Meeting Watch Section

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.


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]

Greenbelt Group Briefed on Bioreserve

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Feb. 6, 2014): Kris Olsson, an ecologist with the Huron River Watershed Council, was on hand at GAC’s meeting to provide commissioners with an overview of the HRWC’s bioreserve project.

Kris Olsson, Huron River Watershed Council, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Kris Olsson, a watershed ecologist with the Huron River Watershed Council, at the Feb. 6, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. (Photos by the writer.)

The aim of the project is to map, prioritize and encourage protection of the remaining natural areas in the Huron River watershed. The entire watershed covers about 994,000 acres. Of that about 247,000 acres are in the bioreserve. More than 1,700 sites have been mapped as potential natural areas.

The Ann Arbor greenbelt program is one of several partners in the project. Olsson told commissioners that the HRWC hopes this data is used to help land preservation programs like the greenbelt make informed decisions about how to protect natural areas.

Also during the Feb. 6 meeting, Ginny Trocchio – who provides staff support for the greenbelt program – briefed commissioners on the screening and scoring criteria used to review potential acquisitions for the greenbelt program. She reviewed characteristics that result in higher scores for property. For example, sites that receive higher scores have 3-4 natural features (stream corridors, woodlots or rare species), are located within 1 mile of the Ann Arbor city limits, and are located within a township or village that has passed a purchase-of-development-rights (PDR) ordinance.

Trocchio also reported that work on the greenbelt program’s new landowner registry is continuing.

The 90-minute meeting included a closed session lasting about 30 minutes. No votes were taken on potential land deals after commissioners emerged from closed session. [Full Story]

Rotary to Fund Universal Access Playground

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Jan. 28, 2014): Park commissioners got news at their most recent meeting that the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor is making a $250,000 contribution to the city of Ann Arbor for a major new “universal access” playground at Gallup Park, to celebrate the club’s centennial anniversary in 2016.

Bob Buckler, Bernie Lugauer, Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Bernie Lugauer and Bob Buckler of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor talk with Christopher Taylor, an ex officio member of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. (Photos by the writer.)

After a presentation on Jan. 28, commissioners recommended that the city apply for a state Dept. of Natural Resources grant to help fund the remainder of the work, which is estimated to cost $500,000.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, told commissioners that although there are about 80 playgrounds in Ann Arbor, none are universally accessible. It’s a “huge shortcoming” for the parks system, he said. The exact location within Gallup Park hasn’t been determined, but the playground would be about 5,000 square feet and exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The design and equipment is intended to create environments that can be used by all people, with features like ramps, color-contrasting structures, wider bridges and walkways, and playground equipment that makes it easier for people using wheelchairs.

Two Rotary representatives attended the Jan. 28 meeting to help describe the club’s role in the project. Bob Buckler, a Rotary director and co-chair of the group’s centennial committee, told commissioners that in general the Rotary’s primary focus is on supporting children, by funding scholarships, Washtenaw Success By Six and other programs. That’s why the universal access playground is so appealing as a way to celebrate Rotary’s centennial, he said. Buckler indicated that fundraising for this project has already begun. The grand opening is expected to be on Labor Day in 2016.

In other action on Jan. 28, commissioners approved the location for new tennis courts at Windemere Park – a project that’s been in the works for about two years. The location has been somewhat controversial among neighbors, and prompted a review of the previously selected site. The current courts have deteriorated and are in a location where it’s unsuitable to rebuild.

Also on Jan. 28, PAC recommended the purchase of two vans to keep up with the increasing shuttle transportation demands for Huron River trips in 2013, following the opening of Argo Cascades.

The meeting marked a transition of members on PAC. It was the first meeting for David Santacroce, who was appointed by the city council last year to replace Julie Grand. And it was the final meeting for Jen Geer, who has resigned after less than a year on the commission. Paige Morrison was appointed by the council on Feb. 3 to fill the remainder of Geer’s term – through May 19, 2016. [Full Story]

Advocates for Homeless Appeal to County

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Jan. 22, 2014): About two dozen people – including members of Camp Misfit and Camp Take Notice – turned out at the county board’s Jan. 22 meeting to advocate for improved services for the homeless.

Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Some of the crowd at the Jan. 22, 2014 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Speaking during public commentary, several people argued that the Delonis Center‘s warming center should be made available when temperatures are lower than 45 degrees. One woman presented a list of specific requests for expanded services at the homeless shelter, including 24-hour access to shower facilities and increased hours for access to laundry facilities.

There was no formal agenda item on this issue, but several commissioners agreed that the community needs to do more for the homeless. Conan Smith (D-District 9) noted that county had a 10-year plan to end homelessness, “and then we got socked by a terrible economy and made pretty dramatic reductions in the county’s spending.” [The Blueprint to End Homelessness was adopted in 2004 but appears to be dormant.]

The board ultimately voted to direct county administrator Verna McDaniel to address issues related to services for the homeless. They’ll be getting an update at their Feb. 6 working session from Ellen Schulmeister, director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which runs the Delonis Center.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) cautioned against the county overstepping its bounds, and pointed out that the shelter is run by a separate nonprofit – although the county owns and maintains the building where the shelter is located at 312 W. Huron in Ann Arbor, and contributes some funding. Ping noted that the county also currently pays the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority for several parking spaces used by Delonis Center employees, and suggested that the money might be better spent on direct services to the homeless. The county is continuing to negotiate its parking contract with the DDA.

Also at the Jan. 22 meeting, the board made a range of appointments, including confirmation of Dan Ezekiel, former Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commissioner, to replace Nelson Meade on the county parks & recreation commission. And former state legislator Alma Wheeler Smith was appointed to fill an opening on the southeast Michigan regional transit authority (RTA) board. Richard Murphy – one of two RTA board members from Washtenaw County – was not seeking reappointment. Smith was the only eligible applicant and is the mother of county commissioner Conan Smith, who abstained from the confirmation vote.

In addition, during the Jan. 22 meeting the board created a new committee to explore the cost to the county for providing employee health insurance coverage for autism. The board had received a staff presentation earlier in the evening about the possibility of offering such coverage.

In other action, the board gave initial approval to a proposed ordinance that would allow the county to issue municipal civil infractions for owning an unlicensed dog, with a final vote expected on Feb. 5. The ordinance could take effect 50 days after that, in late March, but county treasurer Catherine McClary indicated that her office would be looking to implement the changes in June or July. Several  commissioners advocated for educational outreach to ensure that residents – especially in rural areas – will be aware of the changes.

The board also gave initial approval to establish a countywide Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, after hearing from several people during public commentary who supported the effort. A final vote to establish the program is expected at the board’s Feb. 5 meeting. [Full Story]

Commission Works on Public Art Planning

Ann Arbor public art commission meeting (Jan. 29, 2014): In a three-hour session, the public art commission worked on prioritizing capital improvement projects that might be suitable for public art.

Kristin "KT" Tomey, Ann Arbor public art commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

On Jan. 29, Kristin “KT” Tomey attended her first regular meeting of the Ann Arbor public art commission since being appointed by the city council on Jan. 6. (Photos by the writer.)

Some commissioners expressed frustration that they had insufficient information on which to base their evaluation. And after about two hours of discussion – using a scoring rubric with seven criteria – commissioners had evaluated only a few projects: artist-designed street access (manhole) covers, art for the Springwater subdivision, and art for the corridors of Main Street and Plymouth Road. Because there were still several other items on the agenda, they voted to postpone further evaluation of possible capital projects until their next meeting.

In other action, commissioners discussed and approved a draft annual public art plan that’s officially due to the city council on Feb. 1, for projects to be undertaken in the fiscal year that begins July 1. It includes projects that are underway – like artwork for East Stadium bridges and Argo Cascades – as well as a proposal to add some enhanced capital projects, like street access covers on resurfaced roads.

The draft annual plan had been prepared by Aaron Seagraves, the city’s public art administrator. Commissioners asked for some revisions and designated commissioner John Kotarski to work with Seagraves on a final version that will likely be presented to the council on Feb. 18. Kotarski praised the draft, saying “It has as much meat as anyone wants. It shows a lot of work. It shows an art commission that gets the message from an impatient city council.”

Commissioners also discussed a proposal from the Clean Energy Coalition to select and fund an artist who would help incorporate art into a new bike share program. They tabled action on this item, wanting additional information about the CEC’s expectations for funding.

This was AAPAC’s first regular meeting since Oct. 23, 2013, although they held a retreat in December and a planning session earlier in January. Throughout the evening, concerns were raised about the future of the public art program, in light of recent city council discussions. The council had postponed a requested six-month extension of Seagraves’ contract, and will be taking up that item on Feb. 3.

Also on the council’s Feb. 3 agenda is an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance. The amendment would allow the council to return about $800,000 accumulated under the city’s former Percent for Art program to the funds from which that money was drawn, such as the street millage or sanitary sewer fund. It’s the latest in an ongoing transition for the city’s public art program – a transition that’s been unsettling for public art commissioners.

The Jan. 29 meeting marked another transition for AAPAC, which has seen considerable turnover during the past year. It was the first regular monthly meeting for the newest commissioner, Kristin “KT” Tomey, who was appointed by the city council on Jan. 6. And it was the last meeting for Malverne Winborne, whose term ended on Dec. 31. He did not seek reappointment, and was serving until the position was filled. His replacement, Jim Simpson, is expected to be confirmed in a vote at the city council’s Feb. 3 meeting.

Winborne has served as vice chair of AAPAC – but the group held new officer elections on Jan. 29. Bob Miller was re-elected to another one-year term as chair, and John Kotarski was elected vice chair. There were no competing nominations, and both votes were unanimous.

Noting that the Jan. 29 meeting had been especially challenging, Miller thanked commissioners for their work. “This is probably the most belabored meeting I think we’ve ever gone through, aside from maybe one of the retreats,” he said. “I’m tapped out.” He jokingly cajoled commissioners: “Please do come back.”

Miller also encouraged students to return, as about two dozen students from Skyline High School – and some parents – attended the Jan. 29 meeting. “It’s the most amount of people we’ve ever had at any of our meetings,” Miller noted. One student pointed out that they were all from the same government class, facing a Jan. 31 deadline to attend a public meeting. [Full Story]

AADL Board Adjusts Budget, Reviews Policy

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Jan. 20, 2014): Acting in part on recommendations from last year’s communications audit by Allerton-Hill Consulting, the library board authorized budget adjustments totaling $118,000 at its first meeting of 2014.

Prue Rosenthal, Ann Arbor District Library board, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Prue Rosenthal was re-elected to another one-year term as president of the Ann Arbor District Library board of trustees on Jan. 20. (Photos by the writer.)

Two of those items relate to communications and outreach: $63,000 to design, print and mail event postcards, newsletters and other items to all district residents; and $25,000 for a satisfaction survey of 500-600 library district residents, to be conducted by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA. 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.

The new survey will be used to measure the public’s recognition of the products and services provided by AADL, their regard for AADL as a public institution in the region, and the avenues by which people obtain information about the library.

Results will be ready by this spring, and are expected to help inform the library’s next long-term strategic plan. Trustees have scheduled a retreat on Feb. 3 from 4-7 p.m. in the fourth-floor boardroom of the downtown library, to begin discussions for updating the current strategic plan that runs through 2015.

Also on Jan. 20, trustees elected officers for the coming year. All votes were unanimous with no competing nominations. Prue Rosenthal was re-elected for a second one-year term as board president. Also re-elected for a second one-year term was Rebecca Head, as board secretary. Barbara Murphy was elected as vice president, and Jan Barney Newman was elected as treasurer. Newman had served as vice president in 2013.

The board also established special committees for communications and facilities, and made appointments to those as well as to standing committees for finance and policy.

Work of the policy committee was another item on the Jan. 20 agenda. The committee previously had discussed staff proposals to revise more than a dozen sections of the AADL policy manual. Discussion at the board meeting focused on policy changes to offer free library cards to non-resident students and staff at state-sanctioned schools within AADL’s district. Also highlighted were the library’s behavior rules, which board member Nancy Kaplan called generous and kind. AADL director Josie Parker noted that even though the current policy prohibits sleeping in the library, during the recent extreme cold no one is asked to leave when they are found sleeping. The board will vote on the proposed policy revisions at its February meeting.

The board heard from five speakers during public commentary, including thanks from local cartoonist and teaching artist Jerzy Drozd for services that the AADL provides for the youth of Ann Arbor. Since 2011, Drozd has hosted a podcast called Comics Are Great! that’s recorded in the AADL podcast studio. Drozd called it “The Dick Cavett Show for cartoonists.” Also during public commentary, Kathy Griswold again urged the board to videotape its meetings for broadcast, and to open its committee meetings to the public. [Full Story]

Rezoning for Delta Gamma Moves to Council

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Jan. 23, 2014): Only one project was on the agenda for consideration by the planning commission on Jan. 23: rezoning and an area plan for a house that the Delta Gamma sorority wants to convert into a residential annex.

Delta Gamma, Robb Bourroughs, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Members of the project team for 515 Oxford, which will be an annex to the Delta Gamma sorority. (Photos by the writer.)

The 515 Oxford property is near the main sorority house at 626 Oxford, and is currently split into three apartment units. Planning commissioners recommended approval of the request to rezone the parcel from R4A (multi-family dwelling) to R2B (two-family dwelling and student housing).

Additional approvals for the project itself will be required before the project’s construction work can begin.

The proposal for a renovation would accommodate a maximum of 20 residents, including a required resident manager. A special exception use will also be required to allow for a sorority use. That request will be made to the planning commission at a later date, along with a more detailed site plan.

The house was designed by architect George Brigham and built in 1940 as his home and studio. He designed over 40 houses in Ann Arbor, including many in Arbor Hills and Barton Hills. Planning staff reported that they were contacted about this site by a2modern, a group created to highlight mid-century modern architecture in Ann Arbor. On Jan. 23, the group posted a “statement of concern” about the proposal on its website.

At the planning commission meeting, Robb Burroughs, the project’s architect, said that until they were alerted by a2modern, the design team hadn’t been aware of the site’s history. They’ve now done research at the Bentley Historical Library and have met with a representative from a2modern, and are working on the site plan to preserve to the greatest extent possible the exterior view of the house.

The rezoning request and area plan, which commissioners also recommended for approval, will now be considered by the city council.

In other action on Jan. 23, commissioners voted to recommend that the city council reappoint Kirk Westphal as the planning commission’s representative to the environmental commission. Westphal, who chairs the planning commission, did not participate in the vote, and vice chair Wendy Woods led the meeting as the commission acted on that item.

During communications time, planning manager Wendy Rampson noted that the city council had passed a resolution at its Jan. 21, 2014 meeting regarding the downtown zoning review. The council has directed the planning commission to develop ordinance language that would enact the commission’s recommendations for zoning revisions, with a deadline of Oct. 20, 2014. The commission’s ordinance revisions committee will meet on Feb. 4, before the regular planning commission meeting, to start figuring out how to implement these council directions.

In other communications, Bonnie Bona reported that the energy commission plans to propose a commercial energy disclosure ordinance for the city council’s consideration. They’d like the planning commission to consider a resolution in support of that. An energy disclosure ordinance would require owners of certain properties to report how much energy their buildings use. [Full Story]

Public Housing Conversion Takes Next Step

Ann Arbor housing commission meeting (Jan. 15, 2014): Transitions for Ann Arbor’s public housing will continue in the new year, even while the housing commission is also dealing with the aftermath of a major fire in one of its complexes.

Christopher Geer, Ron Woods, Marta Manildi, Ann Arbor Housing Commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor housing commission board members Christopher Geer, Ron Woods and Marta Manildi at the AAHC Jan. 15, 2014 meeting, held at Baker Commons. Not pictured here is Tim Colenback, the newest appointment to the AAHC board. Gloria Black, who represents AAHC residents, was absent. (Photos by the writer.)

At their first meeting of the year, commissioners were briefed about the impact and aftermath of a Jan. 8 fire at Green Baxter Court, a public housing complex on Green Road next to Baxter Park on the city’s east side. They heard from Joan Doughty, executive director of Community Action Network, which operates a community center at that complex under contract with the city. CAN staff are helping AAHC provide support for families who were displaced by the fire.

At their Jan. 15 meeting, board members authorized up to $9,000 in extra funds to help pay for that emergency work. CAN is also seeking additional donations from the community.

In separate action, the board amended Chapter 14 of its housing choice voucher administrative plan to include a preference for families that have been involuntarily displaced due to a fire, natural disaster or any other reason. The vouchers would be used to subsidize rental housing, if no units are available in the city’s public housing system.

The Jan. 15 meeting also included an update from Lori Harris, vice president with Norstar Development, on a major initiative to upgrade the city’s public housing units. Specifically, she presented Norstar’s recommendation for an equity partner to purchase low-income housing tax credits awarded by the state to AAHC late last year. The board approved the recommended firm, Red Stone Equity Partners.

Investors had responded positively to Norstar’s request for proposals, Harris said, with higher-than-expected offers. “You have a very, very good story here, and it’s played very, very well in this process,” she told the board. The tax-credit transaction will provide the majority of funding for renovating five public housing complexes: Miller Manor, South Maple, Baker Commons, Hikone and Green Baxter. These properties make up the majority of public housing units in the AAHC portfolio – 248 out of a total 326 units.

However, AAHC executive director Jennifer Hall told the board that additional funding will still be required. As part of that, the AAHC is requesting $600,000 from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Hall said she expects the DDA board to make a decision on that by March or April. The DDA previously gave the housing commission a $300,000 grant for capital improvements at Baker Commons, which is located within the DDA district. That approval came in March of 2013. And in October 2012, the DDA had provided a $260,000 grant primarily for replacing the Baker Commons roof.

In other action, the AAHC board approved a 3% cost-of-living adjustment for Hall, in line with other COLA increases given to city employees. The board also authorized changing the way its minutes are kept in order to begin using the city’s online Legistar system. The new approach will be less detailed in reporting deliberations, and will primarily provide a report on the outcome of action items. Currently, AAHC board minutes and board packets aren’t part of Legistar, but are provided on the AAHC page of the city’s website. Minutes from the AAHC board meetings are also attached to the city council agenda as an item of communication.

And near the end of the meeting, commissioner Marta Manildi reported that she is not seeking reappointment. Her term ends this spring, but she has offered to step down early. She was praised for her work in helping lead the AAHC through a difficult transition several years ago. Speaking during public commentary, Doughty said Manildi “really led the charge for a turnaround that’s been amazing to witness.”

A week later, at the Ann Arbor city council’s Jan. 21 meeting, mayor John Hieftje nominated Daniel Lee to serve out the rest of Manildi’s term. A confirmation vote is expected at the council’s Feb. 3 meeting. Hieftje described Manildi’s service on the commission as profound and beneficial. [Full Story]

Downtown Items OK’d, Public Art Delayed

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Jan. 21, 2014): Council communications at the start of the meeting highlighted an already-established pedestrian safety task force – and signaled that the evening could be contentious. It proved to be a night featuring some political friction, with the meeting extending past 1 a.m.

From left: Sumi Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere (Ward 1); Sally Petersen and Jane Lumm (Ward 2); Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). In color are the only two councilmembers on that side of the table who are not running for mayor. In addition to running for mayor, the four in black and white all served on a council committee last year that developed a proposal to end the Percent for Art program and replace it with a "baked-in" approach to art. (Photo art by The Chronicle.)

From left: Sumi Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere (Ward 1); Sally Petersen and Jane Lumm (Ward 2); Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). In color are the only two councilmembers on that side of the table who are not running for mayor. (Photo art by The Chronicle.)

The pedestrian safety and access task force appeared on the agenda because confirmation of its nine members was a question before the council. As part of that vote, as well as during council communications, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) revived the recent controversy over an attempted repeal of the city’s crosswalk ordinance – an effort that mayor John Hieftje ultimately vetoed. The task force was appointed at Tuesday’s meeting, after Kunselman established that he was still interested in revising the city’s crosswalk ordinance so that motorists would be required to stop for pedestrians only if they could “do so safely.”

In other business, the council approved the site plan for a revised, expanded version of the 624 Church St. project, located in the block just south of South University Avenue. The revised plan is for a 14-story, 116,167-square-foot building with 123 units and about 230 bedrooms. The approval came after an hour and a half of debate on the site plan, focusing on the way the project is satisfying a zoning requirement to provide parking spaces – through the city’s contribution-in-lieu (CIL) program. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority had approved three five-year extensions for the CIL monthly permits – beyond the standard CIL term of 15 years. When Kunselman’s bid to eliminate the extended term failed – a move that would have jeopardized the project’s financing – he told Sean Spellman, representing the developer: “I’m sorry if I scared you …”

Also related to downtown development, the council moved along a process to revise downtown zoning regulations. The council accepted the planning commission’s recommendations, and in turn tasked the planning commission to develop ordinance language to implement the recommendations. In general, the planning commission’s recommendations were intended to create more of a buffer between downtown development and adjacent or nearby residential neighborhoods. Several other recommendations focused on the issue of “premiums” – certain features that a developer can provide in exchange for additional by-right floor area ratio (FAR).

During its Tuesday meeting, the council added some direction of its own: (1) consider rezoning Huron Street from Division to Fourth Avenue to conform with the East Huron 1 character district, and consider incorporating 25-foot minimum side setbacks and 10-foot front setbacks where feasible in the East Huron 1 character district; and (2) consider whether other D1-zoned areas that do not have buffering from adjacent residential neighborhoods, including some areas of South University and Thayer Street, should be rezoned to D2. A date certain was also added by which the planning commission is to report to the council on all its work on this issue – Oct. 20, 2014.

In other zoning action at its Jan. 21 meeting, the council gave initial approval for the zoning of two unzoned properties on South State Street – 1643 and 1645 S. State. They are proposed to be zoned C1 (local business district). One of those properties houses Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky.

In another item related to South State Street property, the council approved with no discussion a $25,550 contract with Atwell LLC for environmental site assessment services to evaluate 2500 S. State St. That’s the Edwards Brothers Malloy property for which the council is currently exploring options to purchase. The item was added to the agenda on Friday, Jan. 17, after the initial publication of the agenda.

Delayed by the council was a six-month extension of the contract with the city’s public art administrator, Aaron Seagraves, and a proposal to add $18,500 to his compensation to cover the added term. The postponement was made amid concern about the remaining $839,507 unallocated balance in the now-defunct Percent for Art fund. The political horse-trade made at the council table was to postpone the contract extension, with the expectation that it would be supported at the council’s next meeting – but at the same time, a process would start to return the better part of the $839,507 to the various funds from which that money was drawn.

The city’s new public art program relies on the idea of integrated or “baked-in” art for capital projects. It was developed by a five-member council committee, which included all four of the councilmembers who have announced that they’re running for mayor in 2014 – Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sally Petersen (Ward 2), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). The fifth member of that committee was Margie Teall (Ward 4), who cast the only vote against postponing the contract extension for Seagraves – as she wanted to approve it at Tuesday’s meeting.

Also at its Jan. 21 meeting, the council approved $6,818 of general fund money to build a sidewalk from the northeast corner of Penberton Court and Waldenwood northward – to connect to a path leading the rest of the way to King Elementary School. The item, which has a history of at least four years, drew about 15 minutes of discussion.

Taking a half hour of council deliberations was another sidewalk-related item. The council approved the first of four steps in the process to impose a special assessment on property owners for a sidewalk on the east side of Pontiac Trail, between Skydale and Dhu Varren Road. Debate centered on a proposal from Kunselman to ask the city administrator to consider city funding for 80% of the project.

The council dispatched quickly two liquor-license related items: recommendation of a special downtown development liquor license for The Lunch Room at 407 N. Fifth Avenue, and a change in the classification of Silvio’s Organic Pizza license from a Tavern License to a Class C License.

Public commentary was highlighted by concerns about fracking. [Full Story]

5-Year Transit Plan: Possible Tax Vote Soon

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (Jan. 16, 2014): The board’s one substantive voting item on its agenda was the adoption of a five-year transit improvement plan. The unanimous vote came after a staff presentation and public commentary from three people, who all expressed support for the improvement program.

Yellow lines indicate routes along which the AAATA is planning frequency improvements as a part of its five-year transit improvement plan.

Yellow lines indicate routes along which the AAATA is planning frequency improvements as part of its five-year transit improvement plan. (Image links to .pdf of full presentation given to the board on Jan. 16, 2014)

Generally, the 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 AAATA refers to the plan in its communications as the 5YTIP. A draft five-year plan was presented to the public in a series of 13 meetings in the fall of 2013. Changes to the five-year plan made in response to public feedback were included in the board’s information packet for the Jan. 16 meeting. [.pdf of memo and 5-year improvement plan] [.pdf of presentation made to the board on Jan. 16]

The plan indicates that $5,456,191 of additional local revenue would be required to fund the expanded services. Implementation of the program will include a request to voters sometime in 2014 for an additional transit millage, likely at the level of 0.7 mills.

The two city members of the AAATA – Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – already levy a dedicated transit millage of their own, which would stay in place if voters in the AAATA’s three-jurisdiction area approved a 0.7 mill tax. For Ann Arbor, the rate for the existing millage is 2.056 mills, which is expected to generate a little over $10 million by 2019, the fifth year of the transportation improvement plan. For the city of Ypsilanti, the rate for the existing transit millage is 0.9789, which is expected to generate about $314,000 in 2019. For the owner of an Ann Arbor house with market value of $200,000 and taxable value of $100,000, a 0.7 mill tax translates into $70 annually, which would be paid in addition to the existing transit millage that translates to about $200 annually.

The transit improvement program also calls for an additional $1,087,344 to come from purchase of service agreements (POSAs), based on increased service hours in Pittsfield, Saline, and Superior townships.

At the Jan. 16 meeting, board chair Charles Griffith indicated that he felt the board would be taking the next step on implementing the program very soon. That indicates a probable vote on the millage question at the next board meeting, on Feb. 20. If the board voted then to put a millage question on the ballot, that would be in time to meet the Feb. 25 deadline for a millage request to be placed on the May 6, 2014 ballot.

A new millage would be decided by a majority vote of all three member jurisdictions of the AAATA. The two Ypsilanti jurisdictions were added as members of the AAATA just last year. The Ann Arbor city council voted to approve changes to the AAATA’s articles of incorporation – to admit the city and the township of Ypsilanti as members – at its June 3, 2013 and Nov. 18, 2013 meetings, respectively.

Even though the vote on the five-year transit improvement program seemed to be enthusiastically embraced by most everyone in the board room, that was not what prompted people to start clapping at the Jan. 16 meeting. The applause was reserved for the management and driver performance during the recent snowstorm. Board member Jack Bernard and likely future board appointee Larry Krieg both based their praise for drivers on their own trips using the bus. Praise for AAATA drivers during the inclement weather also came from bus rider Jim Mogensen during public commentary. And CEO Michael Ford highlighted the performance of AAATA’s manager of transportation Ron Copeland, as well as that of drivers and the rest of the AAATA staff.

The board also received routine updates on a range of issues. Those included ridership, which is now essentially flat on the fixed-route service compared to last year. The new Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor is expected to be open for use by the second week in February. Concepts for two finalists for the BTC public art project – which will be incorporated into the new building – will be on display at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library from Jan. 20 through Feb. 3. The downtown library is located across the street from the BTC. [Full Story]

Planning Commission Reviews 2014 Priorities

Ann Arbor planning commission working session (Jan. 7, 2014): At a thinly attended working session – the first of the year – planning commissioners reviewed the status of their 2013-2014 work plan, and discussed priorities for the next six months of the fiscal year.

Wendy Rampson, Kirk Westphal, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

City planning manager Wendy Rampson and Kirk Westphal, chair of the Ann Arbor planning commission, at a Jan. 7, 2014 working session in the basement of city hall. (Photos by the writer.)

Planning manager Wendy Rampson gave the mid-year update, reporting on items that were moving ahead, delayed or stalled. Some projects – like the downtown zoning review – had taken more time than anticipated, she reported. That meant some other projects didn’t get as much attention. [.pdf of work plan status report]

Two projects on the work plan have been completed: (1) an update to the city’s non-motorized transportation plan, and (2) the second-year update to the capital improvements plan (CIP). Other work – like the years-long effort to reorganize the city’s zoning ordinances, known as ZORO, continues to languish. That project is being overseen by the city attorney’s office, with support from planning staff.

Based on feedback from the four commissioners at the working session, as well as input from other commissioners via email, some items on the work plan will be tweaked.

City staff have drafted an action plan to implement goals of the city’s sustainability framework, which was approved last year. Planning commissioners are interested in moving that forward.

Commissioners also expressed interested in forming a new committee to explore the impact of pending changes to mandated floodplain insurance, with a cross-section of representatives from planning, the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner’s office, the city’s historic district commission and local creekshed groups.

In addition, Rampson was asked to explore the possibility of forming a joint planning commission with representatives from the four jurisdictions along the Washtenaw Avenue corridor – the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Pittsfield Township. A right-of-way report for that corridor will be completed soon, which will be reviewed by the commission.

Commissioners also directed Rampson to develop a list of pros and cons for eliminating drive-thrus as a by-right option in certain zoning districts, and instead requiring developers to seek a special exception from the planning commission in order to build one. Some commissioners think that drive-thrus – especially for fast food restaurants – make an area less pedestrian-friendly. Also of concern are the emissions generated from idling vehicles.

More immediately, the commission’s ordinance revisions committee will be reviewing recommendations from an advisory committee on R4C/R2A residential zoning. There will also likely be work on ordinance revisions for downtown zoning, depending on what direction is given by the city council. A set of recommendations already approved by planning commissioners is on the council’s Jan. 21 agenda. [Full Story]

Countywide Energy Program in the Works

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Jan. 8, 2014): In addition to the organizational actions that typically occur during the county board’s first meeting of the year, commissioners also approved a notice of intent to form a countywide Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program.

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

Yousef Rabhi was re-elected as chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners at the board’s Jan. 8, 2014 meeting. The following day, he publicly announced his intent not to run for mayor of Ann Arbor this year. (Photos by the writer.)

It’s the next step of several that are required before such a program can be created. The goal of PACE is to help owners of commercial (not residential) properties pay for energy improvements by securing financing from commercial lenders and repaying the loan through voluntary special assessments.

The county’s proposal entails joining the Lean & Green Michigan coalition and contracting with Levin Energy Partners to manage the PACE program.

A public hearing on this issue is set for the board’s meeting on Jan. 22. The board would also need to take another vote to actually create the PACE district. A date for that action has not been set.

Officer elections were also held on Jan. 8. As expected, the board officers who were first elected in January 2013 were re-elected. Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) will continue to serve as board chair. Also re-elected were Alicia Ping (R-District 3) as vice chair, Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) as chair of the board’s ways & means committee, and Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) as chair of the working sessions. There were no competing nominations and all votes were unanimous, although Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was out of the room when the votes for Brabec and LaBarre were taken.

Regarding revisions to the board’s rules and regulations, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger made four recommended changes, including three that related to voting requirements. The fourth change inserted language to clarify that binding action may not be taken at a board working session.

The Jan. 8 meeting also included a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would allow the county to issue municipal civil infractions for owning an unlicensed dog. The board had held a previous hearing at its meeting on Oct. 16, 2013, but it occurred after midnight and no one spoke. Some commissioners felt that a second hearing should be scheduled because the initial one was held so late in the evening. One person spoke on Jan. 8, urging the board to create a progressive scale of fees and to provide waivers for low-income families and individuals.

In other feedback from the public, Jim Casha spoke during public commentary to raise concerns over the southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA). “It just seems to me that it’s just going to be another waste of time and taxpayers’ money, and just another level of bureaucracy,” he told commissioners. Board chair Yousef Rabhi will be appointing a new Washtenaw County representative to the RTA soon to replace Richard Murphy, who did not seek reappointment. The county’s other board member on the RTA is University of Michigan professor Liz Gerber, whose term runs through 2015.

The extended deadline for applying was Jan. 12, and Casha was one of only two applicants for the RTA opening. As a Canadian resident, he is ineligible to be appointed for the seat to represent Washtenaw County. The other applicant is Alma Wheeler Smith, a former state legislator and the mother of county commissioner Conan Smith (D-District 9). [Full Story]

Cold City Cash for Edwards Brothers Land?

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Jan. 6, 2014): On a bitter cold night, Ann Arbor city councilmembers ended their first regular meeting of the year with an item not originally on their agenda. They passed a resolution that directs city administrator Steve Powers and city attorney Stephen Postema to gather information to help the city council determine whether to purchase the 16.7-acre Edwards Brothers Malloy property on South State Street.

Graph from showing the -12 F temperature at the start of the city council meeting.

Graph from showing the -12 F temperature at the start of the Jan. 6, 2014 city council meeting. (Image links to

The direction came after the city council met in a closed session for about half an hour. Councilmembers emerged to craft and then pass the resolution. It gives direction to explore options to make the purchase financially feasible. That means finding a way to finance a $12.8 million deal. The sale of the Edwards Brothers property on South State Street is currently pending to the University of Michigan for $12.8 million, in an agreement that was announced in a Nov. 27, 2013 press release. The business – a fourth-generation Ann Arbor publishing and printing firm – had signaled its intent to put the property on the market in late July.

The topic of the possible land acquisition ties in to an upcoming Jan. 13 city council work session about economic development.

At the start of the Jan. 6 meeting, the council got an update from three key staff members about the city’s response to the snowstorm that had hit the entire Midwest over the weekend.

From public services area administrator Craig Hupy they heard an update on snowplowing, which was continuing during the meeting. From police chief John Seto, they heard an update on the police department’s support for relocating residents of a housing complex after a water pipe burst. And from Mary Jo Callan, Washtenaw County’s director of the office of community and economic development, they heard an update on efforts to address the needs of the homeless population during the freezing weather.

Concern for how the homeless were faring was the topic of eight out of nine speakers who signed up for public commentary reserved time.

In its regular business agenda, the council dispatched two items leftover from its last meeting of 2013. One of those items was the official termination of a four-year-old memorandum of understanding with the University of Michigan for construction of the Fuller Road Station project. That item was voted through with little controversy, although mayor John Hieftje compared it to digging someone up who died a couple of years ago and re-burying them.

Fuller Road Station was a planned joint city/University of Michigan parking structure, bus depot and possible train station located at the city’s Fuller Park near the UM medical campus. The council had approved the MOU on Fuller Road Station at its Nov. 5, 2009 meeting on a unanimous vote. However, a withdrawal of UM from the project, which took place under terms of the MOU, was announced on Feb. 10, 2012.

The other item delayed from last year was a resolution assigning a specific cost to the removal of on-street metered parking spaces, in connection with future developments: $45,000 per space. That amount was based on the cost of constructing a new parking space in a structure. After the policy was amended during the Jan. 6 meeting, it included a requirement that lost revenue also be compensated, based on projections of revenue for the space for the next 10 years. An average parking meter in the system generates $2,000 in annual income.

Apart from those previously delayed items, the rest of the council’s agenda was mainly filled with future development.

Accounting for two of the council’s Jan. 6 voting items was Traverwood Apartments – a First Martin development on the city’s north side. The site is located on the west side of Traverwood Drive, north of Plymouth Road. The council gave final approval of some rezoning necessary for the complex of 16 two-story buildings. And on a separate vote, the council gave site plan approval and a wetland use permit associated with the apartment complex.

The council also approved the upward expansion of the Montgomery Ward building on South Fourth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor. The estimated $3.8 million project will expand the existing 17,273-square-foot building – a former Montgomery Ward’s department store – to 38,373 square feet, with housing on the second through fifth floors.

And finally, the council approved the site plan and development agreement for two restaurants at Briarwood Mall. The restaurants – one at 6,470 square feet, the other at 7,068 square feet – will be constructed on the east side of the Macy’s building. The restaurants would be operated by two chains: P.F. Chang’s and Bravo! Cucina Italiana.

As part of the consent agenda, the council approved agreements with Sprint for placing antennas at four facilities: the Plymouth Road water tower, the Manchester Road water tower, the Ann-Ashley parking structure, and the water treatment plant on Sunset Road. The contracts are being revised upwards to $45,000 a year at each location, with 4% annual escalators.

The council also approved appointments to the Ann Arbor Summer Festival board of directors.

Members of a pedestrian safety task force, established late last year, were also nominated at the meeting. A confirmation vote will come at the council’s meeting on Jan. 21. Related at least indirectly to that, city administrator Steve Powers has provided the council with the first part of his response to the council’s direction in connection with the city’s updated non-motorized transportation plan. [Full Story]

DDA Acts on Elevator Design, Parking Term

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Jan. 8, 2014): In a meeting that lasted just 40 minutes, the DDA board handled two substantive items of business: funding for design work of a new parking structure elevator; and extension options for monthly parking permits associated with a planned new residential development.

Floor 7 at the southwest elevator of the Fourth & William parking structure in downtown Ann Arbor.

Floor 7 at the southwest elevator of the Fourth & William parking structure in downtown Ann Arbor. (Photos by the writer.)

The elevator in question is located at the southwest corner of the Fourth & William parking structure. The 994-space capacity makes it the largest structure in Ann Arbor’s public parking system, which offers around 8,000 parking spaces in lots, structures and on-street, metered parking.

The elevator is at least 30 years old, and was characterized at the meeting by DDA executive director Susan Pollay as one of the slowest in the Ann Arbor area, and the frequent subject of parking patron complaints. A trip from street level to floor 7 was timed by The Chronicle at about 45 seconds. That compares to 17 seconds for a similar trip on the elevator at Fourth & Washington, which is the DDA’s second-newest structure.

The board’s Jan. 8 resolution authorized $40,000 for Carl Walker Inc. to develop architectural renderings for the work at the Fourth & William parking structure. Carl Walker is the consulting firm used by the DDA for its routine maintenance inspection program for the parking structures. The design is supposed to allow for phased construction so that the parking structure could remain open during the construction period, which would not begin before next winter. The estimated construction cost for the project is $2.25 million.

In its other main business item, the board voted to allow the developer of the future 624 Church St. project in downtown Ann Arbor to extend for up to 15 years – for a total of 30 years – the contracts for 48 already-approved parking permits under the city’s contribution-in-lieu (CIL) program. At its meeting on Nov. 6, 2013, the DDA board had already approved the purchase of 48 parking permits through that CIL program for a new version of the proposed residential development at 624 Church St. in downtown Ann Arbor.

The spaces were approved to be provided in the Forest Avenue parking structure. The DDA board’s Jan. 8 resolution indicated that for the extension periods, the DDA might choose to allocate the spaces in some other structure than the Forest facility.

In an update at the meeting also related to parking, city administrator Steve Powers said that the surface parking lot at the former Y site would need to be closed no later than March, due to the sale of the city-owned property to Dennis Dahlmann. The property is located on the north side of William Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues near the Blake Transit Center and downtown library.

The board also received an update on its initiative to pay for downtown ambassadors. And board members were alerted to the upcoming Jan. 13 city council work session about economic development. [Full Story]

R4C/R2A Zoning Proposals Reviewed

Ann Arbor planning commission working session (Dec. 10, 2013): Continuing a years-long effort to overhaul the R4C/R2A residential zoning ordinance, planning commissioners were briefed about revised recommendations from an advisory committee that has now completed its work.

Julie Weatherbee, Wendy Carman, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Julie Weatherbee and Wendy Carman of the R4C/R2A advisory committee briefed Ann Arbor planning commissioners on the group’s report. (Photos by the writer.)

An advisory committee was originally established by the Ann Arbor city council in 2009. Its purpose was to give input as the planning commission developed recommendations for what some city staff have called a “broken” zoning district. The committee’s original recommendations were delivered to the commission in 2012, and planning commissioners adopted their own set of recommendations for the council in April of 2013.

Although there was considerable overlap, the planning commission’s recommendations diverged from the advisory committee in some significant ways. Some advisory committee members felt their work had been cut short and that the final report presented to the planning commission on behalf of the committee did not fully reflect the committee’s consensus. They also wanted to weigh in on some of the commission’s recommendations, including a proposed “group housing” overlay district.

So the city council reconstituted the advisory committee in the summer of 2013, with slightly different membership. The group met four times, then created a new report for the planning commission to consider. [.pdf of December 2013 advisory committee recommendations]

The committee’s chair, Julie Weatherbee, and committee member Wendy Carman – who also serves on the city’s zoning board of appeals – briefed commissioners on the main issues that differed from the planning commission’s own recommendations. Those differences related to group housing/overlay zoning, maximum lot size, side setbacks, parking, and lot combinations.

On Dec. 10, much of the discussion focused on the issue of a “group housing” overlay district that the planning commission has proposed, which was not part of the advisory committee’s recommendations. Committee members had concerns and uncertainty about what the planning commission intended, and the discussion focused on trying to clarify the purpose of a group housing overlay district. The point is not to specifically encourage group housing, commissioners said, noting that the term was taken from the city’s master plan. Rather, the goal to provide more flexible options for improving in that area, located near the University of Michigan’s central campus. One commissioner characterized the intent as ”trying to clean up the student slums.”

Regarding lot size and lot combinations, the advisory committee recommends changing the city’s zoning ordinance to create a maximum lot size of 6,525 square feet within R4C districts. Existing lot sizes would be grandfathered in – that is, this new maximum size would only apply to lots created after the ordinance changes are passed. The committee thought that this approach would be a way to limit lot combinations, which are considered problematic when a large parcel is formed for developments that change the character of the streetscape.

In contrast, the planning commission has recommended no maximum lot size, believing that a limit would be too restrictive. The commission’s recommendation calls for requiring planning commission approval for lot combinations in R4C districts, as part of a project’s site plan review.

The advisory committee has also recommended creating a new committee to look at parking issues, including off-site parking, shared services such as Zipcars, shared parking with other units, and mandatory residential parking permits. Planning commissioners were receptive to that suggestion – their recommendations had called for a parking study. Currently, the city requires that new developments in R4C districts include 1.5 parking spaces per dwelling unit.

The next step will be for the planning commission’s ordinance revisions committee to look at all of the recommendations for the R4C/R2A zoning, and decide how to move forward. It’s possible that a new set of recommendations would be brought forward to the full planning commission. Ultimately, the city council would need to give direction on how the planning commission should proceed in developing actual revisions to the zoning ordinances. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Commission Starts New Year

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Jan. 2, 2014): Commissioners spent more than half of their first meeting of 2014 in closed session to discuss possible land acquisition.

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Stephanie Buttrey asks a question during a discussion at the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission’s Jan. 2, 2014 meeting. Other commissioners in this photo are Peter Allen, Shannon Brines and Jean Cares. (Photos by the writer.)

Land acquisition is one topic that’s allowed as an exemption in Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, which allows a public body to meeting in a closed session. Emerging after about 30 minutes, commissioners voted to recommend that the city partner with Scio Township for the purchase of development rights on a property in that township, just west of Ann Arbor. Until properties are put on the council agenda, they are identified only by application number, not by specific location or ownership.

Also on Jan. 2, commissioners got an update on Preserve Washtenaw, a group of local governments and organizations – including the city of Ann Arbor – that are involved in long-term land preservation efforts. The goal of Preserve Washtenaw is to provide a forum for discussing how these various entities can collaborate and coordinate.

Commissioners also voted to approve GAC’s 2014 meeting schedule, and created a new committee focused on outreach. Members include John Ramsburgh, Stephanie Buttrey and Jean Cares.

No one spoke during the meeting’s two opportunities for public commentary. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor District Library Gets Clean Audit

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Dec. 16, 2013): The board’s main action item was to accept the 2012-13 audit, which was briefly reviewed by Dave Fisher of the accounting firm Rehmann. It was a clean report, he said.

Dave Fisher, Rehmann, audit, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Dave Fisher of the accounting firm Rehmann presented the AADL 2012-13 audit. (Photos by the writer.)

There was no discussion among board members on that item, though Fisher noted the audit had been discussed at the board’s budget and finance committee in November.

Also approved was a one-year lease extension with Green Road Associates for storage of newspaper archives. The library has leased the Plymouth Park facility – an office park owned by First Martin Corp. on Green Road, north of Plymouth – since January 2010. That’s when AADL took possession of the Ann Arbor News archives, a few months after the owners of that publication decided to cease operations. The library is digitizing the Ann Arbor News archives, along with material from other local newspapers, as part of a project called Old News.

Much of the meeting focused on two staff presentations: A report on library statistics for November in five categories (collections, users, visits, usage and participation); and an update on the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled (WLBPD).

One person, Donald Salberg, addressed the board during public commentary. Part of his remarks focused on the board’s decision – at its Nov. 11, 2013 meeting – to approve a tax-sharing agreement with Pittsfield Township and the State Street corridor improvement authority. He told trustees that they hadn’t identified any real benefit that the CIA would bring to the library.

At the end of the meeting, board president Prue Rosenthal read a statement that defended the board’s decision to participate in the CIA, outlining its benefits to the library and the broader community. She said that although the board vote had not been unanimous, she thought that all trustees were comfortable that the decision was made with a great deal of care. [Full Story]

Planning Group Supports 624 Church Project

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Dec. 17, 2013): Three items – all of which had been previously reviewed by planning commissioners in some form – moved forward following action at the commission’s last meeting of 2013. The meeting started about 15 minutes late as the group awaited enough members to form a quorum. Three of the nine commissioners were absent.

624 Church, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Rendering of 624 Church apartments, looking south from South University. Zaragon Place is pictured to the west, immediately next to the proposed 624 Church building. (Image included in the planning commission meeting packet.)

The largest proposal was a revised version of a 14-story apartment complex at 624 Church St. The development, located in Ward 3, was expanded after an additional property was acquired next to the original site. The project is a 116,167-square-foot building with 123 apartments and about 230 bedrooms. It would stand adjacent to and over the existing two-story Pizza House restaurant at 618 Church, and would extend to the southeast corner of Willard and Church, where the building’s entrance will be located.

Questions from commissioners covered a range of topics, including concerns over the 48 parking permits that the developer has secured from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority in the Forest Avenue parking structure. Two commissioners expressed concern that the structure is frequently full already, and that additional spaces taken up with 624 Church St. residents will make it even more difficult to park there.

Other issues raised during deliberations related to the location of the bike storage room, the use of a proposed outdoor plaza space next to Pizza House, the type of materials to be used in the building and design of the building. The vote to recommend approval of the project was unanimous.

Also recommended for approval on Dec. 17 was the zoning of two properties on South State Street – 1643 and 1645 S. State – as C1 (local business district). One of those properties houses Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky. The land had been annexed into the city from Ann Arbor Township in 2011. That same year, a previous request for zoning the land as C3 had been recommended for denial by commissioners.

Another State Street project – a revised version of an expansion at Germain Motors – was recommended for approval by commissioners in a unanimous vote. The commission had voted to postpone action on Nov. 19, 2013, pending issues that were resolved in the version presented on Dec. 17. [Full Story]

AAATA OKs Capital Program, Paratransit Deal

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (Dec. 19, 2013): The last meeting of the year was attended by just five of the nine board members who are appointed and serving – and one needed to depart early. So to maintain a quorum, the meeting went by brisker than most. Even with a staff presentation on the capital and categorical grant program, the meeting concluded after about 45 minutes.

From left: Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority's newest board member, pending confirmation by the Ypsilanti Township board of trustees, and Eric Mahler, AAATA board member.

From left: Larry Krieg, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s newest board member, pending confirmation by the Ypsilanti Township board of trustees, and Eric Mahler, AAATA board member. (Photos by the writer.)

That capital and categorical grant program got a unanimous vote of approval at the Dec. 19 meeting. It’s a plan for spending about $45 million in federal funds over the next five years. According to the AAATA, this year’s plan does not include additional capital needs that would be associated with a five-year service improvement plan in the urban core, or any funding associated with rail initiatives. Having in place such a capital and categorical grant program – a set of allocations for specific categories of capital expenditures – is a requirement to be eligible for federal funding. [.pdf of 2014-2018 grant program]

The five-year service improvement plan could be implemented by the AAATA with funding that will likely be sought through an additional millage sometime in 2014. That would require approval of a majority of voters in the three jurisdictions making up the AAATA – the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The township became a member as a result of an Ann Arbor city council vote taken on Nov. 18, 2013.

The expected appointee to the AAATA board from Ypsilanti Township, Larry Krieg, attended the Dec. 19 meeting and sat at the table, although his appointment has not yet been confirmed by the township board of trustees. His confirmation did not appear on the township board’s Dec. 9, 2013 agenda. The next township board meeting is set for Jan. 21, 2014, which comes the week after the AAATA’s next regular meeting, on Jan. 16.

So Krieg did not participate in any of the votes taken on Dec. 19.

A significant vote taken by the board was to approve a nine-month extension of a contract with SelectRide through April 30, 2015, to provide paratransit service. The value of the contract for the extension period is $2.263 million. That’s essentially a pro-rated amount of SelectRide’s current contract, which ran through July 31, 2014.

The AAATA is currently preparing a request for proposals (RFP) with an eye to overhaul the concept of its paratransit service – which comes in the context of the possible five-year service improvement plan. Without a contract extension, that RFP would need to be ready for issuance in time to complete selection of a vendor by the time SelectRide’s current contract expires in July 2014. To avoid the possibility of an interruption in service, the AAATA board approved the SelectRide contract extension.

Other business items handled by the board included contracts for snow removal and janitorial services. [Full Story]

County Renames Park for Nelson Meade

Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission meeting (Dec. 10, 2013): WCPARC’s December meeting included appreciation and thanks to retiring commissioner Nelson Meade, who has served on WCPARC from its formation in 1973.

Nelson Meade, County Farm Park, Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A mock-up made by WCPARC staff of the proposed sign to rename County Farm Park in honor of Nelson Meade.

To commemorate his service, commissioners passed a resolution to rename the County Farm Park in Meade’s honor. The 141-acre park is at the southwest corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Platt Road in Ann Arbor, where WCPARC’s Meri Lou Murray recreation center is located. The meeting also included a video of remarks by county commissioner Ronnie Peterson, who described Meade as “a man of few words but unquestionable commitment.”

Applications are being accepted for Meade’s replacement on WCPARC, with a deadline of Jan. 12. The appointment will be made by the county board of commissioners.

Most of WCPARC’s other main action items related to potential acquisitions through its natural areas preservation program. The commission took the first step toward acquiring title or conservation easements on five parcels of land. Those properties include: (1) the 6.4-acre Heumann property on the west side of Sylvan Township, west of the Chrysler proving grounds with access from Sylvan Road south of old US-12; (2) 129 acres of the Bloch-Vreeland Road property, at the southeast corner of Leforge and Vreeland Roads in Superior Township; and (3) three parcels on Marshall Road in Scio Township, in partnership with the Scio Township land preservation program.

Action to finalize acceptance of a donation of the 10-acre Geddes Mill Ltd. property in Ann Arbor Township – valued at $1.27 million – was postponed pending completion an environmental assessment. The property is on the north side of the Huron River, immediately east of the US-23 northbound off ramp. There is a bit of frontage on both Dixboro Road to the east and Geddes Road to the north.

Items not requiring action included updates on the proposed Eastern County Recreation Center on Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti, with details about terms of a development agreement as well as the latest proposal for site development. Updates also included a status report on the Ann Arbor skatepark. Construction is now 65% complete, but work has ceased for the winter. [Full Story]

Y Proceeds, Homelessness: Matter of Degree

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Dec. 16, 2013): The city council’s last regular meeting of 2013 pushed well past midnight. And toward the end of the meeting, councilmembers batted around the idea of asking the city clerk to enforce the council’s rule limiting councilmember speaking time. It’s an issue that will be taken up by the council’s rules committee.

Hourly temperature data from WeatherSpark. Chart by The Chronicle. Yellow horizontal line is 25 degrees. The red horizontal line is 10 degrees. Weather amnesty threshold for daytime hours at the Delonis Center shelter is 10 degrees. Advocates for homeless community spoke at the meeting in favor of a 25-degree threshold.

Hourly temperature data from WeatherSpark for part of November and December 2013. Chart by The Chronicle. Yellow horizontal line is 25 degrees. The red horizontal line is 10 degrees. The “weather amnesty” threshold – when the Delonis Center shelter opens for daytime hours – is 10 degrees. Advocates for the homeless community spoke at the city council’s Dec. 16 meeting in favor of a 25-degree threshold.

In some of its more significant business of the night, the council voted unanimously to deposit almost $1.4 million into the city of Ann Arbor’s affordable housing trust fund. The council’s final vote was unanimous, although Jane Lumm (Ward 2) offered an amendment to cut that amount in half, which failed on a 2-9 vote. Jack Eaton (Ward 4) joined Lumm in supporting that failed amendment.

The dollar figure of $1,384,300 million reflects the $1.75 million in gross proceeds, less brokerage fees and seller’s costs, from the sale of a downtown city-owned parcel known as the old Y lot. In 2003, the city paid $3.5 million for the property, located on William Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The council approved the sale of the property to Dennis Dahlmann for $5.25 million at its Nov. 18, 2013 meeting. The city has made interest-only payments on a $3.5 million loan for the last 10 years.

Public commentary during the meeting was dominated by residents advocating in support of the Y lot resolution – several on behalf of the homeless community. A current point of contention for several of the speakers is the fact that the Delonis Shelter does not operate a warming center during daytime hours. Instead, the center allows the homeless to seek refuge there during the day when the temperature or wind chill drops to 10 F degrees. Addressing that issue is one of several possible ways to spend the money from the affordable housing trust fund. Others include using it to renovate properties managed by the Ann Arbor housing commission.

Two items in which the council also invested considerable time at its Dec. 16 meeting involved traffic safety. The council wound up adopting unanimously a resolution that directs city administrator Steve Powers to present a strategy for funding elements of the city’s non-motorized transportation plan, by specific dates starting next year. The final version adopted by the council reflected a compromise on the exact wording of the resolution – which among other changes eliminated explicit mention of any specific technology. The original resolution had specifically cited rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFBs), as does the non-motorized plan.

Thematically related to the funding plan for non-motorized transportation improvements was a proposal to allocate $125,000 from the current general fund reserve to pay for police overtime for traffic enforcement. The debate on police overtime centered on the question of whether chief of police John Seto had a plan to spend the money, which equates to about 70 additional hours a week for the remaining six months of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2014. The resolution eventually won the support of all members of the council except for mayor John Hieftje.

The police overtime item was sponsored by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Jack Eaton (Ward 4) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2), who were part of a six-vote majority that had backed a significant revision to the city’s crosswalk law at the council’s Dec. 2, 2013 meeting. That change – which eliminated a requirement that motorists stop for pedestrians who were at the curb but not within the crosswalk – was subsequently vetoed by Hieftje. The text of that veto was attached to the council’s Dec. 16 meeting agenda as a communication.

The council’s focus on traffic and pedestrian safety will continue next year, on Jan. 6, when the council is supposed to make appointments to a pedestrian safety task force, which it established at its Nov. 18, 2013 meeting.

Also generally related to the public right-of-way on streets at the council’s Dec. 16 meeting was an item that was postponed from the Dec. 2, 2013 meeting. The council was asked to consider assigning a specific cost to the removal of an on-street parking space caused by a development: $45,000. The original postponement stemmed from a desire to hold a public hearing on the matter before taking action. One person spoke at the public hearing on Dec. 16, and the council deliberated about a half hour before deciding to postpone again.

The council voted unanimously to make a roughly $65,000 allocation from the solid waste fund balance to pay for an initiative that will allow residents to add plate scrapings to their brown compost carts for curbside collection. The additional funds will cover an increased level of service at the compost processing facility – daily versus weekly grinding. The funds will also cover the cost of counter-top containers the city plans to give away to residents to encourage the initial separation of plate scrapings from garbage, and a subsidy for the sale of additional brown compost carts. Some of that allocation is expected to be recovered through reduced landfill tipping fees.

Also on Dec. 16, the council accepted a $50,000 grant from the USDA Forestry Service to be spent on a tree pruning initiative focused on the city’s largest street trees.

The council metered out its time generously on items involving large and small dollar amount alike at its Dec. 16 meeting. So nearly a half hour of deliberations went into a resolution that directed the city administrator to include $10,000 of support for the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair as he develops next year’s (FY 2015) budget. The council voted unanimously to support that resolution.

The council postponed an item that formally terminated a four-year-old memorandum of understanding with the University of Michigan on the demised Fuller Road Station project. It had been added to the agenda the same day as the meeting, and that was the reason it was postponed. However, it was clear from remarks at the meeting that when the council takes up the resolution next year, it will have support. [Full Story]

County Wraps Up 2013 with PACE Initiative

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Dec. 4, 2013): At their final meeting of 2013, commissioners spent most of the time discussing a proposal to create a countywide Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program.

Andy Levin, Felicia Brabec, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Lean & Green Michigan, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Andy Levin of Lean & Green Michigan talks with Washtenaw County commissioner Felicia Brabec before the county board’s Dec. 4, 2013 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

They ultimately gave initial approval to a notice of intent to form a PACE program. If created, the program would allow commercial property owners in Washtenaw County to fund energy improvements by securing financing from lenders and repaying the loan through voluntary special assessments.

The county’s proposal entails joining the Lean & Green Michigan coalition and contracting with Levin Energy Partners to manage the PACE program. Andy Levin, who’s spearheading the PACE program statewide through Lean & Green, was on hand during the Dec. 4 meeting to field questions. Levin – son of U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin and nephew of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin – was head of the Michigan Dept. of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth (DELEG) during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration, when the PACE legislation was enacted.

Also attending the Dec. 4 meeting was state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-District 18), who spoke briefly during public commentary to support the county’s initiative. She was instrumental in passing the state enabling legislation to allow such programs in Michigan. Warren is married to county commissioner Conan Smith, a co-founder of the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office, which is a partner in Lean & Green Michigan.

A final vote on the notice of intent is now scheduled for the board’s first meeting next year – on Jan. 8, 2014. A public hearing on this issue has been set for the board’s Jan. 22 meeting. That’s because the board would need to take an additional vote to actually create the PACE district. No date for that vote to create the district has been set.

In other action, commissioners accepted a $150,000 state grant to establish the Washtenaw County Trial Court’s Peacemaking Court. Timothy Connors, a 22nd circuit court judge who’s leading this initiative, attended the Dec. 4 meeting and told the board that this project will explore and determine what, if any, tribal court philosophies or procedures might have applicability in Michigan’s courts. Participation in the peacemaking court will be voluntary.

The board also made a raft of appointments, including appointing the county’s water resources commissioner, Evan Pratt, as director of public works. That vote came over dissent from commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. The board of public works had raised a question about the appointment’s potential conflict-of-interest, given that Pratt holds an elected office as water resources commissioner. The county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, prepared a legal opinion on the issue, stating that the appointment would not be prohibited by the state’s Incompatible Public Offices Act.

No appointment was made to the southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA). Richard Murphy – one of two RTA board members from Washtenaw County – is not seeking reappointment. During the Dec. 4 meeting, board chair Yousef Rabhi indicated that there’s some uncertainty about when Murphy’s one-year term actually ends, and he was sorting that out with state and RTA officials. Because RTA board members weren’t sworn in until April of 2013, some state and RTA officials believe the term extends until April – even though appointments for Washtenaw County’s two slots were made by the previous county board chair, Conan Smith, in late 2012.

The application process is still open for the RTA, with a new deadline of Jan. 12. That same deadline applies to openings on the county’s food policy council and parks & recreation commission. Applicants can submit material online, or get more information by contacting the county clerk’s office at 734-222-6655 or [Full Story]

DDA Tackles Street Lights, Land Sale Issue

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Dec. 4, 2013): At its last regular meeting of the year, the board approved the final funding necessary to replace 81 light poles on Main Street, passed a resolution waiving a claim to reimbursement for the DDA’s costs associated with the former Y lot, and formally accepted its audit report for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2013 (FY 2013).

On Dec. 4, 2013, city administrator Steve Powers attended his first DDA board meeting as a member.

On Dec. 4, 2013, city administrator Steve Powers attended his first DDA board meeting as a member. (Photos by the writer.)

The board also considered a resolution added to the agenda on the day of the meeting, related to the contribution-in-lieu (CIL) parking agreement for the 624 Church St. project – but ultimately decided to table that resolution pending further review at the committee level.

The DDA’s Dec. 4 resolution allocating $280,000 for the Main Street light pole replacement ended the political wrangling over who should pay for those downtown Ann Arbor light poles. Replacement of the deteriorating poles was identified by the city as a need in the first half of 2012. The source of an estimated $600,000 required for the project was specified in the city’s CIP (capital improvements plan) that year as coming from the DDA – though the funds were at that time not authorized by the board.

In the spring of 2013, the city council weighed how it might clarify the city’s ordinance that restricts the DDA TIF (tax increment finance) capture. In that context, DDA executive director Susan Pollay told the council that the DDA might not be able to afford to pay for the Main Street light pole project – if the council changed the ordinance language to clarify the calculations in a way that did not favor the DDA. The question of the DDA’s TIF capture was not ultimately settled until the council’s Nov. 18, 2013 meeting.

In the interim, the city council voted at its May 20, 2013 meeting to request that the DDA allocate at least $300,000 for the $580,000 light pole project. After the council then declined at its Oct. 21, 2013 meeting to approve a budget allocation for the remaining $280,000 that was needed for the project, the DDA board passed its Dec. 4 resolution, citing the urgency of replacing at least 36 of the poles as the reason for its decision.

According to the DDA’s resolution, staff will use the DDA funding to begin now with replacement of those poles most in need of being removed, with the remainder replaced in the summer of 2014.

Also at its Dec. 4 meeting – in connection with the city’s pending sale to Dennis Dahlmann of the former Y lot, at William Street and Fifth Avenue – the DDA board passed a resolution that waived claim to $1,439,959 in reimbursements from the sale that the DDA has calculated it might be owed. The city council adopted a policy on Oct. 15, 2012 that included depositing net proceeds (after reimbursements) from the former Y lot sale into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

So the DDA board’s action is an attempt to increase the amount that will be deposited into the affordable housing trust fund. The resolution passed by the DDA board also calls on the city council to waive the city’s claim to reimbursements. The city purchased the property in 2003 for $3.5 million and has made interest-only payments for the last 10 years on a loan for that amount. The agreed-upon sale price to Dahlmann is $5.25 million.

In another formal action taken on Dec. 4, the DDA board accepted the audit report from the most recently concluded fiscal year – FY 2013, which ended June 30, 2013. The auditor issued an “unmodified” or clean opinion.

The board also considered a request, which was ultimately tabled, from the developer of the 624 Church St. project. The developer is asking for an extension of the contractual agreement under which parking permits could be purchased using the city’s contribution-in-lieu (CIL) program. The program allows a developer to satisfy certain zoning requirements that parking spaces be provided for a project – by purchasing monthly permits in the public parking system at a premium rate, instead of building the spaces on site. The developer of the 624 Church St. project wants the ability to extend the 15-year minimum to cover a 30-year financing period – based on feedback from firms that would be providing the financing. The DDA board ultimately voted to table the question pending further review by the board’s operations committee.

The board’s newest members introduced themselves at the meeting: city administrator Steve Powers and Main Street retailer Cyndi Clark.

Also at its Dec. 4 meeting, the board heard a range of updates on various projects and public commentary. Highlights included a report from the Main Street BIZ (business improvement zone), which has enough money in its fund balance to handle sidewalk snow removal for the coming winter, without collecting the winter tax assessment to which it is entitled. In a separate update, there’s a possibility that downtown ambassadors could be hired by the DDA as soon as the summer of 2014.

Other topics covered in updates included the effort to save the State Theater, the NHL’s Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, and The Puck Drops Here festivities on New Year’s Eve. [Full Story]

Group Explores Road Commission’s Future

At its second meeting since being formed in early October, a subcommittee that’s exploring the future of the Washtenaw County road commission met on Dec. 4 and discussed a variety of issues surrounding one central challenge: How to improve the condition of local roads.

John Stanowski, Conan Smith, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, York Township, Washtenaw County road commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

York Township supervisor John Stanowski, center, talks with Washtenaw County commissioner Conan Smith, who represents District 9 in Ann Arbor. They are members of a subcommittee appointed by the county board to explore the future of the road commission. (Photos by the writer.)

The subcommittee was created by the county board of commissioners, which has the authority to appoint the three road commissioners but does not oversee the road commission’s budget or allocation of funds. State legislation enacted last year 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.

According to the County Road Association of Michigan, five of the state’s 83 counties have merged their road commissions into the county government. Of those, the closest parallel to Washtenaw County in size and demographics is Ingham County, home to Lansing and East Lansing – where Michigan State University is located.

At the Dec. 4 meeting, there appeared to be universal agreement that more road funding is needed, but no clear consensus about the best way to achieve that goal. Conan Smith, a county commissioner representing District 9 in Ann Arbor, noted that there are more options to explore than just leaving the road commission unchanged, or absorbing it as a county department. He said he could almost guarantee that it wouldn’t be the best option to have the county board become the road commission.

However, he argued that there are likely structural and procedural changes that can improve the coordination of countywide transportation planning and land use planning, and to ease the burden on rural townships for funding the maintenance of roads that are used by people throughout the county.

A variety of funding mechanisms were discussed on Dec. 4, including the possibility of the county board levying a countywide road millage under Act 283 of 1909 – which at this point seems unlikely – or putting a millage question on the ballot for voters to decide.

The Dec. 4 meeting drew more than two dozen observers, including two of the three current road commissioners, several township elected officials, and many road commission employees. The subcommittee plans to schedule another meeting for early January 2014, and is expected to complete its recommendations by the end of March.
[Full Story]

Recommendations Set for Downtown Zoning

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Dec. 3, 2013): Following months of public input and review by a consultant hired by the city, Ann Arbor planning commissioners finalized a set of recommendations to revise parts of the city’s downtown zoning. Those recommendations will now be forwarded to the city council, possibly at its Jan. 20 meeting.

Bonnie Bona, Wendy Rampson, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor planning commissioner Bonnie Bona talks with city planning manager Wendy Rampson before the start of the commission’s Dec. 3, 2013 meeting. Bona was successful in advocating for the downzoning of a parcel at the southeast corner of Main and William. (Photos by the writer.)

In general, the recommendations aim to create more of a buffer between downtown development and adjacent or nearby residential neighborhoods.

Three of the recommendations relate to specific parcels: (1) Rezone the parcel located at 336 E. Ann from D1 (downtown core) to D2 (downtown interface); (2) Reduce the maximum height in the East Huron 1 Character District (on the north side of Huron, between Division and State) to 120 feet. Include a tower diagonal maximum and consider a step-back requirement to reduce the shading of residential properties to the north; (3) Rezone the parcel at 425 S. Main, at the southeast corner of Main and William, from D1 (downtown core) to D2 (downtown interface) and establish a maximum height of 60 feet for D2 zoning in the Main Street Character District.

Several other recommendations focused on the issue of “premiums” – certain features that a developer can provide in exchange for additional square footage. Those recommendations are: (1) Revise the premium conditions to require mandatory compliance with core design guidelines for a project to receive any premium in the D1 or D2 districts; (2) Reduce the residential premium with the goal of encouraging the use of other existing or proposed premiums to compensate for this reduction, such as increased energy efficiency certification, open space with landscape, active ground floor use, balconies and workforce housing; (3) Review options in D1 and D2 districts, with the housing and humans services advisory board (HHSAB), for providing additional affordable housing within mixed income projects or through other funding mechanisms; (4) Eliminate the affordable housing 900% FAR (floor area ratio) “super premium”; and (5) Evaluate the downtown real estate market to determine the effectiveness of premium incentives every 2-5 years.

On Dec. 3, commissioners heard from three people during the public hearing – all three of them addressing the issue of zoning at 425 S. Main, including one of the property owners, Andy Klein. Speaking on behalf of the owners was Scott Bonney of Neumann/Smith Architecture, who suggested a third option to consider: Keep the D1 zoning on that site, but reduce the maximum height to 122 feet and add a tower diagonal maximum of 50% of the maximum diagonal dimension of the site. Ted Annis, who lives near that location, called for D2 zoning there.

Bonnie Bona, who’d been involved in the original A2D2 zoning process that’s now being partially reviewed, advocated for downzoning the entire site at 425 S. Main, to provide a buffer between D1 zoning and the nearby residential neighborhood. Some commissioners, including chair Kirk Westphal, wanted more density in the downtown, and noted that the site has allowed for denser development since the 1960s. The final vote on the recommendation for that site was 5-4, with support from Bona, Eleanore Adenekan, Sabra Briere, Jeremy Peters and Wendy Woods. Voting against it were Westphal, Ken Clein, Diane Giannola and Paras Parekh.

Also, because of feedback received from the city’s design review board, commissioners revisited a recommendation that they’d previously settled regarding compliance with design guidelines. They unanimously voted to change the recommendation – so that it would require mandatory compliance with some of the design guidelines. The intent is to develop a process that will clarify the design compliance that will be required in order to receive premiums.

The vote on the full resolution with all of the recommendations, as amended, passed unanimously.

The next step is for the council to review the recommendations and give direction back to the commission about which recommendations to implement. At that point, the commission’s ordinance revisions committee would work with city planning staff to craft actual ordinance language. Any specific ordinance changes would be reviewed by the full planning commission and ultimately would require city council approval before taking effect. That process would include additional opportunities for public input.

Also on Dec. 3, commissioners reviewed the 2015-2020 capital improvements plan (CIP). After about an hour of discussion – touching on street lights, sidewalks, the rail station, public engagement, and other issues – they voted unanimously to adopt the updated CIP as a supporting document for the city’s master plan, and to recommend that the city council base its FY 2015 capital budget on the CIP.

The CIP includes a list of major capital projects, both those that are funded and those for which funding hasn’t yet been identified. [.pdf of staff memo and CIP for FY 2015-2020] Most of the updates relate to FY 2015, which begins on July 1, 2014. This year reflects the first-time inclusion of projects undertaken by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the Ann Arbor housing commission. [Full Story]