Ann Arbor DDA Shifts into Monitor Mode

Updates on Fifth and Division, wayfinding and the underground parking garage
cyclist locking bike to a pole

The new wayfinding signs have poles that are perfect for locking bikes. In all fairness to this cyclist, he's unlocking his bike – the bike hoop just to the right was fully subscribed at the time he locked up. (Photo by the writer.)

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (Sept. 2, 2009): In the last year, Ann Arbor’s Downtown Development Authority has moved three major projects from planning and approval phases towards actual start of construction.

For starters, visitors to downtown Ann Arbor will likely have noticed some of the new wayfinding signs that have already been installed over the last couple of weeks.  They’ll also have encountered the lane closures along Division Street, that has Eastlund Concrete pouring bumpouts as part of the Fifth and Division streetscape improvement project. And in mid-October, The Christman Company expects to start digging the massive hole at the Library Lot for the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage.

The DDA board meeting on Wednesday reflected this shift from planning to execution and monitoring: It was heavy on updates on how projects were faring in the field.

But in addition to the project updates, there was still room for planning ahead. For example, the board received a preliminary briefing on the impact of a possible city income tax on the DDA’s revenue – a $700,000 hit. The board also put a bit of time into discussion of its role in transportation. Plus, the board completed some unfinished business from its annual meeting in July by selecting a treasurer (Russ Collins) and confirming its selection of a chair (John Splitt).

Unfinished Business: Election of Officers

At the DDA board’s annual meeting in July, which followed its regular board meeting, the board was unable to reach a consensus on all of its officers for the coming year. We’d reported it this way:

Outcome of board elections: Orr elected secretary; Lowenstein elected vice-chair; Splitt elected chair [with outstanding question about validity of vote]; treasurer vote postponed until September’s meeting [Greff will continue to serve in that capacity until July 31, when her term as a DDA board member ends].

The outstanding question about the validity of the vote for the chair relates to a still-unresolved question about whether the line of mayoral succession should apply with respect to service on the DDA board. [For some discussion of the issue, see The Chronicle's article "Split DDA Board Agrees on Splitt."]

According to Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, an inquiry to the Michigan Municipal League and analysis by the DDA’s legal counsel did not provide a definitive answer. She said it was something that could be addressed by changing the DDA’s bylaws to answer explicitly the question: Does the mayor’s appointment to the DDA board mean that the line of succession to the mayorship applies to attendance and voting at DDA board meetings?

We failed to report explicitly that the board’s annual meeting in July had actually been continued until the Sept. 2 meeting. So on Wednesday, the board began by wrapping up its July annual meeting. Because Joan Lowenstein was absent, only Keith Orr was present as a current officer of the board with no uncertainty about his elected status. So it was Orr who chaired the meeting.

There was a single nomination – of Russ Collins – for treasurer, made by Sandi Smith and seconded by Roger Hewitt. Smith and Hewitt had both vied for the office of treasurer in July, with neither achieving a majority. On Wednesday, the vote was unanimous for Collins.

The vote for Splitt, who was the only nomination for chair, was equally straightforward.

Splitt had already chaired a special board meeting in August. Pollay explained to The Chronicle after the meeting that as chair of the capital improvements committee, which had called for the special meeting, Splitt seemed an appropriate choice to run the meeting.

Fifth Avenue Underground Parking Garage

Public Commentary on the Garage

During public commentary time, Michael Haller, who’s executive vice president of the Walbridge construction company, addressed the board on the topic of the underground parking garage.

Michael Haller: Haller spoke to the board immediately following the brief wrap-up of board elections, something he characterized as a “lean process” – it had lasted less than five minutes. He characterized himself as a big proponent of lean process. He said that he was disappointed that Walbridge didn’t make the short list of four companies for the construction manager job. [Christman was hired for the pre-construction work.] But Haller said that Walbridge would “put that behind us.” As a professional engineer with 36 years in the construction business, Haller said, he simply felt it was important that members of the community – like him, a resident of Burns Park – offer their services to the places they lived: “I’m here to help,” he said. He congratulated the DDA board on moving forward with the underground parking garage project, saying it was a big step. He also wanted to validate the decision of the DDA to competitively bid out the trade packages – for concrete, mechanical, and electrical work. He said that Ann Arbor was a perfect geographic location for that strategy, with a high concentration of qualified contractors who could do the work. Further, the current economic climate meant that the market was very competitive.

When’s the Hole Getting Dug and Where’s the Dirt Going?

Mike Ortlieb, of Carl Walker – the design firm that’s handling the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure project – gave the board a rundown of where the project stands. The design work was continuing as planned, he said. With the selection of The Christman Company as the pre-construction services manager, the work was now proceeding to the planning of excavation support. The bids for excavation support, Ortlieb said, would be going out later this month. A guaranteed maximum cost estimate would be completed by the end of September. In mid-October, they’d start digging the hole. Ortlieb confirmed that there was every intent of making it a competitively bid process, the cast-in-place concrete being one of the larger packages.

Addressing the issue of the interplay between on-the-fly design changes in response to possible decisions about what might be built on top of the structure, Ortlieb pointed out that it would take several months to dig the hole. [The city of Ann Arbor has issued an RFP (request for proposals) for development of the site.] Only after the hole was partially completed, he said, would the foundations start to go in. At that point, it would be important to have some final decisions made about how things would be configured. It would be around March or April 2010 when that would need to be settled. He affirmed that there was a well-defined grid system for the building with appropriate loading for a building that would be used in that area.

Board member Gary Boren got confirmation that the hole is going to be dug well before the spring of 2010.

Board member Sandi Smith asked about what was happening with the dirt from the hole. Adrian Iraola of Park Avenue Consultants, who’s coordinating the project for the DDA, reported that they’d been notified by the city of Ann Arbor that the municipal airport would not be suitable for dumping the dirt, because it would disrupt the storm water detention plan. Iraola said that by the end of the month, they’d have a better idea of where the dirt would go.

Fifth and Division Streetscape Plus Wayfinding

John Splitt, who chairs the capital improvements committee, reported that Eastlund Concrete was “pouring as we speak.”

Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, said that wayfinding signs were already starting to pop up and the rest would be installed in the next couple of weeks. The signs that needed to meet MDOT standards, located along state arteries, would be going up within a month. By the end of October, Pollay said, the system would be complete. She allowed that there would need to be tweaks to the system.

Before the meeting started, Pollay told The Chronicle that there were some “typos” they were aware of already, plus some instances that were ambiguous. For example, westbound on Liberty, there’s a direction to turn north on Fourth Avenue to go to the “Main Street Area” – which might be a mistake or it might be intentionally leading motorists past the parking structure at Fourth & Washington.

There are also some cases, said Pollay, of the need for possible additional signs to complete the system. For example, there’s a direction to continue westbound on Liberty across Main Street to get “Visitor Information” – but no sign directing people to turn right on Ashley to head past the visitor’s center at Huron & Ashley.

Pollay also told the board that she’d received thanks from someone in the cycling community for the new “bike poles” and that it was a good idea that the DDA had used the extra rectangular space at the top for displaying information. [Editor's note: That had been The Chronicle cracking wise.]

Board member Russ Collins reported that he had been “collared” by a design professional and had been offered some extremely positive feedback on the design of the wayfinding signs – by someone who had been extremely critical of the initial designs. [For some background on that controversy see the Arbor Update "Wayfinding Design Charettes" thread.]

Collins’ evaluation of the wayfinding project: “Hoo-RAY!”

Transportation: Ypsi-Ann Arbor and The LINK

In reporting out from the DDA’s transportation committee, which he chairs, John Mouat described the results of a getDowntown survey and focus group on what improvements would get people to use alternative transportation. Those included faster service between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. He also reported on a discussion of the LINK, which he described as not “ended” but rather as on “pause.” [See Chronicle coverage reporting the cessation of LINK service: "AATA, Ypsi to Focus on Cost Cuts."]

Russ Collins asked his fellow board members to remember that something that gets lost in all of the discussion sometimes is data. When the LINK committee was initially set up, he said, things “got pulled out to a dysfunctional level.” By this he meant that the politics of where the LINK route should go caused people to not be mindful of the data. Alluding to Mayor John Hieftje’s comments just prior, about the highly-rated bus system in Ann Arbor, Collins said that the fact that Ann Arbor was highly rated meant that “we can meet with success based on the fact that we’re already a leader.” That meant the DDA should support the professionals in transportation planning, and not try to plan routes to go past a certain place just “because it feels good.”

In expressing this sentiment, Collins was consistent with remarks he’d made at the October 2008 DDA board retreat when he had stressed that the DDA itself is not a transportation authority.

Board member Newcombe Clark suggested that the DDA needed to start thinking proactively about not just how people get downtown, but also about how they use downtown. Could residents [as well as workers], Clark wondered, be eligible for the go!pass program?

“Ypsilanti,” Clark said, “that’s our affordable housing. We should be thinking about connecting Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor in the same way we thought of connecting Ann Arbor to outlying communities.” [In this, Clark was alluding to the pilot express bus service that's been offered between Chelsea and Ann Arbor for a year, with express service now recently introduced to Canton.] In suggesting express bus service between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Clark contended that it should take far less than an hour to get between the two cities.

City Income Tax: Impact on the DDA

Board member Roger Hewitt said that a preliminary look had been taken at what the potential impact would be on the DDA’s revenue, if the city of Ann Arbor were to enact a city income tax. The DDA is funded through tax increment financing (TIF). The expected $3.9 million tax capture in 2009 comes from a variety of taxing authorities: the schools, the Ann Arbor Public Library, the county and the city of Ann Arbor.

The city charter specifies that an income tax can be imposed only if the general operating millage of the city is eliminated. And the DDA captures part of the general operating millage. So if the city’s general operating millage were eliminated – a consequence of imposing an income tax – that would mean a reduction in DDA revenue.

In relevant part, the analysis provided as a part of the board’s packet, and described in summary by Hewitt, is the DDA’s capture of the city of Ann Arbor’s total levy, broken down by individual millage. It’s the first line that would disappear as DDA revenue if a city income tax were to be enacted:

Operating          $699,844
Employee benefits  $233,274
Refuse collection  $279,906
Debt Service        $52,679
A.A.T.A.           $233,274
Streets            $226,285
Parks              $178,677
IFT                  $2,050
Total            $1,905,989


For his part, Hieftje stressed that it was not clear that the city council would be voting to place the city income tax proposal on the ballot. If it did, said Hieftje, the timing would likely be for the May 2010 election. That would mean that no effect would be felt until 2011, he said. [The county clerk's deadline for placing a measure on the ballot for November's election was Aug. 25.]

A2D2: Design Guidelines

Roger Hewitt, who’s the DDA board’s representative to the three-member A2D2 rezoning oversight committee – along with Marcia Higgins from city council, and Evan Pratt from the planning commission – reported that the oversight committee had met on Aug. 11. The consultant on the project, Winter & Companuy,  had condensed the 50 guidelines to 28 and organized them in outline form, Hewitt said. On Sept. 15 there would be a joint work session with the DDA, the planning commission, and the city council to address the subject of the A2D2 process, with a final decision expected at the Oct. 19 city council meeting.

Ray Detter, who’s president of Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, gave his report from the council’s most recent meeting, touching on a variety of topics, that included the design guidelines.

Ray Detter: Detter reported that the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, at its meeting the previous evening, reaffirmed its support for the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure as well as the Fifth and Division streetscape improvements. He said the advisory council hoped there would be no more additional free-standing parking structures downtown. As far as what goes on top of the structure, he reiterated the view that it should be a residential development. He reminded the board that the final draft of the A2D2 design guidelines would be presented at the Kerrytown Concerthouse later that evening from 7-9 p.m. – the guidelines were expected to go before city council for final approval sometime in October. He said that the DCAC expected the result to be a compulsory process, with voluntary compliance. Detter also alerted the board to an issue concerning an alley between Washington and Liberty streets. The alley, Detter said, was to be kept open, according to a condominium agreement – the alley is jointly owned by the city of Ann Arbor and McKinley, an Ann Arbor development firm. The recent installation of bollards in the alleyway, he said, made access by pedestrians and emergency vehicles difficult. Detter said he’d be raising the issue of the alley in the future. [The issue was also raised at a recent Ann Arbor city council caucus meeting by Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who'd reported on a meeting she'd had with Detter.]

Parking Demand Management

Roger Hewitt, chair of the operations committee, reported that a couple of different parking demand managment strategies would be abandoned: valet parking and magnetic striped parking validation tickets. The parking validation tickets had too many technical problems, and based on initial assessment and conversations with other muncipalities who’d tried the system, the DDA had decided not to move forward with them.

The valet parking pilot that started in December 2008, but was put on hiatus over the summer, would not be restarted. It had never achieved reasonable numbers for use and was a money loser.

Board member Russ Collins offered some anecdotal evidence based on offering valet parking for season subscription holders for the Michigan Theater – Collins is executive director of the theater. He said that midway through the season they’d parked a total of four cars and they’d canceled it with no complaints. Valet parking, Collins contended, only works if people were accustomed to the pattern. A pattern, he continued, could only be established if valet parking were offered over a sustained period of time, and to do that, there had to be a willingness to absorb a significant financial loss, which didn’t seem prudent given the current economic climate.

Board member Jennifer Hall asked why valet parking had not been tried during the evenings. Hewitt replied that using valet parking for event parking, say for a concert, wasn’t feasible because everyone would want to arrive and leave at the same time and the service would be swamped.

Energy Saving Grant Program

Sandi Smith, who co-chairs the partnerships committee with Russ Collins, reported that the energy grant program would continue. Applications are due Sept. 30. The program helps downtown businesses by providing financial assistance in getting an energy audit for their buildings and in implementing recommendations.

Mutually Beneficial Committee

Sandi Smith reported that the mutually beneficial committee, which is charged with the task of renegotiating the parking agreement between the city of Ann Arbor and the DDA, has had no activity.

Thanking Rene Greff

The board passed a resolution honoring Rene Greff’s service on the DDA board, which ended this past July. It had begun in 2000, and included a turn as chair from 2003-04. Board member Sandi Smith said she appreciated Greff’s willingness “to say whatever you believe.” Our loss, Smith said, is Ypsilanti’s gain. [Greff and her husband, Matt, live in Ypsilanti – they own the Arbor Brewing Company on Washington Street in Ann Arbor. Greff is now a board member of the Ypsilanti DDA.] Board member Jennifer Hall expressed her hope that Greff would return to address the board from time to time as a business owner in Ann Arbor’s downtown. Greff, who was in the audience, replied, “Thank you, I will!”

Present: Gary Boren, Newcombe Clark, Jennifer Hall, Roger Hewitt, John Splitt, Sandi Smith, Leah Gunn, Russ Collins, Keith Orr, John Mouat, John Hieftje.

Absent: Joan Lowenstein.

Next board meeting: Noon on Wednesday, October 7, at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [confirm date]


  1. By Mark
    September 4, 2009 at 3:12 pm | permalink

    I’m not a fan of the wayfinding signs, to be honest. I think they are visual clutter: link to Flickr

  2. By Susan
    September 4, 2009 at 6:16 pm | permalink

    I’d guess the wayfinding signs are the DDA’s way of making sure Ann Arbor is ready for the “secret” convention center.

  3. September 4, 2009 at 7:16 pm | permalink

    The conspiracy-minded among us could triangulate the location(s) or above ground entrance(s) of the secret convention center based on a survey of those wayfinding signs having a blank fourth row.

  4. By Chuck Warpehoski
    September 4, 2009 at 11:03 pm | permalink

    Conspiracy theories aside, what surprised me is that the signs don’t say where parking is.

    When I go to a new city, I often have a GoogleMap to where I’m going, but I don’t have a map to where I should park. That seems a bigger challenge for confused parents on State Street that don’t know to park on Maynard.

  5. By Rod Johnson
    September 5, 2009 at 10:11 am | permalink

    I hope the secret convention center also has a secret entrance, or else the whole secrecy thing is kind of a waste. Where would you hide a secret entrance? I’m voting for the Beer Depot myself.