DDA Buys Shelter Beds; New Life for LINK?

Also, Christman selected as construction manager
two men standing facing each other

DDA board chair John Splitt (left) and Michael Ortlieb (right) of Carl Walker – the design firm that's handling the new Fifth Avenue underground parking structure. (Photo by the writer.)

Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Nov. 4, 2009): Measured in raw dollars, the major news coming out of the DDA‘s regular Wednesday meeting was the selection of The Christman Company as the construction manager for the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage.

Because the firm had already been awarded the pre-construction services contract, with the construction management contract to be contingent on performance during pre-construction, Christman’s probable selection was well known. The  dollar amount of Christman’s guaranteed maximum price is now also known to an exact figure: $44,381,573.

In other significant business, the board passed a resolution authorizing support of an initiative to increase the number of shelter spots for the homeless in the face of the coming winter – $20,000 for additional beds, to be paid for out of the DDA’s housing fund.

The board also passed a resolution that might resuscitate the LINK – the downtown circulator bus that did not resume service this fall after its usual summer hiatus. The resolution calls for a partnership with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to sort out what that service should look like. Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO, had alluded to these efforts in a side-remark during his presentation to the AATA board last week.  This resolution reflected those efforts.

Shelter Beds

In a presentation to the city council at its Oct. 19, 2009 meeting, Mary Jo Callan, director of the city/county office of community development, had outlined a strategy for increasing the sheltering capacity for homeless people this season. That strategy includes adding 25 beds to the Delonis Center and increasing the number of beds in the rotating warming center from 25 to 50.

In the resolution before the DDA board on Wednesday, $20,000 was proposed to be given as a grant to the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which operates the Delonis Center.

Deliberations were brief, with board member John Mouat getting clarification on the total number of beds the money would purchase and how they were categorized: 25 of the beds would be heavy-duty “cots” for the Delonis Center itself; 25 of them would be the set of “bedding” materials used in the rotating warming shelter, which is located at local churches.

Mayor John Hieftje explained that the initiative had come from a working group including himself, councilmembers, city/county staff, and other community members, which had been meeting over the last several weeks.

In support of the same initiative, the Ann Arbor city council will be asked at its Nov. 5 meeting to authorize an expenditure of $159,000 from the city’s housing trust fund, which will provide case management support and vouchers for family housing.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved $20,000 for beds to be used at the Delonis Center and the rotating shelter.

The LINK: “Not Just a Cute Purple Bus”

At the Ann Arbor Transporation Authority’s special meeting held last week  at Weber’s Inn, as AATA CEO Michael Ford added the LINK to a PowerPoint slide, he mentioned that there were some people interested in bringing back the downtown circulator bus service. [Previous Chronicle coverage: "No Funding for LINK bus ... For Now" and "AATA to Arborland: We Could Pay You Rent"]

Earlier in the year, the DDA did not renew the grant support that would have allowed the resumption of the LINK service in the fall after its usual summer hiatus.

The resolution before the DDA board on Wednesday expressed support for a partnership with the AATA “to develop the elements of a successful downtown Ann Arbor circulator in partnership with the DDA.” In presenting the resolution to his fellow board members, John Mouat, chair of the DDA’s transportation committee, reported that the resolution had come as a result of further study of the LINK by the transportation committee.

Mouat reported that the work of the DDA’s intern, Amber Miller, in researching examples of successful downtown circulators in other small cities had been useful to the committee. It had convinced the committee, he said, that such a thing was possible. He was also encouraged that Michael Ford and AATA’s director of service development, Chris White, attended the transportation committee meeting.

Among the features to be considered for the re-invented LINK, said Mouat, included:

  • Don’t include the University of Michigan’s Oxford Housing on the route
  • Reduce number of stops (to speed up the service)
  • Route should help patrons get to South University, State, Main, and Kerrytown
  • Locate stops to foster connectivity
  • Offer 7-day service
  • Consider special event use
  • Consider use of service for integrating the UM campus into downtown

Board member Keith Orr, in expressing his support for the resolution, stressed that there was no funding component. The expectation from the AATA, Orr said, was that the AATA board would respond with a similar resolution. This would give the AATA staff the necessary confidence that boards of both organizations were in support of the service, Orr explained. Previously, the LINK was perceived partly as a downtown marketing tool more so than a piece of the transportation system, and the idea was to put the LINK squarely in the realm of transportation.

Board member Jennifer Hall suggested an amendment to the resolution that added a “Whereas” clause to make clear why the LINK did not re-appear in the fall: The board had not considered and declined a grant to continue funding, but rather had not appropriated a grant in order to continue study of the issue. She would later echo Orr’s emphasis on the role that the AATA needed to play in developing the LINK system going forward, stressing that it was a part of the transportation system as opposed to a downtown marketing program: “The LINK is not just a cute purple bus.”

Hall’s suggested amendment passed unanimously.

Board member Russ Collins suggested that the additional language might have been added as a friendly amendment, instead of taking a vote on it – a point that board chair John Splitt would later use for humorful effect.

Collins also observed that while the language that the transportation committee had chosen to describe the types of businesses served by the LINK included retail and restaurants, but not “arts and entertainment.” This was met with a chorus of playful ooooooh’s from his fellow board members – Collins is executive director of the Michigan Theater. Collins also put the LINK in the historical context of his recollection of 30 out of the last 50 years of downtown – there’d been a lot of attempts to implement downtown circulators, but they’d all failed due to lack of ridership.

Collins noted that the majority of the riders on the LINK before it was discontinued were affiliates of the University of Michigan and that this raised the question of where the money to fund its operations should come from.

Collins then returned to a theme he’s consistently emphasized over the last year in discussions on the LINK: The DDA itself is not a transportation authority, and design of the service should rely primarily on the expertise of transportation planners, not community discussion that could become politically co-opted. [See, for example, Chronicle coverage of a 2008 DDA retreat: "Trick or Retreat: DDA Board Plans Year"] At Wednesday’s meeting, Collins suggested that the board “let professionals, not amateurs, tell us what’s going to work.”

Collins asked how the resolution addressed his concern that the AATA should be responsible for planning the service. In response, Orr and Mouat pointed to the specific mention of the AATA’s expertise in the resolved clauses, and the transportation committee’s conscious choice not to include specification of routes in the resolution.

Collins suggested that the DDA board needed to steel itself for the calls they might get from business owners who wanted to know why the LINK did not to run past their business or stop in front of it.

Board member Leah Gunn then “called the question” – a procedural move to end deliberations and vote. The board voted in favor of Gunn’s motion, and was ready to vote on the resolution. Then Splitt noticed that Mayor John Hieftje had wanted to address the question. Splitt deferred to the mayor, who noted that there was a fair question of whether this was the best use of transportation dollars. Splitt then quipped that this was the last time he’d make an exception for the mayor on the procedural issue and that during his time as chair the board there would also be no friendly amendments to resolutions.

Outcome: The resolution expressing support for a DDA-AATA partnership on the LINK downtown circulator passed unanimously.

Underground Parking Structure Construction Manager

The Christman Company had previously been selected as the manager of pre-construction services for the underground parking garage to be constructed along South Fifth Avenue at the city-owned lot next to the downtown library. Based on performance during the pre-construction phase, Christman was to be awarded the contract for construction manager of the project.

Board member Roger Hewitt indicated that Christman had performed up to expectations on the pre-construction phase. The guaranteed maximum construction price of $44,381,573, he explained, included the fixed fees for Christmas determined during pre-construction, with all other work to be competitively bid.

The price summary provided in the board packet shows that the single most expensive component of the project is for structural concrete – almost $20 million worth. [.PDF file of Nov. 4, 2009 board packet.] This explains why the companies that bid for the construction manager job, but did not win the contract, are still following the project. With their own in-house concrete teams, they’ll be bidding for that $20 million worth of concrete work in a closed bid process against Christman, which is managing the project.

Board member Leah Gunn expressed her agreement with Hewitt on Christman’s performance.

Outcome: The resolution to award the construction manager contract and accept a guaranteed maximum price for the underground parking structure of $44,381,573 was approved by the board with dissent from Jennifer S. Hall.

Construction Updates

John Splitt reported out from the capital improvements committee on the Fifth and Division streetscape improvement project, as well as the underground parking structure. Brick is being laid along Division Street, which has gone slower than anticipated, but is catching up. Water main work is taking place at the intersection of Division and Liberty, but is expected to be completed by the end of the week, Splitt reported.

DTE and AT&T were moving utilities for the underground parking garage. Some of the easements were still being worked out, but work was moving ahead, Splitt said.

The wayfinding sign project continues, as does tweaking of those signs, Splitt said. The first of the signs that needed approval by the Michigan Department of Transportation have been installed, reported Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA. Those are located on Jackson Road near Westgate. “You are here” maps for the information stations will arrive shortly. Splitt said that the tweaking and corrections would be implemented when installation of all the signs was completed, so that it could be treated as one unified process.

Energy Grants

Board member Sandi Smith, who’s also on city council, reported out from the partnerships committee on the energy grant program. The program, now in its second year, provides support for property owners downtown to have their buildings audited and to implement improvements. Phase I is the audit, while Phase II is the implementation. This year, 50 applications for Phase I have been received, reported Smith, which included 692,000 square feet of space. Those applications were all approved.

Parking and Finances

Roger Hewitt, chair of the operations committee, reported nothing unusual from the first-quarter’s finances. He pointed out explanations for some apparent discrepancies, including direct parking expenses that were already at 44% of their budgeted amount. That’s because the DDA has already made the $2 million payment to the city as part of its agreement with the city to manage the parking system.

The DDA and the city face coming negotiations over that agreemeent, which has been the subject of considerable controversy. [Chronicle search results of articles on that subject.]. Smith reported that there was nothing to report from the committee charged with the task of negotiating that agreement – the “mutually beneficial committee.”

The parking system continues to show increased demand, reported Hewitt. Compared to the first quarter from last year, there was a 8.13% increase in revenues and a 23.08% increase in the number of hourly patrons. Mayor John Hieftje joked that the data should be sent to Lansing and Washington D.C. as a leading indicator showing signs of a recovery.

Board members Smith and Jennifer Hall asked for future parking data reports to include information on specific events and the number of spaces in each structure and lot, so that changes in the numbers could be more easily understood.Hewitt indicated that he’d see what he could come up with.

Russ Collins said that as the board’s new treasurer, he’d be looking at ways to condense the financial information that was presented at the whole board level in order to facilitate greater clarity. The details, he said, would still be available, or course, to any board member or member of the public, and attendance at the operations committee meetings was open as well.

Other Business

Board member Russ Collins, reporting out from the partnerships committee, said that two requests for grants had been put off for now, but not rejected. One was from the Near North affordable housing development in which Avalon Housing is a partner. The other was from the Arts Alliance, which is seeking support for development of a web portal. The idea of the web portal was pitched to the whole board at its October meeting by the alliance’s president, Tamara Real.

From the transportation committee, John Mouat presented a table reflecting the committee’s work of identifying high-impact, low-cost strategies for improving the quality of the pedestrian experience downtown. This was met with particular enthusiasm from Russ Collins. Among the items identified was “minimize sidewalk obstructions, including café tables/chairs, no bike riding on sidewalks.”

Public Comment

Ray Detter: Detter gave his monthly update from the meeting of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, touching on two main points: (i) the A2D2 rezoning effort, and (ii) the Downtown Ann Arbor Historic Street Exhibit Program. With respect to the first of these, Detter said that there were 14 representatives from 8 different downtown neighborhood associations that had been meeting every Monday focused on the design guidelines that would be proposed, and providing feedback to the city council as quickly as they could. They were advocating for a mandatory process with voluntary compliance initially, which could perhaps evolve to a mandatory compliance system.

Later in the meeting, DDA board member Roger Hewitt, who’s a member of the A2D2 steering committee, would indicate that city council action on A2D2 was anticipated at its Nov. 16 meeting. The steering committee would be meeting on Nov. 19 to discuss where they should go from here.

The street exhibit program, Detter said, had begun with a $50,000 grant from the DDA, and had grown to a $1 million project funded largely through private sources. It serves to activate downtown and give it a sense of identity, Detter said. He reported that 200 students from Skyline High School had been brought to downtown Ann Arbor and run through tours using the street exhibits, and that this represented 200 students who are now connected to the downtown.

Alan Haber: Haber introduced himself as an Ann Arbor resident who lived on Third Street who was involved with a group of people developing a proposal for the top of the underground parking garage. [The city of Ann Arbor has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the lot.] He was there, he said, mostly to say hello and to encourage the DDA board to give his group’s proposal some thought. That proposal was not for dense development, but rather for a community gathering place – a “front porch” for Ann Arbor. He said the group’s focus was on development of community, not development of buildings.

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

Absent: Newcombe Clark.

Next board meeting: Noon on Wednesday, Dec. 2, at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [confirm date]