The Ann Arbor Chronicle » downtown it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Fifth & Washington Fri, 01 Aug 2014 19:02:03 +0000 Mary Morgan A Fox2 News van is among the media/traffic snarl downtown today. [photo] Main Street is closed and sound checks were underway for Friday afternoon’s International Champions Cup pre-game concert.

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Downtown Ann Arbor Hotel Gets OK Tue, 17 Jun 2014 03:53:02 +0000 Chronicle Staff The site plan for First Martin Corp.’s proposed extended-stay hotel at 116-120 West Huron Street has been given approval by the Ann Arbor city council. Action came at the council’s June 16, 2014 meeting. The planning commission had earlier passed a recommendation of approval on May 20, 2014.

First Martin Corp., Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Rendering of proposed hotel at the northeast corner of West Huron and Ashley. The One North Main building is visible to the east.

The proposal calls for a six-floor, 88,570-square-foot building with a ground-floor restaurant or retail space and an extended-stay hotel on the upper five levels. The hotel will be operated by Marriott.

The current site at 116-120 W. Huron includes a Greyhound bus depot and a one-story building that houses the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau. Both of those buildings will be demolished. The bus depot facade will remain in place as part of the new building’s design. [.pdf of staff report]

The main hotel entrance is proposed for the building’s west side, facing North Ashley, while the main entrance for the restaurant or retail space is proposed to face West Huron, on the building’s south side. The site is zoned D1, which allows for the highest density development in the downtown. According to the staff memo, five off-street parking spaces are required.

First Martin has secured a letter of commitment from Zipcar, a car-sharing service, for two vehicles. Parking spaces for those cars are proposed at the northeast corner of the site. For purposes of the city’s parking requirement, the two Zipcars would count as eight off-street parking spaces, and would satisfy the requirement. The two existing curbcuts – on North Ashley and West Huron – will be closed, and access to the two parking spaces, loading dock and trash/recycling would be from the mid-block alley to the north. The alley is currently one-way, and will be converted to a two-way alley and repaved.

116-120 W. Huron, First Martin Corp., Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

The current site at 116-120 W. Huron, looking north. One North Main is the building on the right. The city’s Ann Ashley parking structure is visible in the background.

Streetscape changes will include curb bump-outs on North Ashley, on the north and south ends of the site for passenger drop-off. Nine bicycle parking spaces are required for the project, and would include two bike hoops in the North Ashley right-of-way and two in the West Huron right-of-way, for a total of eight bike spaces. Three more hoops are proposed for the Ann Ashley parking structure, with First Martin paying for labor and materials. The city of Ann Arbor and Downtown Development Authority would assume responsibility for maintenance of those hoops.

Construction is estimated to cost $13 million. In giving the staff report to the planning commission, city planner Alexis DiLeo noted that the Greyhound bus depot has been at that location since 1940, and the site has been a transportation hub since 1898.

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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Bank of Ann Arbor Expansion OK’d Tue, 17 Jun 2014 03:47:36 +0000 Chronicle Staff A site plan for an addition to the Bank of Ann Arbor headquarters at 125 South Fifth Avenue has been given approval by the Ann Arbor city council. The council’s action came at its June 16, 2014 meeting.  The planning commission had recommended approval of the project at its May 20, 2014 meeting.

Bank of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Bank of Ann Arbor building at the northeast corner of South Fifth and East Washington. The proposed renovations will create a “tower” entrance into the building at this corner.

The site plan involves reorienting the main entrance – moving it from the center of its South Fifth Avenue side to the southeast corner of South Fifth and East Washington. Existing doors will be replaced with windows. A 9,179-square-foot third-floor addition would be constructed over the rear of the building’s east side. In total, the building would be 32,651 square feet after construction. The project is estimated to cost $4.2 million. [.pdf of staff memo]

According to the staff memo, the design “seeks to transform the current style from contemporary to traditional by replacing the yellow brick façade with brown and red-colored bricks and limestone-colored stone accents and trim and creating a brick and glass tower at the street corner to create a prominent entry.”

The original two-story building was constructed in 1965, which included the drive-thru window. An addition was completed in 1999. The project was evaluated by the city’s design review board on Jan. 14. The board suggested making the entry structure taller and more closely aligning the bank’s design features with those of the adjacent Ameritech building to the east.

The site is zoned D1, which allows for the highest level of density in the downtown area. D1 zoning requires a special exception use for drive-thrus, which the planning commission approved on May 20 in a separate vote. Because the project is going through a site plan approval process, the requirement for a special exception use was triggered. Special exception uses do not require additional city council approval.

The bank has an existing drive-thru teller window on its north side. No changes are planned to that configuration, however. In giving the staff report to the planning commission, city planner Alexis DiLeo said if the drive-thru were used more frequently, staff might suggest additional design features, like a more clearly marked crossing or differentiated surface materials. But because there are only 20-25 transactions per day at the drive-thru, and given the “successful history” of the existing drive-thru, staff was comfortable with it remaining as is, DiLeo said.

Modifications to drive-thru regulations are in the works, but not yet enacted. The planning commission approved new drive-thru regulations earlier this year. Amendments to Ann Arbor’s zoning ordinance related to drive-thrus received initial approval at the council’s May 5, 2014 meeting, and received final approval at the council’s June 2, 2014 meeting.

There was no substantive discussion of this project at the council’s June 16 meeting.

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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Council to Commission: Review D1 by Oct. 1 Tue, 02 Apr 2013 03:01:21 +0000 Chronicle Staff Following a decision made at its March 18, 2013 meeting to give direction to the city’s planning commission to review zoning in the D1 (downtown core) zoning district, the Ann Arbor city council has now enumerated the areas of inquiry the commission is supposed to pursue:

RESOLVED, That City Council requests the City Planning Commission to specifically address these issues:
(i) whether D1 zoning is appropriately located on the north side of Huron Street between Division and S. State and the south side of William Street between S. Main and Fourth Avenue;
(ii) whether the D1 residential FAR premiums effectively encourage a diverse downtown population; and
(iii) consider a parcel on the south side of Ann St. adjacent to north of city hall that is currently zoned D1 to be rezoned to the appropriate zoning for this neighborhood; and

RESOLVED, That City Council requests that Planning Commission complete its review and report to the City Council by October 1, 2013.

The parcel that the planning commission is supposed to consider downzoning is the parking lot currently owned by the University of Michigan Credit Union, formerly owned by the Ann Arbor News. The vote on the council’s specific direction came at its April 1, 2013 meeting, which leaves the planning commission six months to complete its work.

The three points of inquiry are similar in spirit, but different in their details from those put forward by Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) at the council’s March 18 meeting. At that meeting, the council had deliberated on the question of whether to give the planning commission direction to conduct the D1 review and to impose a moratorium on the D1 site plans.

UM Credit Union Parcel

The orange-ish area denotes an area zoned as D2 (interface). Darker red areas, including the UM Credit Union parcel (pink arrow), are zoned D1 (downtown core). The red line denotes the boundary of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority district.

At their March 18 session, the council decided to delete the mention of a moratorium from their resolution and to include a promise to define by April 1 the scope of the planning commission’s review and a time frame for its work.

The first point of inquiry adopted by the council on April 1 differs from that offered on March 18 by omitting mention of historic districts – although the appropriateness of D1 zoning will almost certainly include the relation of D1-zoned areas to historic districts.

The second point of inquiry – about residential FAR (floor area ratio) premiums – had been proposed by Taylor on March 18.

The third point of inquiry is new. The parcel in question is the surface parking lot currently owned by the University of Michigan Credit Union, formerly owned by the now defunct Ann Arbor News.

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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Additional Committee for Downtown Tabled Tue, 02 Oct 2012 02:01:25 +0000 Chronicle Staff A proposed 10-person citizen committee to study options for proceeds of the sale of city-owned downtown Ann Arbor properties was tabled by the city council at its Oct. 1, 2012 meeting. The resolution’s sponsor, Mike Anglin (Ward 5), moved for the resolution’s tabling in light of many other concurrent conversations among several groups in the city.

The resolution had been added by Anglin to the agenda of the council’s previous meeting on Sept. 17, 2012, but was postponed until the Oct. 1 meeting. Anglin’s resolution called for establishing a committee of 10 residents – two from each ward, to be selected by councilmembers from each ward – plus other city officials to address the issue of city-owned parcels in downtown Ann Arbor.

Anglin’s resolution was somewhat vague about how the committee was supposed to address the issue or in what timeframe, and was met with questions at the Sept. 17 meeting about the scope of the committee’s intended purview or its deliverables.

At the Sept. 17 meeting, Anglin’s resolution was one of two resolutions the city council had been asked to consider. The other one had been brought forward by Sandi Smith (Ward 1), who first outlined the idea to other councilmembers in an email written three weeks prior to their Sept. 17 meeting. It involved directing the proceeds from city-owned land sales to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. That resolution was postponed at the Sept. 17 meeting until Oct. 15.

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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Council on S. University Rezoning: No Tue, 17 Apr 2012 01:01:31 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its April 16, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council voted unanimously to reject a request to conditionally rezone 1320 S. University – from D2 (downtown interface) to D1 (downtown core).

The conditions on the D1 designation would have included restrictions on height and floor area that are less than what’s allowed in “unconditioned” D1. For example, the by-right height limit in D1 is 180 feet, but one condition the owner of the property – Philip Sotiroff – wanted to place on the property was a 145-foot height limit.

That 145-foot limit, however, is more than twice the limit of the parcel’s current D2 zoning, which allows buildings only as tall as 60 feet. Currently at the site – on the south side of South University, between Forest and Washtenaw avenues – is the three-story Park Plaza apartment building.

The site is adjacent to a D1 parcel to the east, where the Landmark apartment building is being constructed, at 601 S. Forest. But the 1320 S. University property also abuts lower-density residential zoning. Single-family homes are located to the south of the site, and a fraternity is located to the west.

The South University area was an intensely debated part of the A2D2 downtown rezoning initiative, which the city council finally ratified on Nov. 16, 2009 after more than two years of planning work. As part of that process, the city planning commission had initially recommended a zoning map that assigned D1 zoning to the 1320 S. University parcel. The city council subsequently drew the lines differently, which resulted in a D2 designation for the parcel, and sent the map back to the planning commission. The planning commission then revised some parts of its map, including the designation for 1320 S. University.

More recently, at its Feb. 7, 2012 meeting, planning commissioners voted unanimously not to recommend that 1320 S. University be rezoned from D2 to D1.

The city council’s vote was just its initial consideration of the request – a “first reading.” A rezoning request, like any ordinance change, requires initial approval, followed by a public hearing and a final approval at a subsequent meeting. But often, councilmembers will advance an ordinance change to a second reading, if they have not settled on a position and are interested in hearing the sentiments that might be expressed at a public hearing. So the fact that the council rejected the proposal on first reading can be taken as a measure of the council’s strong opposition to changing the zoning that was agreed on as part of the A2D2 process.

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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Ann Arbor Design Guidelines: Final OK Tue, 07 Jun 2011 00:51:39 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its June 6, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council gave final approval to an amendment of its land use control ordinance that will establish design guidelines for new projects in downtown Ann Arbor, and set up a seven-member design review board (DRB) to provide developers with feedback on their projects’ conformance to the design guidelines. It’s the final piece of the A2D2 rezoning initiative.

Review by the DRB will come before a developer’s meeting with nearby residents for each project – which is already required as part of the citizen participation ordinance. While the DRB process is required, conformance with the recommendations of that body is voluntary.

The city council had previously approved the design guideline review program at its Feb. 7, 2011 meeting. The city planning commission unanimously recommended the change to the city’s ordinance at its April 5, 2011 meeting. [Previous Chronicle coverage, which includes a detailed timeline of the design guidelines work, dating back to a work group formed in 2006: "Ann Arbor Hotel First to Get Design Review?"]

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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DDA Preps Downtown Ann Arbor Process Sun, 15 May 2011 20:47:56 +0000 Dave Askins At its regular partnerships committee meeting on May 11, 2011, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board began discussing how to implement the city council “parcel-by-parcel” resolution passed on April 4, 2011. That resolution gives the DDA responsibility for leading a process to explore alternative uses for downtown parcels: the Library Lot, old Y Lot, Palio Lot, Kline’s Lot and the Fourth and William parking structure.

Area of focus for DDA-led development process

Light pink areas are all city-owned land. The red outlined area is the DDA tax district. The green rectangle is the smaller area of focus for which the DDA has been given responsibility to lead a process to explore alternative uses of city-owned surface parking lots. The green rectangle is bounded by Ashley, Division, Liberty and William streets. (Links to higher resolution image. Map data is available on the city's website at

The parcels are currently used as surface parking lots – except for the Library Lot, which is the construction site for an underground parking garage that, when completed, will offer around 640 parking spaces. It was previously a 192-space surface parking lot.

The committee meeting included a presentation on the city’s sewer system from Cresson Slotten, a manager with the city of Ann Arbor’s systems planning unit.  The agenda also included a conversation with Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning, and Kit McCullough, who teaches at the school. The two are interested in helping facilitate the public process stipulated in the city council parcel-by-parcel resolution. Also interested in sharing information he’s gathering from downtown property owners is Peter Allen, a local developer who attended the partnerships meeting.

One major theme that emerged during the committee’s discussion is the idea that a public space can be successful if it is programmed, used and supported by the community, even if its design is lacking.

The parcel-by-parcel resolution was passed at the same meeting that the council voted to terminate the review process for proposals the city had solicited for use of the top of the underground parking structure.

The termination of that RFP review process came just before the council was supposed to consider formally signing a letter of intent to hammer out a development agreement for the finalist project – a hotel/conference center proposed by Valiant Partners. [Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Council Focuses on Downtown"]

Sanitary, Stormwater Sewer System

Cresson Slotten, an engineer who is a manager in the city’s systems planning unit, gave the DDA partnerships committee an overview of Ann Arbor’s downtown infrastructure, focusing on the sanitary and stormwater sewer systems. The sanitary system is designed to handle everything that goes down toilets, sinks, and showers, and that is treated at the wastewater treatment plant on Dixboro Road near Geddes Dam, before being piped into the Huron River. The stormwater system handles rain – the curb drains in streets, for example, lead to that system.

Slotten’s presentation came in the wake of a recent communication delivered by interim city administrator Tom Crawford at the city council’s May 2, 2011 meeting, which advised the council that the city’s sanitary sewer system had been threatened by recent rainfall. The system had been filled to the point of overflowing during recent heavy rains, he said, telling the council that local soils are saturated to the point that they cannot absorb additional rainfall. That means that all additional rain becomes runoff.

If the city maintains two separate systems – one for wastewater and one for rain – why does rainfall affect the wastewater system? As Slotten laid out to the partnerships committee, the sanitary sewer also receives flow from rainfall – because the footing drains of some buildings, including many residential properties, are connected directly to the sanitary sewer. Footing drains run around the perimeter of a building’s foundation, collecting water and leading it away from the foundation. Before 1981, it was common practice in southeast Michigan to connect footing drains to the sanitary sewer system.

It’s undesirable to have rainwater flowing through the sanitary sewer system, because it winds up at the wastewater treatment plant, where it gets treated. That’s an expense to the city – even though rainwater obviously does not need treatment before flowing into the river. The additional burden on the sanitary sewer can also cause sewage backups in basement drains.

By way of background, residents on Iroquois Place, near the intersection of Packard and Stadium, experienced dramatic sewage backups in their basements in June 2010 during a heavy rain. The city prioritized its footing drain disconnect program for the neighborhood, but city has denied damage claims, which for one homeowner amounted to $15,000. [Previous Chronicle coverage on the footing drain disconnect program from two years ago: "Drain Disconnect Time for Homeowners"]

Money for the Iroquois Place disconnections came in part from the University of Michigan, and was related to the renovations at the football stadium, which added load to the city’s sanitary sewer system. Due to the added burden, UM paid the city for 140 disconnections at a cost of $10,040 per project.

In fact, all new developments in the city are subject to a standard specification requiring that the additional burden to the sanitary sewer system be offset with footing drain disconnects. The offset specification was authorized by the city council in 2003, in response to an administrative consent order from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. [.pdf of city's standard specifications on added sanitary sewer burden] [.pdf of 2003 city council resolution authorizing standard specifications]

In his presentation, Slotten explained to the DDA partnerships committee how the standard specifications include a 20% system recovery factor: For 1.0 gallons of increased burden on the sanitary sewage system, 1.2 gallons of flow needs to be reduced elsewhere.

Slotten also outlined for the committee how new investment in additional capacity for either the stormwater system or the drinking water system is limited by the requirement that only the existing infrastructure that has reached the end of its useful life can be replaced at a cost to ratepayers – consumers who pay for drinking water and sanitary sewer service. That is, ratepayers don’t subsidize development or invest speculatively on system expansions. [This legal principle factored into the 1998 Bolt v. Lansing court decision, which involved a stormwater system expansion in Lansing.]

Slotten described it as a challenge for the future to contend with how developers are charged for localized expansions in the sewer system that are required to support a development. One scenario is that an initial development uses all of the available capacity, which means that the next development needs to mitigate the additional need. A third development might then be able to use that additional capacity paid for by the second development – which he said does not seem equitable. [.pdf of Slotten's infrastructure slide presentation]

Public Process: City Council Resolution

Slotten’s presentation on the downtown infrastructure was invited in the context of the DDA’s city-council assigned responsibility to lead a process to explore alternative uses for some of the city-owned surface parking lots in downtown Ann Arbor. The amended resolution narrowed in scope the original resolution, which called on the DDA to look at the entire DDA tax district. [.pdf of city council resolution as amended on April 4, 2011] [.pdf of city-owned parcels to be considered by the DDA]

Slotten’s presentation is part of the Phase I activity described in the resolution:

Public Services: Obtain detailed public infrastructure information for Parcels, including data on adjacent storm, water, and sanitary main capacity, hydrant coverage and other capacity-related information.

Somewhat more controversial than the public infrastructure component of the DDA’s process was the part of the resolution that addressed the kinds of input the DDA would seek from the community.

The council required several months to pass the resolution. Councilmembers had considered but postponed the resolution at its March 7, 2011 meeting, and before that at its Jan. 18, 2011 meeting. At the March 7 meeting, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) had complained that no revisions had been made to the resolution to accommodate objections made at the Jan. 18 meeting. [.pdf of the unamended resolution with the parcel-by-parcel plan] At that meeting, objections 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.

At its Jan. 5 board meeting, the Ann Arbor DDA board had approved a resolution urging passage of the council resolution, which had been circulated as early as the city council’s Dec. 20, 2010 meeting. At that time, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) had attached a copy of the draft resolution to the council’s meeting agenda, and alerted his council colleagues to it at the Dec. 20 meeting.

Receiving a good deal of discussion by the city council was wording in the resolution that, in its final form, reads as follows in relevant part:

Phase II …

  • Solicit robust public input and conduct public meetings to determine residents’ Parcel-level downtown vision
  • Solicit UM, EMU, and other higher education faculty to authorize class participation in the visioning process
  • Meeting(s) with UM Planning staff to maximize coordination
  • Meetings with business and community leaders to obtain their analysis of downtown’s strengths and weaknesses, its opportunities and inherent obstacles …

Phase III …

  • Solicit robust public input and confirm the extent of community consensus for the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan through public meetings and surveys
  • Hold meetings with business and community stakeholders to determine professional assessment of the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan …

Conversation with Kelbaugh, McCullough, Allen

Doug Kelbaugh is former dean of the University of Michigan college of architecture and urban planning. Kit McCullough is a lecturer at the college. Peter Allen is a local developer. All three attended the DDA partnerships committee meeting.

Conversation: Introductions

Kelbaugh told the committee members that two years ago he’d stepped down from the deanship of the the UM college of architecture – he’d moved to Ann Arbor 12 years ago to take that job. He said he thought it’s great that the city controls four key sites in the downtown area that the DDA is being asked to look at. He noted that he’d used the sites as student projects. Kelbaugh told the committee he lives downtown “right around the corner.” [He lives in the Armory building at the corner of Ann Street and Fifth Avenue. It was converted to residential living space by local developer and former DDA board member Ed Shaffran.]

Kelbaugh noted that he has a history of involvement in downtown Ann Arbor planning issues, having participated on a task force a few years ago. He said he enjoys living downtown. [.pdf of 2004 Downtown Residential Task Force report]

He mentioned that his colleague, McCullough, does not have a driver’s license, is thus sensitive to walkability issues. He stressed the need to have a 5-25 year vision for the downtown, so that the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. Public expectations shouldn’t be unreasonable, he said – those expectations should be aspirational, yet feasible.

Conversation: Constraining the Issues, Public Engagement

Board member Russ Collins mentioned to Kelbaugh that the partnerships committee had invited David di Rita of the Roxbury Group to its last meeting and he’d suggested that in terms of requests for proposals from developers, a somewhat more specific RFP would create a better outcome.

Rather than saying, “Here’s a plot of land, we’re accepting proposals,” Collins reported that di Rita’s advice had been to be more specific. [Di Rita had consulted for the city on the Library Lot RFP, a process which the city council terminated this spring. Chronicle coverage that includes parts of the April DDA partnerships committee meeting: "Balancing Ann Arbor, Detroit and a Vision"]

Kelbaugh responded to Collins by saying that good designers welcome constraints – they don’t necessary want a blank slate.

McCullough suggested that the public process could be used to get community consensus that can inform what the RFP says. Bob Guenzel – former Washtenaw County administrator and the newest appointee to the DDA board – wondered how much should be presented in advance of the public process. He ventured that you don’t just go out there and say, “What do you want the downtown to look like?”

Kelbaugh noted that Peter Allen, who was in the committee meeting audience, had volunteered to do a study, canvassing all the surrounding property and business owners around the sites. Kelbaugh felt that Allen’s work would be useful preparation. [The Chronicle encountered Allen downtown recently as Allen was beginning that canvassing work.]

So for the public engagement process, Kelbaugh told the committee that he and McCullough were thinking of two or three town hall meetings. McCullough said first meeting would be educational and would “set the table” for the public. For the second meeting, they would come back with two or three concepts. Kelbaugh said there will never be unanimous agreement, but there might be some overlapping agreement. He suggested that there are two ways to handle the public meetings: (1) hire a professional facilitator without subject matter knowledge; or (2) hire someone with subject matter knowledge – the Kelbaugh-McCullough alternative.

Kelbaugh made a case for a subject-matter expert by saying that it should not just be a list-making exercise. It wouldn’t just be a feel-good taking down of every idea that everyone has, he said. They could provide some real-time feedback. The session would have some “viscosity,” he said.

Responding to Collins’ concerns about the kind of reactions from the public that might be encountered, Kelbaugh said a certain amount of “ventilation” is good. You have to let people vent, he said, but you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.

DDA board member Sandi Smith noted that as much as the DDA is limited in focus to just the four parcels in the rectangle, she wondered how planning for the limited area could take into account how it should fit into a broader context – it’s not located in a vacuum. “How do you work that into public process?” she wondered.

McCullough suggested that an initial meeting can address what people’s aspirations are for the downtown. Kelbaugh observed that if there is any light rail planned for downtown, a choice for running it down Liberty Street would make a big difference, compared to bringing it down William Street.

Smith cautioned against inviting people to attach everything they want to a single parcel – that sets the whole thing up for failure, she said.

Conversation: Subject Matter of Downtown Ann Arbor

Part of the subject matter knowledge, Kelbaugh said, involves understanding what some of the physical constraints are. There are, for example, physical constraints on the Library Lot, which are further complicated by the nearby Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s Blake Transit Center. Smith noted that the “air rights” to a newly constructed Blake Transit Center would need to be factored into the thinking.

Kelbaugh said that he and McCullough actually think Kline’s Lot is “a different animal” from the rest of the parcels. McCullough thought that Ashley Street – which bounds the Kline’s Lot on the west – might need its own vision. Kelbaugh allowed that it’s true that the Kline’s Lot also fronts on William, like Palio’s Lot and the old Y Lot, but it seems like it might still need to be treated separately.

Kelbaugh said he was glad Library Lane is a done deal. Blocks that are that large tend to “clog up,” Kelbaugh said. [Library Lane is the east-west connection between Division and Fifth that's being created as part of the underground parking garage project.]

The community’s appetite for parkland would never be satisfied, Kelbaugh said. He observed that Ann Arbor doesn’t have a piazza that works, yet. He characterized Main Street as a real jewel, but said it has no place to gather – it’s just linear. Kelbaugh said the Library Lot is not really big enough to be a piazza, but it’s a possibility. As for an “outdoor living room”-type space, he said the Palio Lot doesn’t really work, because that kind of space needs to be mid-block.

Conversation: Programming, Design

Collins responded to Kelbaugh’s concerns about the Palio Lot by saying that it’s not just a matter of the space – it’s what goes on there. Collins related his experience as executive director of the Michigan Theater by noting that the community had rallied to save the theater, but a lot of people think that once the space is there, you don’t need to do anything else.


Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member Russ Collins before the May 11 partnerships committee meeting started. The board positions are volunteer. Collins earns his livelihood as executive director of the Michigan Theater. (Photos by writer)

The Ark, a nonprofit acoustic music club on Main Street, exists because of programing, not because there’s a natural market for folk music, Collins said. It’s well-programmed and the community supports it, he said – that’s why it exists. DDA board member Keith Orr noted that The Ark is not the easiest thing to spot or see, yet people throng to it. Collins reiterated that The Ark exists because the community supports it beyond ticket prices. He urged his colleagues on the committee to think about separating design from purpose. The community can create a space that’s valuable, even if it’s terrible space. He mentioned the Kerrytown Concert House and the Ann Arbor District Library as other entities that exist because the community supports them and because of their excellent management and programming.

Collins said the same could be done for Liberty Plaza – which is widely thought to be a poorly designed space on the corner of Liberty and Division. If there was $250,000 a year to put programs on in that park, it’d be a different story, he said – ice sculptures or an active stage on a regular basis, and the like. Josie Parker – director of the Ann Arbor District Library, who typically attends DDA partnerships committee meetings – noted that during the summer months, the Bank of Ann Arbor sponsors the Sonic Lunch concert series at Liberty Plaza, and that costs the bank money.

For programming, McCullough suggested that Campus Martius in Detroit as a good model. It’s programmed and supported as a space – the idea of an urban living room needs to be supported like that.

Conversation: Peter Allen’s Role

Amber Miller, a planning and research specialist with the DDA, asked how Kelbaugh and McCullough planned to bring into the process business owners and other stakeholders, in addition to public. Kelbaugh answered by saying Peter Allen’s role would be valuable. Kelbaugh also observed that McCullough would not be teaching during the fall term and would be available to do some of that work. He stressed the need to get people to participate who don’t normally come out to meetings – they need to get younger voices. Collins suggested that perhaps it’s the DDA’s job to figure out how to do that.

Asked to elaborate more on his role in the process, Peter Allen said what he’s trying to do in the next three months is talk to around 25 property owners about their business needs – he’s just getting started. He reported that he’d already talked to Herb David, who owns Herb David Guitar Studios. David has very strong feelings, Allen reported.

Allen said that the guitar studio, on the southeast corner of Liberty and Fifth, gives the area a lot of character – and David wants it to grow. He’d also talked to Ali Ramlawi, owner of the Jerusalem Garden restaurant (around the corner from Herb David), who sees good days coming. So far, Allen had only talked to about 10% of the people he plans to meet.


Peter Allen, standing, points out to DDA partnerships committee members the area he's focusing on in conversations with property owners.

One important property owner in the area is Bill Martin, who owns the building just west of Liberty Plaza. Allen said he wanted to talk to Martin about bulldozing the building – Allen stressed that he didn’t know if Martin would be open to that idea, and felt that fair market rate would need to be offered. Allen had two words for the credit union building on the block’s south side, east of the library: bulldozer bait.

The Kempf House, though, Allen characterized as an anchor. Allen felt like some of the other historic houses on the block could be picked up and moved around on the same block. Allen said he wanted to find out: What do property owners on the block think is good for their business?

Guenzel wanted to know in what capacity Allen was currently talking with business owners: “Are you doing that independently?” Allen told him he was doing it as a real estate broker, trying to help property owners analyze the situation – he’s doing it “on my own nickel.” The property owners would be potential clients, he said.

Guenzel wanted to know if Allen would share information. Yes, answered Allen, just as he had a decade earlier, when Washtenaw County had been looking for a site to place a consolidated homeless shelter. He said he’d helped point the county towards the property on East Huron Street, which was owned at the time by National City Bank. [.pdf of Jan. 19, 2000 Washtenaw County board of commissioners resolution]

Conversation: Next Steps

Kelbaugh said he would like to hit the ground running in the fall by preparing this summer, but noted that he and McCullough can’t do it for free. He’s found that work you do for free is not taken seriously.

Kelbaugh emphasized that the work he and McCullough were proposing to do would be parallel but independent and separate from Allen’s work.

Guenzel asked about a timeline. Kelbaugh suggested the start of school in the fall as a potential start of the public process. The summer would be a good window for gathering data.

Next steps: McCullough and Kelbaugh will come back to the DDA’s June partnerships committee meeting with a specific proposal. A calendar of all DDA meetings is available on the DDA website.

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Active Use of Work Space: Film Premiere Fri, 17 Dec 2010 16:21:51 +0000 Dave Askins On Wednesday night at the Workantile Exchange – a membership-funded coworking space on Main Street, between Washington and Huron – local video producer and urban researcher Kirk Westphal premiered his two newest films.

Workantile Exchange Urban Planning Council Manager Form of Government

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

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

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

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

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

The wonks included people like Wendy Rampson, head of planning for the city of Ann Arbor; Ed Koryzno, Ypsilanti’s city manager; Diane Giannola, Ann Arbor city planning commissioner; Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; and Steve Bean, recent independent candidate for mayor of Ann Arbor.

Doug Kelbaugh Wendy Rampson Urban Planning

Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning, talks with Wendy Rampson, head of Ann Arbor's planning staff.

Westphal, a video producer and urban researcher, will be recognizable to many Chronicle readers as one of the city’s planning commissioners; he also serves on the city’s environmental commission. His previous work includes the film “Insights into a Lively Downtown,” a case study of Ann Arbor.

Each of Westphal’s new films had a running time of 23 minutes, and there was opportunity for the audience to discuss the content of the films before, between and after the showings. Prompting much of the discussion was how the material in the “Great Street” film relates to the Washington-to-Huron block of Main Street, where the Workantile Exchange itself is located. The Washington-to-Huron block includes a number of banking opportunities: Citizens Bank, Chase, KeyBank, and PNC Bank. In addition, Comerica is located just north of Huron, in the One North Main building.

But as the “Great Streets” film makes clear, neither professional planners nor Westphal are fans of banks as a ground-floor use in a downtown environment. [The film was funded in part by a grant from the Urban Design and Preservation division of the American Planning Association.]

Westphal has expressed the same view before, most recently in an early November presentation he made to his colleagues on the planning commission. Describing a surveillance camera photo of a bank robbery in progress, said Westphal: “What I’d like to convince you of tonight is that there are two crimes being committed in this photo. I contend that what this thief is stealing from the bank doesn’t even come close to what underused banks, like this one, steal from the vitality of a downtown.”


Kirk Westphal answered questions as the credits rolled.

And in an opinion piece published in the April 5, 2009 Ann Arbor News, Westphal expressed the general view that ground floor uses should be regulated in the zoning code to give preference to “active uses” – like retail stores, cafes and restaurants.

So how did Ed Shaffran factor into the evening?

When Westphal’s opinion piece was published in The News, it appeared side-by-side with one from Shaffran, who’s a downtown property owner and developer, and who offered a view opposing Westphal’s. From Shaffran’s piece: “On a theoretical level, to say a bank is not an active use and should be located to a secondary street borders on National Socialism.”

The impetus for the two opinion pieces was the city’s A2D2 rezoning initiative for downtown Ann Arbor, which at the time was being debated by the city council. The original A2D2 proposal included some restrictions on ground-floor uses in certain areas – preference was given to active uses. But those restrictions were removed from the version of the A2D2 rezoning that was approved by the Ann Arbor city council in November 2009.

And Shaffran, as it turns out, was featured in a serendipitous cameo in Westphal’s “Great Streets” film, which included footage shot by Westphal in downtown Ann Arbor. In the frame, Shaffran can briefly be seen walking towards the camera east along Liberty Street, talking on his cell phone.

Jesse Bernsetin, Ray Detter

At left: Jesse Bernstein, chair of the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, chats with Ray Detter, president of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, before the film premiere. In the foreground is Trek Glowacki, co-owner of the Workantile Exchange.

Another Shaffran connection to the film premiere: He owns the building at 118 Main St. that houses the Workantile Exchange, where the films were shown.

And it was the Workantile Exchange itself that generated some of the conversation after the “Great Streets” showing. Why? Parade examples of non-active uses of space are banks and offices. And the coworking space offered by the Workantile Exchange is somewhat similar to shared office space. Does coworking space constitute an active use in an urban planning sense?

The day before the showing, Trek Glowacki, co-owner of the Workantile Exchange, explained to The Chronicle that one key difference between a coworking space and a shared office arrangement is the business model. In a shared office space, every tenant would have an assigned desk, and the rent for the space would be divided equally among the tenants. If a tenant moves out, the remaining tenants would pay slightly more rent. If tenants were added, the rent would decrease accordingly.

In contrast, the Workantile’s coworking space doesn’t guarantee a permanent desk in a specific location. The furniture is on wheels, and will be configured differently on any given day, depending on who shows up to work, when they show up, and who they might be collaborating with. The Workantile is calibrated to a culture that is inherently more collaborative than an arrangement where the only expectation is that you pay the rent for your desk. This community of coworking is a key part of what Glowacki describes as the Workantile’s role in the city’s economic development.

So, the monthly fee paid to the Workantile is not a desk rental, but rather a membership that gives access to a working community and the expectation of a contribution to that community. The space itself includes all the typical amenities that you’d expect in an office, including access to two conference rooms.

Workantile Exchange WIndow

Window view of the Workantile Exchange last Wednesday night.

The configurable space inside the Workantile makes it suitable for hosting various kinds of events. For example, on Friday, Dec. 3, the same day as Midnight Madness in downtown Ann Arbor, author David Erik Nelson, a Workantile member, hosted a book-signing event for his latest title, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred.” The book is written for parents who’d like to make things with their kids – like boomerangs. With all the tables rolled to the walls, there was plenty of room to fling the boomerangs around the main floor. The Workantile Christmas tree is now bedecked with boomerangs.

And of course the space is suitable for hosting a film premiere.

So one of questions at the conclusion of the film came from the Workantile’s Glowacki, who told Westphal to be honest: Is the Workantile Exchange an active use of space?

Before answering, Westphal wanted some clarification about what the usage patterns were. Glowacki told him there was generally someone working 20 hours out of every day. Westphal noted that the use was certainly more active when Mighty Good Coffee had its storefront at the front of the space – but in September 2010 Mighty Good moved up the block to a new location at 217 N. Main St. Now, the whole space is occupied by the Workantile.

At a meeting of Workantile coworkers soon after Mighty Good Coffee departed, they discussed possible alternatives for the area previously used by the coffee shop’s store front. One idea batted around at the meeting was rotating window displays showing off the work of members. Attractive windows offering things of interest to pedestrians is one feature that Westphahl’s “Great Streets” film highlighted as important for a vibrant downtown.

From outside the Workantile on Wednesday night, the film premiere taking place on the other side of the glass wasn’t necessarily accessible to every member of the public – the sign on the door indicated a private event was taking place. But through the window it was clear the space was filled with activity.

Dave Askins, editor and co-founder of The Chronicle, is a member of the Workantile Exchange.

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Ann Arbor Main Street BIZ Clears Hurdle Fri, 04 Dec 2009 13:23:20 +0000 Dave Askins Map of proposed BIZ district

Map of proposed BIZ area: Main Street from William Street in the south to Huron Street in the north. (Image links to complete .pdf file of the Main Street BIZ plan.)

On Wednesday, a cold and rainy evening, a group of downtown Ann Arbor property owners gathered in the city council chambers for a public meeting gaveled to order by the city clerk, Jackie Beaudry.

They were there not to discuss rain, but rather snow. At least in part.

On their agenda was consideration of a plan for a business improvement zone (BIZ) on Main Street – bounded by William Street to the south and Huron Street to the north – which would assess an extra tax on owners of property in the zone.

That plan for the BIZ includes snow removal as one of three main categories of services to be paid for through the BIZ. The other two categories of service in the plan are sidewalk cleaning and landscape plantings.

The plan was approved on a roll call vote of the property owners in attendance on Wednesday night, but not without some dissent. And the approval of the plan on Wednesday is not the final step before the BIZ can be implemented. Still ahead lies a formal public hearing by the city council, a vote by the city council, followed by another vote by property owners – this one by mail.

Background on the Ann Arbor Main Street BIZ

Almost exactly a year ago, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority‘s partnerships committee reported out to the full board at its Dec. 3, 2008 meeting that Ed Shaffran and Ellie Serras had expressed an interest in creating a self-assessment zone centered on Main Street. They’d inquired about start-up funding, which would entail mostly a consultant and some legal work. Shaffran is a local developer and former chair of the DDA board. Serras is former executive director of the Main Street Area Association.

Ann Arbor city clerk Jackie Beaudry

Ann Arbor city clerk Jackie Beaudry chaired the public meeting for property owners to vote on the business improvement zone proposed for Main Street between William and Huron. (Photo by the writer.)

And four months later, at its April 1, 2009 meeting, the DDA board authorized $83,270 to support the creation of a business improvement zone (BIZ) on South Main Street. The amount included roughly $75,000 plus a 10% contingency. A series of public meetings were held to pitch the idea to downtown property owners, including one at Conor O’Neill’s in June. [Chronicle coverage: "In the Business Improvement Zone"]

The series of public meetings resulted in submittal of a petition to the city clerk supporting the creation of the BIZ, signed by at least 30% of property owners in the district, where each signature is weighted based on the value of the property owned.

That weighting applies to all votes of property owners on matters related to the BIZ. The Ann Arbor city council also heard a presentation at an October work session on the proposed Main Street BIZ. [Chronicle Coverage: "Work Session: Trains, Trash, and Taxes."]

With the 30% petition submitted and a work session under its belt to get familiar with the notion of a BIZ, the city council then voted at its Oct. 19, 2009 meeting to move the BIZ along to the next step of its creation: the city clerk provided written notice to property owners of a public meeting to vote on the plan –  which includes the budget and the formula for assessing property owners.

It was this vote that took place on Wednesday evening. It required a majority of property owners in attendance to pass – weighted based on the value of property they own. [For the state enabling legislation for a BIZ, see Public Act 120 of 1961].

Services Planned Through the Main Street BIZ

The services to be paid for through the Main Street BIZ are divided into two categories – those that are analyzed as providing a “direct benefit” to a property owner and those providing a “common benefit” to all property owners. The distinction between direct and common benefit services is important for the calculation of the tax owed by each property owner.

But first, what are the services?

The direct benefit services are sidewalk snow removal (budgeted at $60,000 per year) and sidewalk cleaning (budgeted at $10,000.) The common benefit services are landscape improvements and maintenance (budgeted at $12,000 a year).

Stephen Kelly

Stephen Kelly questioned whether the cost of the snow removal was reasonable. (Photo by the writer.)

In response to a question from property owner Stephen Kelly and other property owners about what they perceived to be the excessively high cost allocated for snow removal, Ellie Serras explained that in getting estimates from potential snow removal contractors – names they had solicited from property owners in the proposed zone – they had specified: “We want Main Street to be like a hospital zone.”

More specifically, the snow removal service is triggered by accumulations of 1 inch or more, with provisions for the  major accumulations of snow to be physically removed from the downtown area, not just shoveled into the street. The budgeted $60,000 covers up to 40 snowfalls per season.

The warm-weather equivalent of snow removal to be provided by the BIZ is sidewalk cleaning – weekly vacuuming of the sidewalks and semi-annual power washing. In addition, handbills will be removed weekly from public surfaces, and graffiti will be removed on demand. [For Chronicle coverage of Ann Arbor's relatively new graffiti ordinance: "Council OKs Graffiti Law, Questions AATA"]

The landscaping services – categorized as a common benefit – consist of contributing funds (budgeted at $12,000 per year) toward the maintenance of the 44 planter boxes within the district.

Calculating the Tax Owed: Direct versus Common Benefit

In addition to the common benefit service of landscaping, in the BIZ plan budget there are organizational expenses also categorized as common benefits to property owners of the district. Those organizational expenses are budgeted at $36,848 per year.

Broken down in terms of common benefit and direct benefit costs, then, the BIZ plan budget looks like this:

Direct Benefit
Snow removal          $60,000
Sidewalk Cleaning     $10,000
Total Direct Benefit:           $ 70,000

Common Benefit
Landscaping           $12,000
Organizational        $36,848
Total Common Benefit            $ 48,848

Total BIZ Budget                $118,848


The assessment formula is designed to generate the $118,848 for the BIZ budget by considering the direct benefit costs and the common benefit costs separately.

Striped Sock

Despite appearances, this is not a "lineal foot." Its owner did, however, attend the BIZ public meeting and voted yes on the BIZ plan. (Photo by the writer).

Direct benefit costs, so goes the reasoning, is a function of the amount of frontage along the area where the service is performed, measured in lineal feet. So the cost per lineal foot is calculated by taking the $70,000 in direct benefit costs and dividing by the 3,349 lineal feet of frontage in the zone to get an assessment rate of $20.90 per lineal foot.

The organizers of the BIZ reason that the common benefit costs are a function of the square footage of a property. So the cost per square foot is calculated by taking the $48,848 in common benefit costs and dividing by the 575,998 commercial square feet in the zone to get an assessment rate of $0.0848 per square foot.

So to calculate the tax owed by a property owner in the zone, the formula is:

Tax Owed = [Lineal Feet]*$20.90 +[Commercial Square Feet]*$0.0848

The average BIZ assessment of property owners in the zone, said Ed Shaffran, would be around $2,200.

Concerns Expressed by Property Owners

Besides the high costs associated with the snow removal, a concern was raised about the fairness of the distinction between direct costs and common costs. One point of confusion was whether the tax imposed by the BIZ would change based on changes in property value through time – the BIZ is specified to have a term of seven years. The BIZ tax uses the commercial square footage in its calculation, but not the assessed values of that commercial square footage. The role played by the commercial square footage owned by a property owner merely establishes the percentage of the total BIZ burden shouldered by that property owner.

Beyond the actual mechanics of how the BIZ would be administered, the main worry expressed by a few property owners was that the extra tax burden would be passed along to tenants – retailers on Main Street. The retail environment was repeatedly described as “fragile” and the fear was expressed that even a little extra burden could make the difference between surviving and failing.

One Tenant’s View

It was a tenant who actually argued most energetically for the BIZ – Chris DeRuyver of Affinity Wealth Solutions, a commercial tenant at 122 S. Main. DeRuyver would serve on the board of directors of the BIZ.

Chris DeRuyver

Chris DeRuyver describes how clients cancel appointments on snowy days. (Photo by the writer.)

He described how snowy days inevitably led to cancellation of appointments – his clients would call to cancel, saying they didn’t want to trudge through the snow.

“Downtown is like a ghost town on snowy days,” DeRuyver said. He compared his previous experience working out of the 777 Building on Eisenhower, saying he never had cancellations due to snow, because the snow was always removed from the parking lot all the way to the door.

So DeRuyver said the BIZ would address a specific obstacle to the economic success of the Main Street area.

As for the concerns that some property owners had expressed about the additional expense of the tax threatening fragile businesses, he offered this advice: “In a down economy, you can’t be expense-driven; you have to be revenue-driven.”

The Vote

The Chronicle scored the roll call vote read out by city clerk Jackie Beaudry as 26 votes for the BIZ plan, with 2 votes against. Given that the votes had to be weighted by the value of property owned, the city assessor, David Petrak, was on hand to verify that the weighted majority had been achieved.

The next step is for the city council to hold a public hearing and a vote again on the BIZ – likely to happen in January 2010. Assuming approval by the city council, a final vote among property owners conducted by mail would then likely happen in February 2010. The first BIZ assessment would then be made in June 2010 and appear with the July tax bill. BIZ operations would commence in July 2010.

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