Meeting Watch: DDA in Detail (3 Sept 2008)

Free lunch, new library update and (of course) parking

“On the low end, mid 60s, to low 70s on the high end,” said Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, in her remarks to the DDA board. And she wasn’t talking about the weather forecast. Or an age bracket of heavy library users. She was talking about dollar amounts. Millions of dollars. But before diving into money talk, it’s worth noting that some things are free.

For example, one detail not often reported about the noontime meetings of the Downtown Development Authority board is that lunch is provided – to anyone who shows up and would like to partake. Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, explained that they started providing lunch because given the hour of the day, board members were bringing food to eat anyway. And she said the DDA wanted visitors to feel welcome when they attend.

Among the non-board-member visitors in the audience were Stephen Smith and Tony Bisesi (of Republic Parking), Carsten Hohnke (recent winner of the Ward 5 city council Democratic primary), Steve Bean (chair of the Environmental Commission, although he was attending in his guise as an regular citizen), Nancy Shore (getDowntown!), Ray Detter (Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council), Josie Parker (Ann Arbor District Library) and Wendy Rampson (city of Ann Arbor planning).

So lunch at the DDA meetings is free. But here’s some numbers on the various projects mentioned in the course of the meeting – which provide organizational structure for this article:

  • $60-70 million, proposed downtown library project (not a DDA project)
  • $56.4 million, South Fifth Avenue Parking Structure Project
  • $7.1 million, Fifth & Divison Improvement Project ($6.1 million from DDA)
  • $0.25 million north-east connector project ($50,000 from DDA)

Update from Josie Parker on the future of the downtown library

Among the options considered for the future of the downtown library, one was eliminated from further study about a month and a half ago: the possibility that a new library could be built on top of the proposed underground parking garage. The taller library building that would have resulted from a smaller footprint would have been more expensive operationally.

That leaves two options currently.

  1. Renovate. Demolish 1958, 1977 sections, renovate the 1990s section and add a 4-story portion.
  2. Demolish. Tear down the entire library building and construct a new one.

On the second option, the building would be 4 floors tall across the board, encompassing 160,000 square feet, compared to its current 110,000 square feet.

One key design feature would be access to the garage at P1 at a point where a vibrant, well-lit, welcoming area would be created. Parker said that library patrons entering from the underground parking garage would see a lit glass wall and that natural light would be brought all the way down to that lower level. Parker described how there would be a grand stairway from the P1 level up to the lobby.

“Coming in from underground will be a great experience,” said Parker, eschewing the word “basement” in favor of “P1 Lobby.” “We’re not walking people into a concrete wall out of an elevator,” Parker assured the board.

Adjacency to Library Lane is another key design feature. The current design concept includes making the building open at the corner of 5th and Library Lane (the proposed new midblock street running between Fifth and Division). Parker described a three-way doorway, a corner of glass, and an indoor-outdoor courtyard with possibly a cafe.

In weighing the pros and cons of the renovate versus demolish options, one factor that affects the cost of any renovation is compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was not in effect when the last renovations were undertaken, with the effect that the library building is currently not ADA compliant. The current plan to renovate would necessarily include bringing the entire building into compliance with the ADA.

Another challenge posed by the option to renovate are the design features of the old building: multiple vertical columns and limited floor-to-ceiling heights. The columns limit flexibility in use of space, while the inability to raise ceilings makes the installation of under-floor heating and cooling more challenging.

Parker said that under a demolition scenario, the possibility of recycling demolished building parts is being explored.

Board member Joan Lowenstein inquired if and how downtown library operations would continue through renovation and/or reconstruction. Parker described a strategy that would parcel out current operations at three different locations:

  1. temporary downtown branch, geographically close to current downtown location; 19-25,000 square feet
  2. warehouse space for much of the collection using a closed-stack system
  3. offices housing administration, human resources, and finance departments

In any case, Parker said that during any scenario, the library would heed the advice of staff who had worked on site through the 1990s renovation. Parker reported their unanimous sentiment regarding the current plan was, “Get us out of here!” She said also that it was simply less expensive to move out while work was completed.

Board member John Mouat inquired about how the proposed 400-seat auditorium would be programmed. Parker stressed that it was not a full-performance stage. For example, it will not have fly space. But it would be big enough for small orchestras and bands. Parker predicted lots of lectures would take place there. She pointed out that the capacity of the theater had an impact on the parking requirements for the new facility. Last year, without the 400-seat auditorium, the downtown location counted 600,000 door swings made by patrons visiting the library in person (1.7 million system wide).

South Fifth Avenue Parking Structure Project

Much of the discussion by the board of the parking structure project stemmed from a letter sent the previous day by Steve Bean (on behalf of himself, not for the Environmental Commission, which he chairs) to the DDA board and staff. Wrote Bean, “In our society hope for sustainability (if it is possible at all) is dependent on high levels of environmental quality, economic vitality, and social equity, with a general balance among them. The proposed project is lacking in each of those areas.”

In particular Bean expressed concern that the proposed structure would not provide adequate flexibility in the event that demand for parking decreases as a result of increased fuel costs and the success of alternative transportation: “The DDA needs to be prepared to make immediate system management changes as soon as demand peaks.” Details of Bean’s specific concerns about the project can be found in the full text of the letter [.pdf file], which The Chronicle makes available with Bean’s permission.

Board member John Mouat first mentioned the letter in a complimentary fashion and expressed his hope that the structure would accommodate the changing shapes of personal transportation in the future. Board member Dave DeVarti followed up by proposing an amendment to the resolution to approve a project budget and scope for the parking structure:

Whereas no attempt has been made to assess future demand for downtown parking with consideration to expected transportation fuel costs and the recent success of alternative modes of transportation, nor to assess the financial impact of a possible decrease in parking demand on the parking system;

Resolved that prior to construction of the proposed parking structure, a thorough analysis be made of current and future parking demand, giving consideration to the success of the go!Pass program and other recent transportation initiatives (i.e. the possible creation of a light rail commuter train to serve the area) as well as to the impact on automobile use caused by anticipated fuel price increases

Immediately on circulation of the amendment, DeVarti himself proposed striking the phrase “prior to construction of the proposed parking structure,” saying he hoped that eliminating that requirement would help the amendment gain some support around the table. But the stricken phrase was not the one that irritated Leah Gunn. She took exception to the whereas clause: “I would like to respond by saying, ‘no attempt has been made to assess future demand for downtown parking, etcetera …’ ??!”

When DeVarti attempted to interject a clarification, Gunn would not have her speaking turn interrupted. “Excuse me, I’m speaking,” she said firmly, and continued, “We have a Nelson/Nygaard study that went into this – it’s only about this thick! If you’ve read it you will understand we are moving into a new mode of how we are going to handle parking – the demand management system.” Gunn also stressed that she felt it was more properly the purview of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to undertake such a study, as opposed to the DDA. Gunn said that the broader scope of the AATA beyond downtown Ann Arbor put them in a better position to assess the factors that might have an impact on downtown.

As Gunn’s objection seemed to stem from the claim that “no attempt has been made,” Russ Collins noted that reasonable people might differ as to whether “an attempt has been made” and suggested striking the entire whereas clause. In the same spirit, he proposed that “thorough” be replaced with “an additional.” Here’s how the modified amendment looked when voted on:

Whereas no attempt has been made to assess future demand for downtown parking with consideration to expected transportation fuel costs and the recent success of alternative modes of transportation, nor to assess the financial impact of a possible decrease in parking demand on the parking system;

Resolved that prior to construction of the proposed parking structure, an thorough additional analysis be made of current and future parking demand, giving consideration to the success of the go!Pass program and other recent transportation initiatives (i.e. the possible creation of a light rail commuter train to serve the area) as well as to the impact on automobile use caused by anticipated fuel price increases.

René Greff spoke against the amendment, saying that usage of parking facilities through the recent dramatic increase in gasoline prices had only increased. Making a final effort to win support for the amendment, Devarti said, “This is asking for analysis or a study of current and future parking demand – that’s our [the DDA's] business!” DeVarti’s amendment failed on a 6-5 vote [7 votes were need to carry it.]

However, Sandi Smith, who had also spoken against DeVarti’s amendment – citing the difficulty of getting experts to agree should such a study be undertaken – suggested making explicit elsewhere in the resolution the DDA’s commitment to ongoing due diligence in assessing demand for parking. What she had in mind was a resolved clause that already created a single committee dedicated to focus on transportation choices (i.e., alternative transportation and parking demand management).

RESOLVED: The DDA shall work to consolidate its many efforts to encourage alternative transportation and parking demand management from several committees into a single committee focussed on transportation choices so that the goals of all its various programs are interrelated more closely; and that the committee continues analysis of current and future parking demand.

The main resolution passed. Roger Hewitt explained his support by saying, “I know that right now we don’t have enough parking downtown.” Leah Gunn stressed that much of the visible work that the DDA had done with respect to new parking (4th and Washington) had resulted in no net gain in parking spaces, and had merely replaced existing parking, hence the need for this structure. Joan Lowenstein, while acknowledging a possible trend toward people using their cars less, suggested that “storage parking” for residential use would persist and that the city’s desire to have more people living downtown was a goal that would be supported by building the new structure. The sentiment that the project was a wonderful opportunity to partner with the library on its project was unanimously shared at the table, with Russ Collins saying, “They’re not in lock step, they are marching together voluntarily.”

However, Jennifer Hall, board vice-chair who wielded the gavel at the meeting, joined DeVarti in voting no. [Ed. note: Red strike-through here is standard Chronicle style for correction of errors of fact made in the original publication of an article; elsewhere in this piece, the same style is used to indicate redaction of resolution language discussed at the meeting. ] Hall said that she wanted to depart with custom by not waiting until others had spoken, because she did not want the final word spoken on the project to convey to the public that the DDA was against parking. Hall’s comments reflected that her decision to vote against the project was not easily reached. She said that she agreed with many of the sentiments of the whereas clauses, but felt that the scope of the project had shifted so substantially that she could no longer get “the scales to balance.” She suggested that more patience was required to see if the additional capacity already being added to the system independent of the structure would have a sufficient impact to reduce the need to build the structure.

In his remarks explaining his vote against the project, DeVarti pointed out that the $50,000 cost of constructing each of the 777 parking spaces would more appropriately be calculated at around $70,000 per space in light of the 193 spaces in the existing lot that would be lost. So, DeVarti concluded, the 500 free spaces previously allocated to Google independently of this structure represented the equivalent of a $35 million public subsidy of a for-profit private company. “Where,” DeVarti asked, “is the like commitment to affordable housing?

DeVarti described himself as the “squeaky wheel” on the affordable housing issue, though implying perhaps for not much longer (as his appointed term is drawing to a close). After the meeting, DeVarti said that he would be willing to continue to serve on the DDA board and that he had asked Mayor John Hieftje to be re-appointed, but did not know yet if that request would be honored.

DeVarti’s vote against the parking structure project was foreshadowed by his remarks on the Fifth & Division project, which was discussed prior to the parking structure (cf. below).

Fifth & Division Improvement Project

DeVarti supported this project but made clear some concerns:

I’ve had a continuing concern we need to replace the 100 units of affordable housing that we lost when the residents were moved out of the Y for some time. And I have a broad contextual concern with how many millions we are spending on the many projects we are participating in: the city hall and court expansion, this project, the Ashley garage across from the Blind Pig, and the next resolution coming up, which is another $50 million project.

And my fear is that we are taking our pool of resources and expending them, shooting the whole wad essentially. And when we do have the opportunity to do something to replace that affordable housing, my fear is the resources won’t be there. I know from my experience with all the people around the table that most everybody here is committed personally to trying to meet the needs of the lower income part of the community and replace that housing. And I have a lot of faith in people’s good will to try to do that.

But I have a really deep concern about whether the DDA will have the resources to allow that goodwill to come forward and actually make something happen to replace that housing. I will vote for this. It has been a long time coming and I think there are a lot of good aspects to this project, but I want to voice my concern in the broader context. And on the next resolution my concern is much deeper, because there we are talking about $56 million as opposed to here were talking about $6 million. So I will vote for this but with that concern.

During discussion of this project, it emerged that what the city calls the “level of service” for the Division & Huron intersection is not currently acceptable for automobile traffic. So one of the goals of burying utilities, and widening Division is to gain enough extra space to (i) make the proposed bicycle lane continue through the intersection as well as (ii) have additional room to “stack” cars waiting to turn left onto Huron.

The resolution to approve the project budget for Phase I construction passed unanimously. Of the $7.1 million, $1 million with come from Michigan Department of Transportation.

North-east connector

Roger Hewitt reported that last week the local connector steering committee interviewed three consultants to do the first phase, part of the process required for federal funding. One of the three had been eliminated, with choice between the other two hoped for in the next day or so. What’s possibly being connected with a high-volume transit system? The north-east area of Ann Arbor (UM north campus and medical campus) with downtown Ann Arbor.

The DDA is partnering with the city of Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, and the University of Michigan on this project. The DDA’s approved budgetary contribution stands at $50,000, with the other three partners contributing $200,000 for a total of a quarter-million dollars. Hewitt said that initial cost estimates for this first phase far exceeded that and they would be looking for ways to scale it back.

Concluding his remarks, Hewitt declared, “And I got all the way through that without saying the word ‘streetcars’.”

Next board meeting: noon on Wednesday, Oct. 1 at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301.