Downtown Development Authority board meeting (June 3, 2009): The start to Wednesday’s DDA board meeting paralleled the beginning of its recent retreat two weeks ago – the board met in closed session with their legal counsel to discuss pending litigation over the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage. Board chair Jennifer Hall recused herself from the session, as she had at the retreat’s closed session.
Later in the meeting, she removed herself from the DDA’s “mutually beneficial” committee, appointing board member Russ Collins to take her place. More on that after the jump.
In other board business, the theme of the balance between university and city funding responsibilities was reflected in board consideration of two transportation-related issues: (i) a feasibility study for a north-south connector service along the Plymouth-State Street corridor, and (ii) the LINK circulator buses – familiar to some downtown visitors as simply “the purple buses.” The board approved an $80,000 contribution for the north-south connector, but did not renew the grant – last year around $70,000 – that funds the LINK. The LINK is ordinarily suspended during summer months, but the lack of DDA grant renewal likely means that in the fall the purple buses will re-appear only on their eastern UM loop.
Further, a $12,000 evaluation of the getDowntown program was approved, budget amendments were made to reflect allocations already approved, and a resolution was passed approving final recommendations to city council for the A2D2 rezoning package. The board also heard updates on the DDA’s website and data policy, the Fifth & Division streetscape improvements project, the underground parking garage, and the valet parking service. The valet service has been suspended for the summer after the pilot showed less-than-successful results through the first five months of the year.
Closed Session, the Mutually Beneficial Committee, Underground Parking Structure
At the start of the meeting when the roll call vote was taken to go into closed session, board chair Jennifer Hall indicated that the DDA board’s legal counsel had advised that there was no reason that compelled her to recuse herself from the closed session. She had chosen to do so, she explained, in order to afford her colleagues the ability to discuss the issues with frankness and candor. The closed session related to a letter of notification that her husband, Noah Hall, had sent on behalf of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and other nonprofits, which raised the possibility of an environmental lawsuit over the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure.
Later in the meeting after the board had come back from its closed session, Rene Greff reported that the committee to discuss a mutually beneficial financial agreement with city council had not met since the last board meeting. The DDA had formed that committee in response to the city council’s request that the DDA begin discussions to renegotiate the city-DDA parking agreement. The outcome of those conversations expected by the city is that an additional $2 million payment will be made by the DDA to the city – an expectation reflected in the city’s budget plan for FY 2011. At the DDA’s recent retreat, Mayor John Hieftje had cited Hall’s membership on that committee as one barrier to the city council’s willingness up to now to seat a committee of its own.
The other barrier cited by Hieftje at the retreat – the membership of Rene Greff on the DDA’s committtee – will soon be eliminated as well: Greff told The Chronicle after the board meeting that Hieftje had informed her he had now decided not to reappoint her to the board when her term expires on July 31, 2009.
At the conclusion of Greff’s brief report on the committee’s activity, board chair Jennifer Hall, who as of the start of Wednesday’s board meeting also served on that committee, delivered what could fairly be described as a lambasting of some of the other board members.
She rejected the description that there was an “cloud over [her] head” – made by Hieftje at the recent retreat – as an overstatement. She clarified that her husband, Noah Hall, is not currently filing a lawsuit against the city, but rather is a volunteer executive director for the nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and as such, was performing pro bono work for a variety of other nonprofit groups who had concerns about the environmental impact of the proposed underground parking garage along Fifth Avenue.
Just as it would have been inappropriate for her to try to dissuade him from providing those services, Hall said, it was improper for the city council to hold off from appointing a committee to begin the discussions between the DDA and the city. She allowed that the situation was “awkward,” but stressed that there was no conflict of interest on her part. She also characterized the assumption behind the city council’s reluctance to begin the discussions as sexist – that assumption being that she was not able to formulate opinions that were separate and distinct from her husband’s.
Hall also rejected the notion that her commitment to the DDA board was suspect, characterizing her loyalty to the DDA board as “unwavering.”
She then announced that she would replace herself on the committee in order to remove herself as an obstacle – which Hieftje had cited at the board’s retreat – to the city council’s creating its own committee to begin the negotiations. She expressed the expectation that city council would now seat its own committee without further delay.
Based on the report from the capital improvements committee, which came later in the meeting, the potential lawsuit is not causing a delay in pre-construction activities for the Fifth Avenue underground parking project. John Splitt, reporting to the whole board for that committee, said that detailed drawings were expected on the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage at their next committee meeting. The committee would be having some conversations with the Ann Arbor municipal airport about soil relocation, he said. There was concern that the sheer volume of soil could affect the airport’s storm water retention plan, Splitt allowed, but it was still very much on the table to be able to use the airport as a place to put the dirt from the underground parking garage. Splitt suggested that excavation could start possibly in September.
As a part of the same report for the capital improvements committee, Splitt said that the Fifth & Division streetscape improvements project was awaiting Michigan Department of Transportation permits. The streetscape improvements are being coordinated with the underground parking structure. When the permitting was done the bids could be opened, Splitt said. He was hoping to be able to open bids by June 30, 2009 with a start to the project planned immediately following the art fairs in mid-July.
Two different transportation topics were related thematically by the relative roles that city entities play in funding them, as compared to the University of Michigan.
The DDA board considered a resolution that came out of its transportation committee to fund a feasibility study for a north-south connector running along the Plymouth Road and State Street corridors. Previously the board had approved a $50,000 contribution to the project. The resolution they considered raised that amount to $80,000. Since the fall of 2008, discussions about the appropriate amount to be contributed by each of four partners on the project have taken place in a context of a total price first estimated at $250,000, which then climbed to more than double that figure when initial bids came back.
The four partners on the study are the DDA, the city of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and UM. In deliberations, board member Roger Hewitt alluded to the relatively long time frame of the discussion, and stated that he supported the resolution. He pointed out that there were a number of deliverables attached to the resolution that he felt should allay some of the concerns others might have. Those deliverables include a “fatal flaw analysis” as well as ridership and demand forecasting. The latter is expected to show that the primary ridership will be members of the UM community, which is also the pattern with the LINK downtown bus circulator. [board packet with deliverables specified]
Board member Sandi Smith, who is also a city councilmember, allowed that the specificity of the deliverables was good, but that she had a problem providing support for a project that was essentially going to be a “U of M trolley.” She said she understood that the route was not completely determined, but she had some hesitancy, still. She stressed that if the feasibility study indicated that 70% of the ridership would come from the University of Michigan community, then the cost of construction should reflect that.
Rene Greff echoed Smith’s sentiments, saying that the university had enough money to fund the study by themselves. She said that she was willing to support funding the study but stressed that there should not be an expectation in the long-term for a corresponding level for participation in the system’s construction.
For her part, board member Leah Gunn offered the perspective that the University of Michigan was the major economic engine of the city and indeed of the state. She said that just because someone attends the university or works there, it doesn’t mean they’re not part of the community. The project benefits the university, thus benefits the community as well, she said.
Hieftje indicated that the city had “not held back in making clear that the University of Michigan would need to step up.” He suggested that there would be an advantage, though, in being the entity that applied for federal grant dollars, or at least making an application in concert with the university going forward.
Outcome: The resolution to fund the north-south feasibility study for $80,000 passed unanimously.
A second transportation-related topic at the meeting that reflects the issue of UM-city balance of funding was the LINK. The LINK is a circulator (purple) bus service, provided free to passengers, with two major loops – one in the center of downtown Ann Arbor, and the other southeast of the University of Michigan central campus. It doesn’t operate during the summer months. Its funding depends on a collaboration between the AATA, UM and the DDA.
The DDA did not have a resolution before it to fund the LINK, which would normally resume in fall 2009 – and without a resolution the portion of the LINK funded by the DDA will not be restored. During board member John Mouat’s report from the transportation committee, the board deliberated on the LINK question. Those deliberations took place in the context of the public comment made by Thomas Partridge at the start of the meeting.
Thomas Partridge: Partridge introduced himself to the board as a recent Democratic candidate in the 18th Senate District of the state of Michigan as well as the 52nd District of the House of Representatives. He described his interests as concerning not just the DDA district but rather the whole city of Ann Arbor, the county of Washtenaw, and the entire state of Michigan. In reference to the north-south connector study that was on the board’s agenda, Partridge encouraged the DDA to enlist University of Michigan students to conduct studies for them at a much lower cost than consultants. He also encouraged the board to not use studies as a stumbling block to real progress. He asked the board to pass a resolution that day to provide dial-a-ride transportation service in the city of Ann Arbor plus the surrounding areas. He suggested combining revenues of the Ann Arbor DDA with other DDAs in the entire metropolitan area for a united DDA effort. He said that he had attended an Ann Arbor Transportation Authority planning and development committee meeting just prior to coming to the DDA board meeting, and that Chris White, the AATA director of service development, had indicated that the LINK – a downtown circulator bus service – “would be squashed.” Partridge urged that the LINK not be squashed but rather modified and strengthened.
Deliberations by the board on the LINK
Reporting out from the transportation committee, John Mouat summarized the committee’s six-month long exploration of the LINK connector service downtown and announced that they were, at this point, reluctant to continue DDA funding for that service. He said that a decision needed to be made by June to renew the grant that would restore service to the DDA portion of the twin-loop system in the fall. [The LINK goes on a seasonal summer hiatus.] Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, indicated that the board was right up against the deadline.
Sandi Smith said that she didn’t think the idea for a circulator was completely gone, it just didn’t seem like a good idea to keep funding it in the current form. Roger Hewitt said he’d been involved with the LINK since its inception, and that the service was not accomplishing what they had set out to do. He said he was reluctant to see it end completely, but that the conceptual plan needed be thought out for all of downtown. Leah Gunn said that she very much liked the idea of the LINK but that she never took it – she found that she could get to where she needed to go by walking. John Mouat picked up on that walkability theme, saying that the scale of downtown Ann Arbor was actually small enough that in most cases it was quite walkable. For point-to-point service, the AATA did a good job with that, he said.
Thomas Partridge, who walks with the aid of the crutch, interjected from the audience with a question about whether a senior could get service across town, but was told he was out of order and there would be time at the end for additional public commentary.
John Hieftje said he was hearing that the east-west commuter rail demonstration [Ann Arbor-Detroit] would be implemented by October 2010, which meant that a reconfiguration of the LINK routes would be necessary anyway. On rainy days, he allowed, the LINK was great but on other days it was pretty easy to walk.
The several-month long review of the LINK by the transportation committee was influenced in part by the disproportionate amount of ridership on the service by UM students.
A LINK ridership survey conducted in March 2008 on board LINK buses revealed that nearly 77% of LINK rider were UM students at the time they were surveyed. However, only 41% of riders described the purpose of the trip as for school. The breakdown for LINK usage was as follows:
work 11.1% school 40.8% get food 15.3% medical .5% shopping 5.0% entertainment 20.0% personal business 8.4% other 8.7%
That survey question was answered by 380 people. The survey also showed that there was not great satisfaction with on-time performance with LINK buses. On a scale from 1-7 with 1 being very dissatisfied, 4 “medium”and 7 “very satisfied,” of those surveyed 14.5% said they were very dissatisfied, with a total of 46% expressing a satisfaction level less than medium. Frequency of service also did not rate high: 32% rated frequency of service at a level less than medium.
A breakdown of the cost of service funding for the LINK circulator from September 2008 to April 2009 is as follows:
$145,385 University of Michigan
$131,267 State operating assistance
$ 10,000 AATA advertising revenues
$ 71,023 AATA operating subsidy
$ 71,023 Downtown Development Authority
A resolution to allocate $12,000 for the evaluation of the getDowntown program passed unanimously and with little discussion.
Bonnie Valentine: During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Valentine addressed the board as a recent participant in the getDowntown program’s commuter challenge during the month of May. Valentine indicated that she worked with the Whole Brain Group, which is located in the same building as the DDA but on a lower floor. Valentine said it was an interesting experience last year when she had participated in the commuter challenge and started taking the bus. She said that in her neighborhood as her neighbors watched her either waiting for the bus or walking to the bus stop, she had been offered rides in their cars. So she had taken the opportunity to try to be an advocate in her neighborhood for taking the bus. What the getDowntown program supported, Valentine said, was making a difference one person at a time. She told the board they should approve the $12,000 evaluation of the getDowntown program that was on their agenda for that day and that they should put even more effort towards that program.
Data and Public Relations
Reporting out from the partnerships committee, co-chair Russ Collins gave an update on progress towards a data policy and website updates that a subcommittee was making [Rene Greff, Keith Orr, Gary Boren, Jennifer Hall]. The board packet for each meeting, said Collins, was now available online. Previously only the agenda and specific resolutions had been available.
Rene Greff gave a report out from the ad hoc communications committee. She said the committee had met with Trek Glowacki and Catherine Hayes. Glowacki is an independent computer programmer, and Hayes works with Inner Circle Media, which maintains the DDA’s website. Greff said the DDA could do a much better job of telling its story.
They identified several goals. Among them were better public relations, better transparency, better community engagement, internal data management, and encouragement of downtown redevelopment. One specific project she suggested was some kind of calendar, plus use of existing social networking strategies. Greff said that Inner Circle Media would be working on a way to rotate a feature through the front page of the website – right now the featured item is parking, which feeds the notion that the only thing the DDA does its parking.
Greff also indicated that the ad hoc committee was working on a job description for a communications position. Such a position would not be conceived as a job to push press releases out, but rather to act as a communications liaison – someone to be the face and voice of the DDA.
Transportation demand management: Roger Hewitt announced that the installation of the new E-Park kiosks, which will be replacing the conventional meters, would begin around June 15. He announced that the valet parking service – a pilot program started in mid-December 2008 at the Maynard parking structure – had not been successful at this point. In light of the lack of success, Hewitt said that rather than continue to operate at a significant loss through the summer, it would be temporarily discontinued for that period. Hewitt explained that the Maynard parking structure is not heavily used in summer, anyway. With respect to the transportation demand management measures, Hewitt said that in many cases the systems were being developed from scratch because in many respects the parking industry had not yet developed the technology. “It’s not like we can just copy it, because it hasn’t been done elsewhere.”
Wayfinding: John Splitt, reporting out from the capital improvements committee, said the wayfinding project now had a contractor. Susan Pollay indicated that the first wayfinding sign might be expected sometime before the end of August.
Budget amendments: The board passed a series of budget amendments to reflect actions and appropriations that they had taken a earlier in the year. One major difference involved $700,000 extra to cover the cost of the DDA’s contribution to the city’s police-court facility and its LEED certification. Another application that needed to be accounted for in the budget amendments was a grant for Avalon Housing that had not been in the original budget.
Development: Russ Collins also said that in their committee meeting there had been a lively discussion about areas owned by private concerns. As an example, he gave the Brown Block, which is owned by First Martin Corp. and is bounded by Huron, Ashley, and First streets. Currently there is a surface parking lot there, said Collins, but at some point the developer will want to put up a building. He suggested there should be some community dialogue to encourage the sort of development that people would like to see.
Connected thematically to that discussion is the resolution passed by the DDA board at its March 4, 2009 meeting expressing the readiness of the DDA to make resources available to facilitate community-wide discussion on the question of “what goes on top” of the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure. At the city council’s June 1, 2009 meeting, Sandi Smith – who serves on the DDA board as well as city council – alerted her city council colleagues to the fact that she’d be introducing a resolution at the June 15 meeting calling for a request for qualifications for the parcel on Fifth Avenue under which the underground parking garage would be built.
415 W. Washington: In reporting on the 415 W. Washington request for proposals, John Mouat called on city planner Wendy Rampson, who was present in the audience, to give an update. Rampson indicated that the city had not moved forward yet on developing the revised RFP due largely to issues of timing with respect to the poor economy.
Parking report: Summarizing the April 2009′s parking usage for the operations committee, Roger Hewitt reported that revenues were up by 1% compared to April 2008. The number of hourly patrons was up significantly, he said. The demand for parking, Hewitt said, continues to be consistent after being somewhat flat for a few months. He concluded that it was a testament to the strength and attraction of downtown Ann Arbor.
Energy grant program: Reporting for the partnerships committee, Collins said that there had been some consideration of providing separate support to performing arts organizations, but that ultimately they had backed away from that approach except to offer such organizations a 75% match in the context of the DDA’s energy-saving grant program. Other organizations receive a 50% match.
A2D2 zoning recommendations: The DDA board considered a resolution to give its recommendation on the final A2D2 rezoning package. The resolution was a response to various changes that the Ann Arbor city council had undertaken to the initial package. Some of the recommendations made by the DDA board were made in response to the specific implementation of a height limit [180 feet for most of the downtown area, and 150 feet in other parts.] Those recommendations increased the amount of floor-area-ratio that could be built “by right.” Sandi Smith raised the question of whether the recommended changes by the DDA board, if implemented by the city council, would require that the package be sent back to planning commission.
Wendy Rampson said she had met with the A2D2 oversight committee and that they were aware of the recommended changes. Whether or not the package would need to go back to planning commission or would need to be reset to have an additional first reading was not yet clear. The city attorney’s office was looking at the issue, Rampson said. Hieftje offered that he was not worried if the package needed to go back to planning commission or was delayed at council because there were not a lot of petitions coming before the city at this time.
A2D2 design guidelines: Roger Hewitt gave an update on the A2D2 design guidelines process. He said that the next day the A2D2 committee would be having a phone conference with the consultant on the project and that it was still the plan to be able to present the design guidelines component of the A2D2 project to Ann Arbor’s city council by September 2009.
Public art: Leah Gunn gave a report on the joint meeting between the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission and some members of the DDA. The Chronicle will report separately on that meeting. Summarizing, Gunn said that one concern on the part of the DDA was that a lot of time and money was being spent on administrative issues instead of on the art itself. She said she had a personal interest in addressing the issue of some relief panels on the Fourth & Washington parking structure, which had been placed there in honor of Reuben Bergman, former head of the DDA.
Ray Detter: Detter made four points: (i) He encouraged people to come to his party that day, which started at 6:30 p.m. (ii) The downtown area citizens advisory council had received copies of the most recent downtown plan adopted by the planning commission, and had given its unanimous support for adoption of the downtown plan. (iii) Detter indicated that the placement of parking meters in residential neighborhoods near to the downtown was something the citizens advisory council opposed. Instead, Detter said, there should be a residential permit parking system implemented for all neighborhoods that did not currently have them. He also encouraged a comprehensive approach to the issue of parking meters, suggesting that the city and the DDA needed to cooperate on this issue. (iv) Detter reminded the DDA board of the situation at the Courthouse Square apartment building. It was not the first time that Detter had spoken on the issue with the DDA board. He said that three residents of Courthouse Square had attended the meeting of the citizens advisory council the previous evening. From those three, the council had learned that in less than two years the owners of the building intended to sell it. Detter indicated that the number of police reports filed from Courthouse Square during the period May 2008 to May 2009 was 26 compared to 14 reports filed in the previous year. The number of phone calls had increased during the same period from 190 to 270.
LuAnne Bullington: Bullington introduced herself as a transportation advocate. Alluding to Hieftje’s remarks about the demonstration east-west rail project being online by October 2010, she said the mayor was right. She said that the timeframe could be accounted for by the November elections. She suggested that if the rail system was not put in place before the November 2010 elections, there was a risk that after the elections there would be less political support for the project than now. She expressed concern that there may be a way to finance the construction of the rail system, but not to actually operate it. She pointed out that rail is the most expensive way and also the most inflexible way to provide mass transit. She also expressed concern that running a rail system into the city of Ann Arbor would be an intrusion to the neighborhoods.
Thomas Partridge: At the conclusion of the meeting, there was a brief uncertainty as to whether it was allowed under the DDA board rules for someone to speak twice during public commentary – at the start of the meeting and at the conclusion. From the audience, Steve Bean indicated that he had on past occasions spoken twice. In any event, Partridge was given an additional turn. He said he was there to challenge conventional thinking by the DDA as he had challenged the conventional thinking of the Ann Arbor city council and Washtenaw County board of commissioners, and the state-level government. He said that changing conventional thinking started with integrity, and called on the board to dissolve itself and then reconstitute itself with an ethics code that would disallow elected officials to serve on the board, because it represented a prima facie conflict of interest. He pointed to Sandi Smith, Leah Gunn (who is a county commissioner), and John Hieftje as examples. [Editor's note: The enabling legislation for DDAs calls for one seat on the board to be assigned to either the mayor or the city administrator.] The votes that these individuals had participated in on behalf of the DDA, Partridge contended, should be challenged in circuit court. He noted that there was no seat on the board for a senior citizen or a disabled person. He also suggested that there should not be a free lunch served to board members at their meetings.
Present: Gary Boren, Rene Greff, Jennifer Hall, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, Joan Lowenstein, John Mouat, John Splitt, Sandi Smith, Leah Gunn, Russ Collins
Absent: Keith Orr
Next board meeting: Noon on Wednesday, July 1 at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [confirm date]