Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Jan. 18, 2010): The Ann Arbor District Library doesn’t own the property known as the Library Lot, adjacent to its downtown building, but what’s happening there will have a direct impact on the library’s future.
So while the library board won’t be making decisions about the city’s quest for a development there, they had plenty of questions about how it’s proceeding. At Monday night’s library board meeting, city administrator Roger Fraser was on hand to answer those questions and give an update on the Library Lot RFP process – interviews for potential developers are being held this week.
The lot – where an underground parking structure is now being built – was also the topic addressed by the only speaker during public commentary, who urged the board to keep an open mind about the development that might be built on top of the site. The comment prompted board member Prue Rosenthal to respond: “You know that we’re not in charge of this, right?”
Library Lot: Where Does It Stand?
Ann Arbor resident Nancy Kaplan was the only person to speak during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, and she asked the board to be as open as possible to different ideas for the Library Lot development. The library had been very creative in the building of its own branches, she said, citing Malletts Creek and Traverwood. She hoped they’d apply that same creative instinct to whatever comes forward for the Library Lot. Kaplan also noted that the land there is public, so the process for deciding what’s built there should be very open and public.
When told that the board wasn’t in charge of making decisions for the Library Lot, Kaplan said she understood that the board had requested the inclusion of Library Lane, an east-west street that could be used as a drop-off. She said that perhaps there were other ways to configure the site, rather than adding another street.
Library Lot: Remarks by the City Administrator
Later in the meeting, AADL director Josie Parker introduced city administrator Roger Fraser by saying she’d invited him to give an overview of the process that the city is using to decide what will happen on the Library Lot. She noted that the responsibility for the lot is being confused – the Library Lot has never been the library’s, she clarified, joking “though we would have taken it at any time.”
Fraser began by saying that when city council started talking about building an underground parking structure, he had advocated taking a more integrated approach to the project. It’s easier to design the infrastructure if you know what’s going on top of it, he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far with that argument soon enough.”
With the current request for proposals (RFP) process, Fraser said, the hope is to identify a project within a timeframe that would allow the underground parking structure to be modified to accommodate the development, if necessary.
The council’s expectation – at least, for the majority of councilmembers, he said – is that the site should be a place that generates activity, and not just during the daylight hours. Activity should ideally complement the downtown library’s hours as well. Yet the RFP was written to be somewhat generic, Fraser said. Among other things, they want something that fits the downtown, that will be successful in the market and that will be an asset for the community. [Link to city's website with downloadable .pdf file of the RFP]
The city received six proposals by the Nov. 13, 2009 deadline. Interviews with all six groups are being held this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday at the downtown library’s fourth-floor boardroom – the same room where the library board meets. [The interviews and an open house on Wednesday are open to the public – .pdf file of interview schedule. At the city council's Jan. 19, 2010 meeting, it was announced that one of the proposals – from Beztak Companies – had been withdrawn in advance of the interviews, which reduces the field to five.]
Fraser said they expect to get a layman’s understanding of the projects this week. Then they’ll likely move quickly to hire a consultant who can help with the more technical aspects of evaluating these proposals, including the financial viability of both the proposals and the entities making the proposals.
Seven proposals were received in response to the RFP for a consultant, Fraser said, and it’s likely the RFP review committee, on which Fraser serves, will select one next week. Earlier this month, the Downtown Development Authority, which is building the Library Lot’s underground parking structure, authorized $50,000 to pay for consulting work on the RFPs.
The process of selecting one of the Library Lot proposals and at least setting out a timeline for framing an agreement with the city is expected to occur by mid- to late March, Fraser said. It might take longer, he said, but he hoped it wouldn’t, saying time is of the essence.
Library Lot: Questions from the Library Board
Several library board members had questions about the project.
Jan Barney Newman wondered whether Fraser was confident that the city had received the most viable proposals possible. Fraser said it was possible that none of the proposals would be selected. Newman followed up by commenting that it seems as though hiring a consultant to do some planning should have been the first move. “It seems like we’ve got the cart before the horse a little bit,” she said. [The original council resolution brought by Sandi Smith (Ward 1) at a June 2009 meeting specified a consultant, but the amended version adopted by the council in July 2009 did not.]
Fraser said that when they crafted the RFP, their expectation was that the people who responded would tell them what’s viable in the market – as public officials, he said, they weren’t in the best position to know. So far, some of the proposals have real potential, he said.
Margaret Leary clarified that Newman was talking about strategic master planning – did the city ever consider asking a consultant to look at the entire area, not just the Library Lot?
About 18 months ago, Fraser said, he’d proposed to city council that exact idea.
He had several meetings with Parker, Susan Pollay of the DDA, and representatives from AATA and the Ann Arbor chamber of commerce to talk about the area of Fifth and William, which includes the downtown library building, the Library Lot, the surface parking lot at the former YMCA site, and AATA’s Blake Transit Center.
At the time, the library was in the middle of plans to build a new downtown building. Parker noted that in November 2008, the library board voted to suspend that project because of the economy.
[At council's January 2009 retreat, Fraser floated the idea of using the public right-of-way on Fourth Avenue, just north of William Street, as a new transit center, and of possibly building a conference center on top of the Library Lot's underground parking structure. At the retreat, Sandi Smith listed the master planning of the block among her priorities in the next year.]
Leary posed two questions to Fraser, saying they were really different ways of framing the same query: 1) Why doesn’t the city just sell the land and trust the market and its own planning and zoning process, and 2) What is it about this Library Lot RFP that will make it successful, when other city RFPs haven’t come to anything – specifically, proposals for the former YMCA site at the northwest corner of Fifth and William, and the lot at First and Washington. Like the Library Lot, both of those properties are owned by the city.
At the old YMCA site, the development was difficult to pull off, Fraser said, because of council’s expectation for the project to include both a market-rate housing development as well as replacements for the single-room occupancy, low-income housing that the Y had provided. The developer wasn’t able to pull that off, he said. [The developer of this project, called William Street Station, filed a lawsuit against the city after it canceled the project.]
As for the First and Washington site, the city has an approved project from a developer, Fraser said. Financing is the only thing that prevents it from moving ahead. It’s a viable project and will happen when the financing comes through for the developer, he said. [Called City Apartments by the developer Village Green, the proposed project is a combined residential and parking development.]
Pressed again on the issue of why the city doesn’t simply sell the Library Lot property to a developer, Fraser said, “It’s all about control.” Rather than sell the property to someone and have no control over how it was developed, he said city officials wanted to try this approach, even if it fails and they have to continue to hold the property. He noted that developers had proposed a number of projects around town “where nothing has happened.”
Rebecca Head, the board’s president, said she knew that city council didn’t speak with one voice – a comment that prompted Fraser to respond, “I can agree with you about that.” She added that she knew he couldn’t speak for the council. But she wondered if there’s a sense on council of what’s desired for the Library Lot.
The proposals seemed so far apart in terms of what they’re offering – open space at one end of the spectrum, a hotel and conference center on the other. Saying that she wasn’t speaking for the library board, Head said she was a little confused about whether there’s a clear sense of what the city’s elected officials want on the site.
Fraser said it was interesting to note that all 11 councilmembers belonged to the same political party, yet their views on all sorts of issues were diverse. In general, he said, council was moving toward getting more density downtown, trying to stimulate the city’s economic vitality. In that regard, the concept of a park is the antithesis of what council had been envisioning for the Library Lot, he said.
In fact, the RFP review committee had recommended eliminating the two open space proposals, he said. But after a council debate that Fraser characterized as centering on process, the RFP review committee decided to bring back those proposals for formal interviews this week, along with the other four proposals. Councilmembers were objecting to the process, he said, not necessarily expressing a sentiment in favor of the open space proposals. [See Chronicle coverage: "Library Lot Math: 6 - 2 + 2 = 6"]
Changing focus, Barbara Murphy observed that the infrastructure of the underground parking garage appeared to limit the way that the property could be developed.
Specifically, the southwest corner was not designed to be load bearing, and she wondered why. Was it too late to make it a blank slate?
Fraser said there was still flexibility in terms of the infrastructure in the underground parking facility, but he couldn’t recall why the one corner had been designed that way.
Josie Parker clarified that the design actually related to the library itself – the tentative designation of the site’s southwest corner as a plaza had coincided with the planned entrance to the new library building. The location and the size of the plaza had been designed with that library building in mind, she said, but the project was halted in late 2008 because of the economy.
Prue Rosenthal noted that the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is moving ahead with rebuilding the Blake Transit Center, located across the street from the Library Lot. She asked whether the city had tried to coordinate its project with AATA’s efforts.
Fraser reported that he’d spent a lot of time discussing that area with AATA CEO Michael Ford, and talking about alternatives for the downtown transit center. None of those discussions got very far, he said. The problem is that Blake Transit Center has serious mold and infrastructure issues, Fraser said. In addition, the project has federal funding and a matching state grant that need to be spent within a short timeframe. [The state grant expires in September 2010 – see Chronicle coverage "AATA Board: Get Bids to Rebuild Blake"] AATA’s near-term needs made it difficult to work something out at this point, he said.
Leary asked how firmly the city was committed to the concept of a Library Lane – a narrow east-west street running from Fifth to Division, between the library building and the Library Lot development. Her own view, she said, was that it was extremely important to both the library, for use as a drop-off point, and for the city, in terms of breaking up the large block for urban planning purposes.
The concept of Library Lane was included in the RFP, Fraser said. It could be configured in different ways, but they’ve never suggested that it shouldn’t be an element in the development, he said. The city tried to convey that the developer who’ll be investing in this project should have a say in how such a street might fit into their project.
Carola Stearns asked whether Library Lane was intended to be a public or a private street. Fraser said the expectation was that it would be public. Several board members said that wasn’t what the DDA had been conveying. [At its October 2009 meeting, the library board had an extensive discussion over a DDA request for a utility easement. A letter on that issue – sent to the board by Adrian Iraola, a consultant who's managing the Library Lot project for the DDA – stated that the city would be designating Library Lane as a city-owned private street.]
Saying she was extremely frustrated, Rosenthal said she found it nonsensical that the city claimed it didn’t have time to do master planning for the entire area in the Fifth Avenue corridor, yet they did have time to do this one piece – the underground parking structure and the development on top of it. The process seemed backwards – the master planning should have come first.
Fraser said that the city staff is in the midst of a major overhaul of its comprehensive plan, and that the staff had been “skinnied down” over the years, so that there were fewer people to do the work. He said he hoped the board understood that they’d had to set priorities on their use of resources. The process might have been preferable as Rosenthal suggested, he said, but their hope is that the Library Lot can serve as guidance for future development in the area.
In wrapping up, Fraser described the process as in its infancy, and that they’d do everything they could to provide information and get the library’s feedback as they moved ahead.
The board covered a range of other topics at their meeting.
Ann Arbor News Archives
In her director’s report, Josie Parker reported that most of the former Ann Arbor News archives had been moved earlier that day from the News building at Huron and Division into storage space leased by the library. The remainder would be moved on Tuesday, she said: “That’s an exclamation point that I feel very good about.” [The agreement to transfer the archives to the library was completed in early December of 2009. The library is leasing 3,500 square feet in an office park at 2311 Green Road, but the space is not open to the public. See previous Chronicle coverage: "Library Nears Deal on Newspaper Archives"]
The library received two donations recently, Parker reported: 1) $8,000 from the estate of Rosannah Steinhoff, to buy literary works in French, German or Italian, and 2) $50,000 from the Friends of the Ann Arbor District Library.
Library for the Blind
Parker reminded board members that it was roughly a year ago that the library took responsibility for the former county Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled. One goal has been to devote space in the downtown library for adaptive and assistive technologies, and that has recently occurred. An adaptive/assistive technology lab, with equipment such as a braille embosser, has been set up on the second floor west wall, in the former location of the local history room. The local history collection has been moved to an alcove north of the second floor reference desk.
Building Program Timeline
Finally, responding to a previous request from the board, Parker provided a timeline of the AADL’s building program, starting in 1958 when the library moved from the Carnegie Library on Huron Street to its current building at 343 S. Fifth Ave., designed by Alden B. Dow. The intent is to provide context for future building decisions. [.pdf file of AADL building timeline]
Present: Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal, Carola Stearns, Ed Surovell. Also: Josie Parker, AADL director.
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, Feb. 15, 2010. [confirm date]