New Downtown Library? If, When and Where

DDA parking project, changing economy will affect decision

By the end of their five-hour retreat last week, board members for the Ann Arbor District Library had heard from library staff about hundreds of projects that have been accomplished over the past six years since their last strategic plan was crafted.

Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 1 groundbreaking for the Library Lot underground parking structure.

Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 1 groundbreaking for the “Library Lot” underground parking structure. The project, located next to the downtown library on Fifth Avenue, is being undertaken by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. (Photo by Dave Askins.)

The long list included construction of three new branches. But the board’s discussion kept circling back to one huge undertaking that hadn’t been completed: Building a new downtown library.

When that project was halted last November, the board had considered it as a detour or a pause.  What they’d done up to that point, including about $900,000 worth of architectural and consulting work, was to be set aside and used in the future.

But during Wednesday’s retreat it became clear that with so many variables in the air – including the unanswered question of what might be built on top of a new underground parking structure next to the downtown library – the board would need to start anew if and when they decided to undertake the project again.

To Build or Not to Build

The Sept. 30 retreat was a chance for the AADL board to get a status report from staff and to look ahead at the next two to four years. The scenario for that horizon has shifted dramatically – at this time last year, the library was neck-deep in plans to tear down its existing Fifth Avenue building and put up a new structure, one that would better fit its needs over the next few decades.

But in late November, the board voted unanimously to halt the project, citing the economic climate as it affected both the bond market and the ability/inclination  of taxpayers to support the additional millage that the library would need in order to fund the project.

At one point Sandra Greenstone, a local consultant who acted as facilitator at the retreat, asked board members what they needed to help them make a decision about a new downtown building.

Prue Rosenthal said she felt like they’d already decided to build a new library. They’d made the wise decision to hold off on the project because of the economy, she said.  She felt they needed to rely on library staff’s judgment about interim needs, until conditions allowed them to resume the building project.

The board’s newest member, Carola Stearns, recalled that when she joined the board in August 2008, plans for the new downtown building were well underway. She hadn’t been privy to the discussions leading up to the decision to build, and she now had reservations about picking up where they left off.

“To me, the decision to restart the building isn’t as straightforward as Prue believes it is,” Stearns said.

A Changing Landscape

The board made the decision to postpone construction because of the economy, Stearns continued. Now, it’s important to consider the economy more fully – and that might mean that the plans they’d previously developed are inappropriate for the economic climate going forward, she said.

Stearns also said they should consider the information presented by library staff. Earlier in the meeting, Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development, had provided an overview of several trends affecting the library’s future, including how technology could affect the kinds of services that library patrons will want.

And Tim Grimes, manager of AADL’s community relations and marketing department, had noted during his presentation that they’ve been holding more events outside of the library. As an example, he reported that a Lego contest they held this year at Weber’s Inn drew about 300 people – twice the number of people who’d come when it was previously held in the downtown building’s multi-purpose room.

Stearns cited these two examples as factors that the board needed to consider as they looked at what kind of facility they might need over the next 20 years. If they’ll be holding more events out in the community rather than at the library, is a large, new downtown building the best use of taxpayer dollars? she asked. “I’m not convinced that we know.”

Board member Jan Barney Newman recalled that when they built the three new branches – Mallets Creek, Pittsfield and Traverwood – they did it with money they had collected and set aside from their existing millage. [The library is authorized by voters to levy up to 1.92 mills. In its most recent budget, the board decided to levy just 1.55 mills for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2009. One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s state equalized value, or SEV.]

Newman reminded her colleagues that if they were to undertake construction of a new downtown building, they couldn’t do it using their existing millage, even if they were to levy the entire 1.92 mills. The estimated $70 million price tag would require an additional millage that would need voter approval. Would voters support such a millage? Perhaps by holding more events outside of the library system, that would garner community support, she suggested.

Neiburger jumped in to clarify why the turnout for the Lego contest at Weber’s might have been so strong. The feedback they heard, he said, was that compared to the multi-purpose room, Weber’s offered more space at a more comfortable temperature. Not surprisingly, people didn’t like the cramped, overheated conditions when the event was held at the library. So it’s not necessarily the case that people prefer an outside venue – they just aren’t always happy with the available library space, concluded Neiburger.

Grimes told the board that while there were some advantages to holding events off-site, it’s often a struggle to find a venue. When author Greg Mortenson was scheduled to speak earlier this year, Grimes couldn’t find a place to hold the event – Huron High School was his last hope, and he was lucky that their auditorium was available, he said. Expense is also a factor, Grimes said. Holding an event at the Michigan Theater, for example, might cost between $1,500 to $1,800.

Board member Margaret Leary brought up an additional concern: The current downtown library is “slowly but surely falling down.” Over the past year the board has approved two significant capital expenditures for the building, to replace two of its air-handling units for around $300,000 and a freight elevator for $113,000.

Stearns said she didn’t question the condition of the existing building. Rather, she wondered if spending $70 million to build a new structure on that Fifth Avenue site is the best approach.

Again, Greenstone queried the board about what additional data they might need to help them make a decision about a new building.

The Library Director Weighs In

At that point, Josie Parker, the library system’s director, gave her assessment: It’s not time to talk about a new building. For one, they’d need to wait until their revenue stream stabilizes before committing to such an undertaking, she said.

At 1.55 mills, the library’s operating budget for 2009-10 is $12.8 million. But the area’s property tax base is projected to decrease over the next few years.

Using figures provided by the county, Ken Nieman, AADL’s associate director, had reported earlier in the meeting that the property tax base will likely decrease 6% in 2010-11 and 3% in 2011-12. (The county had projected slightly larger declines, but Nieman noted that the library’s tax base, which mirrors that of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, doesn’t fluctuate as much as the overall county.) A decrease of 1% equates to about a $115,000 drop in revenues at the 1.55 mill rate, or about $150,000 if the full 1.92 mills were levied.

Nieman also projected a 2% increase in library operating expenses in each of those years. Given those projected expenses, the library would need to raise its millage to 1.7 mills in 2010-11 and 1.775 mills in 2011-12, collecting $13 million and $13.3 million, respectively. He acknowledged that the projected 2% increase in expenses was conservative, but said it was a good goal to shoot for, given the economy.

Parker told the board that when they’d previously considered building a new downtown library, they’d assumed they could operate it with their existing millage. That’s no longer clear. She said she doubted the board would be comfortable asking for both a capital millage and an increase in their operating millage.

In addition, Parker said she didn’t think they could move forward with a building until they knew what would be built on top of the city’s underground parking garage. Ground was broken for the garage last week in the parking lot to the immediate north of the downtown library. She didn’t expect that decision to be made until next spring or summer, “if at all.” There’s also the question of what might be built on the former YMCA site directly across the street from the library, at the corner of Fifth and William. The city-owned property is now a surface parking lot, but could be developed in the future.

Parker said she agreed with Stearns: “We have to start over.”

It will be interesting – and fun – to think about what their needs might be, Parker said. And it will be a very, very important decision, she added. Depending on what development is chosen for the top of the parking structure – the possibility of a hotel and conference center has been floated – the board will need to make a decision about the downtown library, she said. If the city makes no decision, the board will have to factor that in as well.

Board chair Rebecca Head, noting that they did not intend for the retreat to be a decision-making forum, said that the board would continue their discussion at its Nov. 16 meeting.  For that meeting, the board plans to set an earlier starting time, to incorporate the discussion in addition to their usual board agenda. But the board’s next meeting is at its usual time on Monday, Oct. 16. It begins at 6 p.m. with a closed executive session and will continue at 7 p.m. with the open portion of the agenda.

Based on Wednesday’s retreat and the follow-up discussion in November, the planning committee will draft a strategic plan, with the goal of presenting it to the board for approval in early 2010.


  1. By yellowfly
    October 6, 2009 at 2:39 pm | permalink

    “slowly but surely falling down”…..Yes, as is every structure ever built. The listed capital expenditures are reasonable maintenance/upkeep issues. If a millage is in place that could fund a $70 million building … the existing millage is too high.
    “It will be interesting – and fun – to think about what their needs might be”……How can one argue the fun inherent in dreaming about how to spend $70 million (+/-) of public money? In this period of widespread economic hardship, please get real and tighten your belts…..and your tongues.

  2. October 6, 2009 at 3:57 pm | permalink

    I am glad to see that the library board is engaged in thoughtful substantive discussion of its strategy going forward. I remain convinced that a vibrant downtown library is one of Ann Arbor’s crown jewels, something that is absolutely vital to both our quality of life and our economic growth.

    Since the library has the authority to raise its own operating and construction funds via millage, comment #1 about spending “public money” is a bit beside the point. If the library can get the millage, it can get the money. But in the words of that amazingly popular library resource, Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” ;-) The very first priority must always be to maintain a secure public consensus with unqualified support for operating millages. For that to continue, there must be no perception of wastefulness or grandiosity. For the time being, I think the library would be best off focusing on operational excellence.

    I would push hard for more than a 2% increase in operating expenses and for more than 1.77 mills, though. The demanding Ann Arbor public needs both soothing amenities *and* breadth and depth in collections. If the library plays it too conservatively, it risks stagnation and gradual deterioration in services, which might lead to a decline in expectations; a vicious circle that would be hard to reverse.

  3. By Fran Wright
    October 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm | permalink

    Is the top of the Underground Parking Structure off limits to the Library? What about plunking the new Library building on top of the parking structure? That would free up the corner where the current Main Library is for a park, which is what people seems to want for that area in the first place. Having the library, even four or five stories, on top of the Underground Parking Structure would save us from the much more invasive “secret” Convention Center (what happens at a Convention Center when there are no conventions?) . The Convention Center then could go, with a smaller footprint, across the street on the old Y lot. Then there’s something for everybody: park, books, and more parking!

  4. By Rod Johnson
    October 7, 2009 at 12:04 pm | permalink

    You can have conventions there, they just have to be secret conventions.

  5. By Joe
    October 15, 2009 at 8:24 pm | permalink

    Fred, thoughtful commentary. I agree about perceptions of wastefulness being a top priority. The library has been proud to announce it built the last three multi-million dollar branches without asking for more than it’s ‘normal’ money. If they can set aside ~$20 million in 5 years, do you think their estimates are conservative? Not to mention the constant closures of these brand new branches due to electricity, plumbing, and other issues that should NOT happen with brand new buildings (I hope we’re not paying the same contractors to fix their own mistakes).