Ann Arbor Caucus: Fires, Fines, Fuller

Also: East Stadium bridge replacement to be further delayed

Ann Arbor City Council Sunday night caucus (April 18, 2010): Access to city hall for the caucus on Sunday evening required a manual unlocking of doors with assistance from the Ann Arbor police department. But after gaining lawful entry, about a half-dozen residents discussed a range of topics with the three councilmembers who attended – mayor John Hieftje, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).

Bob Snyder couch fire

Bob Snyder reads aloud from the preliminary report of the Ann Arbor fire department, which summarizes the events of a recent nighttime house fire that killed one resident.

A recent fire on South State Street, which killed a resident of the house that burned, prompted a call to revisit a 2004 proposal to ban from porches the use of indoor furniture, like couches. That measure was ultimately tabled by the council six years ago, left to demise without any action.

A couple of residents expressed some disappointment that the councilmembers would not be discussing the budget that evening, but budgetary topics did make their way into the conversation. Chief among them were the relationship of the new parking fine schedule – which is expected to generate an extra $635,000 for the FY 2011 budget – to the parking plan that’s scheduled to be presented on Monday night to the council by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

Questions about the planned Fuller Road Station were also raised, including the plan for financing the project. That project is not on Monday night’s agenda. But a different major capital project does have an associated Monday agenda item: the East Stadium bridge replacement. The item involves authorization for the city to apply for funds from the state’s local bridge fund – the city’s most recent application was denied. Caucus attendees heard Hieftje explain that the city would delay the start of replacement construction from fall 2010 to spring 2011, to allow for another round of funding applications.

The council also got an update on one resident’s ongoing efforts to move a mid-block crosswalk in front of King Elementary School to an intersection where cars already stop.

Porch Couch Ban Redux

Bob Snyder led off caucus discussion by echoing similar sentiments he’d expressed at the council’s April 5, 2010 meeting. Citing the house fire at 928 S. State St. – which occurred in the early morning hours of April 3, 2010, killing one of the residents – Snyder called on the council to revisit the possibility of a ban on the use of indoor furniture on porches. The preliminary report on the fire indicates that it started in a trash can on the porch, spread to a couch, then ignited the rest of the structure.

Snyder read aloud from the preliminary report released from the fire department [.txt file of preliminary report on the fire from AAFD]:

The fire was first noticed in the corner of the porch. It was a trash fire in a waste container. Fire built and spread to the adjacent sofa (positioned across the front of the residence windows on the porch). From there the fire continued to build from the ready fuel load of the sofa, building up heat and spreading to the structure itself.

Snyder allowed that he was “riding high on [his] high horse” on the issue. He noted that some landlords had already removed couches from their rental properties. He allowed that it was too early to say whether it was arson that had caused the fire or whether an upholstered couch was to blame. However, Snyder stressed that the consequence of the fire had been tragic. From the report:

The third occupant was difficult to awaken and eventually exited through the front doorway, through the fire, as Fire apparatus was arriving on the scene. He was on fire and ran across the street in front of arriving apparatus. He was attended to by Fire personnel, extinguished and cared for until HVA arrival. He was transported to the hospital where he passed away approximately 12 hours later.

In that context, Snyder asked the three councilmembers present to revisit the Aug. 16, 2004 resolution considered by the council, but ultimately tabled, that would ban the use of indoor furniture on outdoor porches. Snyder allowed that the proposal had been met with “derision” at the time, with the representatives from the Michigan Student Assembly saying that couches created a “home-like atmosphere.”

Later during caucus deliberations, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) said that some of his fondest memories of college life were of taking a nap on the porch. He also mentioned that he’d recently bought a new couch, and had stored the old one on his porch for a time, before it eventually found a new home with his uncle. During that time, he said, he would have been out of compliance with an ordinance banning couches on porches.

Snyder noted that back in 2004, the city council had concluded that it could not legislate aesthetics. He sought to counter that idea by noting that we already legislate other kinds of aesthetics – like trash or cars parking on lawns.

Snyder then cited his 15 years of experience in the furniture industry with Herman Miller, saying that no furniture could be made permanently flame retardant. He concluded by saying, “I’m worried. I don’t know whose hands to put this in.”

Briere noted that the area of the city that Snyder had discussed – where he owns rental property – is a confluence of Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 3 and Ward 4. She allowed that fires were undoubtedly a problem – whether it was a problem caused by couches on porches was difficult for her to say. She noted that the city council were not the parents of students, and observed that any ordinance would apply equally to student neighborhoods and other parts of the city, like the Old West Side and Pontiac Trail.

Kunselman introduced the idea that couches on porches could be addressed by landlords, by building prohibitions of porch couches into leases. He noted that the city council had received a letter from property management companies lobbying for a couch ban. Kunselman’s response: “You ban it!” Until he sees property management companies take a stronger position, he said, he was not favorably inclined to an ordinance on porch furniture.

Hieftje indicated that he thought Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) was taking a look at the ordinance language that had previously been proposed and that if he had to guess, he thought that the council would be considering something. In relevant part, the 2004 proposed ordinance reads [.txt file of 2004 proposed couch ban resolution]:

Upholstered or other furniture designed or manufactured primarily for indoor use shall not be used or left:
1. On residential unenclosed, exterior porches or balconies
2. In an exposed open area of private property
1. Wood, metal or plastic furniture.
2. Outdoor patio furniture with weather resistant cushions
3. Upholstered furniture designated for pre-paid special pick-up by public or private haulers complying with sections 2:7 and 2:12 of Chapter 26 of this Code.

Fuller Road Station

Gwen Nystuen, who’s a member of the city’s park advisory commission (PAC), asked at the caucus about answers to questions that had been compiled from a Feb. 10, 2010 public meeting on Fuller Road Station. She said that the questions collected at the meeting had been posted on the city’s website, but that the answers had not. The questions that PAC had posed about the project had also not been given answers.

Mayor John Hieftje and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) indicated that they’d look into getting the answers to those questions posted – Briere composed an email on the spot to someone at the city.

Fuller Road Station – a proposed parking structure and bus station, and possibly an eventual train station – has been controversial from the point of view of PAC, due to the land’s status as parkland. But it’s also been controversial from the point of view of its financing. The city has not yet put forward a plan to finance its share of the city-University of Michigan joint project.

Fuller Road Station can be connected to a question asked by resident Brad Mikus at caucus, about $750,000 in the city’s economic development fund. At the council’s most recent meeting, April 12, to focus on the city’s budget, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) drew out the fact from city administrator Roger Fraser that the proposed budget would provide authorization for spending the $750,000, but he said that there was no spending plan for the money.

Both Hieftje and Fraser have stated publicly that no general fund money will be used to pay for Fuller Road Station. The city’s capital improvements plan shows the money coming from the city’s economic development fund. At caucus, Briere and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) traced the history of the money currently in the economic development fund – it had been appropriated from the general fund to pay for free parking incentives for Google. The $750,000 is the amount that is now left over. Briere indicated at the caucus that the expectation by some had been that if the money were not used for that original purpose, it would revert to the city’s general fund.

Asked if he would consider the $750,000 currently in the economic development fund to be general fund money – thus not eligible for use on Fuller Road Station, Hieftje said he hadn’t thought about that question. Kunselman, in contrast, said flatly: “It’s general fund money.” Attaching a different label to it did not change the status of the money as general fund money, he said. Kunselman compared it to “Steve” versus “Stephen” – “I’m Steve, but I’m also Stephen, still the same person.”

Parking Plan and Fine Schedule

On the agenda for Monday’s council meeting is a presentation of a parking plan from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. [Chronicle coverage: "Parking Report Portends City-DDA Tension"] Parking is generally a fertile ground for Ann Arbor discussion and Sunday’s caucus was no different.

Questioned by residents about features of the plan to be presented by the DDA, mayor John Hieftje, who also sits on the DDA board, stressed that the council would not be taking action on the plan – they’d simply be receiving the report.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted that a parking issue on the agenda that would possibly result in council action was a proposed increase in fines for parking violations. [Previous Chronicle coverage: "Parking Fines to Increase in Ann Arbor?"] The increase for one of the the most common violations – expired meters – would be bumped from $15 to $20. The discounted amount for those who pay the ticket immediately would remain $10.

The new fine schedule is estimated to generate an additional $635,000 in revenue over the current levels, and that additional revenue has been baked into the budget that will be presented formally by city administrator Roger Fraser on Monday night.

Residents at the caucus questioned the wisdom of making the assumption of the extra revenue. Briere allowed that the budgeting process was not an exact forecast. It involved trying to overestimate expenses and underestimate revenues, she said. These estimates are based on expenses and revenues in past years, but ultimately no one could know the future.

Currently, the parking system for the city is administered by the DDA under an agreement that was struck in 2005 and included payments of up to $10 million over the life of the 10-year deal. Mid-way through the term of the contract, the DDA has paid the full amount of the contract.

The city council and the DDA each have a committee charged with the task of renegotiating the parking agreement between the two entities, with the city hoping that the DDA will agree to continue paying the city $2 million a year. At caucus, Hieftje indicated he would be “very surprised” if the DDA did not agree to make that payment for FY 2011.

Asked by resident Nancy Kaplan whether the DDA was interested in making the right to enforce parking rules a part of the current negotiations over a possible $2 million payment, Hieftje confirmed that several members of the DDA board were interested in that possibility. He cautioned, however, that it’s not clear how such a plan would be implemented. Among the challenges is the geographic question of enforcement of those meters outside the DDA district. Another major challenge is a labor union issue – enforcement is currently performed by unionized labor in the form of the city’s community standards officers.

Caucus discussion of parking issues also included a review of the new ePark stations that have been installed in downtown areas. Jim Fuester, an interior designer with Mir’s Oriental Rugs on Main Street, reported that in working the “front lines” of downtown he’s encountered numerous complaints about the new stations from customers. He said that he’s resorted to going out to the meters with clients to help them learn how to use the machines – just so that they are able to spend time in his store without risking a fine.

A suggestion for the machines made by Fuester was to provide an audio version of the instructions – when the glare from the sun hits the screen, it’s impossible to read, he said.

Fuester’s experience with the machines contrasted with Kathy Griswold’s – she said she loves the machines.

But Griswold feared that the city was not going to collect the amount of revenue it expected from ticketing, because based on her own experience, she was not getting the number of tickets she previously received. She wondered if the city was still putting the same resources into ticketing.

Briere allowed that revenues from ticketing were  down this year, but that based on a Chronicle item she’d seen, she knew that the city continued to ticket.

East Stadium Bridges

On the council’s Monday night agenda is an item that authorizes the city’s application for another round of funding from the state’s local bridge fund. [See Chronicle coverage: "State Board: No Funding for Stadium Bridges"] Mayor John Hieftje indicated that the city hoped to receive some money from the state and was also pursuing funding at the federal level. As part of the city’s effort to secure some federal funding, Hieftje reported, Congressman John Dingell was setting up a meeting with the assistant secretary to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

The upshot of the effort to secure funding was that the construction scheduled to start this fall based on a funding plan using just the city’s street reconstruction millage will be delayed until the spring.

Asked whether the option of an at-grade crossing had been explored – as opposed to retaining a bridge at that location – Hieftje and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) indicated that yes, it had. In addition to the engineering and logistical challenges, they said, the thing that made it impossible was the Ann Arbor Railroad’s refusal to give permission for an at-grade crossing of the rail track.

King School Crosswalk

Resident Kathy Griswold addressed the caucus on the issue of a mid-block crosswalk in front of King Elementary School, which she’s been seeking to have moved to an intersection since fall of last year. She said that the new crosswalk had been designed, funded and had been supported by the neighborhood. She contended that city administrator Roger Fraser had stopped the project. When Todd Roberts, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, had asked Fraser about it, she contended, Fraser’s reply had been: “It’s not going to happen.”

Mayor John Hieftje indicated that he thought a meeting was being set up. Griswold confirmed that attempts were being made –  by the mayor’s assistant – to set up a meeting, but that people were not available and there was difficulty scheduling, that had persisted over considerable time. “This stalling technique has gone on for months,” she said.

Griswold noted that she had followed the process: the crosswalk had been reviewed by the transportation safety committee, had the support of the King Elementary principal and the transportation director of AAPS. She concluded “I’m a bit frustrated.”


  1. April 19, 2010 at 10:47 am | permalink

    I thought that these fires were still being investigated and may be arson… If so, banning anything would not prevent a criminal from setting your house on fire. If it isn’t arson… then my thoughts are clear on this one. If you feel you cannot safely use a piece of furniture without setting it on fire, please do not use it — but stop there. Do not legislate away the freedom of someone else to use furniture. This is literally what is being proposed… a law to limit your freedom as to what furniture you can put on the porch of your house.

    If the city council truly wanted to improve safety of life for citizens, they would start by doing whatever it took to fix the bridge on Stadium. Worrying about furniture on a porch is nothing that should be handled by government.

  2. By Bob Martel
    April 19, 2010 at 11:55 am | permalink

    Perhaps the City should sue the Ann Arbor Railroad for eminent domain to secure the required “at grade” easement? There surely has to be a public purpose in saving all that money and getting this project completed before either someone gets hurt or killed or we lose that critical east/west thoroughfare.

  3. By Jack F
    April 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm | permalink

    “The upshot of the effort to secure funding was that the construction scheduled to start this fall based on a funding plan using just the city’s street reconstruction millage will be delayed until the spring.”

    Hopefully the new Mayor will be a bit more skilled at long term planning than the current Mayor.

  4. By John Kidle
    April 19, 2010 at 3:54 pm | permalink

    Couldn’t the Chronicle ask the Ann Arbor Railroad why they object to granting an at grade crossing, and whether they might approve it under some terms?

  5. By Tom Whitaker
    April 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm | permalink

    I think it’s time to let go of the grand two-bridge dream for a little while and consider the practical alternative of simply repairing the bridge over State.

    Has a repair option ever been estimated? Why does it seem to be the grand two-bridge scheme or nothing? Why not try living within our means? Engineers came up with a pretty outrageous estimate of the societal cost of an at-grade crossing. I wonder if they’ve done a similar estimate of the costs of keeping half the bridge closed (or perhaps, completely closed if things worsen).

    I believe we have more than enough money in the streets millage fund to pay for a repair, even if it’s several million dollars. This repair could keep the bridge open and functioning for years. That would buy us plenty of time to find additional funding for the grander scheme, conduct a study or two of other options, and perhaps have more discussions with UM and AA Golf and Outing on making this whole stretch of Stadium work better for all of us.

  6. By Rod Johnson
    April 19, 2010 at 9:19 pm | permalink

    Railroads hate grade crossings. They get no benefit from them and liability exposure and the potential for service disruption go way up. Why *would* a railroad approve it if they don’t have to?

    But there are lots of reasons that an at-grade crossing in that spot is impractical. They’ve been outlined over and over again. If tomorrow the Ann Arbor Railroad said “Boy Howdy! Build away!” it still would be impractical.

    Also… I feel for Kathy Griswold. She’s been pushing without any satisfaction for something so patently beneficial for so long, and she just keeps on (with apologies to Curtis Mayfield) pushing. Just fix the crosswalk already!

  7. April 19, 2010 at 10:30 pm | permalink

    Although I feel that an at-grade crossing can be more dangerous than a bridge crossing, I also feel that it would be safer than the current bridge is now (as well as what they current bridge may deteriorate to). Clearly, this can be done with or without objections from the railroad. The road can cross a railroad, and there are hundreds of thousands of examples of where it does. Additionally, the city can use eminent domain if the railroad is uncooperative. Of course, if the railroad strongly objects, they can also help fund the repairs.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    April 19, 2010 at 11:07 pm | permalink

    Fred, I have to say I’m surprised to hear you suggesting that–isn’t the use of eminent domain a particularly harsh form of taxation? I thought you didn’t like that kind of thing. I think eminent domain is almost always a bad thing–it’s left deep scars on Detroit.

    Railroads are also pretty tough to take on. They seem to have all kinds of special statutory protections (remember the story from last fall about people getting $500 tickets for crossing the tracks at Bandemer Park?)

    The Ann Arbor Railroad in particular is kind of a mom and pop company, if I remember right. I don’t think they have the deep pockets of a Conrail that might be able to fund a bridge.

  9. April 20, 2010 at 8:08 am | permalink

    I definitely am one against government taxation… that being said, this one would see like a cut and dry eminent domain case, where we’re talking about taking a piece of land underneath a bridge (if and only if they wouldn’t sell). Either way the existing land isn’t truly usable already due to government action.

  10. By Tom Whitaker
    April 20, 2010 at 9:37 am | permalink

    Let’s just repair the bridge and save ourselves millions.

  11. By Rod Johnson
    April 20, 2010 at 12:49 pm | permalink

    Agree with Tom.

  12. By Alan Goldsmith
    April 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm | permalink

    Tom, hopefully this option will be on the table by the time the next Mayor and Council take office after the November election.

  13. April 20, 2010 at 2:56 pm | permalink

    Besides what’s already been spent, they’re saying it’s a cost of around $21 million to fix the bridge.

  14. By Tom Whitaker
    April 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm | permalink

    $22.1 million was the last estimate I saw for the complete reconstruction of both the State Street and AARR bridges.

    I think the RR bridge still has a number of years left in it–it was the condition State Street bridge that brought this all to a head. Engineers gave the RR bridge a rating of 61.5, but the State Street bridge got a 2–that’s out of 100 points possible.

    What I’d like to see is an estimate to simply replace the precast beams on the State Street bridge and repave.

  15. By John Kidle
    April 20, 2010 at 8:13 pm | permalink

    A prediction of things to come…
    City officials continue to pursue state and federal funding sources while dismissing as “impractical” all alternatives to the grand two-bridge plan. They receive copious amounts of lip service but no actual funding. City engineers abruptly close the bridge over State Street during the Michigan-Michigan State football game when a deteriorated beam falls, nearly crushing a late arriving fan–traffic chaos ensues. Within days a local environmental group demands that the now defunct Stadium Corridor be made part of the Greenway. Before City Council can act, homeless activists establish Camp Take Notice II on the bridge ruins. The city’s calls to state and federal offices for funding assistance go unreturned. The Mayor says a city income tax must be approved to generate the funds needed for re-opening the bridge. Grass grows in the pavement cracks on Stadium. Area residents despair.

  16. By Alan Goldsmith
    April 21, 2010 at 7:01 am | permalink

    Initially is was going to take one year of city road funds to pay for the bridge, and now it’s TWO?

  17. By Kathy Summersgill
    May 7, 2010 at 9:30 am | permalink

    Mr. Posner, the problem with an indoor couch on a porch is the materials that a couch is made of is highly flammable. Polyurethane foam from a couch is called solid gasoline. A fire that should have been very small (say, a small trash fire) erupts into a very large fire in moments when poyurethane is introduced. While these couches are obviously not spontaneously combusting, they do provide a similar catalyst as gasoline. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), about 10 people die each week in fires where upholstered furniture is the first item ignited. Why are people so against putting a potentially dangerous item on the front porch?

  18. By Jack F.
    May 7, 2010 at 11:19 am | permalink

    Then the next step is for Council to hold several months of discussion on banning sofas entirely. Since we are cutting fire fighters and they could potentially catch on fire indoors, it would be a win-win for public safety. People can just sit on the floor.

  19. May 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm | permalink

    Ms. Summersgill,

    This substance is no more dangerous on a porch than inside a house. A cigarette inside could as easily ignite this couch. And, of course this is less dangerous than a bottle of lighter fluid on a porch. If you feel you cannot safely use a couch outside, please do not do so. However, do not legislate your fear onto me or any other person. Part of living in a FREE society is just that, living in a free society. If I want a couch outside, I should be able to put one outside. But leave it my choice.