Wednesday’s noon meeting of the Downtown Development Authority board saw one transportation initiative move forward: funding for a fourth Zipcar for downtown was approved. A second resolution was returned to the transportation committee: the board was not ready to approve an increase from $50,000 to $160,000 for its share of a north-south connector study.
Also on the agenda was an amendment to a parking agreement between the city, the DDA, and Village Green, which is developing the City Apartments project on the southeast corner of First and Washington. Even though the resolution was passed, Jon Frank, VP of development for Village Green, didn’t get the language he needed in the resolution, which means that City Apartments project will require some additional back and forth before the final Ts are crossed.
Among other news, in verbal summaries of various committee reports, came word from operations committee chair Roger Hewitt that the pilot valet parking program will begin on Dec. 15 at the Maynard Street structure.
Hewitt reported that the pilot program for a valet parking option, which was recommended as an option in the Nelson Nygaard study, will begin on Dec. 15 at the Maynard parking structure using the Thompson Street entrance. The charge is $5 for the valet service, which runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday. Pick-up options include a standard valet: the car is retrieved on return to the structure. But visitors also have the option of calling ahead 15 minutes, in which case the car will be waiting ready to go on return to the structure.
The board considered and passed a resolution authorizing funding for a fourth Zipcar in addition to the three for which funding had already been approved in May 2008. The amount of the original authorization was up to $54,000 for $1,500 a month in guaranteed revenue to Zipcar and $10,000 for marketing and promotion. The new resolution added $18,000 to account for a maximum of $1,500 per month for a fourth vehicle. Nancy Shore, director of the getDowntown program, which will work with the DDA and Zipcar on the marketing end, clarified for the board that it’s conceivable that the guaranteed revenue would be covered completely by actual Zipcar usage. This assessment was based on the fact that the $1,500 revenue level corresponded to 40% usage, and the UM Zipcar program currently enjoyed 60% usage. Board member Gary Boren asked if the arrangement was a dollar-for-dollar abatement, and Shore said that she believed it was.
Shore said that with the final contracts to be signed on Dec. 15, the availability of Zipcars downtown would begin in January or February of 2009.
North-South Connector Study
Eli Cooper, transportation manager for the city of Ann Arbor, was on hand to clarify some of the issues surrounding the north-south connector study. The funding of the study is currently proposed at levels of $160,000 each for four partners: the DDA, UM, AATA, and the city of Ann Arbor. Cooper explained that while UM and AATA had formally authorized the funds (which represented increases from a previous round of authorizations), the city of Ann Arbor had made an administrative recommendation that still required approval by the city council.
Cooper then explained some of the nuts and bolts of the need for the study and why it was necessary. Chief among these reasons is to keep the project eligible for federal funding. John Hieftje, mayor of the city of Ann Arbor, asked if the winning bidder for the study contract, URS, had a record of success in obtaining federal funding. Cooper confirmed that they had.
Cooper clarified also the difference between this phase one study and the subsequent phase two, which would result in a “locally preferred alternative.” What the board was currently considering, said Cooper, was a study that would focus on feasibility, anticipated alignments (not a specific route), the establishment of a “purpose and need” and would entail generating ridership forecasts. The result would be a recommendation of two or three alternatives. Phase two would entail a far more technical engineering analysis, and would result in a specific preferred alternative. The order of magnitude for the phase two study would grow from the hundreds of thousands of dollars for phase one to $1.5-2.0 million for phase two. Where, asked board member John Mouat, can money be sourced to pay for phase two? Cooper said that a certain amount of federal dollars could come into play.
The result of phase two, said Cooper, was the first point of variance with respect to timing and cost for the final project. If it were to be a bus rapid transit system, the construction costs would be in the tens of millions, with light rail (street cars) around double that. Timing-wise, the best case scenario, felt Cooper, was 3-5 years to have something rolling.
The board discussion centered around the relative portion of the study cost to be born by the DDA. The shares had evolved from a previous $50,000 contribution for each of UM, city of Ann Arbor, DDA, with AATA contributing $100,000. Board member Rene Greff reiterated a point she’d made at the inaugural meeting of the transportation committee: If the DDA considered the $160,000 it was currently being asked to contribute as an amount they’d be willing to spend to get pertinent information (where do people come from when they visit downtown, where do they go after leaving?), then she thought it was an amount worth considering. But getting pertinent information became that much more important, Greff said, pointing specifically to the bullet points in the resolution:
- What is the estimated number and type of downtown workers and residents who will use this future connector? What is the estimated percentage use by downtown workers, UM faculty/staff/students, and other users?
- Why would a downtown worker use this connector rather than a single occupancy vehicle and/or the existing bus system?
- What is the optimal course though the downtown portion of its route to maximize its attractiveness to downtown users and transit connections?
- What are the various transportation modes the connector could use in addition to a trolley?
Board member Sandi Smith said that she was resistant to using that many city dollars when the main beneficiary would be UM. Hieftje took up Smith’s theme in more specific terms, saying that three-quarters of the money was coming from a single pot: the taxpayers of Ann Arbor, with only a quarter from UM, an institution with a $6-7 billion endowment. Hieftje said he thought UM should pay for half of the study. He thus supported tabling the resolution as the transportation committee had recommended.
With the exception of board chair Jennifer Hall, who was prepared to vote, the board supported the motion to table the resolution, sending it back to the transportation committee.
Village Green Parking Agreement
The resolution before the board concerned an amendment to the parking agreement struck between the DDA, the city of Ann Arbor and Village Green on January 2008 in which the DDA approved a 241-space design at a total cost of $9.035 million. The site plan approved by city council on Monday was for a 244-space design. The amendment sought by Village Green proposed to move the cap to 251 parking spaces at a total cost of $9.435 million.
The board had before it two versions of the resolution: one with language requested in written communications between the DDA and Village Green brought to the board by its partnership committee, and a different one based on verbal communications between Village Green and the DDA in the last couple of days. The latter had been examined by the DDA executive committee, but not necessarily recommended to the board.
In board deliberations, board chair Jennifer Hall said the executive committee was not comfortable with the more recently formulated resolution, but was comfortable with the version that came from the partnerships committee, co-chaired by Sandi Smith and Russ Collins. The deal-breaking clause (from Village Green’s perspective), which was included in the resolution brought forward from the partnerships committee was this:
RESOLVED: The DDA asserts its interest in acquiring full-size car parking spaces only (not compact), and will retain its right to review and approve any additional parking space as well as the new parking structure layout and design.
Collins wondered if that resolution was of any practical benefit to Village Green. Jon Frank, VP of development for Village Green, confirmed in a side conversation with The Chronicle that this clause did not serve their purposes. They needed a commitment from the DDA, Frank said, that was not based on a contingency involving the judgment of the board, but rather one that was based on objective criteria about the size and shape of the parking spaces. Otherwise, Frank said, a bank would not consider the funding secure. And banks, especially in the current economic climate, need an absolute guarantee, even from municipal groups with great credit.
Board member Rene Greff said that there was “no way” they could agree to the additional parking spaces without seeing the plans, so she weighed in for the resolution with the contingency. Board members Sandi Smith and Leah Gunn expressed their support for the contingent resolution as well. Gunn said that the board had “bent over backwards” to cooperate with Village Green and that they wanted to retain the right to see the drawings.
The resolution with the deal-breaking clause was passed.
At the conclusion of the meeting, there is always time alloted for additional audience participation, which Frank used to express his disappointment about what had happened. He said that if they’d asked him two days ago – after the site plan had been approved by council, with the support of councilmembers, neighborhood groups, the planning commission, and neighbors – if they’d done a good job of communicating, he would have said yes. After today’s meeting, he said, he wasn’t sure. He said it was disheartening. From his perspective, Frank said, they had made a deal in January with the criteria about the size and shape of the parking spaces “baked in” and all Village Green was asking for was for the board to extend the same deal, not a different one, to the additional ten spaces. Frank indicated that he was not in a great hurry and that he was willing to sit down and work through whatever needed to be fixed: “I want to tell you that we are going to fix everything,” he said.
When Frank had finished, board chair Hall emphasized to him that he should not interpret that day’s resolution to mean that the DDA was not willing to continue to work with Village Green on the question of the extra 10 spaces. She said they simply wanted to see what the 10 spaces were going to look like. Frank assured the board that he would get them drawings, but expressed some concern that there would be people on the board looking at them for the very first time, and was concerned that the criteria could change. Hall told Frank he would have to bear with the board on the issue.
Greff was upset with Frank’s comments: “I’m upset with your characterization that we’re going back on our deal!” Greff said the DDA was “ready to roll” and that it was Village Green that was changing the deal, by asking for an additional 10 spaces, not the DDA. Frank offered that he would re-educate himself as to the details of the January deal, and asked others to do the same.
Miscellaneous Items from Committee Reports
John Splitt, reporting out from the capital improvements committee, said that this week holes are starting to be dug along Fifth Avenue in connection with the underground parking garage to find out where the utilities are. At their next committee meeting on Wed., Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. they will address how the garage will interface with the library in light of the recent news that the library’s new construction project has been placed on hold.
Out of the partnerships committee came news that Ed Shaffran and Ellie Serras had expressed an interest in creating a business investment district centered on Main Street. They’d inquired about start-up funding, which would entail mostly a consultant and some legal work.
Also out of the partnerships committee came the report that discussions of providing video documentation of DDA board meetings were moving ahead. There would be a proposal at some point either for the DDA to acquire its own equipment or to have CTN provide equipment and personnel for the taping.
Susan Pollay gave an update on the background work she’d done in connection with an idea that John Hieftje had floated at the board’s annual retreat: an advocacy campaign on behalf of downtown merchants appealing to landlords to keep rents reasonable. Pollay said she’d determined that among merchants the sentiment was that this was not the right way to go. It was perceived as somewhat unseemly, she said, for government to impose itself into the private relationship between a renter and a landlord. As an alternative to helping businesses that were in trouble, she suggested making small business agency services available to those merchants who simply “can’t get out from behind the cash register” to pursue assistance.
Affordable Housing at Council Working Session
In the section on the agenda reserved for other DDA business matters, John Hieftje reiterated city administrator Roger Fraser’s announcement at the previous Monday’s council meeting that on Dec. 8 there would be a working session for council starting at 7 p.m. in council chambers. At that working session, a proposal will be made to replace the 100 units of affordable housing lost at the old YMCA site at possibly three different locations. Board member Gary Boren asked, “Are they going to name it the DeVarti Center?” Hieftje made no response discernible to The Chronicle. Part of the context for Boren’s remark is Hieftje’s decision recently not to re-appoint Dave DeVarti to the DDA board when DeVarti had expressed an interest and willingness to do so. DeVarti had consistently supported affordable housing while on the board and had described himself as a “squeaky wheel” on the issue.
Front-ending the meeting was participation from the audience, which included presentation of Art Fair survey results, an update from the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council and a critique of the scheduling information for the LINK bus.
The LINK is a free circulator bus system that runs through downtown. At its inaugural meeting, the transportation committee discussed the fact that there were problems with the service and saw their solution as something that needed to be addressed.
During audience participation at Wednesday’s meeting, the board heard from self-described regular bus rider and occasional LINK rider Ed Vielmetti, who expressed concerns about signage, scheduling information, and online information that get in the way of ridership. Vielmetti characterized the schedule for the LINK in the Ride Guide as “unreadable.” The information should fit on a business card, he said, not take up two pages. The signage at the stops, Vielmetti said, attested to neglect, because there were still signs indicating the LINK is “coming back in August” but it was now December. (The LINK does not run during summer months.) The mobile RideTrak system, Vielmetti said, allowed him to roughly estimated when his regular Number 5 bus is coming in real time, so that fewer “boot hours” needed to be spent waiting at a stop. (The RideTrak system gives data in the form of minutes ahead or behind schedule). For the LINK, Vielmetti said, math was required in order convert RideTrak’s data to useful information about when the next bus might arrive. Instead, it could instead be conveyed with two letters – the letter of the stop where it was most recently and the stop it was headed to – plus the time it was at the last stop.
In responding to Vielmetti, board member Russ Collins sought to make it clear that the DDA was not involved in the operations at the level he was discussing. Vielmetti said that was obvious. In that light, Collins asked what Vielmetti was proposing that the DDA do: “What action would we take?” In the course of the conversation, Vielmetti suggested that the $71,000 of funding not be unrestricted, but rather allotted in two categories: (i) operations and (ii) marketing/signage. Board member Rene Greff was supportive of the idea of funding the LINK contingent on meeting the DDA’s requirements. Chair of the board Jennifer Hall said that it would be a great topic for the transportation committee. Board member Leah Gunn recommended that Vielmetti address the AATA board with exactly the same concerns, because they’re accountable to the public, to which Vielmetti replied, “You are not??” Collins smoothed over the moment by suggesting that Gunn was offering good advice and that it was really the AATA board who needed to hear what he was saying.
Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council
Ray Detter gave an update on the council’s meeting. The DACAC supports the proposal for 415 W. Washington that includes the art center. Detter said that Marsha Chamberlin, president of the Ann Arbor Art Center, had attended the meeting. Margaret Parker, chair of the public art commission, had also attended. The DACAC was still fully in support of the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage going forward, despite the pausing of the Ann Arbor District Library’s plans to build a new structure in place of the existing one. Detter said that the DACAC re-affirmed its commitment to densify the core downtown, which was reflected in its support of the City Apartments project. Detter noted that this support did not extend to PUDs proposed near, but not in, the core of downtown. As such a PUD, Detter cited the example of City Place, proposed for Fifth Avenue south of William Street. City Place would be built where seven houses with ties to the history of Ann Arbor now stand. With respect to the A2D2 process, Detter stressed that the DACAC was interested in seeing zoning revisions, design guidelines, and a revised downtown plan passed together. Currently, the process leaves design guildlines for later consideration. Detter urged that the process be returned to the planning commission, saying, “We’ve been working on it for years, there’s no rush.”
Debra Power, of Power Marketing, presented results of a survey of art fair attendees this past summer which was undertaken to gather information of interest to the four art fairs, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the DDA, AATA, Arts Alliance, and the Main Street Area Association. The methodology, which sampled fair goers across all times and locations during the fairs and offered a free art fair T-shirt as an inducement to complete the 8-10 minute survey, netted 834 completed surveys. Highlights from the results were:
- female 66.5% | male 33.5%
- age 50 or older: 41%
- married: 52.7%
- college graduates: 43%
- mean household income: $90,000
- Caucasian: 83% | African American: 6% | Asian: 3% | Hispanic: 2%
- Ann Arbor residents 31% | non-Ann Arbor residents of Michigan 52% | non-Michigan residents 17%
- Arrived by car: 91.3% | by plane: 3.4% | AATA bus: 2.4% | charter bus: 1.5%
- Average dollars spent on art: $292 | on dining: $50 | shopping: $97 | lodging: $279
Reacting to the relative percentages of modes of transportation, in which Amtrak did not register, Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje said that Amtrak trains into Ann Arbor were fully booked well in advance of the event and that if there had been more trains running, he suspected they, too, would have been booked.
Present: Gary Boren, Russ Collins, Keith Orr, Rene Greff, Leah Gunn, Jennifer Hall, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, Joan Lowenstein, John Mouat, Sandi Smith, John Splitt.
Next meeting: noon on Wednesday, Jan. 7 at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301.