Ann Arbor Library Board Moves Elections

Also: A wish-list for adjacent Library Lot development

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Dec. 21, 2009): At its last meeting of 2009, the library board voted to move its elections to November, in response to a similar decision last week by the Ann Arbor Public Schools board.

At Monday night's board meeting, the annual report by Ann Arbor District Library director Josie Parker was made as a video presentation.

At Monday night's board meeting, the annual report by Ann Arbor District Library director Josie Parker was made as a video presentation. (The video report is available on the library's website at In the foreground: board members Prue Rosenthal, left, and Rebecca Head. (Photo by the writer.)

Library board members also discussed their hopes for a development next to the downtown library. The city solicited bids for development atop an underground parking structure being built just north of the library, on land stretching between Fourth and Fifth and Division. The library has a vested interest in that project – as board members noted on Monday, the development there will affect their decision about what to do with the downtown library building.

No representative from the library is on the city’s review committee that’s currently evaluating proposals for the site. But two members of that committee did attend Monday’s board meeting, and library director Josie Parker plans to meet with city officials to convey the board’s feedback.

Bottom line: A place that’s active and that attracts a diverse group of people around the clock would be best for the library. Also needed, board members said, is some master planning for that entire area, which includes the former YMCA lot and the AATA’s Blake Transit Center.

Moving Elections – Even or Odd?

At a Dec. 16 meeting, the Ann Arbor Public Schools board voted to move their elections from May to November, and to hold them annually. Because of the library’s historical links to the school district, the library board is required to hold their elections at the same time as the school board. [For more background, see previous Chronicle coverage: "School Election Change Would Affect Library"]

The library board now must hold their elections in November, but they are not required to hold elections annually. So at their Monday meeting, the library board explored three options: holding elections 1) annually, 2) on even-numbered years, or 3) on odd-numbered years. Currently, elections for library board are held on even-numbered years – the next election had been scheduled for May 2010.

AADL director Josie Parker explained that the library wouldn’t have to pay for the election, regardless of their decision. There would always be another governmental unit on the ballot that would foot the bill.

Board members quickly ruled out the option of holding elections annually. Ed Surovell cited a huge advantage in having the elections on odd-numbered years – on those years, library issues wouldn’t be competing with congressional or presidential elections.

Margaret Leary proposed a resolution to hold elections in odd-numbered years. She then presented arguments against that option. One concern was the nature of the electorate during those off-year elections. There’s a much smaller turnout on those years, Leary noted, and those people likely would care more about the school board elections. Elections with a larger turnout might be better, she said.

Another argument in favor of even years is that it’s simpler, Leary said, since that’s already the schedule that library board elections follow. Terms for Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Carola Stearns and Ed Surovell end in 2010. Terms for Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary and Prue Rosenthal end in 2012.

Leary also contended that it would look better to the public if terms were extended by just a few months, not 18 months. Board members whose terms expire in June 2010 would have to extend their terms until the end of the year, if elections were moved to November of even years. If elections were held in odd-numbered years, those terms would have to be extended through December 2011 for this cycle.

Outcome: A vote was taken on the resolution proposing elections in odd-numbered years, and received no support. Prue Rosenthal then proposed a resolution calling for elections in even-numbered years, which passed unanimously.

[Aug. 10, 2010 is the deadline for filing an affidavit of identity and a nominating petition (or a $100 nonrefundable fee) to run for library board. Candidates can file with the Washtenaw County clerk.]

Library Lot: What Should Go On Top?

The city of Ann Arbor has solicited proposals for a development to be built on top of an underground parking structure currently being constructed by the Downtown Development Authority on what’s known as the Library Lot. Six proposals were submitted by the mid-November deadline. At a Dec. 18 meeting, the city’s review committee removed from consideration two of those proposals, saying that they did not provide sufficient financial return to the city. One called for a plaza and ice rink, the other proposed a community commons. [See Chronicle coverage: "Two Library Lot Proposals Eliminated"]

At the beginning of the library board’s discussion on Monday, library director Josie Parker clarified that they were not intending to act in lieu of the city’s review committee. Rather, the purpose of the discussion was to provide feedback to the city about what types of development would serve the library well, and what might harm it.

Parker also reviewed the history of the library’s own efforts to develop its downtown building, located on the northeast corner of Fifth and William. In 2004, the board adopted a strategic plan which included an objective to renovate or replace the downtown library. In late 2007, discussions began about how to proceed with that project, looking at three options: 1) building a new library on top of the proposed underground parking structure, 2) renovating part of the library’s existing downtown building, and demolishing and rebuilding part of it, and 3) demolishing the entire building and replacing it.

It’s because the board explored the first option – build a library on top of the Fifth Avenue parking structure – that they know so much about that project, Parker noted. Constraints on leaving or selling the property where the library is currently located – tied to an agreement with the public schools – was a major consideration for not building on top of the parking structure, she said. Another constraint was the footprint they’d have to work within, if they had pursued that option.

After conducting cost assessments on the other two options, board decided to demolish the existing building and replace it. However, that project was halted in late 2008, because of the economy. [See Chronicle coverage: "Citing Economy, Board Halts Library Project"]

Board Discussion

Rebecca Head, the board’s president, kicked off the discussion by saying she had concerns about the viability of the proposed projects – not just their ability to come to fruition, she said, but also their long-term ability to survive. Related to that, Prue Rosenthal questioned whether Ann Arbor could support a hotel and conference center.

Margaret Leary said she liked the idea of a hotel and conference center. She then spoke more generally about the kinds of things that would affect the downtown library. It’s crucial for the library to know what’s going on top of the underground parking site, she said, because it will affect how the library designs its own building, when that project is ready to move forward again.

And it’s not just the underground parking site, Leary added. The library will be affected by what happens to the surface parking lot at the northwest corner of Fifth and William – formerly the site of the YMCA – and by what happens at the AATA‘s Blake Transit Center, adjacent to that parking lot. What’s needed is a master plan for the whole area, she said. [For background on the AATA project, see Chronicle coverage: "AATA Board: Get Bids to Rebuild Blake"]

Talking specifically about the underground parking site, Leary said it was important for the library to keep the element of Library Lane, a proposed east-west street that would run north of the library building. It’s needed as a drop-off and pick-up spot, she said, and as a way to break up what is otherwise a massive block.

Further, whatever goes on top of the parking structure should foster economic growth for the city as a whole, Leary said. It should be a destination, drawing people 24/7, of all ages and income levels, with a variety of uses. Architecturally, it should clearly mark the site as the center of downtown, visible to pedestrians and people in cars. The site’s landscape architecture is important too, she said, and part of the area should serve as a public gathering space. That said, she added, the city needs to think hard about maintenance and programming for such a space. The analogies that others have made to Chicago’s Millennium Park or New York City’s Central Park aren’t quite right, Leary said, but those two cities do have ways to support those parks.

Barbara Murphy elaborated, saying that Central Park was in bad shape 30 years ago. It took the creation of the Central Park Conservancy, a public/private partnership, to turn things around. Murphy said the analogy that mattered wasn’t the size of the city, but rather the way a city took care of its property.

Rosenthal noted that the library doesn’t have a vested interest in exactly what goes on that site, but it has a huge vested interest in the success of whatever ends up there. If the venture fails, leaving a large, empty building next to the library, that would isolate the library from the rest of the city.

Carola Stearns said she had concerns about the proposals for a conference center. She didn’t understand the business model, or what the city would get out of it. The project has to be a money maker, she said, not a money sink.

Ed Surovell – owner of Edward Surovell Realtors – weighed in on the issue, saying that conference centers weren’t highly profitable. Its value would be that it serves other interests of the city and state, he said. In Michigan, you can count on one hand the number of places that are suitable for a conference, he said, especially a large one. There are locations in Detroit, at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, in Grand Rapids, and to a lesser extent in Lansing, Traverse City and possibly the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Marriott at Eagle Crest. Because of its proximity to Detroit Metro airport, Surovell said, Ann Arbor would be a good place for a conference center, “and the state really does need one.”

But Stearns questioned that premise. Travel budgets that are being cut because of the economy could be reduced permanently, she said, replaced by videoconferencing. “The kinds of conferences we might be used to might not be the ones we have in 10 years,” she said.

Rosenthal wondered whether the former Pfizer facility, now owned by the University of Michigan, would be available for conferences. An auditorium there seats about 400 people, and a large cafeteria could accommodate meals for several hundred people.

Head returned to a more general theme, describing how the library has been an advocate for sustainability, and that a component of the proposals for the underground parking site was infill and density. The city has been good about developing the greenbelt and its parks, she said, but there haven’t been good infill projects. One of the tenets of sustainability is having a dense urban core, with appropriately located open spaces. But again, she said, were the current proposals financially viable?

Surovell hearkened back to his days on the city’s planning commission, and said that whenever someone wanted to kill a project they’d start talking about its economic viability. Making that judgment isn’t the role of the library board, he said. Rather, their role is to think about how the proposals affect the environment around the library, its patrons, and future investments in its own building. He reminded his board colleagues that whether they renovate or replace the library, either way it would likely be a $70 million project. And if something inappropriate is built on top of the underground parking structure, “you’re going to wind up with a sorry mess for a library location.”

Surovell returned to the issue of master planning, agreeing that development of the former Y lot and the Blake Transit Center were also important to the library’s future. The streetscape, the kind of people who’d be attracted to that part of town – all of that will factor in, he said. As an example, the block currently goes to sleep fairly early in the evening – there’s not much activity after 9 p.m., or earlier – while a hotel would be awake 24/7, he said. A hotel would need to have responsible operators, he said, but it could serve a quasi-public function, in a way that a municipal building, for example, would not. In general, he added, single-use facilities weren’t desirable.

He also criticized the design of the municipal building currently under construction by the city at the corner of Huron and Fifth. “Those are the people making the decision right now” about the development on the underground parking structure, he said.

Adding to the topic of single-use buildings, Leary said that ideally, whatever gets built would be constructed so that it could be adapted to other functions in the future, if the market changes. A hotel, for example, might eventually be turned into condos or offices. She said she’s often wished that parking structures were built with that in mind, so that when our society becomes less car-centric, those structures could be adapted for housing.

Leary summarized, saying that the discussion reflected the need for a project team on the underground parking structure site to include a superb architect, landscape architect and urban planner.

After the meeting, Parker said she’d be conveying the board’s feedback to city officials. Also attending the meeting in the audience were two members of the review committee: Susan Pollay, director of the Downtown Development Authority, and John Splitt, the DDA board’s chair.

Present: Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Prue Rosenthal, Carola Stearns, Ed Surovell. Also: Josie Parker, AADL director.

Absent: Jan Barney Newman.

Next meeting: Board meetings are typically held on the third Monday of the month, with the public portion of the meeting starting at 7 p.m. in the library’s fourth floor meeting room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. Their next regular meeting is on Monday, Jan. 18, 2010. [confirm date]

One Comment

  1. December 22, 2009 at 9:45 pm | permalink

    I appreciate Carola Stearns’ clear thinking on the proposed developments. The value to the library of a hotel or conference center, used almost exclusively by non-residents, would be about as low as for any possible development on that site.

    Ann Arbor’s “proximity” to the airport will be less and less important in the future. Airlines lost billions this year and are expected to lose billions next year as well, as fuel production begins its inevitable decline and prices rise. If the boom times of the ’90s didn’t result in a conference center in SE Michigan, the near-depression decade(s) to come certainly won’t be the right economic climate for it, especially with the technological group communication options that have become available in the meantime, not to mention those to come.

    Since I didn’t have the wherewithal to submit a proposal, I appreciate the chance to indulge in my fantasy here:

    The rush to build on this site might eliminate the opportunity for a more centrally located downtown transit center (possibly incorporating the Greyhound station–I’m not giving up on that yet.) Breaking up this block only to close 4th Avenue for a revamped Blake Transit Center, thereby creating a new massive block wouldn’t be much of an improvement. If the library lot site is big enough to get all the buses off the street and still add some retail space along at least part of 5th Ave., that might be an improvement for the library. A pickup/dropoff lane might not be out of the question either.

    Then the old BTC and old Y sites could be redeveloped to fill in that block with some worthwhile mixture of office, housing and retail. (I get the impression from the article that moving the library to that block isn’t a possibility.)

    Of course, there’s a future underground parking structure that might create traffic issues in this scenario. Maybe not, though. If it ends up being underutilized, we could try to convince the post office to move the mail trucks into it, then that federal building dead space could be revitalized as well.

    Anybody see a way that this would provide some financial benefit to the city?