The Ann Arbor Chronicle » development it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New Citizen Participation Tools Reviewed Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:39:26 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor planning commission working session (Aug. 12, 2014): Planning commissioners gave feedback on new guides that staff have developed for residents and developers, aimed at improving communication about proposed development projects.

Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Excerpt from a draft guide being developed by the city’s planning staff. It was reviewed at the planning commission’s Aug. 12 working session.

The “Citizens’ Guide to Effective Communication” and “Developers’ Guide to Leading Effective Citizen Participation Meetings” were drafted by planning staff, based in part on suggestions from the planning commission’s citizen outreach committee.

Two other outreach documents were reviewed at the Aug. 12 working session – a guide to the city’s site plan review process, and a template for postcard notifications of citizen participation meetings.

In addition to giving feedback on those draft documents and how they might be distributed, commissioners discussed how to improve the effectiveness of mandatory citizen participation meetings and the reports that developers must provide based on those meetings.

The citizen participation meetings are held for all major projects, a requirement that’s been in place since the city council enacted a citizen participation ordinance in 2008. An evaluation of that ordinance was supposed to have been done five years ago. However, there had been a lull in development soon after the ordinance was passed. Planning manager Wendy Rampson told commissioners that now there have been a sufficient number of projects to evaluate, and to possibly make some thoughtful changes to the code.

Citizen Participation

The city’s citizen participation ordinance was approved by the city council on Sept. 8, 2008 and took effect Jan. 1, 2009. [.pdf file of citizen participation ordinance] It was an ordinance that Sabra Briere (Ward 1) advocated for after her election to the city council in 2007. Briere, Joan Lowenstein – who served on the council and planning commission at that time – and planning commissioner Kirk Westphal worked with city staff to develop the ordinance. Briere now serves as the council’s representative on the planning commission.

Among other things, the ordinance requires the owner or developer of a project to hold a citizen participation meeting before a project is formally submitted to the city for approval – specifically, for planned projects, planned unit developments, rezonings, and major site plans. Developers are expected to:

… pursue early and effective citizen participation in conjunction with their proposed developments, giving citizens an early opportunity to learn about, understand and comment upon proposals, and providing an opportunity for citizens to be involved in the development of their neighborhood and community;

The ordinance also requires that written notification of the citizen participation meeting be sent to property owners, residents and registered neighborhood groups within 1,000 feet of the project site. The developer must then submit a report to the city that describes any issues raised by citizens and how the project will address those issues.

No formal evaluation of the ordinance has been completed, though that was initially expected to take place a year after it was enacted. An evaluation is part of the planning commission and staff’s 2014-2015 work plan, with a target completion of January 2015. Planning staff and the commission’s citizen outreach committee will be working on that. Committee assignments for the current fiscal year have not yet been made.

Katy Ryan, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Katy Ryan, an intern with the city’s planning unit. Her last day with the city was Aug. 15. She’s been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Rutgers University to study human geography. She told commissioners that she’s interested in climate change issues in rural neighborhoods, and how public participation can be used to encourage engagement.

The citizen outreach committee met most recently in January 2014, and had made some recommendations for improving engagement. Members of that committee were Sabra Briere, Diane Giannola, Jeremy Peters and Paras Parekh. Parekh recently resigned from the planning commission, as he made a job-related move out of town.

Based on the committee’s direction, staff had drafted some new materials that were brought to commissioners for review at their Aug. 12 working session.

Katy Ryan, an intern with the planning unit, gave a presentation on those materials that she had helped develop: (1) a citizens’ guide to effective communication; (2) a developers’ guide to leading effective citizen participation meetings; (3) a guide to the city’s site plan review process; and (4) a template for postcard notifications of citizen participation meetings.

The one-page citizens’ guide outlines elements of the citizen participation ordinance, describes ways that residents can get involved, and gives tips on how to effectively provide input. [.pdf of citizens' guide]

The developers’ guide, also a one-page document, gives direction about how best to handle the mandatory citizen participation meeting. [.pdf of developers' guide] Also for developers, a guide to the city’s site plan process describes the steps involved in this review, as well as an estimated timeline for each phase. Residents could also use this guide to see what the city requires and when there’s an opportunity for input, Ryan said. [.pdf of site plan guide]

The template for postcard notices is an effort to standardize communication so that the same information is always provided. [.pdf of postcard template]

Ryan also highlighted the new citizen participation site that launched earlier this summer, as part of the city’s overhaul of its entire website. Some outdated items were removed, and new information is intended to help people find what they need, she said. The new guides for citizens and developers are posted there. Google analytics indicate a spike in usage, she reported, and the bounce rate has improved – it’s been lowered by 8%.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Materials

Jeremy Peters asked how these guides would be distributed, other than the website. Katy Ryan replied that when developers meet with staff, they can be made aware of these guides. The citizens’ guide could be distributed to neighborhood groups, she said.

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

Planning commissioner Jeremy Peters, who serves on the citizen outreach committee.

Planning manager Wendy Rampson reported that one of this year’s goals for the planning unit is to reach out to neighborhood associations. Part of that is to update the current information that the planning staff maintains, but another aspect is to create a stronger connection between the planning staff and residents.

Peters suggested including a link to the citizens’ guide, as part of the notification of a project in its early stages.

Rampson indicated that Ryan didn’t have time to revamp the city’s public hearing notices, but that’s next on the list. Those notices have to contain certain types of information, since they are legal notices, “but we could certainly make the wording more friendly” and include short URLs, she said.

Regarding the estimated project timeline that’s outlined in the site plan guide, Ken Clein suggested adding a disclaimer – that there’s no guarantee the timeline will follow those estimates.

Sabra Briere asked if printed handouts would be available for these guides. She noted that some residents would want the information, but they’re not necessarily computer savvy. Rampson replied that the staff have stopped keeping printed handouts in stock, but if someone comes to the front desk at city hall, it could be printed for them. She added that there could be printed handouts available at the planning commission meetings, as an option.

Wendy Woods wondered if the city ever sends out this kind of information with its water bills or other mailings. Rampson said the city mails out the Waste Watcher publication, which primarily includes public services-related information. But the city has also used inserts in its water bills at times, she noted. Those bills go out quarterly. She thought it probably wouldn’t entail additional cost to the planning unit’s budget, but would be handled by the communications staff.

Diane Giannola, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Diane Giannola.

However, more people are choosing to pay their water bills online, Rampson said, so that kind of mailing wouldn’t reach everyone.

Kirk Westphal liked the bullet point in the citizens guide that emphasized working with neighborhood associations, and he wondered if that could be stressed even more – especially for communications that happen before a developer actually submits a formal proposal.

Diane Giannola expressed caution about that. “The problem with neighborhood associations is that they’re controlled by a certain group of people – and that’s not necessarily the views of the entire neighborhood,” she said. For her own condo association, “the president runs everything.”

Westphal thought that if a neighborhood association meets with a developer over a proposed project, “it’s a great time for that neighborhood to hear from each other – it’s sort of a forced collaboration, in a way.” Peters added that ideally, such a meeting would take place early enough in the process so that the developer could incorporate neighborhood feedback.

Responding to a query from commissioners, Ryan said the design that’s featured in the citizens’ and developers’ guides was made by taking a photo of Ann Arbor’s skyline, tracing it in Photoshop, and filling in the outline with solid green.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Mandatory Meetings

Commissioners also discussed the format of the mandatory citizen participation meetings. Rampson said that some residents have told planning staff that Brad Moore – a local architect who’s involved with several projects in Ann Arbor – handles those meetings particularly well. So the planning staff plans to interview him for tips he might have that could be passed along to other developers.

Sabra Briere, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

City councilmember and planning commissioner Sabra Briere.

Briere reported that she and Peters had just attended part of a citizen participation meeting, which started a half hour before the working session – Moore had been leading that one, too. [That participation meeting was held from 6:30-8 p.m. on Aug. 12 at the DDA offices, about a block from city hall. It focused on a project proposal to rezone 221 Felch St. and adjacent parcels from M1 (limited industrial district) to R4D (multiple-family dwelling district) to allow for a low-rise residential development over enclosed parking.]

Moore presented solid information, Briere said, and he reiterated that the current step is for rezoning – not for a building design and site plan. He started out with a description of the land, some conceptual ideas, and the rationale for their approach. “He was very good about knowing how people react,” she said.

Peters added that instead of starting with a vision for the building, Moore began by talking about the land’s topography within the Allen Creek watershed, flooding issues, and other challenges of the site. The landscape architect was also on hand to discuss these issues before showing a possible building footprint on the site.

Rampson noted that a good land planner does that kind of site analysis first, and starts putting layers on top of that to develop a project.

Briere pointed out that in contrast to Moore’s approach on the Felch Street project, the Toll Brothers representatives – at their July 10 citizen participation meeting for a 500-unit development at Nixon and Dhu Varren roads – led off by showing a site plan and pictures of the buildings. They didn’t start off by talking about how they’d handle issues that would affect neighbors, like landscape buffers, stormwater and traffic, she noted.

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

Planning commissioner Kirk Westphal.

Eleanore Adenekan observed that neighbors go to those meetings to be heard, but they also come with their own pre-conceived notions about a project. Do the meetings include time for questions?

Briere explained that there’s no consistent format for the citizen participation meetings. There’s always an opportunity for Q&A, “whether it’s offered or taken,” she said, but it happens in different ways.

At the Toll Brothers presentation, because they tried to present so much information, they were constantly being interrupted, Briere said. In contrast, Moore and the Beal family – who own the Felch Street property – handled it in a more relaxed manner, so that it was more like a conversation.

Rampson pointed out that there’s a difference in the size of those two projects, which might have also been a factor.

Briere indicated that the responses to neighbor concerns at the Toll Brothers’ presentation were “not uniformly respectful, not understanding the impact on the existing properties.” In contrast, for the Felch Street proposal, Moore had offered to visit the neighbors and talk about their concerns. The difference might be that the Felch Street developer is local, Briere noted, and Toll Brothers isn’t.

“It’s a hard process to go through, engaging the public,” Briere said. “The more comfort you feel with it, the more often you do it, the better you get.”

Ken Clein, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Planning commissioner Ken Clein.

Commissioners also talked about whether planning staff should attend the citizen participation meetings. Some people thought there might be a “chilling effect” if commissioners or staff attended, Westphal said, or if a city councilmember attended. If someone did attend, he didn’t think it was appropriate to speak – unless it was for clarifying a fact.

Briere, who serves on city council, said she attended the Toll Brothers meeting and spoke about “what the ordinance said, what the expectations were, who was responsible, and why there were no staff present.” The project is located in Ward 1, which she represents.

Giannola thought the issue was whether the public would want the planning commissioners to speak during a citizen participation meeting. “That’s their attempt to talk to a developer,” she noted. “We’re going to have our chance later, so we shouldn’t be there giving out opinions.”

Briere agreed that giving an opinion wouldn’t be appropriate, but answering questions was fine. Giannola ventured that sometimes opinions are conveyed when answering questions. “Maybe, maybe not,” Briere replied. “It depends on your self control.”

Some residents who attend these meetings might be concerned that a commissioner or councilmember would be defending or promoting a development, Briere said, but “many of them are simply looking for answers. They want to know what the rules are.”

If there isn’t someone knowledgeable in the room, she added, “it’s possible for the developer to simply be besieged.” At the Toll Brothers meeting, some residents were demanding answers to questions about traffic flow, for example, which Briere said “was completely outside of their capacity to answer.”

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

Planning manager Wendy Rampson.

Giannola said that indicated that perhaps a staff member should attend. Briere pointed out that prior to the citizen participation ordinance, staff members used to attend any meeting held by a developer. “More than one member of the public saw the staff in the role of defending and promoting the development, which puts the staff member in a very delicate position,” she said.

That might be because people don’t like the answers that the staff provided, Giannola said. Westphal added: “The staff is defending the master plan and the zoning.”

Briere said she wasn’t advocating for staff not to attend. She herself attends these meetings, and thinks that she should continue do that. It’s important to have someone there who can stand up and say that the answer to a particular question is something that the city, not the developer, should address at a later date, Briere said.

Rampson said that one strategy would be for planning staff to coach a developer’s design team, letting them know it’s OK to defer questions that they can’t answer. The answers could then be included in the citizen participation report, and sent to residents, she said.

Rampson noted that although materials have been developed and the planning unit’s website is redesigned, there are other issues to address – including possible changes to citizen participation meetings. She suggested pulling the outreach committee together to talk about next steps.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Mandatory Reports

Briere encouraged the planning staff to think about how the citizen participation reports might be given to planning commissioners in a more timely way. Right now, the ordinance doesn’t require that reports come to the planning commission. The reports are included in the commission’s meeting packet when a project is reviewed.

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

Planning commissioner Eleanore Adenekan.

Rampson clarified that Briere also wanted the reports to follow a template, so that there would be consistency. Right now, Briere said, it’s difficult for planning commissioners to use the report as they evaluate a project.

Wendy Woods noted that some concerns had been raised that the report of a citizen participation meeting is biased, because it’s prepared by the developer – so the developer naturally wants to make it look as good as possible for the project.

Briere pointed out that the ordinance requires a developer to send the citizen participation meeting report to everyone who attends – assuming that they’ve provided contact information. So there’s a way for attendees to give feedback on the report. Rampson said the planning staff hasn’t been following up to make sure that’s happening, but they can start including that check as part of the process.

Giannola noted that one developer had included email exchanges with residents, as part of his citizen participation report. That had been very helpful, she said, because it included questions from neighbors as well as the developer’s responses.

Ken Clein thought developers would actually appreciate having a simple template to follow as they compile their report. “It’s sort of like Citizen Participation for Dummies,” he quipped. Westphal replied: “Let’s not make that the title.”

Westphal suggested that planning staff touch base with other communities that have had a citizen participation ordinance in place longer than Ann Arbor – like Auburn Hills.

Wendy Woods, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Wendy Woods, chair of the planning commission.

Briere noted that for many residents in Ann Arbor, the citizen participation process “is an opportunity to try to discourage development. That isn’t the case in every community.”

Rampson reported that some communities go to great lengths to try to publicize development proposals. One community in Colorado had hired someone to create a website that listed all the projects and provided regular updates. Ann Arbor does that through its eTRAKIT system, she noted, “but you have to dig.”

Briere said she’d never gotten eTRAKIT to work for her. “I’m pretty savvy, and if I can’t get it to work for me, there’s a lot of other people who don’t even try after the first time,” she said.

Ryan gave an example from Philadelphia, which has developed a quick reference guide to zoning. It would take time to develop something similar for Ann Arbor, she said, but it would be a great resource.

Rampson suggested that this is an issue the subcommittee can discuss further, and then bring recommendations to the full commission.

Citizen Participation: Commission Discussion – Ordinance Evaluation

An evaluation of the citizen participation ordinance was supposed to have been done five years ago, Rampson said, “but we’re working on it.” There had been a lull in development soon after the ordinance was passed, but now there have been enough examples to evaluate it and possibly make some thoughtful changes to the code, she noted.

Citizen Participation: Public Commentary

Former planning commissioner Ethel Potts attended the working session and spoke during the final opportunity for public commentary. Potts had served on the planning commission when the citizen participation ordinance was developed and implemented.

Eppie Potts, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Eppie Potts.

She said she used the city’s website primarily to find meeting schedules and agendas, but she’s having difficulty navigating the site after the recent redesign. She also hoped that the site could include all meetings, such as committee meetings. “I struggle to find out when many of these meetings are,” she said, “and I miss some that I really wanted to go to.”

Regarding the city’s list of neighborhood associations, Potts reported that some of the information is outdated. Some of the contact people who are listed have moved out of town, for example, or died.

Regarding citizen participation meetings, Potts said that a good approach is to present very general information at first, then drill down with more details as questions are asked. That way, the information is tailored to the interests of the people who are attending, she said.

Potts said she’s attended some citizen participation meetings that were “dreadful – about as bad as you could get.” The developers either took too much or too little time presenting their proposal, she said, and didn’t know how to deal with the public. In one case, there was a resident who monopolized the whole meeting, she said. “So it can go badly – mostly it doesn’t, but it can.”

Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Sabra Briere, Ken Clein, Diane Giannola, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods, Jeremy Peters. Also: City planning manager Wendy Rampson.

Absent: Bonnie Bona.

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State Street Village Gets Council OK Tue, 19 Aug 2014 02:40:12 +0000 Chronicle Staff Approval of the site plan and rezoning of land for the State Street Village project at 2221-2223 S. State St. has been given by the Ann Arbor city council.

The 4.5-acre parcel will be rezoned from M1 (limited industrial district) to O (office district). It’s a $10 million project by Ann Arbor-based McKinley Inc. The plan calls for constructing two 4-story apartment buildings at the rear of the site, totaling 112,262 square feet, with 38 units each. Another 2,027 square foot building – for a leasing office with two apartments above it – will be built on the front of the parcel, on South State.

South State Village, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Aerial view of State Street Village site.

Final action came at the council’s Aug. 18, 2014 meeting. Action on the initial zoning approval came at the city council’s meeting on July 21. A recommendation for the rezoning was given at the June 17, 2014 meeting of the Ann Arbor planning commission.

At that meeting, commissioners recommended approval of the site plan, development agreement and rezoning for the project.

The front part of the site is currently a surface parking lot, and is zoned O (office). The rear parcel – 4.5 acres – is vacant, and zoned M1 (limited industrial). Residential developments are permitted in office-zoned areas. [.pdf of staff report]

The development will include 114 parking spaces in the rear of the site and 13 spaces for the front. Another 22 spaces in the surface parking lot will be shared by the existing office building just south of the site.

In addition, 44 covered bicycle spaces and 8 enclosed bicycle spaces will be provided near the entrances of the apartment buildings and 2 hoops will be placed near the entrance of the rental office building.

Instead of making a $48,360 requested donation to the city for parks, McKinley has proposed two 8×10-foot grilling patios with picnic tables and grills.

According to the staff memo, the footing drains of 18 homes, or flow equivalent to 71.91 gallons per minute, will need to be disconnected from the city’s sanitary sewer system to mitigate flow from this proposed development.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron.

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Development: Council OKs 3 Site Plans Tue, 22 Apr 2014 01:17:34 +0000 Chronicle Staff Three different site plans were approved by the Ann Arbor city council at its April 21, 2014 meeting: Concordia University’s proposed gym expansion; an expansion of an office building on Collingwood; and the overhaul of a Shell station on South State.

A site plan to expand the existing Concordia University gym was approved by the city council with scant discussion, but with thanks expressed by Jane Lumm (Ward 2) Concordia University CEO Curt Gielow.

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

Aerial view of Concordia campus.

The plan also includes reconfiguring nearby parking lots and stormwater management features on the 187-acre site at 4090 Geddes Road, just west of US-23 and north of the Huron River. The city planning commission recommended approval of the site plan at its March 4, 2014 meeting.

Planning commissioners granted a special exception use for the project. That’s required because the private university is located on a site zoned R1B (single-family residential district). The site plan requires city council approval, but the special exception use does not.

The proposal calls for a three-story, 34,391-square-foot addition to the current 22,021-square-foot gym that was built in the early 1960s, located on the west side of Concordia’s main campus. [.pdf of campus map] The addition will include men’s and women’s locker rooms, athletic office space, classrooms and an auxiliary gym.

A second phase of the project entails constructing a single-story, 5,280-square-foot athletic training room. An existing gravel parking area west of the gym will be paved and landscaped, and another lot north of the gym along Geddes will get new landscaping and bioswales. A total of 92 new parking spaces will be created, mostly in the former gravel lot.

A new stormwater management system will be completed to address a 100-year storm event, including a detention pond with an outlet into a bioswale south of the developed area. The site plan is for a planned project, which allows variations in height and placement. The proposed addition would be 39 feet high. The site’s zoning has a height limit of 30 feet. The existing gym is about 33 feet high, measured at the midpoint of the roof.

In other action on land use approvals at its April 21 meeting, the council approved a site plan that expands an office building at 278-280 Collingwood. The proposal received a recommendation of approval from the Ann Arbor planning commission at its March 18, 2014 meeting.

Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Aerial view indicating location of 278-280 Collingwood Drive.

The site plan calls for removing the existing second floor on the east side of the office building and constructing a 2,451-square-foot second floor over the entire building for office use.

A new staircase will be added at the southwest corner of the building. The second floor will overhang the first floor along the front of the building and along part of the north side. An existing curbcut on the north side of the property will be removed. The current 22 parking spaces on the site will be reduced to 17.

Planning commissioners approved modifications to the city’s landscaping requirements for this site. Total construction cost for this project is estimated at $300,000. The office building is located in Ward 4. Collingwood Drive is a street off of West Stadium Boulevard, just south of West Stadium’s convergence with South Maple Road. [.pdf of staff memo]

Finally, the council approved a site plan for the overhaul of a Shell station and a new drive-thru restaurant at 2991 S. State. The site is located at the northeast corner of the East Eisenhower Parkway and South State Street.

Shell, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Aerial view of the site for a Shell station and drive-thru restaurant at the northeast corner of South State and East Eisenhower.

The city planning commission recommended approval of the site plan at its March 18, 2014 meeting. The plan calls for demolishing the current one-story convenience store and car wash on this site, which total 2,435 square feet. In its place, the owner – Joseph Kafi of JAK Cubed LLC – would put up a single building with a 1,250-square-foot drive-thru restaurant and 3,000-square-foot convenience store.

The existing gas pump island canopy will remain in place, and two pumps will be relocated to spots under the canopy. According to a staff memo, a single lane drive-thru would be primarily accessed from the existing East Eisenhower Parkway curb cut. Vehicles would move in an east-to-north direction before exiting onto either South State or East Eisenhower.

The drive-thru lane provides stacking for up to nine vehicles and would be screened to the west by the proposed new building. A total of 22 parking spaces are proposed for the site, including eight that are located at the four gas pump islands. The project, located in Ward 4, is estimated to cost $800,000. The business is expected to remain open during construction. The existing convenience store will then be demolished after the new building is finished.

The specific restaurant to be located there is still being negotiated. [.pdf of staff report]

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron.

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N. Fourth Avenue Wed, 05 Mar 2014 18:10:01 +0000 Voxphoto Whenever a developer coyly shows a birds-eye rendering (or says “townhouse”), expect this: [photo]

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Packard Square Revisions Finally OK’d Tue, 08 Jan 2013 02:48:27 +0000 Chronicle Staff Approval of changes to the Packard Square project – which is proposed to redevelop the former Georgetown Mall – has now been given by the Ann Arbor city council. The site plan – given original approval on May 2, 2011 – calls for demolition of the existing buildings, and construction of a mixed-use development consisting of 23,858 square feet of retail, up to 230 apartment units, and structured parking.

The changes, given approval by the council at its Jan. 7, 2013 meeting, alter the facade of the building by reducing the number of balconies by one-third, replacing some brick with Hardi-board siding, changing windows, and changing the color of the siding. The council’s approval came after postponing the matter a month ago, on Dec. 3, 2012.

Part of the council’s reluctance to give its approval was based on aesthetic dissatisfaction with the changes as reflected in the revised renderings. The renderings showing the changes were not given the same amount of attention to detail as the original drawings – with respect to shading to show depth, for example – which left some councilmembers to conclude that the development looked “flat” and dormitory-like. Councilmembers at the Dec. 3 meeting also gave the new color scheme an unfavorable review.

Responding to the specific request of the council to provide drawings on which they could make “apples-to-apples” comparisons, the developer of the project submitted 3D sketches. [.jpg with original color-scheme for Packard Square] [.jpg with revised color-scheme for Packard Square]

The changes to the building that the council was asked to approve were motivated by a change to the upper level residential portion of the Packard Road facade. It was moved 10 feet to the east to make it line up with the front stairwells. That also increased the footprint of the building by 4,720 square feet.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]

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Miller btw Miner and Fountain Tue, 18 Dec 2012 15:31:44 +0000 Larry Baird The days are numbered for a final view of Burton Memorial Tower at the top of the hill heading into downtown. It is now behind the steel framework erected for the latest student highrise on Huron.

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Heritage Row Status Update Sat, 14 May 2011 19:39:31 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its Feb. 7, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council offered a 90-day window during which developer Alex de Parry could resubmit his planned unit development (PUD) Heritage Row project with a reduction in the required submittal fees from around $5,000 to $2,000. The project has previously been rejected by the city council multiple times in different guises.

That 90-day window ended last Monday, May 9, without a resubmission by de Parry, according to city of Ann Arbor planning staff. The project could still be submitted to the city for review, but would not enjoy the fee reduction offered by the city council in February. A public engagement meeting, which is required by city ordinance for new projects, was held on March 25, 2011 for the Heritage Row project.

At the March 25 meeting, held at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library, the presentation included the most recent revisions that had been reviewed by city staff. The last proposal reviewed by the city includes the following revisions: (1) the top floor of the new south building would be removed from the design; (2) the density would be reduced from 79 units to 76 units and the number of bedrooms would be reduced from 154 to 147; (3) the project would include five affordable units at the 50% AMI (average median income) level, in addition to six affordable units at the 80% AMI level; and (4) the three new buildings would be LEED certified.

The residential project, located on the east side of South Fifth Avenue, would renovate seven houses and construct three new apartment buildings behind those houses, with an underground parking garage. The council initially rejected Heritage Row on June 21, 2010, with a 7-4 vote in favor. It required an 8-vote majority for approval, due to a petition filed by adjoining property owners. The city council then reconsidered the project at its July 6, 2010 meeting, and it failed again, on a 7-3 vote. Then at the council’s Dec. 6, 2010 meeting, some councilmembers seemed poised to suspend council rules to allow another reconsideration, but the vote to suspend council rules failed.

Instead of resubmitting Heritage Row, another possibility for de Parry is to begin construction on a different project at the same location, which the city council approved as a “matter of right” project on Sept. 21, 2009. That project, called City Place, would include two buildings separated by a surface parking lot with 24 total units, each with six bedrooms.

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Ann Arbor Council OKs Packard Square Tue, 03 May 2011 03:04:48 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its May 2, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council voted to approve the site plan and development agreement, as well as the brownfield redevelopment plan, for the Packard Square development, located at the site of the former Georgetown Mall. The development would include 230 apartment units, 23,790 square feet of retail space, 454 parking spaces and stormwater detention facilities.

At its March 15 meeting, the Ann Arbor city planning commission had unanimously recommended approval of the Packard Square site plan. [Chronicle coverage: "Packard Square, Fraternity Site Plan OK'd"]

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]

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Column: Library Lot – Bottom to Top Mon, 28 Mar 2011 01:34:01 +0000 Dave Askins Editor’s note: Although the parcel immediately north of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location is known as the Library Lot, it does not belong to the library, but rather to the city of Ann Arbor.

Last Thursday, news of a breach in the earth-retention system of a downtown Ann Arbor construction site had reached all the way to Detroit’s Channel 4 News. Channel 4 sent a crew Friday evening to file a report. It was tagged on the Channel 4 website with the summary: “An Ann Arbor construction project is sinking, literally.” Chalk that up to the hyperbole of television news.

Library Lot conference center schematic, retaining wall

Top: View to the northeast along Fifth Avenue from Valiant Partners' concept for a conference center and hotel, proposed for the top of the Library Lot underground parking garage. Bottom: Breach in the earth retention system for the underground parking garage currently under construction on the Library Lot.

While the roughly 640-space underground parking garage, being built by Ann Arbor’s Downtown Development Authority, is not sinking in any way, a conference center and hotel proposal for the top of the underground structure might be sinking.

At first glance, the 190,000-square-foot project proposed by Valiant Partners Inc. seems like it’s on a path to approval by the city council. In November 2010, an advisory committee – charged with evaluating responses to a city of Ann Arbor request for proposals issued in late 2009 – finally settled on the Valiant proposal as the best of the six the city had received.

That decision came with the aid of Roxbury Group, a consultant hired to help evaluate the proposals and to negotiate an agreement with a developer. At an early March meeting of the advisory committee, a Roxbury representative presented a draft letter of intent, which had been worked out by Valiant and Roxbury, to be signed by the city of Ann Arbor and Valiant. The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the city council consider the letter of intent.

Then, on March 14, the city council held a work session on the proposed conference center. The council heard essentially the same presentation about the letter of intent that Roxbury had made to the advisory committee. The council is scheduled to consider the letter formally at its second meeting in April, which is now scheduled for Tuesday, April 19, to accommodate the first night of Passover. The letter of intent calls for a development agreement to be presented to the city council within four months of signing the letter of intent – which would mean sometime near the end of August 2011.

But I think it’s clear at this point that a development agreement between Valiant and the city of Ann Arbor to develop the Library Lot would not achieve the necessary eight-vote majority for an actual real estate deal. That’s why I think the city council might vote down the letter of intent – even if there are at least six councilmembers who would support going forward with the letter, which is all it would take for the letter’s approval.

I base that conclusion on remarks made by councilmembers at the March 14 work session, and regular politics as reflected in the council’s history – both recent and ancient. But before considering politics, let’s dig into some really ancient history – the kind measured in geological time – to gain some additional insight into why a pile of dirt spilled unintentionally into the underground parking garage construction pit.

Earth-Retention Wall Breach

On Thursday afternoon, March 24, a sinkhole appeared behind the Jerusalem Garden and Earthen Jar restaurants, on the north side of the underground garage construction site. Where did that dirt go? It had poured through a small breach in the earth-retention wall about 30-feet below grade.

Earth-Retention Wall Breach: Jerusalem Garden

When I visited Jerusalem Garden on Friday morning, owner Ali Ramlawi was preparing for regular business after the sinkhole had forced the evacuation of his restaurant the day before.

That morning, he seemed even a little more exasperated than he did in October 2010, when he’d addressed a meeting of the DDA board during the time reserved for public comment. On that occasion he’d ticked through a variety of concerns, including the underground parking garage, which he called the DDA’s “civil engineering project.” Ramlawi was also one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in August 2009 over the construction of the garage.

On Friday, Ramwali told me how one of his employees had driven over the spot where the sinkhole opened up, just 10 minutes before the earth gave way. He considered it just lucky that nobody got hurt.

Earth-Retention Wall Breach: Geology – It’s Sand, Man

So how exactly does dirt that far down pour through a gap that appears to be just a few feet wide?

To get a better idea of why that might happen, I talked to Kevin Foye. Foye is a Ph.D who works as a project engineer with CTI & Associates, a civil engineering firm in Wixom, Mich. How earth settles and moves is part of Foye’s specific area of expertise – he recently gave a lecture as part of the University of Michigan’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Geotechnical Engineering Seminar Series, called “Differential Settlement of Landfill Foundations Modeled Using Random Fields.”

As it happens, Foye had taken photos of the construction site a few weeks earlier, and was somewhat familiar with the site. He described how not all soil is the same – it’s some combination of sand, silt and clay. The Library Lot site in Ann Arbor, he continued, is a little different – it’s predominantly sand. So it’s going to be more apt to move through a slot like the one that opened up in the retention wall.

The make-up of the soil at the site as predominantly sand was also reported by then-library board member, and geologist, Carola Stearns in a presentation she gave to the board back in September 2010. She described the site as 55 feet of coarse, well-bedded, well-sorted sand and gravel – the product of glacial activity.

And at the end of the day Friday, I spoke with Pat Podges, the Christman Company’s construction manager on site; he also described how the dirt on the site would just run through your fingers when you pick up a handful.

Earth-Retention Wall Breach: Don’t Tear Down that Wall

On Friday, Podges also confirmed that the earth-retention system used at Ann Arbor’s Library Lot site is the same one the Christman Company had previously used in building an underground parking garage in Grand Rapids, as part of the Michigan Street Improvement project. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority awarded the pre-construction services contract to Christman back in August 2009, partly based on the strength of that experience.

retention wall failure

Site of the breach in the earth-retention wall at the site of the Library Lot construction. The view is to the north.

The earth-retention system was also familiar to Foye, who described what he’d seen when he’d visited the site a few weeks ago. Visitors to downtown Ann Arbor last summer will likely remember seeing the tall drill operating on the site and the vertical pieces of steel that were then pounded into the holes – down to the silt layer that the water table sits on. Those vertical pieces of steel were subsequently encased in concrete.

Between each pair of steel-beam reinforced concrete columns, additional inner columns were poured – but not reinforced with steel beams. Podges described how for most of the steel-reinforced pairs, two additional columns were poured between them, but for some pairs, three additional columns were poured. The idea is that the columns between the steel beams interlock with each other, wedging against the steel beams.

This specific earth-retention system, called a “tangent wall” system, is used on the north face of the site, but not everywhere. Podges explained it’s used there because it’s better at preventing water from entering the pit than an alternative wood lagging system, which is used in some other locations. In the wood lagging system, heavy timbers span the vertical steel beams.

Chronicle readers might remember that outgoing DDA chair John Splitt received a memento of appreciation for his service, which was fashioned from a piece of timber left over from the wood lagging system.

Construction worker fills bucket with gravel

A bucket is filled with gravel before getting hoisted over to back-fill the sinkhole.

In addition to the structural elements of the basic earth-retention wall, additional supporting elements include: (1) “whalers” – steel beams that are bolted horizontally across vertical members; and (2) “tie-backs,” which are essentially guy wires installed into the face of the wall.

To install tie-backs, Foye explained that a small-diameter hole is drilled from the face of the wall on the pit side, around 30-50 horizontal feet into the surrounding soil. That hole is filled with high-strength grout. A steel rod is inserted into the hole and bolted to a bearing plate on the face of the wall. That rod is then tensioned with a hydraulic jack to the pressure that’s been calculated to be appropriate for that specific location, then locked off at that specified pressure. Foye said in these kinds of applications, the pressure would be in the tens of thousands of pounds.

When construction of the parking garage is complete, the retention wall elements will remain in place, even though they won’t actually be needed to hold back the earth, Podges told me. The floors of the deck, which are braced against each opposing wall, will provide adequate opposing force. The tensioned tie-backs nearer to the surface will likely be de-tensioned, Podges said, because if someone were excavating years from now and hit one of the rods, it would be best for it not to be under tension.

Filling the Library Lot sinkhole

A construction worker prepares to release the load of gravel into the sinkhole. Note the safety tether attached to his harness. In the background is the Ann Arbor District Library building, to the south of the construction site.

It’s apparent, from looking at photos as well as at the site itself, that the element that failed was part of one of the inner columns in the tangent wall system. And it failed at a point just below a horizontal reinforcement (a “whaler”) that was bolted onto the face of the retention system. That whaler spans six of the steel-beam reinforced columns. Foye said that based on photos he’d seen, it appeared that for some reason, there was a loss of the interlock between the inner columns – it would take further investigation to figure out what was different on Thursday from all the days before, during the time the pit has been open.

Podges said that the analysis of why the breach occurred is being done by Soil and Materials Engineers Inc., the company that designed the retention system. But they’ve determined that the problem was isolated. They’ve checked all the motion monitors that are attached to various points of the earth-retention wall, as well as the surrounding buildings – and everything is still in the same place, Podges said. Visual inspection of the perimeter has revealed no obvious other problems.

By Friday morning, a Christman crew had begun filling in the sinkhole with coarse gravel. The night before, a concrete cap had been poured over bags of gravel that had been dropped in to plug the breach from the sinkhole side. Additional repairs will need to be undertaken to the pit side of the wall – they appeared to be partly underway on Saturday morning, when I passed by the construction area. A team of workers on a platform had been lowered by crane to the breach point.

According to a briefing email sent out early Sunday morning by Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, among other measures, ground-penetrating radar will also be used to check for any other voids that might have developed.

What Is the City Council Thinking?

The closest thing we have to ground-penetrating radar to detect any voids in the heads of city councilmembers is simply to pay attention to what they say, when they do their work in public view. And based on that kind of radar, I don’t detect any voids on the conference center issue – but it does look to me like there could be sufficiently solid opposition to doing a real estate deal, that the council could vote down the letter of intent before even getting to that point.

City Council: Work Session – Background

At the city council’s March 14 work session about the conference center proposal, the Roxbury Group’s David Di Rita walked the council through the draft letter of intent. He’d done the same thing for the RFP review committee at its March 8, 2011 meeting. Here’s how the 190,000-square-foot project breaks down, as described in the draft letter of intent:

(i) Core elements:

  • 150 hotels units – 87,000 sq. ft.
  • Conference center – 26,000 sq. ft.
  • Restaurant/Retail – 6,000 sq. ft.
  • Public space/Plaza

(ii) Additional elements

  • Office space – up to 48,000 sq. ft.
  • Residential condos – up to 22,000 sq. ft.

That square footage breakdown is slightly different from Valiant’s original proposal, which included 12 condo units compared to the six in its revised proposal. More significantly, the size of the conference center in Valiant’s revised proposal is 6,000 square feet smaller than the 32,000-square-foot facility in the original proposal.

Sandi Smith, Stephen Kunselman, Mike Anglin, Tony Derezinski

At the March 14 city council work session about the proposed Valiant conference center: (left to right) Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2).

The reduction in condo units and the size of the conference center is offset by the possible addition of up to 48,000 square feet of office space. [See page 27 of the .pdf for Roxbury Group's report, submitted in November 2010, for a breakdown of the contrast between Valiant's original and revised proposals.]

DDA board member Newcombe Clark has expressed some skepticism to The Chronicle that prevailing rental rates for office space in downtown Ann Arbor would be adequate to support new construction of office space. [Clark has worked in real estate, most recently with Jones Lang LaSalle, but is no longer with that firm.]

But it’s the revised configuration of the square footage that has allowed Valiant to eliminate from its proposal a request that the city of Ann Arbor issue bonds to fund the project’s construction. The use of public bonds as a financing tool has been described as a deal-breaker, even by the chair of the RFP review committee, Stephen Rapundalo, who represents Ward 2 on the city council. And Rapundalo is widely perceived as one of the strongest supporters of a conference center at the Library Lot location.

Remaining in the letter of intent, however, is a requirement that the city of Ann Arbor would own the conference center. Valiant has pitched this as a benefit to the city, but it carries with it potential for liability as well.

City Council: Work Session Views – Legal Ownership

It was the conference center ownership question that drew the specific attention of Sabra Briere (Ward 1) during the work session. She told the Roxbury Group’s David Di Rita that the whole proposal seemed to be predicated on a belief that the city of Ann Arbor wants to own a conference center. Di Rita responded in a way that suggested that the ownership question is not a closed issue and could be subject to further discussion.

Briere’s reply was fairly sharp. She told Di Rita that maybe there is stuff in the letter of intent that doesn’t need to be in there.

The city’s relationship to the conference center, as described in the draft letter of intent, is one of ownership. The city would have an agreement with the developer whereby the developer would manage the center. And just as long as the developer holds that management agreement, the city would not be liable for costs related to operation and maintenance.

The draft letter of intent also describes how the developer could itself use the money being paid to the city for development rights, to develop the conference center. That strategy only makes sense in a scenario where the city owns the center. It reduces to this: At least part of the compensation the city would get for allowing the developer to build the project – instead of a lease payment or property taxes – is ownership of the conference center.

But ownership does not translate directly to a financial benefit to the city, any more than ownership of additional parkland does. Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) has frequently pointed out that continued acquisition of additional parkland, without an adequate revenue source for maintenance, has led Ann Arbor to a situation where it can maintain the parkland it has only with great difficulty. And the same principle applies to ownership of a conference center.

So far, Valiant has tried to make its financial offer more attractive to the city by eliminating the need for the city to issue bonds. It’s conceivable that the letter of intent the council considers on April 19 will continue that trend by eliminating the requirement that the city own the center, and that Valiant will find some other way to pay for that part of the deal.

But right now, we’re presented with a tale of a profitable project that even the teller of the tale apparently doesn’t believe. Frankly, I believe that a place where you can host a 1,200-person conference in downtown Ann Arbor without breaking a sweat would be a well-used and welcome facility. You could imagine some kind of center of intellectual inquiry – that’s not necessarily a university – sprouting up in concert with the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location. Indeed, Valiant representatives have talked a lot about their desire to partner with the library.

But I don’t think Valiant really trusts their own narrative. If they did, we would not see a proposal for the city to issue bonds, or for the city to own the conference center, or any other creative approach to financing. Instead, we’d see a straight-up offer to lease or purchase development rights for some dollar figure.

What should that dollar figure be? Before the work session began, local developer Peter Allen told The Chronicle that a rule of thumb for land value would be 10-20% of the total value of the planned development. So if you’re planning to build a $54 million project, then $5.4 million would be a low-end ballpark number for the land value.

You might make a case that the city should accept a somewhat lower offer than Allen’s rule of thumb. An outline of that case might go something like this: (1) Look, this conference center of intellectual inquiry that we’re going to build is not going to be as profitable as, say, a project consisting of mostly residential units, and here’s why; (2) A conference center is going to have a greater positive economic impact to the downtown than just residential units would have, and here’s why; (3) You should be willing to accept a slightly lower direct financial return to the city of Ann Arbor’s general fund, in exchange for a greater positive economic impact overall, and here’s what that impact looks like.

If Valiant were inclined to make that kind of offer, however, I think they’d already have done that – between November 2010 and March 2011, when they negotiated the draft letter of intent with the Roxbury Group. But a simple, straightforward lease or purchase of development rights did not emerge from that negotiation.

The letter of intent is to be considered by the council at its April 19 meeting. Among the revisions to be added to the final draft of a letter of intent is language that makes clear that the city of Ann Arbor will not bear any risk. It’s not yet clear what linguistic form those revisions would take.

Work Session: Work Session Views – Ownership of Advocacy

Near the conclusion of the March 14 work session, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), who was chairing the session in mayor John Hieftje’s absence, floated a question about who would take responsibility for making revisions to the letter of intent. Here’s how she put it: “Who owns those revisions now?” City administrator Roger Fraser indicated that he felt revisions fell now into the category of “staff work” – the RFP committee’s work was done, he said.

Higgins question about “ownership” of a specific task – like revising a document – could just as well be asked about the entire conference center proposal. Up to now, the project seems to have been owned by Roger Fraser. He first introduced the council to the existence of Valiant’s proposal at the 2009 budget retreat.

Roger Fraser, Christopher Taylor

Chronicle file photo from the January 2009 Ann Arbor city council budget retreat. City administrator Roger Fraser, left, talks with Christopher Taylor (Ward 3). They're looking at conceptual drawings for a possible conference center on top of the underground parking garage now being built at the Library Lot between Fifth and Division streets.

On that occasion, he’d announced the existence of a proposal for a conference center, and told councilmembers they could look at the conceptual drawings. But he would not disseminate the proposal publicly – at the request of the proposers.

Later, it was revealed he’d done that against the explicit advice of the council.

With Fraser’s departure at the end of April to become a deputy treasurer for the state of Michigan, it’s not clear who might take ownership of Valiant’s proposal on the city’s side to make sure that an acceptable development agreement is struck, based on a letter of intent. Even if Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, might seem a logical candidate to champion the project through to completion, her remarks at the work session suggest she’s not necessarily publicly embracing that kind of role.

Pollay began the work session by telling the council that she was there as a city staffer. The RFP had been issued through the city’s community services area, and only a few months after the RFP was issued, the community services area administrator, Jayne Miller, left the city to take a different position. Because the project was of interest to her, Pollay said, she’d volunteered to help out as needed. But she stressed that the project is not a DDA project – she’s just assisting.

Susan Pollay, David Di Rita

Before the March 14 work session: Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, and David Di Rita of The Roxbury Group, which acted as a consultant for the RFP review committee.

On the council itself, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) might be a logical choice to champion the project through to final approval. In fact, at least as far back as March 2009, Smith has pushed specifically for planning some kind of use on the top of the underground parking structure. On that occasion, she introduced a successful resolution at the DDA’s March 2009 board meeting that articulated the DDA’s readiness to support the planning process for the top of the structure.

But as recently as the March 21, 2011 city council meeting, Smith has demonstrated that she can be a fiscal hard-ass, who might give priority to the city’s near-term bottom line over long-term overall economic impact. At that meeting, she was the sole voice of dissent in voting against an amendment to a state grant application that prioritized support for a skatepark over improvements to the Gallup canoe livery. She had established during deliberations that the canoe livery improvements would necessarily add revenue, whereas the skatepark was a question mark.

With the current murky level of detail available, use of the top of the parking garage as additional surface parking might actually mean more for the city’s bottom line than striking a deal with Valiant. And at the March 14 work session, Smith described the conference center proposal as “one of the largest decisions that I will have had to make in my brief tenure here.”

So I don’t think Smith is likely to pursue the conference center with the single-minded bull-doggedness of purpose that would likely be required for its eventual approval. The project needs someone to champion it who is absolutely dedicated and practically blind to all other options, if it’s to win ultimate approval from the council, and I don’t think Smith is that person.

As chair of the RFP committee, Stephen Rapundalo would also be a logical candidate to take ownership of the project – even if the committee’s work is over. But to be successful, whoever takes ownership of the project will need to enjoy a certain amount of deference from the council as a whole. And based on deliberations at the March 7, 2011 council meeting, his fellow councilmembers aren’t willing to give Rapundalo that deference, even when he clearly has earned it.

On that occasion, the council voted, over his objections as chair of the council’s liquor license review committee, to allow the appointment of a single hearing officer for liquor license non-renewal hearings – Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) – instead of appointing the entire committee as the hearing board. Any councilmember who voted with Derezinski on that – which was everyone except for Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) – gave little weight to Rapundalo’s record of service on the council’s liquor committee since its very creation back in 2007. So I think the council is unlikely to show Rapundalo any deference when it comes to the conference center development agreement.

Work Session Views: Decision Time?

Historically, the Ann Arbor city council’s inclination has been, whenever possible, not to make a decision at all. The current status of the city’s Argo Dam is a good example of that. In early 2009, the city embarked on a public engagement process about the Argo Dam, which led the community to believe that the city council would be making a major policy decision that summer about leaving the dam in place or removing it.

But the council has never voted on the issue, which formally leaves the question open, though from a practical point of view, the dam is still in place. Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) have remained vigilant in making sure that subsequent decisions made the council – like approving construction of a portage-free bypass around the dam – don’t necessarily preclude the dam’s eventual removal.

From the time of the Library Lot RFP issuance, councilmembers were eager to stress that the issuance of the RFP did not represent a decision to develop any of the proposals that might be submitted. After receiving proposals, it was again stressed that the city was under no obligation to accept any of them. And after identifying Valiant as the best of the six proposals received, the RFP review committee stressed that there was no obligation to do a deal with Valiant.

At the work session, councilmembers again appeared eager to downplay the significance of approving a letter of intent. Sandi Smith (Ward 1) characterized it as a “going steady” phase, with a prenuptial agreement to be possibly realized in the form of a development agreement. Margie Teall (Ward 4) indicated she was satisfied with David Di Rita’s characterization of the letter of intent as an outline to get to a final deal, but not the deal itself.

But at the RFP committee meeting in early March, Eric Mahler indicated his skepticism that the letter of intent did not place an obligation on the city to see the negotiations through to the proposal of an actual real estate deal. Mahler, an attorney, represented the city’s planning commission on the committee.

And at the council’s work session, the same concern about the contractual nature of the letter of intent was expressed by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), who did little at the session to hide his overall displeasure with the whole proposal. He stated flatly that he felt the arrangement being proposed was “very squirrelly,” and offered up his assessment that when the city went fishing for development proposals, “we catch nothing but leeches that want to suck on the public dollar.”

Even if Kunselman’s colleagues on the council may have rolled their eyes at his rhetorical flourish, they likely took to heart his point about the contractual nature of the letter of intent. It’s not “just another step” in the process where the city can take any action, or no action, for any reason at all. This is, in fact, a decision point of some kind that requires a proposal to come before the council.

What kind of decision point does the letter of intent represent? I think it’s somewhat similar to appointing a study committee to make a recommendation on establishing a historic district in a particular area. The council has a recent record to show that appointing a committee does not necessarily result in establishing such a district. At its July 6, 2010 meeting, the council rejected a study committee’s recommendation that a historic district be established along Fourth and Fifth Avenues, just south of the Library Lot. I can imagine that some councilmembers might even draw upon that episode as an analogy: Just as appointing a committee did not obligate us to vote for a historic district, we are not obligated to approve the development agreement that emerges in four months time after the letter of intent is signed.

But I think that for any councilmembers who appeal to that analogy, there will be others who are persuaded by a different historical episode involving the non-appointment of a historic district study committee – at the council’s Oct. 20, 2008 meeting. The committee in question would have studied an existing district, the Old Fourth Ward, to consider removing one property from the district. Then representing Ward 3, Leigh Greden argued against even appointing a committee, independent of what recommendation the committee might eventually make. Here’s how The Chronicle reported Greden’s sentiments:

Councilmember Leigh Greden suggested that if a recommendation came back from the committee to remove the property, he still did not imagine he could vote for its removal – acknowledging that he’d perhaps made that conclusion too soon.

Put coarsely, if you’re going to vote no later, you might as well vote no now.

Carsten Hohnke

At the March 14 city council work session: Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5).

I think some councilmembers might follow that same logic in weighing their vote on the letter of intent between Valiant and the city of Ann Arbor – a letter that is supposed to lead to a development agreement. An additional factor playing into that logic is that the real estate deal associated with the development agreement will need eight votes for approval by the city council.

So even if the letter of intent might have sufficient votes for approval, the real estate deal already looks like it will fall short of the eight-vote requirement.

Based on their remarks at the work session, Briere and Kunselman are likely no votes, as is Mike Anglin (Ward 5). At the work session, Anglin recited a laundry list of criticism of the project, from insufficient public process to the project’s lack of viability.

Anglin’s Ward 5 colleague, Carsten Hohnke, expressed his view at a 2010 Democratic primary election forum that the conversation about what should go on top of the library should start fresh, with a clean slate:

Hohnke said he is not convinced that any of the proposals that had been submitted are good ones, and it’s important to remember that a request for proposals does not need to be acted on by the city. If none of them meet the satisfaction of the community, there’s no need to accept one, he stressed.

Hohnke continued that he would like to see a renewed effort of community conversation – starting from a blank slate, with no preconceptions. What is the best solution for this vital parcel right in the center of our community?

Hohnke’s contribution to the March 14 work session conversation hinted that he was still thinking along the lines of starting fresh. He asked Rapundalo to review for the council how the RFP committee had winnowed down the six proposals to the final two proposals, both of which called for some kind of hotel and conference center. Among the six proposals that did not make the final cut was one for a community commons put forward by Alan Haber and Alice Ralph – who both attended the work session. [Chronicle coverage from January 2010: "Hotel/Conference Center Ideas Go Forward"]

Mayor John Hieftje’s vote could be purely political. It was Hieftje’s penchant for using the privilege of voting last in any roll call vote, to cast such purely political votes, that finally led the council in 2006 to change its rules for roll calls. The start of a roll call vote now rotates among councilmembers.

With four likely votes against the letter of intent – Anglin, Briere, Kunselman, Hohnke – there’s sufficient safety in those numbers that Hieftje could join them. With potentially five votes against the letter of intent, it’s hard to see how Valiant or other councilmembers would want to invest time and energy in putting together a development agreement that’s not going to meet the eight-vote minimum.

Certainly in the past, the council has been reluctant to proceed with only thin majorities. In early 2005, DDA board members were told that there were at least six votes in support of the 3-Site Plan to develop city-owned downtown properties – all the plan needed to go forward. But then councilmembers Leigh Greden and Chris Easthope counseled against placing the 3-Site Plan on the council’s agenda, in order to generate additional support on the city council. By late in 2005, the public engagement process had actually seemed to diminish rather than increase council support, and the 3-Site Plan never made it to the council’s agenda.

Conclusion: Get the Dirt out of the Hole

Besides offering a rule of thumb for calculating land value, at the March 14 work session Peter Allen also told me he thinks the entire Library Lot block needs to be master planned, before trying to develop that individual parcel. For a course he teaches at the University of Michigan, Allen assigned his students in 2009 to complete an exercise like that. [Chronicle coverage: "Column: Visions for the Library Lot"]

Restarting the conversation about the Library Lot – as Hohnke suggested back during his 2010 Democratic primary campaign – is a process that would be consistent with Allen’s suggestion to master plan the whole block. That conversation could take place in the context of a proposal currently being worked out by the DDA and the city that would assign the DDA responsibility to facilitate the development of other uses for downtown city-owned surface parking lots. That proposal, however, is currently stalled.

I think any use of the space above the underground parking garage needs to be considered as a coherent part of the city’s thinking, not just with respect to that entire block, but also in connection with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s countywide transportation plan, the possible construction of a new downtown library – which has been put on hold, but might re-emerge – and even the current discussion of a corridor improvement authority along Washtenaw Avenue.

The sooner the city council votes down Valiant’s specific proposal for its conference center, the sooner we can settle into a process that might well produce a community consensus for a different kind of conference center – one that includes a real vision for the kind of inquiry and collaboration that might take place at the conferences such a center might host.

Valiant’s proposal is, I think, like the pile of dirt that poured through the breach in the retaining wall, piling at the bottom of the underground parking garage site. As a guy in a hardhat told me Thursday morning, the pile of dirt wasn’t hurting anything, but it was in the way. Valiant’s current proposal is like that pile of dirt, because it just needs to be cleaned out of the hole for now. If we need more dirt, there’s plenty more where that came from.

We shouldn’t adopt the attitude that if we let Valiant’s conference center proposal sink out of view, we’ll lose forever the opportunity to enjoy the benefits that a conference facility in downtown Ann Arbor might bring.

Why do I think that? It’s because I believe in second-hand learning. At the DDA’s January 2011 board meeting, management assistant Joan Lyke’s last one before her retirement, she addressed a few remarks to the board, summarizing what she’d learned working at the DDA.

On Lyke’s bulleted list was this: “If an idea is good, it will always resurface.”

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DDA-Led Development Stalls Again Tue, 08 Mar 2011 04:09:22 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its March 7, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council again delayed action on a resolution that would have authorized the city’s downtown development authority to create a parcel-by-parcel plan for the development of downtown city-owned surface parking lots. The council had also considered but postponed a vote on the proposal at its Jan. 18, 2011 meeting. Objections at that meeting to the proposal included “resolved” clauses in the resolution that would (1) require placement of items on the city council’s agenda; and (2) under some circumstances require the city to reimburse the DDA for its expenses.

The postponement at the March 7 meeting was accomplished on a 10-1 vote, with Sandi Smith (Ward 1) casting the dissenting vote. Smith also serves on the DDA board. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) noted that the DDA appeared to be interested in creating a contractual, binding relationship – instead of working based on city council and DDA board resolutions – and in light of that he wanted to postpone the issue until the council’s first meeting in April.

The two “mutually beneficial” committees of the city council and the DDA board met for the first time since the council’s Jan. 18 meeting on the morning of March 7, providing little lead time for the discussion by the whole council of the latest proposal. The committees are negotiating a revision to the contract under which the DDA manages the city’s public parking system, as well as a framework under which the DDA would lead the redevelopment of city-owned downtown surface parking lots.

At its Jan. 5 board meeting, the Ann Arbor DDA had passed a resolution urging passage of the council resolution, which had been circulated as early as the city council’s Dec. 20, 2010 meeting, when Taylor attached a copy of the the draft resolution to the council’s meeting agenda, and alerted his council colleagues to it at that meeting.

This brief was filed from the boardroom in the Washtenaw County administration building, where the council is meeting due to renovations in the city hall building. A more detailed report will follow: [link]

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