational efficiency, fiscal stability, and technological innovation, Ford said. And that’s why he was hopeful that voters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township would say yes when they go to the polls on May 6.

The concrete work contract was awarded to Saladino Construction, for a one-year period and the possibility of four one-year renewals. Board members subjected the item to a relatively lengthy discussion as far as AAATA board discussions go – as they had questions about the amount of future work there would be, how workmanship is verified, and how pedestrian flow at bus stops is maintained during the work period.

Also given a fair amount of discussion was the policy on service equity required under Title VI. Board members had several questions, including one about the action that is required if a disparate impact on low-income riders is found as a result of a fare increase. AAATA staff stressed that there is not currently a fare increase on the table. [Full Story]

Brigham Home To Get Upgrade, Expansion

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 15, 2014): A revised version of renovations and expansion at 515 Oxford – a house originally designed by architect George Brigham in 1940 – will move to the city council for approval, following action by the city’s planning commissioners.

Robb Burroughs, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Robb Burroughs, architect for renovations at 515 Oxford. (Photos by the writer.)

At a meeting with a third of the nine-member commission absent, the group voted unanimously to grant a special exception use that will allow the building to be used by the Delta Gamma sorority. It will be limited to 20 residents, and will be used as an annex to the main sorority house down the street.

The commission also recommended approval of a “planned project” site plan, which will now be forwarded to city council for consideration. Unlike a preliminary version of the project – when the architect had been unaware of the building’s historical significance – the current proposal works to preserve the integrity of the original design. The new design keeps the existing structure, but nearly doubles the square footage with an addition in the back.

During deliberations, some commissioners mentioned the relatively large amount of correspondence they’d received about this project, including letters from several preservation groups – a2modern, Detroit Area Art Deco Society, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Board, and the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission. The house is not located in an historic district, and is not protected by any other historic designation.

City planner Jill Thacher, who serves as support staff for the city’s historic district commission, said she appreciated that the renovations are sensitive to the history of the structure, keeping the front design in tact and minimizing the overall visual impact of the rear addition.

This was the only major agenda item in a relatively brief meeting that lasted about an hour. The commission’s next regular meeting is on May 6 and will be held at the county administration building at 220 N. Main. The second floor of city hall, where the commission’s meetings are typically held, will be used by election staff for the May 6 transit millage vote.

Before then, the commission will hold a retreat on April 29 starting at 3 p.m. at the NEW Center, 1100 N. Main. It will likely last until about 8:30 p.m. and will include a walking tour of the area. [Full Story]

Homeless Issues Emerge on County Agenda

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (April 2, 2014): Responding to several homeless residents who spoke during public commentary, commissioners spent about 90 minutes on April 2 discussing how to address short-term and long-term needs of the homeless.

Yousef Rabhi,  Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, talked with an advocate from the homeless community before the April 2 county board meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The board ultimately voted to direct county administrator Verna McDaniel to work with community partners to address immediate needs of the homeless. In general, McDaniel has budgetary discretion to spend up to $50,000 on professional services contracts, and up to $100,000 for any proposed goods, services, new construction or renovation. Later in the week, she allocated $35,000 to the Delonis Center – which is run by the nonprofit Shelter Association of Washtenaw County – to keep its nighttime warming center open through April 30. The warming center had originally been slated to close for the season on April 6.

The resolution also directed the administration to develop a plan by May 7 for updating the county’s Blueprint to End Homelessness, which was adopted in 2004 but appears to be dormant. The process of updating that plan is to be completed by Oct. 1, 2014.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) had initially suggested allocating $40,000 to the shelter to keep the warming center open another month. Other commissioners had concerns about throwing money at the shelter without any input from shelter staff, and without knowing specifically how the money would be used. Because the item hadn’t been included on the agenda, representatives from the shelter staff didn’t attend the meeting.

Some commissioners thought there should be a strategic plan in place before any additional funding is given – and they seemed to assume that such a plan doesn’t already exist. Mary Jo Callan, director of the county’s office of community & economic development, noted that the city of Ann Arbor and several other entities are working on this issue, in partnership with the Shelter Association. The board had received a briefing from the association’s executive director, Ellen Schulmeister, at their Feb. 6, 2014 working session.

The vote on the resolution was 6-2, over dissent from Republicans Dan Smith (District 2) and Alicia Ping (District 3), who both objected to the process. Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was absent.

Dan Smith called it “completely and entirely inappropriate” to be making policy and budgetary decisions on the fly, in response to a few people who showed up to speak during public commentary. He supported updating the Blueprint to End Homelessness, but thought it was a discussion that should take place at a working session before taking action at a regular board meeting. Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) responded by saying that commissioners are elected to work for the people. When people come to the board, it’s important to address their concerns in a serious manner, he said.

Because of the length of the meeting, some men who were staying at the shelter missed the 9:30 p.m. curfew. Typically, anyone showing up after that time isn’t allowed inside. Greg Dill, the county’s director of infrastructure management, contacted the shelter staff and made arrangements for the men to be accommodated.

In other action, commissioners gave initial approval to a two-year pricing proposal – for 2016 and 2017 – to provide police services to local municipalities through contracts with the county sheriff’s office. Some commissioners expressed concern about the financial sustainability of this approach to funding police services, and cited the need for new revenue sources for public safety. Sheriff Jerry Clayton was on hand to present the pricing proposal, and supported suggestions to seek a new funding source. As he’s done in the past, Clayton characterized the issue of public safety as one that encompasses economic development, human services and other aspects of the community.

Commissioners also gave initial approval to a new brownfield redevelopment plan for the Thompson Block in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town, and took final action to add autism coverage to the health care benefits for employees. They postponed action on a resolution related to the county road commission until May 7, following an April 17 working session that will focus on that issue. The board also was briefed on the 2013 audit and comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR), and received an award for financial reporting from the national Government Finance Officers Association.

During communications, Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) reported that the review of applications is underway for the current cycle of coordinated funding, a partnership to fund social service agencies that involves the county, city of Ann Arbor, and several other entities. For this cycle, 105 applications were received, representing $8.7 million in requests. The amount of available funding this year from all partners is $4.4 million. “So it’s a difficult, difficult process,” she said. Funding recommendations will be brought to the board in May.

On April 2, the board also honored five local businesses and institutions with “healthy workplace” awards, and recognized the Ann Arbor Community Center for 91 years of service. [Full Story]

Sustainability Action Plan Takes Shape

Ann Arbor planning commission and energy commission joint working session (April 8, 2014): Continuing a process that began more than four years ago, members of the city’s planning and energy commissions received an overview of the draft sustainability action plan and gave feedback toward finalizing the document.

Jamie Kidwell, Wayne Appleyard, Ann Arbor energy commission, sustainability, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jamie Kidwell, the city’s sustainability associate, and Wayne Appleyard, chair of the Ann Arbor energy commission. (Photos by the writer.)

The action plan identifies steps to implement 16 broad goals in a sustainability framework that was added to the city’s master plan last year. The goals are organized into four categories – resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community – that were culled from existing city plans and reorganized into this new framework.

The intent is to track efforts toward achieving the 16 goals, which cover a wide range of issues – from increasing renewable energy use and developing a resilient local economy to eliminating pollutants and maintaining Ann Arbor’s unique sense of place. The action plan includes specific indicators that measure progress in each area.

Jamie Kidwell, the city’s sustainability associate, is taking the lead on this project, and fielded questions from commissioners. Part of the goal is for each of the city’s commissions to incorporate these sustainability efforts into their own work plans, she noted. But the action plan is primarily to guide staff efforts. The action plan is also coordinated with the city’s budget process, tying in to the city council’s budget priorities.

Commissioners expressed interest in more collaboration – both among the city’s various commissions, and with other jurisdictions. One start will be to share their work plans, though not all commissions have those.

Commissioners also discussed the idea of holding an annual joint meeting of multiple commissions, possibly in September. Planning manager Wendy Rampson noted that the kick-off for developing the sustainability framework had begun with a joint meeting – with the planning, energy and environmental commissions – in April 2010. [Full Story]

Park Commissioners Question Council Action

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (March 18, 2014): The main discussion at PAC’s March meeting focused on implications from city council action the previous day regarding the Library Lane site – the surface of an underground parking garage.

Tina Rosselle, Becky Gajewski, Erika Pratt, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Tina Rosselle, Becky Gajewski, Erika Pratt. All three are city staff who are involved in volunteer and outreach efforts for the parks & recreation unit. (Photos by the writer.)

But the council followed up at its April 7 meeting by considering a total of four resolutions on the Library Lane site – including the reconsideration of the two March 17 resolutions. At the end of the April 7 meeting, a portion of the site was still reserved for an urban park, and the city administrator was still directed to hire a broker to list the property for sale. A vote on how to use the proceeds of a possible sale was put off until June. For more details on the council’s April 7 actions, see Chronicle coverage: “Council Wrangles on Library Lot – Proceeds, Process.”

On March 17, the city council had passed two resolutions regarding the site: (1) reserving a portion of the west side, along South Fifth Avenue, as the site for an urban public park; and (2) directing the city administrator to hire a broker to explore the sale of development rights on that site. The council’s meeting, which adjourned at about 1 a.m., included debate that lasted more than 2.5 hours on the future of this city-owned property, located north of the downtown library.

The following day, at PAC’s March 18 meeting, commissioners were briefed by the two councilmembers who also serve on PAC as ex officio members: Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3).

Anglin, who had co-sponsored the park resolution along with Jack Eaton (Ward 4), told commissioners that he’d been comfortable with both resolutions, and that he had voted for both of them.

Anglin said he hoped PAC would now start working on guidelines for developing a portion of the site, and to make sure all stakeholders are well-represented. “Feelings were hurt last night,” he said, “and so now we’re in damage control, and we’re also in the idea of further discourse. And we need to do that.” There needs to be a real dialogue, including the library, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, PAC and others in the community, he said – all stakeholders need to help decide what to do as a town.

For his part, Taylor pointed out that the council’s urban park resolution doesn’t actually ask PAC to do anything. The “resolved” clauses make no mention of PAC. He said he didn’t know the rationale for that – whether it was an attempt to go around PAC, or whether there’s an expectation that PAC will be brought in. “There’s a measure of uncertainty there,” Taylor said, so PAC’s role is unclear.

Taylor also noted that there’s complete consensus on the idea that there will be public space on the Library Lane parcel, to which the public has full access. “There is not complete consensus on who owns that element of the parcel,” he added. “Nor, I think, is there complete consensus on who will maintain and provide security for that part of the parcel.”

Ingrid Ault, PAC’s chair, noted that the commission had developed recommendations for downtown parks, adding that it was “very disappointing to feel that we weren’t listened to” as the council resolution was developed. If that had happened, she added, “we wouldn’t have hurt feelings.”

Though Anglin had supported the council’s March 17 actions, subsequently – at the council’s April 7 meeting – he co-sponsored another resolution that would have delayed hiring a broker until additional public process had been undertaken, including the possibility of reserving the entire site for a park. After a 40-minute debate and a recess to discuss a possible compromise, the council unanimously voted down that resolution – though it could be brought back for future consideration.

Anglin also supported another action on April 7, which passed, that increased the amount reserved for a park to 12,000 square feet, along the entire west side of the South Fifth Avenue parcel. Previously, the council had indicated a range for the space – between 6,500 and 12,000 square feet, with a northern boundary to be determined. A range, instead of 12,000 square feet, had been the result of an amendment made at the council table on March 17. During deliberations on April 7, Anglin said he hoped for an even larger park at the site.

PAC’s March 18 meeting agenda also included a resolution to recommend that the city apply for a grant to help renovate the Gallup Park pathway, which is part of the countywide Border-to-Border Trail. The grant application is to the federal transportation alternatives program (TAP), which is administered in this region by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and statewide by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT). At its April 7 meeting, the city council authorized the grant application.

Also on March 18, Dave Borneman, parks and recreation deputy manager, gave an overview of volunteer efforts within the parks, recreation facilities and natural areas, and talked about how people in the community can participate. Ault encouraged others to volunteer, saying she’s taken part in the frog and toad survey for the past couple of years. “I’ve gone to places that I didn’t really know existed,” she said. “And I can tell you what a spring peeper and a leopard frog sound like.” [Full Story]

DDA: Transit, Housing, Parking

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (April 2, 2014): On a day when most of the routine work of local government was overshadowed by a visit from U.S. President Barack Obama, the Ann Arbor DDA board approved over $1.2 million in grants.

City administrator Steve Powers was game enough to don as a hat the "meter moon" he was presented during the meeting by Shary Brown of Wonderfool Productions.

City administrator Steve Powers was game enough to don as a hat the “meter moon” he was presented during the April 2, 2014 DDA board meeting by Shary Brown of WonderFool Productions. (Photos by the writer.)

A $674,264 grant to support the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s getDowntown program will allow employees of participating downtown Ann Arbor businesses to use their go!passes to ride the bus for another year, without themselves paying a fare for any of their bus boardings. That’s a program the DDA has funded out of public parking system revenues for over a decade

In other transportation-related business, the board approved a resolution that expresses notional support, but not does not commit any funding, for the third phase of a study for a high-capacity transportation system – stretching from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street, then further south to I-94. The third phase of this connector study will be an environmental review. The resolution of support will be used as part of an application, due April 28, for a U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER 2014 (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant.

A $600,000 grant to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission will be invested in capital improvements to two properties in or near the DDA tax capture district: Baker Commons and Miller Manor. Baker Commons is a 64-unit building located at the southeast corner of Packard and Main, within the DDA district. Miller Manor is a 103-unit building on Miller Avenue outside the DDA district, but within a quarter-mile of the district boundary. That conforms with the DDA’s policy on use of its tax increment finance (TIF) funds for housing. The $600,000 is to be paid in three $200,000 annual installments starting this year.

The board also approved a policy that provides guidelines for defining a “community benefit” – when it comes to evaluating the elimination of on-street parking spaces in downtown Ann Arbor. That policy comes in the context of a related city council-approved policy setting the fee for permanent removal of an on-street metered parking space. If a new development requires the elimination of an on-street parking space, the developer is required to pay $45,000, plus some of the projected future revenue the space would have generated. But an exception can be granted by the DDA – which operates the city’s public parking system under contract with the city – if it’s determined that the parking space removal is a “community benefit.” Exceptions could include new developments that meet or exceed goals laid out in various existing plans or public health and safety codes.

In other business, the DDA board denied the appeal of a request made under the Freedom of Information Act, affirming a decision to redact a portion of a public document that had been available for several years in un-redacted form on the city of Ann Arbor’s website.

The board also held a closed session lasting about a half hour, citing a desire to review the written opinion of legal counsel.

During public commentary, the board heard a pitch from Alan Haber for the DDA to be a partner in creating an Earth Day (April 22) celebration on the surface of the Library Lane underground parking structure. Also during public commentary, the board heard from Shary Brown, thanking the DDA for its past support of FoolMoon and FestiFools. This year’s events, held in downtown Ann Arbor, take place on the first weekend in April.

Among a range of various updates, the board received a presentation from public art commissioners on the status of the East Stadium bridges public art project. It’s a presentation that the art commission is providing to several boards and commissions, including the planning commission at its April 1, 2014 meeting. [Full Story]

Planning Agenda: Art, Eats, Drive-Thrus

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 1, 2014): Ordinance revisions, site plan approval and a look at proposed artwork for the East Stadium bridge filled the planning commission’s first meeting in April.

Catherine Widgery, Ann Arbor public art commission, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

An image by artist Catherine Widgery for artwork on the East Stadium bridge. This night view shows how the structures would be lit from below, illuminating the images of trees that are etched into louvered glass panels.

John Kotarski and Bob Miller of the city’s public art commission presented images of a revised design for public art on the East Stadium bridge, a $400,000 project that includes columns of louvered glass panels on the bridge as well as underneath it, along South State Street. The artist – Catherine Widgery, who’s based in Massachusetts – had changed her original proposal at the request of a selection committee. The public art commission is seeking feedback on this new design, including at a public forum on Monday, April 21 at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library.

The public art commission likely will vote on a recommendation at its April 23 meeting. The proposal would then be forwarded to the city council for approval.

Also heading to city council is the site plan for a new Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which planning commissioners voted to recommend on April 1. The plan involves major renovations to the existing building at 314 S. Fourth Ave., which most recently housed the Dream Nite Club that closed in 2012. The renovations include adding a second-floor mezzanine level to the front of the building.

Part of the planning commission’s discussion focused on whether there might be outdoor dining in front of the restaurant. The project’s architect, Stephen Fry, indicated that at this point, outdoor seating wouldn’t be appropriate, in part because of bus traffic. The building is located near the Blake Transit Center, a hub for public transportation. “Ruth’s Chris is about a known and consistent dining experience,” Fry said, “and we just don’t feel we can control it out there.”

Fry also reported that the restaurant will likely be using valet parking, with valets positioned in front of the building. “So we’re going to activate the street with humans that are dressed up and looking good,” he said.

Commissioners also reviewed proposed ordinance revisions related to drive-thrus, and recommended that the city council approve the changes. The amendments would add a definition of a “drive-thru facility” to Chapter 55 of the city code. Currently, the term used throughout the code is “drive-in,” which is not explicitly defined in the code.

In addition, the changes would require that drive-thru projects obtain a special exception use from the planning commission, and would be allowed only in the O (office), C2B (business service) and C3 (fringe commercial) zoning districts. Basic layout requirements would also be added to the ordinance. Currently, drive-thrus are allowed in C3 districts without a special exception use. They are allowed as special exception uses in the C2B district.

The changes will give planning commissioners more discretion in approving drive-thru businesses, including restaurants, banks, pharmacies and other types of drive-thrus. [Full Story]

County Board Handles Budget, Policy Items

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 19, 2014): Budget and finance issues were the focus of several items at the March 19 meeting, including a report that the county saw a $3.92 million surplus for its general fund in 2013. The county’s fiscal year is the same as the calendar year. Total general fund revenues were $105.797 million, with total expenses of $101.876 million.

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Pat Kelly, former Dexter Township supervisor, talks with county commissioner Conan Smith and finance director Kelly Belknap before the March 19, 2014 county board meeting. The board passed a resolution of appreciation for Pat Kelly during the meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The board also heard from county treasurer Catherine McClary, who reported that foreclosures are decreasing, as are delinquent taxes. Delinquent taxes are a leading economic indicator for both mortgage foreclosures and tax foreclosures, she noted, so the decreases are good news. Commissioners gave initial authorization to the treasurer’s office to borrow up to $30 million against the amount of delinquent property taxes in all of the county’s 80 taxing jurisdictions, an annual process.

Commissioners also authorized the county administrator to hire a contract employee who will support budget-related work this year for the county board and administration. The vote came over dissent from Rolland Sizemore Jr., who felt the work could be absorbed by existing staff.

The budget was also the focus of an update from lobbyist Kirk Profit and his colleague Gary Owen at Lansing-based Governmental Consultant Services Inc., who talked about how action in the state government might impact Washtenaw County. GCSI is the lobbyist for the county and several other local governments, including the city of Ann Arbor. Their updates included the fact that legislation has been introduced to repeal Act 88, which the county uses to levy taxes for economic development and agriculture. This year, the county has budgeted $973,000 in revenues from an Act 88 levy.

In other action, the board appointed former Superior Township supervisor Bill McFarlane to the county road commission board, to fill the seat left vacant by the recent death of long-time road commissioner Fred Veigel. The remainder of that six-year term runs through Dec. 31, 2014.

Commissioners supported McFarlane, but also discussed the possibility of changing the process so that interviews with applicants would be held at a public meeting. Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), who as board chair makes these nominations, described the process of nominating a new road commissioner as a difficult one, and highlighted the need for a five-member road commission. Currently the road commission board consists of three members. It’s an issue that Rabhi plans to bring up at an April 17 working session.

The board also took a step toward allowing employees to get health insurance coverage for the treatment of autism. Commissioners gave initial approval that would authorize adding an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) rider to existing active employee and retiree benefits.

And a resolution to oppose a mineral mining operation in Lyndon Township drew criticism from Dan Smith (R-District 2), who objected to the county board weighing in on an issue that’s not within its purview. Other commissioners felt the county had a vested interest in formally voicing an opinion, both because of broader economic and environmental impacts that would affect residents, and because the county parks & recreation commission owns property in the township. Smith’s decision to state “present” – rather than casting a yes or no vote – resulted in brief discussion about board rules. [Full Story]

Planning Group Gives Advice to Council, UM

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (March 18, 2014): The planning commission has weighed in with advice on the use of two publicly owned sites: the city-owned Library Lane in downtown Ann Arbor, and the former Edwards Brothers property on South State that’s being bought by the University of Michigan.

Wendy Woods, Jeremy Peters, Paras Parekh, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor planning commissioners Wendy Woods, Jeremy Peters and Paras Parekh. (Photos by the writer.)

One day after the Ann Arbor city council took action related to the Library Lane site, planning commissioners made recommendations to the council about how to develop that South Fifth Avenue property. The council’s action on March 17 included asking the city administrator to hire a brokerage service to sell development rights to the Library Lane surface, on top of an underground parking structure. The council also voted, after a long debate, to designate part of the surface for an urban public park.

On March 18, the commission’s advice focused on conditions for developing the site that would garner economic benefits to the city, such as a mixed-use development that generates foot traffic, with an entry plaza or open space and a design that “creates an iconic addition to the skyline.” The recommendations drew on material in several existing documents, including the Connecting William Street report that was completed by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority about a year ago.

After the vote, Sabra Briere – who serves on both the planning commission and the city council – noted that many members of council don’t believe that the Connecting William Street project was successful in its public outreach. She also said that many councilmembers “do not believe that maximizing density, scale and mass of a building on that site is in the public interest.” Briere said she hadn’t raised these issues during the commission’s deliberations because she didn’t want anyone to feel that she was trying to tell the planning commission what to do.

In separate action on March 18, commissioners passed a resolution with recommendations on uses for the Edwards Brothers site on South State Street, which the University of Michigan is acquiring. The intent is to encourage representatives from the city and UM to discuss their mutual interests in that area – weighing the university’s need to expand its facilities against the city’s interest in strengthening its tax base. Issues include the possible private development of the section that fronts South State, impact on the park-and-ride lot in that area, and the extension of Oakbrook Drive from South State to South Main, through UM property. The city council is expected to consider the same resolution at its April 7 meeting.

Further south on the State Street corridor, at the intersection with Eisenhower Parkway, a proposal to renovate the Shell station, tear down the car wash, and add a drive-thru restaurant was recommended for approval by the commission on March 18. The existing convenience store and gas station would remain open during construction. The specific drive-thru restaurant to be located there is still being negotiated, according to the owner.

Some of the discussion on this project related to upcoming ordinance revisions that the commission will consider on April 1 regulating drive-thru restaurants.

Also recommended for approval on March 18 were an expansion to an office on Collingwood near West Stadium Boulevard, and an easement related to a new Belle Tire on West Ellsworth. [Full Story]

County Parks Commission Gives Trail Grants

Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission meeting (March 11, 2014): Commissioners approved an application for state funds to develop a major new recreation area just northeast of Ann Arbor. They also awarded $600,000 in grants for trail projects throughout the county.

Staebler Farm, Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Site plan for Staebler Farm.

Commissioners approved an application to the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources trust fund for a grant to help develop Staebler Farm for recreational use. WCPARC has owned the 98-acre property in Superior Township since 2001, and Donald Staebler – who is 103 years old – still lives there in a lifetime agreement with WCPARC. The plan calls for adding fishing piers to the property’s two ponds, as well as putting in a trail system and other features. A second phase might involve developing a farm incubator program.

Commissioners also awarded $600,000 in grants through WCPARC’s Connecting Communities program, which supports trail projects throughout the county. Grants were given to projects in Ann Arbor Township, Northfield Township, Pittsfield Township, and the village of Manchester.

In non-voting business, WCPARC director Bob Tetens gave an update on the east county recreation center, a proposed partnership between the city of Ypsilanti and WCPARC in which the city would supply the property and WCPARC would provide the building. The center would be located on part of the 38-acre Water Street redevelopment area. Tetens said they’ve been working with the city of Ypsilanti on a development agreement.

Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber and city councilmember Pete Murdock both spoke to the commission about Water Street during public commentary. Schreiber told commissioners that he wasn’t aware of any “show-stopping” issues. He also gave an update on Water Street Flats, an apartment project that’s planned for the site. The complex would be rental apartments for residents with between 50-90% of area median income.

In other action, commissioners approved about $500,000 for repairs at the Rolling Hills water park, and were briefed on several financial reports and project updates.

An issue that had been raised during public commentary at the Feb. 11, 2014 meeting emerged again on March 11: How should deer overpopulation be managed? Two residents – Maurita Holland and Barb Lucas – urged commissioners to play a role in dealing with the issue, which is affecting WCPARC parks and preserves. “We know there’s a lot of political fallout and a lot of education that needs to be done,” Holland said. She reported that a new group has formed – Washtenaw County for Ecological Balance. Members of WCEB include Larry Kestenbaum, Washtenaw County’s clerk/register of deeds, and Chris Graham, who serves on Ann Arbor’s environmental commission.

Commissioners discussed the issue at length. Jan Anschuetz advocated for a cautious approach, noting that it’s a complex problem that needs to be addressed by multiple entities, not just WCPARC. She also expressed concern that action by WCPARC could affect the 10-year renewal of the operations millage that WCPARC expects to be put on the November 2014 ballot. “If we do something that displeases our public, we will not have a millage and will not have a parks commission and we will not have a preserve,” she said.

Janis Bobrin noted that in this community, “If we start talking about killing anything, there are people who will just not hear anything after that.” There’s the actual management of the problem, she said, but also a major education piece that’s needed. “How do we begin to get a dialogue that isn’t one camp against another? That would seem to be a productive first step.”

Tetens told commissioners that WCPARC has applied for a $29,960 grant through the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources wildlife habitat grant program. Those funds would allow WCPARC to quantify the deer impact on county parks and preserves more precisely. Everyone agrees that the growing deer population is a problem, Tetens said, but “nobody can solve it on their own.”

Commissioners also authorized Tetens to draft a letter opposing a proposed sand and gravel mine that McCoig Materials wants to start in Lyndon Township, on 189 acres north of Chelsea on M-52. The rural site is located near several parks and nature areas, including Waterloo State Recreation Area, the Pinckney State Recreation Area, Park Lyndon, the Green Lake Camping area, and the Waterloo-Pinckney Hiking Trail. WCPARC has been interested in buying the property for at least two decades, and is hoping to work with the current landowner to add the site to the county’s nature preserves, rather than being mined.

The March 11 meeting began with a moment of silence for Fred Veigel, a long-time parks & recreation commissioner who represented the road commission on WCPARC. He died on March 2. Commissioners also passed a resolution of appreciation for his work. A replacement to WCPARC will be appointed from one of the current three road commissioners: Barb Fuller, Doug Fuller or Bill McFarlane. [Full Story]

AirRide OK’d, State Funding Reviewed

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (March 20, 2014): Board chair Charles Griffith opened the meeting by noting that the agenda was a lot lighter than last month, when the board had passed 10 separate resolutions – including a vote to put a transit millage proposal on the May 6 ballot.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center. (Photos by the writer.)

The only voting item handled by the board at its March 20 meeting was the extension of a contract with Michigan Flyer to provide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. The board authorized the first of three one-year extensions on the initial two-year contract for the service, called AirRide.

For the third year of the agreement, the not-to-exceed amount is $170,000. That compares with the first year of the contract that was not to exceed $700,000. The drop in the cost to the AAATA stems from a revenue-sharing agreement based on fare revenues – and ridership has exceeded projections.

The board also received an update on statewide transit issues from Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, and Dusty Fancher, a lobbyist with Midwest Strategy Group. A main theme from their presentation was the need to focus on overall funding increases, as opposed to trying to fine-tune the part of the funding formula that divides public transportation funding among the 78 transit agencies in Michigan.

Harder also described an initiative to provide a non-emergency medical transportation brokerage that would tap public transportation resources. A demonstration program, to be provided through the newly formed Michigan Transportation Connection (MTC), could be up and running by Oct. 1, 2015, Harder reported.

Another highlight of that presentation included the idea that the abysmal road conditions – which have resulted from the long and harsh winter – could be a rallying point for more transportation funding. To the extent that additional money for transportation is funneled through the general transportation funding formula, that would lead to an increase in public transportation funding, along with funding for road infrastructure.

The harsh winter and the challenge of clearing snow at the 1,200 bus stops was also a part of another basic theme of the board’s discussion – accessibility of the bus service to those in the disability community. Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living addressed the board to stress the importance of making sure all the bus stops are accessible. She also reiterated the CIL’s support for the upcoming May 6 millage vote.

Other highlights from the meeting included a round of applause for AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black, who managed the Blake Transit Center construction project. The driveways still need concrete to be poured before the project is completed, but the building itself is now open to the public. [Full Story]

Library Board Weighs Urban Park, Survey

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (March 17, 2014): About three hours before the Ann Arbor city council took action on the issue of a park at the Library Lane site, the Ann Arbor District Library board passed a resolution on that same topic.

Eli Neiburger, Prue Rosenthal, Jan Barney Newman, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: AADL associate director Eli Neiburger, board president Prue Rosenthal, and board treasurer Jan Barney Newman.

On a 6-1 vote, the board asked the council to reject designating a portion of that city-owned site – which is adjacent to the downtown library – as a public park or plaza at this time. Nancy Kaplan cast the lone dissenting vote.

In presenting the resolution, Rebecca Head noted that the library hasn’t objected to the concept of open space at the Library Lane site, as part of overall development of that city-owned property. But the AADL board resolution states that the council resolution “does not allocate the City resources needed to create a successful park, such as physical maintenance, programming, and monitoring unsafe behavior; and … the City has not been able to allocate resources for those purposes to the nearby Liberty Plaza park, Wheeler park, Sculpture plaza on North 4th Ave., or the Kerrytown plaza. …”

Several trustees weighed in to support the resolution. Barbara Murphy said she was conflicted, because she supports having a park or plaza on the Library Lane site at some point. But the council resolution seemed to be putting the cart before the horse, she said. She pointed out that the AADL board resolution is not advocating for tall buildings – but some kind of development is needed, she said.

In dissenting, Kaplan described the long history of efforts to put a public park or plaza on the Library Lane site. She didn’t want to cut off that process. Kaplan also raised the point that the library board would be asking the council to reject a resolution without knowing the exact content of that resolution – because the council could amend the resolution during its deliberations later in the evening. [The council did make a significant amendment to the part of the resolution addressing the amount of square footage.]

Board president Prue Rosenthal told Kaplan that “I don’t think we’re trying to cut off anything.” All that the AADL is asking, Rosenthal said, is that issues should first be addressed – like how the park would be used, who’ll take care of it, how the security will be handled – “so that behavior we’ve seen around the outside of the [downtown library] building will not increase in that space and spill over into our library.”

AADL director Josie Parker attended the city council meeting, which started at the same time as the library board meeting but didn’t adjourn until 1 a.m. Parker read aloud the board’s resolution to the council, and described some of the challenges that the downtown library faces with security.

The downtown library was the focus of another part of the March 17 AADL board meeting, as trustees were updated on renovations to the front entrance. Ken Van Tine, an architect from InForm Studio, answered questions about possible design revisions since a March 13 public forum. InForm will be presenting a revised design to the board’s facilities committee, before the design is brought to the full board for approval.

Trustees also received results from an EPIC-MRA survey that the library had commissioned. About 500 respondents were surveyed in mid-February. Bernie Porn – president of the Lansing-based firm – described the outcome as “a great news poll, in terms of results, and I think you all should be very, very proud.” There are a couple areas of concern, he said, “but they’re not the kinds of things that can’t be overcome.”

The library previously did a survey in early 2012, in part to gauge public support for financing a new downtown library. The board later put a bond proposal on the November 2012 ballot to fund a new downtown building, but it failed to receive a majority of votes. Since 2012, the positive job rating for AADL has increased by 7 points – from 81% in 2012 to 88% in 2014. That’s a significant increase, Porn said. The 2014 survey also showed that only 3 in 10 respondents knew that AADL is “an independent governmental body” funded by its own separate tax assessment. This is one area of concern, Porn noted, adding that it’s certainly something that’s “solvable.”

The current survey results are expected to help guide development of the library’s next strategic plan, which will be completed later this year.

On March 17, the board also passed a resolution authorizing the library director to enter into a bike share program license agreement with the nonprofit Clean Energy Coalition. The CEC is managing the new program called ArborBike, which is launching this spring. It would include a bike station on AADL’s downtown library property on South Fifth Avenue, as well as locations at other sites in downtown Ann Arbor and on the University of Michigan campus. There will be about 14 bikes at the downtown AADL station on the north side of its property. [Full Story]

County Board Briefed on Transit Tax

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (March 6, 2014): Two months before voters will weigh in on a public transit millage proposal, staff with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority briefed county commissioners about the initiative, and answered a wide range of questions.

Michael Benham, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Michael Benham, special assistant for strategic planning at the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. (Photos by the writer.)

The proposal – for an 0.7 mill tax to pay for expanded transit services – was placed on the May 6 ballot by the AAATA board on Feb. 20, 2014. The tax would be levied by the AAATA only if it wins a majority of support among voters across its three member jurisdictions: the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), an Ann Arbor commissioner who chairs the working sessions, pointed out that those three jurisdictions touch seven of the nine districts represented by the Washtenaw County board.

The three commissioners representing Ann Arbor – LaBarre, Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) and Conan Smith (D-District 9) – attended the March 6 working session. The two commissioners representing Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) – were absent. A small portion of Ann Arbor is in District 2, represented by Republican Dan Smith. District 4, represented by Democrat Felicia Brabec, includes a small portion of Ypsilanti Township.

Questions during the March 6 session included clarification that the millage revenues would not support rail service, and a query about why the tax proposal was being put forward in May rather than November, when turnout would be higher for the general election. Another issue raised was whether a property tax for this type of activity is fair, considering that residents of apartments don’t see the impact of a property tax as directly as a homeowner does.

Michael Benham, AAATA’s special assistant for strategic planning, noted that the possibility of rail service is part of the authority’s 30-year plan, but it’s not in the current five-year plan for expanded services that would be funded by the new millage. He told commissioners that a May election will focus attention on transit, while there would be many other issues in November competing for attention. Benham also stressed the urgency of moving ahead on more services, which will include increased service hours, greater frequency of buses along some routes, and expanded Dial-a-Ride services.

As for the fairness of a property tax, Benham pointed out that the AAATA has few available options for raising revenue, and that revenues from the new millage will leverage additional state and federal funding.

Most commissioners were supportive of the millage and expanded services, citing reasons of environmental sustainability, social equity and economic development. Rabhi said he wanted to make it clear that his support for the transit millage does not mean he supports using public transit to divide the community based on socioeconomic levels. People should be able to live in downtown Ann Arbor even if they don’t earn above the area median income, he said. The concept of “segregating our community along economic boundaries is one that sickens me,” he said, adding that he didn’t think AAATA’s five-year plan buys into a segregated vision for this area.

At the end of working session, six commissioners – including the three who represent Ann Arbor districts – announced their official support for the millage in a press release.

For additional background on this issue, see Chronicle coverage: “Tax Question Focus of Transit Board Meeting“; “5-Year Transit Plan: Possible Tax Vote Soon“; “Survey: Majority Favorable on Transit Tax“; “Transit Vote for A2 and Ypsi: May 6, 2014“; “Committee to Oppose AAATA Millage“; and “Column: Let Data Steer Local Transit Policy.” [Full Story]

Concerns Voiced over Urban Park Proposal

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Feb. 25, 2014): Of the four briefings given at PAC’s February meeting, drawing the most discussion was a proposal to build an urban park on top of the Library Lane underground parking structure.

Will Hathaway, Library Green Conservancy, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Will Hathaway gave a presentation about a proposal to build an urban park at the Library Lane site. He spoke on behalf of the Library Green Conservancy, which is working with some city councilmembers on the proposal. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners were briefed by Will Hathaway on behalf of the Library Green Conservancy, which has been advocating for a large section of the site to be designated as a park. He described a resolution that was later brought forward by Jack Eaton (Ward 4) at the council’s March 3, 2014 meeting.

Hathaway highlighted aspects of the proposal that drew on recommendations made by PAC to the city council last fall. He said he wasn’t asking for PAC to take any specific action on this proposal, but asked for feedback. Several commissioners raised concerns, including some that focused on the process of bringing this resolution forward without specific direction from the council. Hathaway noted that the resolution is intended to start the process, with council direction, to begin working with stakeholders, PAC, the public and others in the design and development of this park.

Subsequently, at the March 3 council meeting, PAC chair Ingrid Ault and former chair Julie Grand both spoke during public commentary and urged postponement of the resolution. Mayor John Hieftje, responding to the initiative, gave his own presentation on March 3 with a different vision for connected urban spaces downtown.

And Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) told councilmembers that he wanted a postponement to have time to meet with Ann Arbor District Library board members about moving the library over to the surface of the Library Lane structure. He also plans to bring forward a resolution that would move towards hiring a broker to list development rights on the Library Lane surface for sale.

Ultimately, the council voted to postpone action until its March 17 meeting. At that meeting, it’s likely that Eaton will bring forward a revised resolution, a copy of which was provided to The Chronicle on March 13. The revised resolution indicates that the area designated as a park would be 12,000 square feet, compared to 10,000 square feet in the original resolution. That square footage reflects the actual dimensions of the proposed boundaries, according to a staff memo. The revised resolution also eliminates an October 2014 deadline for making design recommendations to the council, and deletes any reference to PAC. [.pdf of revised resolution for March 17 council meeting]

In other action at PAC’s Feb. 25 meeting, commissioners heard three other presentations related to city parks. Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) described a proposed ordinance that he’s brought to council regarding outdoor smoking in public places, including parks. Elements of the ordinance include authorizing the city administrator to have signs posted designating certain parks or portions of parks as off limits for outdoor smoking.

Kerry Gray, the city’s urban forest & natural resources planning coordinator, gave a presentation to PAC about the urban and community forest management plan. The city recently released a draft and is seeking input. And Doug Kelly, Ann Arbor’s director of golf, gave an update on the city’s two golf courses at Huron Hills and Leslie Park.

In voting items, PAC recommended approval of an amendment to the city’s golf cart lease with Pifer Inc., and supported approval of contracts for work at Windemere and Clinton parks.

Commissioners also got a brief financial update for the current fiscal year, which runs through June 30, 2014. Bob Galardi, chair of PAC’s budget and finance committee, summarized the status this way: “Basically, we’re in great shape.” [Full Story]

County Board Handles Lawsuit, Art, Budget

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (March 5, 2014): A light agenda at the March 5 meeting was punctuated by a relatively rare closed session to discuss pending litigation. The specific litigation wasn’t cited.

Jim Casha, Mary Jo Callan, southeast Michigan regional transit authority, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jim Casha shows Mary Jo Callan, director of Washtenaw County’s office of community & economic development, a map of the Michigan state fairgrounds. Casha is advocating for the southeast Michigan regional transit authority to develop the site as a regional transit hub. (Photos by the writer.)

However, in the previous week, a jury had awarded nearly $1.2 million to a former Washtenaw County employee, Ali Aboubaker, who had filed a discrimination lawsuit against the county in 2011. Responding to a query after the March 5 meeting, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger told The Chronicle that the county would be evaluating its options for appeal. The administration would also be meeting with the county’s insurance carrier to discuss the situation.

In other action, the board gave initial approval to hire a contract position that would support budget-related work for the board and administration. The item had been originally considered, but postponed, at the Feb. 5, 2014 meeting. The vote on March 5 was 7-1, over dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2). Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was absent.

Commissioners also voted to accept a grant from the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs for the Youth Arts Alliance (YAA). Washtenaw County is the fiduciary for this five-county collaborative, which provides creative arts workshops to youth in the juvenile justice system. The county also provides office space for YAA.

The grant will pay local artists to install public art at each of the five county juvenile facilities, made with help from the youth at those facilities. The youth will also work with local musicians to create an original album. The alliance’s director, Heather Wilson, told commissioners: “We are seeing huge transformations with the kids experiencing creative arts as an outlet.”

During his communications to the board, chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) laid out the application process to fill the seat on the Washtenaw County road commission board left vacant by the recent death of long-time road commissioner Fred Veigel. The deadline for submitting applications is Sunday, March 16. Rabhi hopes to make a nomination at the board’s March 19 meeting. The appointment would be to fill the remainder of Veigel’s term, through Dec. 31, 2014. During the March 5 meeting, commissioners passed resolutions honoring Veigel as well as local activist Lois Mayfield, who died on Feb. 21.

Commissioners also scheduled a public hearing to give input for the Washtenaw Urban County 2014-15 action plan. The hearing will be held at the county boardroom in downtown Ann Arbor during the March 19 meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. It’s intended to solicit feedback about proposed projects and programs that the county intends to implement with federal funding – through community development block grant (CDBG), HOME and emergency shelter grant programs – from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015.

The March 5 meeting included an update from Diane Heidt, the county’s human resources and labor relations director, about a proposal to offer autism health care coverage for county employees. A formal resolution is expected to be on the March 19 agenda for the board’s consideration.

Public commentary included advocacy from Jim Casha, who has previously addressed the board regarding the southeast Michigan regional transit authority. Washtenaw County is a member of the RTA, and the county board appoints two representatives to the RTA board. Casha’s remarks focused on the benefits of using the former state fairgrounds as a regional transit hub, instead of private development. [Full Story]

Council Ends Art Saga, Postpones Other Items

Ann Arbor city council meeting (March 3, 2014): The most recent wrangling over public art, which began on Jan. 21, has finally been wrapped up – at least for now – by council action on three separate items. But the council postponed final action on three issues fraught with their own controversies: a resolution on an urban park for the top of the Library Lane underground parking structure; a funding proposal for the work of a pedestrian safety task force; and an ordinance regulating smoking in some outdoor spaces.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) talked with Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (ward 3) before the meeting started.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) talked with Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (ward 3) before the March 3 meeting started. (Photos by the writer.)

The delays allowed the council to wrap up a potentially long meeting relatively early, by around 10:30 p.m. As a part of the meeting, the council also approved a raft of routine items essential to keeping the city operational – like the purchase of 18 replacement vehicles.

In its three actions on public art policy, the council: (1) directed the city administrator to establish a budget for public art administration for the next two years; (2) transferred $943,005 out of the public art fund; and (3) extended the contract for the city’s part-time public art administrator by six months.

The transfer of Percent for Art money back to its funds of origin was made possible by an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance given final approval by the council on Feb. 18. The $943,005 total is an amount that defunds the art project at Argo Cascades, but keeps funding for the Coleman Jewett memorial and for a project called Canoe Imagine Art. The art projects at East Stadium bridges and at the Kingsley & First rain garden would also retain their funding. Because the resolution involves a transfer of funds, it required eight votes on the 11-member council to be approved. The vote on the question was 10-1 with Margie Teall (Ward 4) dissenting.

An additional resolution approved by the council focused exclusively on the transition to a new public art program. The resolution directed the city administrator to ask the staff to develop a transition plan, and to present that plan to the council by Oct. 6, 2014. The resolution also prohibits initiating additional projects using pooled Percent for Art funds, and directs the city administrator to establish a budget for public art administration for FY 2015 and FY 2016. Because it did not transfer any funds, the resolution on establishing a timeline and a budget did not require more than a simple six-vote majority. Dissenting on the vote were: Mike Anglin (Ward 5), Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Jack Eaton (Ward 4).

The third public art resolution approved by the council on March 3 was one that extended the contract for the city’s part-time public art administrator by six months, appropriating $18,500 for that purpose – drawn from Percent for Art money. The item first appeared on the council’s Jan. 21 agenda.

A resolution that would have established an urban park on a portion of the surface of the Library Lane underground parking structure was delayed, amid the expressed intent by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) to bring forward a companion resolution to hire a broker to sell the rights to build on top of the parking structure. The urban park resolution, which was put forward by Jack Eaton (Ward 4), had resulted from his work with the Library Green Conservancy. It drew on recommendations on downtown parks made last year by the park advisory commission (PAC).

But the resolution drew criticism from both the current and former chair of PAC during public commentary at the meeting, as they said it flouted two of PAC’s eight recommendations: that additional parks not be established as a trade-off to maintenance of existing parks; and that open space on top of the Library Lane parking structure be designed in the context of adjacent development.

The consideration of the urban parks resolution spurred mayor John Hieftje to counter with an item he placed on the agenda the day of the March 3 council meeting: a slideshow he presented early in the meeting to argue for consideration of several open spaces downtown, including the surface lot on the northeast corner of Main & William. The council will take up the urban park resolution again on March 17.

In other parks-related business on March 3, the council also approved funding for the reconstruction of basketball and tennis courts at Clinton Park in the southern part of town. And the council approved applying for a grant from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Grants Management to help pay for a universal access playground at Gallup Park. The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor has already pledged $250,000 toward that playground.

Delayed at the council’s March 3 meeting was a resolution that would have established funding for a pedestrian safety and access task force. Councilmembers had concerns about the amount of funding, which totaled $197,250. That amount includes approximate costs of the anticipated city staff effort for the project. Councilmembers also had concerns about the use of funds to hire an outside consultant as a facilitator. The council will take up the pedestrian task force funding issue again on April 7, by which time the task force is expected to have held its initial meeting.

Related to pedestrian issues at the March 3 meeting, the council approved funding for the design of two sidewalks – on Barton Drive and Scio Church Road – as well as funds to construct a section of sidewalk on Ann Arbor-Saline Road.

Also on March 3, police chief John Seto briefed the council on increased traffic enforcement activities conducted with a $125,000 allocation the council had made at its Dec. 16, 2013 meeting – in the same time frame as the pedestrian task force was created. Seto also briefed the council on year-end crime statistics for 2013.

Another item delayed until April 7 was an ordinance that would regulate smoking in certain outdoor locations, outside of building entrances and possibly in some areas of some public parks. Councilmembers had various concerns, ranging from the possible disparate impact on the homeless to the difficulty of enforcement. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) expressed some frustration that he was just now hearing about these various concerns from his colleagues, even though he had brought the ordinance forward on Feb. 3 and asked for their comments and questions at that time.

The council did take action to direct the city administrator to develop a budget amendment that would allocate $600,000 from the city’s affordable housing trust fund to help the Ann Arbor Housing Commission pay for capital improvements. Approval of that amendment by the city council would be contingent on the upcoming closing of the sale of city-owned property at Fifth & William streets in downtown Ann Arbor – the former Y lot. Net proceeds of the sale, at around $1.4 million, are to be deposited in the affordable housing trust fund.

In routine business, the council approved the purchase of 18 replacement vehicles, most of which are used by the Ann Arbor police department. And finally, the council passed a resolution calling on state officials to find creative ways to provide full funding to a state program designed to give fire protection grants to municipalities that are home to state-owned institutions, like the University of Michigan. [Full Story]

Concordia Takes Step in Campus Upgrade

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (March 4, 2014): A gym addition at Concordia University in Ann Arbor is moving forward, following action by planning commissioners to recommend approval of the project’s site plan.

Curt Gielow, Concordia University Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Curt Gielow (right), campus chief executive for Concordia University Ann Arbor, talks with Ann Arbor planning commission chair Kirk Westphal before the commission’s March 4, 2014 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The project signals a larger effort to double the size of the current institution’s enrollment of 740 students and return Concordia – which was near bankruptcy in recent years – to financial stability.

Curt Gielow, Concordia University Ann Arbor’s CEO, told commissioners that because of its distressed financial state, the Ann Arbor campus was absorbed by Concordia University Wisconsin last year. Plans are in place to invest between $10 million to $20 million in the coming years on a variety of improvements, he said.

Gielow estimated Concordia’s economic impact on Ann Arbor is in excess of $10 million annually. “I don’t think anybody wants this university to close.”

The 187-acre campus is located at 4090 Geddes Road, just west of US-23 and north of the Huron River. The Ann Arbor campus is one of the smallest of the 10 Concordias nationwide, which all are owned by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. The LCMS Michigan district offices are located near the Ann Arbor campus, at 3773 Geddes.

The site plan will now be forwarded to the city council for consideration. Planning commissioners also granted a special exception use for the project, because the private university is located on a site zoned R1B (single-family residential district). No additional city council approval is required for that.

In other action, commissioners voted to support a resolution passed by the city’s energy commission and environmental commission, recommending that the city fill a vacant full-time position to focus on implementing Ann Arbor’s climate action plan.

During the March 4 meeting, energy commission chair Wayne Appleyard explained the rationale behind the recommendation, noting that one of two positions in the energy office has been vacant for about two years. While the office has been short-staffed, he said, climate change continues. “Greenhouse gases are cumulative, so the faster we can move to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the better off everybody’s going to be.”

Near the end of the meeting, planning commissioner Diane Giannola announced that she and Bonnie Bona would be bringing a resolution forward on March 18 related to the Library Lane site. At recent city council meetings, she noted, there has been discussion about potentially selling the air rights for the Library Lane underground parking structure to a developer. So the resolution would describe the kinds of uses that the planning commission would like to see on top of that site, she said. Giannola likened it to a similar resolution that the planning commission passed prior to the sale of the former Y lot. [Full Story]

County Expands Natural Areas Preservation

Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission meeting (Feb. 11, 2014): After skipping the January 2014 meeting for lack of business, commissioners had a heavy agenda for their meeting in February.

Superior Township, Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Aerial view of Bloch/Vreeland property in Superior Township. Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission approved the purchase of a conservation easement on this parcel. (Image from WCPARC board packet.)

Action included approving the purchase of a conservation easement on 129 acres in Superior Township – fronting Vreeland and Leforge roads – for $613,500. Purchase of another easement was authorized for $95,731 on the Rogers parcel, 157 acres in York Township.

Commissioners also heard an update on the proposed agreement between WCPARC and the city of Ypsilanti that would result in WCPARC building a new recreation center on 4.1 acres of land in the Water Street redevelopment area, next to the Huron River. Some of the changes in the draft agreement came at the request of the Ann Arbor YMCA, which is partnering on the project and would operate the center. The goal is to complete construction by late 2016.

Grant applications for WCPARC’s Connecting Communities initiative were reviewed. Requests from four townships and the village of Manchester totaled $1.35 million. That’s far greater than the $600,000 available for the grant program, which was created to build non-motorized trails across the county. Commissioners will decide at their March 11 meeting how to award the grants.

During public commentary, three residents spoke to the commission about the ill effects of over-abundant deer in the county, and urged WCPARC to address the situation.

The commission also welcomed its newest member to the group: Dan Ezekiel, a science teacher at Ann Arbor Public Schools and former chair of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. One of the longest-serving commissioners – labor leader Fred Veigel, who has represented the county road commission on WCPARC – didn’t attend the meeting because of ill health. He died on March 2. [Full Story]

DDA Budgets for Transit, Housing, Parking

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (March 5, 2014): Three main business items were approved by the board: submission of its FY 2015 budget to the city council, award of a $50,000 management incentive to its parking management contractor, and a resolution pledging to maintain or increase DDA funding of transportation programs, if the May 6, 2014 AAATA transit millage is approved by voters.

Roger Hewitt, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority

Roger Hewitt, DDA board treasurer. (Photos by the writer.)

The proposed budget shows $19.3 million in revenues from the public parking system and $4.8 million in tax increment finance capture. Overall, it shows $24,237,186 in revenues against $26,531,972 in expenses. The use of fund balance to cover the difference leaves the DDA with an estimated fund balance at the end of FY 2015 of about $3.3 million. FY 2015 runs from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015. [FY 2015 DDA budget breakdown]

The expenses include $353,344 in salaries and $245,894 in fringe benefits for four staff members, $7,075,571 in payments to Republic Parking for management of the public parking system, and $2.1 million for parking facility maintenance. Accounting for $3.19 million of the expenses is a payment made to the city of Ann Arbor, equal to 17% of the gross revenues to the public parking system.

Included in the budget is a $200,000 grant to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission – as part of a $600,000 request from AAHAC to support improvements to Baker Commons and Miller Manor.

The budget also includes $676,000 for support of the getDowntown program. The board also approved a resolution that pledged to work toward maintaining or increasing the DDA’s support for transportation programs. That resolution came in the context of an approaching May 6, 2014 transit millage ballot question. The 0.7 mill tax was placed on a May 6 ballot by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board on Feb. 20, 2014. The tax would be levied by the AAATA only if it wins a majority of support among voters across its three member jurisdictions: the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The DDA board resolution came in part as a response to the fact that the DDA will be capturing a portion of the new millage under its tax increment finance (TIF) funding mechanism.

The board also approved the award to Republic Parking of the full $50,000 annual discretionary management incentive. Republic Parking’s contract with the Ann Arbor DDA covers just actual costs, but also includes a $200,000 annual management fee. Of the $200,000 management fee, $50,000 is awarded to Republic on a discretionary basis. It was last year, at the board’s March 6, 2013 meeting, when the DDA board decided for the first time in five years to award the full $50,000 of the incentive. The year before, at its Feb. 1, 2012 meeting, the board determined to award $45,000 of the discretionary amount. That matched the same figure awarded in 2011, 2010 and 2009.

The board also heard the usual range of reports from committees as well as public commentary. A highlight of announcements included the upcoming closure of the surface parking facility at the old Y lot, as the city-owned property is sold to hotelier Dennis Dahlmann. The closing is expected sometime between March 13-15. The lot is located on William Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues, across from the downtown library and south of the Blake Transit Center. [Full Story]

No Major Change Likely for Road Commission

A subcommittee that’s been exploring possible organizational options for the Washtenaw County road commission is recommending that it remain an independent operation, and not be absorbed into the county government.

Pat Kelly, Alicia Ping, Doug Fuller, Washtenaw County road commission, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly, Washtenaw County commissioner Alicia Ping, and Doug Fuller, chair of the county road commission board. Ping chairs a subcommittee that’s looking at the future of the road commission. Kelly is a member of that subcommittee, which met on March 1, 2014 at the county administration building in downtown Ann Arbor. (Photos by the writer.)

The recommendation was made at a March 1 meeting, and will be forwarded to the county board of commissioners, an elected body that has authority to make changes in the road commission’s organizational structure.

The vote came over dissent from Conan Smith of Ann Arbor (D-District 9), who argued that consolidating the road commission into the county would allow for more flexibility and accountability in oversight. Currently, the road commission is overseen by a board with three members appointed by the county board of commissioners to six-year terms. Smith thought that asking voters to approve a countywide road millage – when the revenues aren’t allocated by an elected body – would be a tough sell. It would be especially tough to sell to voters in the city of Ann Arbor, who already pay a millage for street maintenance within the city.

But others on the subcommittee were in line with the strong support from township officials for keeping the road commission independent. Most township boards in the county have passed resolutions supporting the current structure, citing their strong relationships with the road commission staff and board.

The subcommittee also discussed the option of expanding the current three-member board to five members. Pat Kelly, Dexter Township’s supervisor, voiced concerns over possible Open Meetings Act violations: Two members constitute a quorum, so any conversation about road commission business must be held in public. “I think a three-member body in the age of the Open Meetings Act is just a dangerous thing,” Kelly said. “I just don’t think it can operate properly all the time.”

The three county commissioners who serve on the subcommittee – Conan Smith, Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Alicia Ping (R-District 3) – all agreed that the question of expansion was primarily a political one, and should be taken up by the county board. Subcommittee members did not make a recommendation on this issue, but indicated that they’d be willing to discuss it further, if directed to do so by the county board.

Regarding the question of whether road commissioners should be elected positions, the subcommittee unanimously passed a resolution recommending not to pursue that option. The sense was that elections would be dominated by urban voters who are heavily Democratic, but who would be electing commissioners to oversee road projects in rural communities.

Also discussed on March 1 were possible funding options, focused primarily on (1) a countywide voter-approved millage, or (2) a levy by the county board under Act 283 of 1909, without voter approval. No recommendations were made on either of those options.

All subcommittee members agreed that action is needed to address the condition of roads, which Superior Township supervisor Ken Schwartz described as resulting from “inexcusable neglect from Lansing.” If the county board does intend to levy a millage for road projects, he urged them to act as soon as possible. Dan Smith noted that after the spring thaw, poor road conditions will be ”unlike we’ve ever experienced in our lifetime.”

Two of the three road commissioners – Doug Fuller and Barb Fuller, who are not related – attended the March 1 meeting but did not participate in the discussion. The third road commissioner – labor leader Fred Veigel, who was first appointed in 1990 – was in hospice and died the following day, on March 2.

For additional background on this process, see Chronicle coverage: “Group Explores Road Commission’s Future.[Full Story]

Process Debated for Platt Road, Act 88 Funds

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Feb. 19, 2014): A broad community planning process for the future of Platt Road property owned by Washtenaw County is moving forward, after the county board approved a set of recommendations made by a citizens advisory group.

Jason Morgan, Washtenaw Community College, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jason Morgan, director of government relations for Washtenaw Community College, was appointed to the county’s community action board during the Feb. 19 meeting of the county board of commissioners. (Photos by the writer.)

The vote was unanimous, but came after Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) raised concerns about the affordable housing component of the project. The planning process will use a $100,000 grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), with a stipulation that planning for the 13.5-acre property – south of Washtenaw Avenue – include consideration of affordable housing.

When debate was cut short through a procedural move, Peterson criticized commissioners for not spending more time on the topic – though it had been discussed at length during the board’s Feb. 5, 2014 meeting. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), who is helping to lead the project and who serves as chair of the board’s working sessions, indicated support for discussing it further at an upcoming session.

Peterson also voiced concerns about a new Act 88 advisory committee, which resulted in a postponement of the first appointment to that group until March 19. The committee had been created at the board’s Nov. 6, 2013 meeting, as part of a broader policy to help the board allocate revenues levied under Act 88 of 1913. No appointments have been made, however. The county levies the tax to fund economic development and agricultural activities, including Ann Arbor SPARK.

As he has in previous board discussions, Peterson expressed concern that the board was abdicating its responsibility to allocate funding. Other commissioners assured him that the committee will deliver recommendations, but the board retains authority for making the allocations.

In other action, the board gave authority to the Washtenaw County clerk/register of deeds office to reduce the fee for expediting marriage licenses under certain circumstances – from $50 to 1 cent. The vote came over dissent from Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1), who argued that fees should be applied equally to all applicants – whatever the amount. He also didn’t think the criteria for applying the waiver were clear. County clerk Larry Kestenbaum cited some examples of when this fee reduction might be used. As one example, he noted that the vital records office anticipates moving later this year to the space where the deeds office currently is, so the office will likely be closed for more than three days.

Kestenbaum also reported that last year, his office had anticipated that a lot of people would want to get married right away because of a possible change in the state’s same-sex marriage law. He said he announced at that time that he intended to waive the fee, but “my authority to do that has been questioned.” He subsequently looked at the state statute, which requires a fee to be set by the county board and charged – whether it’s $5, or $50, or 1 cent. “It’s your authority to do this,” he told commissioners.

During the Feb. 19 meeting, commissioners also gave final approval to create a new dental clinic in Ypsilanti for low-income residents, and heard public commentary regarding the importance of the GED (general education diploma).

Updates and communications included news that the Sharon Township board of trustees had passed a resolution urging the board to keep the road commission as an independent entity. At the county board’s Oct. 2, 2013 meeting, commissioners had created a seven-member subcommittee to “explore partnerships and organizational interactions with the Washtenaw County Road Commission.” State legislation enacted in 2012 opened the possibility of absorbing the road commission into county operations, which would give county commissioners direct control over funding and operations now administered by the road commission.

However, it’s unlikely that will happen. During a 2.5-hour meeting on March 1, the subcommittee voted to recommend that the duties and responsibilities of the road commission should not be transferred to the county board of commissioners. Alicia Ping (R-District 3), who chairs the subcommittee, told The Chronicle that she’ll be bringing the recommendation to the board at its meeting on March 5. [Full Story]

Edwards Brothers Vote: Town-Gown Relations

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Feb. 24, 2014): Mayor John Hieftje welcomed high school students attending the meeting to satisfy course requirement by telling them they were probably getting off easy compared to other nights.

The Ann Arbor city council declined to exercise its right of first refusal on the Edwards Brothers Property at its special session on Feb. 24, 2014. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) compared the process of reviewing the options over the last few weeks to riding a "see saw." (Art by The Chronicle.)

The Ann Arbor city council declined to exercise its right of first refusal on the Edwards Brothers Malloy property at its special session on Feb. 24, 2014. Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) compared the process of reviewing the options over the last few weeks to riding a “see saw.” (“Art” by The Chronicle.)

That’s because the meeting was a special session, dealing with just one substantive issue: a resolution to exercise the city’s right of first refusal to purchase the 16.7 acre Edwards Brothers Malloy property on South State Street, and a closed session to discuss that issue.

The council’s 5-6 vote on the land acquisition fell short of a simple majority, let alone the 8-vote majority it needed. That vote came after the closed session, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes. The council then deliberated for about an hour and 10 minutes.

The council’s decision came four days after the University of Michigan’s board of regents had authorized proceeding with a purchase of the property for $12.8 million. The site is located at 2500-2550 South State Street, immediately adjacent to existing UM athletic facilities. It’s assumed the university would use the land at least in part to support its athletic campus.

Voting to exercise the right of first refusal were: Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sally Petersen (Ward 2), Jane Lumm (Ward 2), Margie Teall (Ward 4), and mayor John Hieftje.

Voting against exercising the right of first refusal were: Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Jack Eaton (Ward 4), Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

Deliberations focused on two main issues: (1) the financial risks and benefits; and (2) the city’s relationship with the university.

The motivation for the city to exercise its right of first refusal on the property was based in large part on a desire to protect the city’s tax base. The property current generates roughly $50,000 in annual real property tax revenue to the city’s general fund. But the city’s total revenue from the parcel is just 28% of the total taxes levied by all jurisdictions. The net present value over the next 25 years of the levy from all jurisdictions is roughly $6 million. That was weighed by the council against a purchase price of $12.8 million that reflected a “premium” over the appraised value of around $8 million.

Also a factor weighed by the council was a $218,000 annual holding cost for the land, which reflected a 1.7% interest rate that Flagstar Bank had offered. That’s about half the rate the council was assuming in its earlier review of its options.

Another piece of the financial equation was that the some of the tax abatement previously granted by the city to Edwards Brothers would be coming back to the taxing jurisdictions. That’s because by selling the property, Edwards Brothers would not be meeting all the terms of the tax abatement. There’s a clawback provision in that case – which returns taxes to jurisdictions amounting to a total of $200,000. Of that total, the city’s portion is $90,000. It’s under the terms of that tax abatement that the city had obtained a right of first refusal on the sale of the property.

The deal would have been financed from the general fund. According to the city’s year-end audited statements for FY 2013, the general fund unassigned balance stood at $14,392,854 as of June 30, 2013.

Councilmembers like Eaton and Kailasapathy were clearly opposed to exercising the city’s right of first refusal, based on the substantial risk they thought the city would be taking. Everything would need to go right, in order for the city to come out ahead, they said. Kailasapathy indicated that the “premium” price to be paid by the city for the real estate was a significant reason to vote against it.

Kunselman, in voting against the resolution, relied on what’s become for him a familiar criticism of “speculative development.” He cited in part what he’d learned taking a course on real estate from local developer Peter Allen, a lecturer at UM.

Councilmembers like Warpehoski and Taylor were less adamant about their no votes. Warpehoski thought the odds were “better than even” that the city would come out ahead long-term. But because the city would be gambling with public funds, he wondered if “better than even” was good enough. “Right now, I’m thinking maybe not,” he concluded. Earlier in the meeting Taylor had offered similar sentiments, saying that he’d “regretfully” vote no. “We could have pulled it off; we had a reasonable shot at pulling it off. In light of our mission, I think a reasonable shot is not good enough,” Taylor said.

The sixth vote against the resolution came from Anglin. He responded to one of the arguments made by those who supported the resolution – that by exercising its right of first refusal, the city could leverage some collaboration with the university on the future of the parcel. For Anglin, the price was too high just to sit at the same table with the university.

Petersen, Briere and Lumm specifically mentioned the ability to leverage some cooperation from the university on the future of the land as one argument for exercising the city’s right of first refusal. Kunselman called that trying to take the parcel hostage and holding a gun to the university’s head. But some who supported the resolution saw the possibility that exercising the right of first refusal could lead to improved city-university relations.

Hieftje ventured that the city-university relationship is as good now as it has ever been, adding: It’s a good relationship as long as things happen the way the university wants them to.

Those voting yes generally felt that the risk to the city posed by exercising the right of first refusal justified the potential benefit to the city’s tax base. They also cited the opportunity to control the future of the parcel, and to influence development in that part of the city. Responding to a remark from Warpehoski earlier in the meeting – that the South State Street corridor did not give him “warm fuzzies” – Teall said: “I like it. It’s my neighborhood.”

Some background information on the possible acquisition of the property by the city was released last week, on Feb. 18, the day of a regular council meeting. [Edwards Brothers chart] [Additional offer for Edwards Brothers] [Feb. 18, 2014 memo to council]

This article provides more background on the council’s handling of the issue, a sketch of the deliberations, and a more detailed presentation of the deliberations. [Full Story]

Planning Bylaws Clarify Council Interactions

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Feb. 20, 2014): Wrapping up a process that began last year, planning commissioners voted to revise their bylaws related to two issues: how city councilmembers interact with the commission; and public hearings.

Eleanore Adenekan, Diane Giannola, Bonnie Bona, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor planning commissioners Eleanore Adenekan, Diane Giannola and Bonnie Bona. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners had debated the proposed revisions at a Feb. 4, 2014 working session. Some of the same issues were raised during the Feb. 20 discussion, which was relatively brief.

One revision clarifies the limitations on a city councilmember’s interaction with the commission. The revised section states: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission during the Councilmember’s term in office.” The intent is to prevent undue influence on the commission, and to avoid the possibility of legal action against the city.

Other revisions affect speaking turns at public hearings. The intent is to clarify how many turns the same person can speak at a public hearing, and how public hearings are continued if an item is postponed.

In other action, commissioners recommended rezoning a parcel on the city’s north side to public land (PL). The 2.2-acre site at 3301 Traverwood Drive, donated to the city by developer Bill Martin, is being added to the adjacent Stapp Nature Area, near the Leslie Park golf course. It was originally zoned R4D (multi-family dwelling) and had been part of a larger site that’s being developed with an apartment complex.

During communications, Kirk Westphal reported on a project that the environmental commission is working on: a neighborhood mini-grant program. Volunteers would coordinate a competitive grant program for community groups, who could apply to fund projects that address one of the city’s goals in its sustainability framework. That’s in the planning stages, he said.

Westphal also distributed a copy of a resolution recently passed by the city’s energy commission. It supports a recommendation to hire a full-time employee to focus on projects that help achieve goals in the city’s climate action plan. Westphal indicated that the planning commission’s executive committee would be discussing it. The energy commission would like a supporting resolution from the planning commission.

Commissioners also heard from two Skyline High School students, who spoke during public commentary as part of a class assignment. They talked about the importance of the Huron River and of the Huron River Watershed Council‘s River Up project. The planning commission’s work plan includes looking at how to implement recommendations from city’s North Main Huron River corridor task force. [Full Story]

Tax Question Focus of Transit Board Meeting

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (Feb. 20, 2014): The audience for the board’s regular monthly meeting was the largest in at least five years, as 35-40 people attended to show support for the main item on the agenda.

CEO of the AAATA Michael Ford

Michael Ford, CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, just before the start of the Feb. 20, 2014 AAATA board meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

That main item was a board vote to place a millage request before voters on May 6, 2014. The request – on a 0.7 mill tax that would be levied to pay for additional services over the next five years – would need a majority of votes across the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township to be approved.

The millage is supposed to pay for a set of service improvements over a period of five years. Those improvements include increased frequency during peak hours, extended service in the evenings, and additional service on weekends. Some looped routes are being replaced with out-and-back type route configurations. The plan does not include operation of rail-based services.

The AAATA has calculated that the improvements in service add up to 90,000 additional service hours per year, compared to the current service levels, which is a 44% increase.

The board’s vote to put the question on a May 6 ballot was unanimous, and came after more than a dozen people spoke during public commentary at the start of the meeting, urging the board to take the step of making a funding request of voters.

Elected officials as well as leaders of the faith, labor and disability communities all spoke in favor of making the request of voters to fund the service expansion, citing arguments based on economic and social justice. They pointed to the long period of planning that had begun about three years ago with a much more ambitious effort to expand service countywide. The current, more limited approach – focused just on the “urban core” area of the city of Ann Arbor and the two Ypsilanti jurisdictions – was a way to meet urgent transportation needs, they said.

After the board’s vote, during public commentary at the end of the meeting, one Ypsilanti resident recalled her own history marching with Rosa Parks down Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Although she’s been involved in activism for many years, she told the board, she could not think of anything that she was in the room to witness that was this important to her personally and to the city in which she lives.

Compared to typical AAATA board meetings, the atmosphere was relatively boisterous, as supporters at times chanted, “More buses, more places, more often!” But one speaker at the end of the meeting cautioned against the celebratory mood, saying there was now a lot of work to do. A counterpoint to the solid support the board heard from most of the speakers had been offered by the very first speaker of the evening. He asked the board to delay the election until November, arguing that it would save the roughly $80,000-$100,000 cost of holding the May election, and result in broader participation in the vote. Another point raised by that speaker was concern that everyone pay an equitable share for the additional transportation.

Although the main event was the resolution that placed the millage question on the ballot, the board’s agenda featured nine other items, many of which were at least tangentially related to the millage question.

For example, in other action the board approved a change to its budget to allow for up to $100,000 to be spent on the cost of holding the special election. The board also approved a funding agreement with Ypsilanti Township, to make explicit what will happen to the township’s existing purchase of service agreement (POSA) if the millage is approved. And as part of the board’s routine annual business, it approved a funding request to the state of Michigan – but did not factor in an increased level of service in the budget submitted to the state. That was done on the instruction of the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. That request can be amended if the millage succeeds.

Also at the Feb. 20 meeting, the board approved changes to its bylaws. Those changes were prompted by a change in governance to the AAATA last year – the addition of the two Ypsilanti jurisdictions. With the increase from seven to 10 members, the definition for the number of board members constituting a quorum or a majority needed to be modified. Out of that review of the bylaws came a decision to increase public speaking turns from a two-minute time limit to three minutes.

In other business, the board approved the hiring of a consultant to help the AAATA with a planned upgrade to its computer-aided dispatch and vehicle locating software. The board also approved the recently completed audit report for the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2013.

Another item approved by the board was a new contract for unarmed security services. And finally, the board authorized a contract for an insurance broker.

Among the various operational updates received by the board was the announcement that the newly constructed Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor would be open by March 17, 2014. [Full Story]

Redesign Planned for Library “Front Porch”

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Feb. 17, 2014): Work on a significant redesign to the front entrance of the downtown Ann Arbor library is moving forward, following action this month by the AADL board.

Ann Arbor District Library, InForm Studio, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Rendering of proposed new entry at downtown Ann Arbor library, located at 343 S. Fifth Ave. (Image by InForm Studio.)

A vote to continue with the project followed a presentation by Cory Lavigne of InForm Studio, the architecture firm that previously designed AADL’s Traverwood branch. A final design will likely be brought forward for approval at the board’s April 21 meeting, after a public forum in mid-March. Update: The forum is scheduled for Thursday, March 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the downtown building.

The entrance would continue to be oriented to South Fifth Avenue, with new doors into the building. The plan described by Lavigne includes replacing the existing teal strip that wraps around the front of the building – above the doors and windows – with a “concrete skin” panel. Wood paneling would be used in the ceiling of the outside walkway adjacent to the building. Sloping entry walkways would be located on the north side from the Library Lane parking structure and on the south side from William Street, with steps in front leading to South Fifth Avenue. Additional elements include landscaping, a bench, handrails and other features that visually link the library to the adjacent city-owned Library Lane.

The north side of the front facade, closest to Library Lane, would also include a large, translucent sign – made of glass or cast resin – that would be placed between existing brick columns, creating a screen along part of the walkway on that side of the building. The sign would be lit from the inside, with additional lighting along the walkway, to create a glowing effect.

It was that sign element that drew some criticism and concern at the board’s Feb. 17 meeting, primarily from Ed Surovell. He cautioned against creating any kind of shelter, saying it would simply be “an inviting nuisance.” AADL director Josie Parker acknowledged the concern, saying that she had discussed the issue with the library’s security staff as well. She told the board that no matter how the area is designed, security issues will always be a factor and would be handled as they are now, by security staff.

In other action at the board meeting, trustees approved revisions to more than a dozen sections of the AADL policy manual, and voted to create a new committee to help develop the next strategic plan, for 2015-2020. That planning effort had been the focus of a Feb. 3, 2014 board retreat.

Board members also got a brief update on the agreement for a new bike share program called ArborBike, which trustees will likely be asked to approve at their March 17 meeting. It relates to a bike station that will be located on the northern end of the downtown library’s property.

During her director’s report, Josie Parker told the board that the downtown library will be a site for the Living Lab Initiative, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. AADL will be the first public library to be involved in this project, and researchers will be working in the youth department through the end of September.

The board also heard from two people during public commentary: Changming Fan of TiniLite World Inc., who expressed interest in working with the library; and Jamie Vander Broek, a University of Michigan librarian and homeowner who described several reasons why she appreciated AADL. She concluded her remarks by saying: “I love paying my taxes for this library.” [Full Story]

County Board Briefed on Shelter Services

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (Feb. 6, 2014): Following a large turnout of homeless advocates at their Jan. 22, 2014 meeting, county commissioners received an update from the leader of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which operates the Delonis Center shelter near downtown Ann Arbor.

Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, Delonis Center, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Billboard on West Huron, facing eastbound traffic, to seek support for the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. The Delonis Center homeless shelter is located across the street. (Photos by the writer.)

Ellen Schulmeister, the Shelter Association’s executive director, called this season “The Winter of Great Effort,” with harsher weather and more demand for services. She described efforts to shelter the homeless in the short term, but noted that the broader goal is to find housing and provide support services to eliminate chronic homelessness.

Schulmeister reported that the county’s funding to the Delonis Center had been cut during the economic downturn, and she hoped that levels would increase. ”We need you to do that,” she said.

Washtenaw County government owns the building where the Delonis Center is located, and pays for maintenance. In addition, the county provided $51,230 for the Delonis Center in 2013 and increased that amount to $160,000 this year. The county funding is set to increase again to $200,000 in 2015 and remain at that level through 2017. The Shelter Association’s annual budget is $2.583 million.

Yousef Rabhi, chair of the county board, called the Delonis Center’s work ”inspirational,” but noted that the issue needs to be addressed by the entire community. He’s working to organize a summit, bringing together stakeholders from the government, nonprofits and other entities working to end homelessness. Rabhi said the effort should include representatives from the Ann Arbor District Library – because the downtown library serves as a de facto shelter during the day, even though that’s not the library’s purpose.

Schulmeister agreed on the importance of partnerships, adding that the barriers also include a lack of affordable housing and jobs. “It takes a community to house someone – it really does,” she said.

The Feb. 6 working session also included an update from Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse Center, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. As with the Delonis Center, the county also owns the SafeHouse building and pays for maintenance, as well as providing funding for the nonprofit’s services.

Niess-May told commissioners that she’s been doing this work for 20 years, but this is the worst time for funding she’s seen for these kinds of programs. She pointed out that funding from the county has dropped to $48,000 annually through 2017, and she hoped that the amount could be increased. The total SafeHouse budget is $1.4 million.

Dan Smith (R-District 2) noted that the number of people that SafeHouse serves each year – more than 5,000 – represents almost 2% of the county’s population. He highlighted the fact that Washtenaw County has fewer domestic violence homicides per capita than any other county in the state. To him, a statistic like that directly connects to the county’s mandates because of the clear reduction of work load on the court system and jail, as well as the number of lives saved. He considered SafeHouse part of the county’s mandate for public safety and justice.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) observed that the board has discussed the option of a human services millage that would support services like those that SafeHouse offers. He encouraged Niess-May to include the county’s funding cuts as part of her communications to others in the community. It might lead them to support raising additional revenue for SafeHouse and other organizations, he said.  [Full Story]

Planning Group Weighs Council Interactions

Ann Arbor planning commission working session (Feb. 4, 2014): Continuing a discussion that began last year, planning commissioners debated two aspects of their bylaws, in preparation for a vote on proposed revisions to those rules at their Feb. 20 meeting.

Eleanore Adenekan, Jeremy Peters, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor planning commissioners Eleanore Adenekan and Jeremy Peters at a Feb. 4, 2014 working session in the basement of city hall. (Photos by the writer.)

Most of their discussion at the Feb. 4 working session focused on how the city council interacts with the commission. The issue stems from an episode last year when councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) began to speak during a public hearing on a project in his neighborhood. He hadn’t been aware of the bylaws governing whether councilmembers can formally address the commission.

A similar situation occurred at an ordinance revisions committee meeting later in the year, when councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) started to address the commissioners during public commentary. In both cases, the councilmembers were told that the commission’s bylaws prevented them from speaking.

The current bylaws state: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission as a petitioner, representative of a petitioner or as a party interested in a petition during the Council member’s term of office.”

Jack Eaton (Ward 4) weighed in during the council’s Feb. 3 meeting, stating his view that if councilmembers are involved in a petition that would prevent them from voting on the item at the council meeting, they should be allowed to address the planning commission. “When we get elected, I don’t think we give up our right to petition government,” he said. Eaton asked Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who serves on the planning commission, to convey his point to commissioners as part of their discussion.

During the working session on Feb. 4, some commissioners expressed concern that any time a councilmember addresses the commission, it can be an undue influence on the process. Another concern is whether councilmembers, by forecasting their view in advance of a council vote, could put the city at legal risk. But at least one commissioner had a different view on the issue of constraining councilmembers from addressing the commission. Eleanore Adenekan told commissioners: “It’s like somebody telling me that ‘You can’t walk into this room because you’re black.’”

There seemed to be general consensus that the current bylaws are unclear, and a proposed revision is intended to simplify the issue: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission during the Councilmember’s term in office.”

Briere advocated for additional training of councilmembers, regarding what’s appropriate in these contexts. When the council takes up ethics issues later this year, she said, the issue of communicating with city boards and commissions will be one of the topics. “I call it How to Behave in Public,” Briere said.

Commissioners also discussed revisions to the bylaws related to public hearings. Some of the changes relate to whether someone can speak more than once at the same public hearing, when it is continued over multiple meetings. This situation arose last year during a public hearing on the downtown zoning review. Bonnie Bona cautioned other commissioners against changing the bylaws in ways that are “just making ourselves look more closed.” Some commissioners countered that the bylaws also allow for a majority vote to modify or waive the limitations, if necessary. [.pdf of current planning commission bylaws] [.pdf of Feb. 20 staff memo and proposed revisions]

The commission’s Feb. 20 meeting – held on a Thursday, rather than the typical Tuesday, because of scheduling due to the Presidents Day holiday – has a light agenda. In addition to the bylaws, the only other action item is a proposed rezoning of 2.02 acres at 2225 Traverwood Drive, adjacent to the Stapp Nature Area. Developer Bill Martin is donating the land to the city, and the proposal would rezone it to public land. [Full Story]

Future of County’s Platt Road Site Debated

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Feb. 5, 2014): Two items drew most of the debate during the county board’s recent meeting: Dealing with the future use of county-owned property on Platt Road, and hiring a contract worker to help with the budget process.

Jeannine Palms, Andy LaBarre, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jeannine Palms, who served on a citizens advisory committee to make recommendations for the county-owned property at 2260-2270 Platt Road, talks with commissioner Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), who helped lead that effort. Palms spoke during public commentary to praise the process and urge commissioners to adopt the recommendations. (Photos by the writer.)

A citizens advisory committee made recommendations for the 13.5-acre site at 2260-2270 Platt Road, and included the desire to use a portion of the land for affordable housing. Inclusion of affordable housing is a condition for accepting a $100,000 planning grant from the state, and that condition worried some commissioners. Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was particularly vocal in disagreeing with this approach. He suggested selling the land instead, then using the proceeds to pay for repairs and renovations of existing houses in the county, including those for sale through tax foreclosure auctions.

The board voted to give initial approval to the Platt Road recommendations, over dissent from Sizemore. A final vote is expected on Feb. 19. If approved, the county would then launch a much broader community planning process to determine the future use of that site.

Also debated at length was a proposal to hire a contract worker who would support budget-related work for the county board and administration. Commissioners had also discussed this issue during the board’s Jan. 22, 2014 meeting, when Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) questioned the process for hiring this kind of staff support. On Feb. 5, several commissioners expressed concern about spending money on this position and wanted more details about funding and duties. Those concerns led to a unanimous vote to postpone the item until March 5.

A proposal to create a dental clinic for low-income residents received initial approval on Feb. 5, over dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2). The $1.5 million project includes partnering with the nonprofit Michigan Community Dental Clinics Inc. to run the clinic and with St. Joseph Mercy Health System, which would contribute space at its Haab Building in Ypsilanti at little to no cost. A final vote is expected on Feb. 19.

In other action, the board gave final approval to two items with no significant discussion: (1) creation of a new countywide program to help finance energy-efficiency projects for commercial properties – the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program; and (2) a new ordinance that allows the county to issue municipal civil infractions for owning an unlicensed dog. The county treasurer’s office – which is responsible for administering the dog licenses – expects to implement the changes in June or July, following an educational outreach effort.

Commissioners also passed a resolution urging Gov. Rick Snyder to use the state’s budget surplus in part for road repair, and approved a resolution honoring local attorney Jean Ledwith King for her service on the county’s historic district commission.

Commissioner Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) gave an update on efforts to address services to the homeless community. Advocates for the homeless had attended the board’s previous meeting, on Jan. 22, 2014. The board received a more detailed update on this situation at its Feb. 6 working session. That session will be covered in a separate Chronicle report. [Full Story]

DDA Mulls Role: Events, Marketing?

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Feb. 5, 2014): Highlights of the board’s hour and a quarter meeting were communications and transportation, on an agenda that featured no substantive voting items. The meeting consisted of various reports and discussion points.

more-less-retreat-300

A poster generated at the Jan. 30, 2014 Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board retreat. (Photos by the writer.)

A communications and marketing strategy for the downtown was the focus of Rishi Narayan’s report from the board’s partnerships committee, which had invited representatives from the four downtown area merchant associations to it most recent meeting. The message from those groups, Narayan reported, was a desire to see more events take place downtown.

A desire to see more signature events take place, especially during the winter, had been one of several items identified by board members at a recent retreat, held on Jan. 30, 2014 in the jury assembly room of the Justice Center, from noon to about 3:30 p.m. At its Feb. 5 monthly meeting, the follow-up discussion about the retreat also focused heavily on the idea of events and the possible role the DDA might play in facilitating more frequent events downtown. An initial reaction that appeared to be shared by several board members was this: The DDA should not necessarily be in the event-hosting business, but rather provide assistance to those organizations that are already hosting various events.

Board chair Sandi Smith also floated the idea of hiring an additional staff member to focus on marketing. City administrator Steve Powers stressed the importance of having a clear idea of the financial basis for the DDA’s capacity to undertake various projects on the list of its five-year plan. That five-year project plan, which Smith characterized as always in draft form, will be a focus of discussion when the board continues its retreat on Feb. 19. In addition to the five-year project plan, the board will focus on its 10-year financial projections at the Feb. 19 session. [Updated: The board has decided to continue its retreat on Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. at the DDA offices.]

Transportation was a topic addressed by the sole speaker during public commentary at the Feb. 5 monthly meeting, as Martha Valadez, an organizer with Partners for Transit, asked the DDA board to support a millage proposal that’s expected to be placed on the ballot by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. Late last month, the board’s operations committee had been briefed by AAATA staff on the five-year transit improvement plan – the set of service increases that are driving the likely request that voters approve an additional 0.7 mill tax.

Also related to transportation was a report from the board’s operations committee that included an update on the go!pass program, which the DDA has funded historically. Last year, the DDA granted the AAATA about $560,000 to pay for rides taken by downtown employees through the go!pass program. A request will be coming up soon for this next year’s funding.

In another transportation-related topic, the board also received an update on a possible part-time conversion of downtown on-street loading zones into taxi stands. Somewhat related to on-street right-of-way, the board was briefed on city council action to impose a fee on developers who cause the removal of on-street parking meters – unless the development has a more general public benefit. It will be up to the DDA to define what constitutes a public benefit – a task the board will now take up.

Related specifically to the public parking system, which the DDA manages under a contract with the city, the board reviewed the parking revenues for the second quarter of the fiscal year, compared to last year. It was the first full quarter for which the year-over-year comparison was for periods that did not include any parking rate increases. Revenue was essentially flat, showing just a 0.7% increase.

It’s not clear how much longer the former Y lot – located on William between Fourth and Fifth avenues – will continue to be used as a surface parking lot. Not mentioned at the Feb. 5 board meeting, but discussed at the Jan. 29 operations committee meeting, was a proposal from Dennis Dahlmann about leasing the lot back to the DDA after he completes the purchase of the city-owned land. The idea would be for the DDA to lease the property and continue to operate a surface parking lot on the parcel until Dahlmann is able to move a site plan forward. At the operations committee meeting, the idea was not warmly embraced.

Other updates included the regular report from the downtown area citizens advisory council. Chair of the group, Ray Detter, reported that the CAC was generally supportive of an effort now being made by Will and Mary Hathaway to work with some city councilmembers on a resolution about the future of the surface level of the Library Lane underground parking structure. The resolution would establish a significant part of that level – but not all of it – as an urban public space. [Full Story]

AADL Retreat: Prep for Next Strategic Plan

Ann Arbor District Library board retreat (Feb. 3, 2014): For more than three hours, AADL trustees heard staff updates on industry trends, were briefed on challenges that the library faces – as well as opportunities – and discussed the kind of information and data that’s needed to prepare for AADL’s next strategic plan for 2015-2020.

Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A skeleton – wearing an Ann Arbor District Library T-shirt – was part of the non-traditional collections on display at the Feb. 3, 2014 AADL board retreat. (Photos by the writer.)

Discussion during the retreat, held at AADL’s downtown location on South Fifth Avenue, often touched on issues specific to that area. Dealing with the chronically homeless is one of the biggest challenges there, AADL director Josie Parker told the board, because during the hours that it’s open, the library is the shelter of last resort for many people.

“We are not a social service agency, yet we act as a de facto one,” Parker said. “We have a lot to contribute to this conversation because of our experience over the last 15 years.” The board discussed the need to define the library’s advocacy role in general for issues that trustees think are important, though Parker noted that the first responsibility for both the AADL administration and the board is to advocate for the library.

Other challenges faced by AADL include urban development, changes in the education system, issues related to providing Internet access, and “blurred lines” – instances where AADL is providing services to people who don’t live within the district’s boundaries. Also related to work outside the library’s boundaries, Parker reported that she’s talking with other directors of district libraries in Washtenaw County about the possibility of doing a study on the economic development impact of libraries.

The retreat began with a review of AADL’s non-traditional collections, and items from those collections were on display in the meeting room. The library has circulated art prints for more than 30 years, but has been expanding into other areas more recently, including science kits, musical instruments, home tools and craft equipment.

Parker told the board that the public library’s mission – to distribute materials that support the reading, education and even entertainment of the public – isn’t limited to bound volumes. The items for AADL’s non-traditional collections aren’t generally available to rent elsewhere, and are usually expensive to buy, she noted. “What are the limits of sharing? That’s what we’re pushing on.”

The final portion of the retreat was facilitated by local consultant Sandra Greenstone, who has played a similar role at previous retreats. Trustees generated a list of questions that they’d like to answer to help inform their work on the next strategic plan. Many of the issues related to the downtown library, but there was no discussion about putting another ballot proposal before voters. In November 2012, voters defeated a bond proposal that would have funded a new downtown library.

How all of this fits into the next strategic plan is a work in progress. The board will be handling the next steps at the committee level, with an update expected at the board’s Feb. 17 meeting. [Full Story]