Archive for October, 2010

Column: A Broadside for Barn Preservation

Editor’s note: The Chronicle’s regular coverage of civic affairs includes many meetings of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) as well as the city’s historic district commission (HDC). The GAC oversees the spending of revenues from a millage dedicated to the preservation of open space – much of it in the countryside around Ann Arbor. Inside the city, the HDC is charged with reviewing requests for modifications to structures that are preserved in Ann Arbor’s 14 historic districts.

In following The Chronicle’s coverage of these issues, local architect Chuck Bultman has been wrestling with the notion of where old barns fit into this preservation picture.

Every architect remembers that first time they went into a barn – the vastness of the space, the hewn beams, the light streaming through all of those gaps. For me it was in southwest Virginia, in the country going to college. I was captivated by the light and space. Outside, the farmyard also made its statement. The large red barn, along with the out-buildings made a room with a silo in it, not so much unlike a piazza with a campanile.

Barns have an interesting place in the built world. They are icons in the landscape, and as such it is easy for us all to assume a familiarity, bordering on ownership. After all, they have been there for as long as you can remember and you expect them to be there long after you are gone. We think of barns not as in the landscape. Instead, like rivers or mountains, they seem part of it – an inseparable part of the countryside that surrounds towns and cities across the country, coloring the landscape with distinct personalities. They are variously described as timeless, strong, permanent, and historic.

But barns are not part of the landscape, nor are they timeless, permanent, or historic – at least as we might commonly apply the word “historic” to an achievement, for example. [Full Story]

W. Madison & S. First

Hop on the bus, Gus, don’t need to discuss mulch. Just drop off the key, Lee, leave clean-up for fee. [photo] [AATA bus stop and oddly spelled leaf pick-up service sign.]

Column: Benefits of The Local Call

Due to some unpleasantness in my gastro-intestinal tract, I spent this past Friday night in the University of Michigan Hospital.

The author's iPhone, clad in its new case: "I do have an iPhone, a wonderful gadget that can tell me what drug stores are near my house ..."

Happily, I was not sick enough to stay very long, so I was kicked to the curb on Saturday afternoon, clutching a prescription for oxycodone. [No, that’s not a typo – it’s the generic version of OxyContin.]

I need the stuff for my stomach pain, which – for reasons the UM docs could not quite explain – has lingered past any sign of inflammation that can be detected by a CT scan or in my bloodstream.

I asked the nurse who checked me out whether I could get the meds at any pharmacy, thinking that perhaps high-octane opiates are reserved for hospital dispensaries. “Well,” she said, “that’s why you have a prescription.”

Yes, but filling a prescription on a Saturday night is not so easy. There are no fewer than four stand-alone pharmacies within a mile radius of my house on the West Side – five if you count the one inside Kroger’s. I struck out at three of them. [Full Story]

University Bank Project Postponed

Ann Arbor planning commissioner meeting (Oct. 19, 2010): Three projects were considered at the Oct. 19 planning commission meeting, and commissioners voted to postpone two of them.

Hoover Mansion

The headquarters of University Bank, in the building known as the Hoover Mansion on Washtenaw Avenue. A request to increase parking on the site was postponed by the Ann Arbor planning commission at its Oct. 19 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

One of those projects – related to an expansion of Arbor Dog Daycare – has already appeared before the commission multiple times. Most recently, the proposal was rejected by commissioners in September, primarily due to concerns about noise generated by dogs using the outdoor dog run. Owners Jon and Margaret Svoboda had asked that their request be reconsidered, and commissioners agreed to the reconsideration. But after an hour of discussion on Tuesday evening, commissioners voted to postpone again, asking staff to explore possible conditions – such as an annual review or written policy requirement – that could be added to the special exception use to address the problem of continuously barking dogs.

Also postponed was a request to add more parking to the site of the University Bank headquarters in the building known as the Hoover Mansion on Washtenaw Avenue, and to allow up to 10 additional employees to work at that location. The planning staff had recommended denial of the request, stating that the project impacts natural features and doesn’t offer an overall benefit to the city. However, commissioners asked planning staff to work with bank officials to come up with an alternative proposal for locating new parking.

During a public hearing on the project, bank president Stephen Ranzini told commissioners that if the bank can’t get the additional parking, it could trigger a decision to leave that location and expand elsewhere. He noted that the building, which he said sat vacant for nearly three years before being acquired by the bank, is extremely expensive to maintain, and described himself as a good steward for the property.

A third proposal considered by the planning commission on Oct. 19 – adding parking spots to the Briar Cove Apartments complex on the city’s southwest side – was approved unanimously. [Full Story]

AAPS Comprehensive High School Update

In recent months, the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) Board of Education has heard updates from its three comprehensive high schools – Pioneer, Huron and Skyline. [The district also includes three alternative high schools – Community, Stone, and the Roberto Clemente Student Development Center.]

Updates to the board on the three comprehensive schools had been scheduled for last June, and the presentation on Skyline High School was delivered June 9 as planned. But a tornado warning on June 23 saw the board retreat to the basement of the downtown Ann Arbor district library, resulting in a delay in the presentation on Pioneer and Huron high schools planned for that day. The board received an update on Pioneer and Huron at its Oct. 13 meeting.

Skyline is the youngest of the three comprehensive high schools. Its creation was approved by voters as part of a comprehensive school improvement program in 2004, and it is now in its third year of operation. It opened with just a freshmen class in 2008, and has added one grade each year, gradually providing significant relief to the overcrowding at Huron and Pioneer. Next year, Skyline will have its first class of seniors, who will graduate in 2012.

In the wake of enrollment shifts among the schools, administrators and teachers from each of the three schools provided the board with updates on their transitions.

Pioneer and Huron staff made a joint presentation to the board about the changes in their buildings, organized around “characteristics of successful high schools.”

Skyline’s staff began their presentation by delineating differences in structure and organization between their school and the two other comprehensive high schools. They then moved into a review by subject area, with emphasis on Skyline’s four magnet programs. [Full Story]

UM: Great Lakes

WWJ Newsradio reports that the Michigan Sea Grant program has been awarded over $1.5 million in federal funding. The program is a collaboration between UM and Michigan State University, based at UM’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. The grant will fund two major Great Lakes restoration projects, helping to clean up marinas and restore the habitats of native fish. Jim Diana, director of the Michigan Sea Grant, says: “For years, we’ve used the Great Lakes as dumping grounds…We now have some significant funding which enables us to tackle these issues in a comprehensive, coordinated way.” [Source]

Washtenaw: Immigrants

A post on the blog for the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights is soliciting volunteers for two projects: creating bilingual (Spanish and English) “Know Your Rights” workshops, and a support group for children who have experienced the deportation of a parent or relative. [Source]

A2: Clinton

The Washington Post publishes an Associated Press article about former President Bill Clinton’s campaign stops in Michigan, including an appearance at Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor to stump for Rep. John Dingell. From the report: “Clinton’s audience of more than 1,000 in Ann Arbor had to wait three hours to see the former president and Dingell, after Clinton’s appearance in Detroit got behind schedule. Clinton said it was important to re-elect Dingell and listed some of his accomplishments, including pushing through a health care reform law. Dingell, who has served half a century in Congress, is running against Republican cardiologist Rob Steele.” [Source]

7th Street

Most of Seventh has between Huron and Miller has been resurfaced – you now can actually use the road!

UM Campus

3 p.m. Line at Rackham to North Quad in anticipation of seeing Bill Clinton; lots of red Dingell signs and T-shirts.

Tappan & Monroe

Multiple fire trucks and ambulances near the business school and Monroe Street.

City Council Mulls Zoning: Marijuana, Height

Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Oct. 18, 2010): On Monday night, the council gave an initial approval to a set of zoning laws that are intended to regulate medical marijuana use in the city. It also gave the city attorney direction to pursue the development of a license for medical marijuana facilities. All ordinances require an initial approval – a first reading – followed by a second and final reading at a later meeting.


Before the meeting, Marcia (spelling corrected) Higgins (Ward 4) chats with Sue McCormick (seated), the city's public services area administrator. McCormick is filling in for city administrator Roger Fraser, who is ill. (Photos by the writer.)

Also related to zoning was the council’s second-reading consideration of changes in the city’s zoning code for areas outside the downtown, across most of the city’s zoning classifications. The changes affect area, height and placement (AHP). The final approval of the AHP zoning overhaul had been postponed from council’s first meeting of the month, on Oct. 5, at the request of Marcia Higgins (Ward 4).

At Monday’s meeting, Higgins brought forth amendments that confined a height cap on buildings to areas adjacent to residential areas. The amendments would allow taller buildings in some non-residential areas, like Briarwood Mall. After some deliberation on the merits of the amendments, Higgins withdrew them, and the council elected to postpone the measure. With Higgins’ amendments, the proposal would be substantively different from the proposal that had already received council approval at first reading, and would thus require an additional reading before final adoption.

In other matters before the council, it was also Higgins who provided much of the impetus for conversation. Two items involved modification to the city’s budget by drawing upon the general fund reserve. One involved a $153,116 expenditure for the city’s planning department to fund corridor planning, and the other was a $160,000 item to purchase furniture for the 15th District Court, which will soon take up residence in the new municipal center at Fifth and Huron. The planning department money was approved over Higgins’ dissent, while the court’s expenditure was postponed, pending the production of an itemized list of what’s being purchased. The two items prompted discussion of the projected budget deficit for FY 2012, which the city’s CFO had estimated in May to be $5 million.

In other business, the council took the final step to enact a special assessment of property owners along Washtenaw Avenue to fund a portion of a new non-motorized path. The council also approved its part of a two-year extension to the consent agreement with Glen Ann Place, which gave site-plan approval for a project at the corner of Glen and Ann streets. Council also gave initial approval to stricter stormwater management rules for impervious surfaces in residential zoning districts.

Council chambers were filled at the start of the meeting with many members of the community who came to hear a proclamation and watch councilmembers vote on a resolution giving council’s support to a similar Michigan Civil Rights Commission resolution. The MCRC condemned the conduct of assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell, who has written blog posts targeting Chris Armstrong, an openly gay University of Michigan student leader. The Ann Arbor city council’s resolution also calls upon the state legislature to pass a proposed comprehensive hate crime bill and a school anti-bullying law currently before the state Senate. [Full Story]


Every dog in the world is currently at Slauson Middle School.

A2: Rail

Crain’s Detroit Business reports that the organizers of the potential Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail could know by next week whether federal funding will come through for the project. Organizers have asked for $200 million in federal funds from the Federal Rail Administration. If built, the project would run four daily round trips, potentially starting by the end of 2011. Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), a regional planning agency, said that three locomotives and nine passenger cars are being refurbished and painted – the livery colors are green, yellow and blue. [Source]

In the Archives: Ale and Beef

Editor’s note: The last half of the 19th century was a golden age of patent medicines – elixirs that were generally not actually patented. The professional medical establishment was on guard against these concoctions. This is the tale of an Ann Arbor physician who spent part of his career debunking the patent medicines of others, but then went on to earn a living developing actual patents for products that began to show a resemblance to good, healthy food.

From one of Preston Rose's advertisements, in the October, 1892 issue of the magazine "Alienist and Neurologist."

Year-old aged beef bouillon blended with Canadian beer was the health remedy peddled by onetime University of Michigan urinalysist Preston B. Rose – after he was kicked out of the university.

A graduate with the class of 1862, Preston entered UM as an assistant chemistry instructor in the 1860s. He married Cornelia Esther Robinson in 1863. Preston departed from his wife and the university to serve in the Civil War with Michigan’s 5th Infantry Regiment. He worked as assistant surgeon, and was discharged due to his wounds, mustering out in 1865.

Back in Ann Arbor, part of Preston’s work involved exposing worthless patent medicines. That work was undertaken with the Washtenaw County Medical Society, which was founded in 1866. The society was mentioned in a 1906 book, “Past and Present of Washtenaw County,” written by Samuel Beakes, who served as mayor of Ann Arbor from 1888-1890. According to Beakes, the society analyzed many patent medicines, “and exposed their worthlessness.”

The Beakes volume goes on to name the man who would ultimately become Rose’s nemesis: “In this creditable work Dr. Silas H. Douglass, Dr. Albert B. Prescott and Dr. Preston B. Rose were chiefly active.”

It was Silas Douglass – Preston’s boss in the new chemistry department at UM – who would cause him no end of trouble. [Full Story]

AATA Continues Push for Master Plan Input

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Oct. 21, 2010): The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has several major projects in the works, including remodeling the downtown transportation terminal – the Blake Transit Center – and developing a countywide master plan that calls for a series of community forums.

One of those community forums was held on Thursday, an hour prior to the AATA’s monthly board meeting. But no one from the public showed up to that particular event – several other meetings are scheduled. The board meeting that followed was over within an hour. In addition to the master plan, the board discussed the most recent quarter’s on-time trip performance, which board member David Nacht described as “abysmal.” [Full Story]

County Commissioner Expenses Debated

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Oct. 20, 2010): A strong undercurrent of both the upcoming Nov. 2 elections and the looming county budget deficit erupted at times during Wednesday’s board meeting – the last board meeting prior to the elections.

Mark Ouimet, Leah Gunn

County commissioners Mark Ouimet and Leah Gunn talk prior to the start of the Oct. 20 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. During the meeting Gunn, a Democrat, defended Ouimet, who has come under attack by some Democrats for excessive and inappropriate per-diem claims. (Photos by the writer.)

At the center of public commentary and commissioner discussion – which at times grew heated – was the issue of whether commissioners are appropriately claiming reimbursements for mileage and per diem. The controversy first emerged at the board’s last meeting on Oct. 6, when Democrat Tom Wieder spoke during public commentary to call for an investigation into per diem spending by commissioner Mark Ouimet. That same Oct. 6 meeting included discussion of a projected two-year budget deficit for 2012 and 2013 that could exceed $20 million.

Ouimet, a Republican who’s running for state representative in District 52 against Democrat Christine Green, was defended on Wednesday during public commentary by the county’s top two GOP officials, Mark Boonstra and Wyckham Seelig, who accused the Democratic board majority of partisan politics. They said they’ve launched their own investigation into commissioner spending, specifically citing out-of-state travel by Kristin Judge. Judge has been a vocal critic of Ouimet’s spending, during the meeting noting that the board rules are clear and that Ouimet failed to abide by them at times.

Ouimet was also defended at Wednesday’s meeting by several Democrats who serve with him on the board and who said they had nothing to do with the recent criticism of him. Leah Gunn recalled that Ouimet had been her Ward 4 Ann Arbor city councilmember some 20 years ago, and that she’s always found him to be upstanding and gracious. Ken Schwartz criticized the “Lansing politics” that were being brought to the county. He noted that the board has a track record of working together without divisive partisan politics, and that they’d all been surprised by the recent controversy.

County clerk Larry Kestenbaum also weighed in, commenting on a report that his office had released earlier in the day that analyzed per-diem and mileage expenses for all commissioners, dating back to 2005. Ouimet claimed the most expenses by far during that period – $32,804. Of Ouimet’s claims, $10,564 was analyzed as ineligible, and another $6,055 was “uncertain,” indicating a gray area where reimbursement rules aren’t clear. That means that about half of Ouimet’s claims don’t fall into the clearly acceptable category. Kestenbaum spoke during public commentary, saying that he considered all the commissioners to be his friends and great public servants – the report was not intended to be an attack, he said.

Ouimet offered to put the disputed amount in escrow until all of the claims have been reviewed. [The Chronicle converted the county clerk's Excel workbook with multiple tabs, one for each commissioner, to a single .pdf file. Commissioner Ronnie Peterson has not claimed mileage and per-diem expenses, and is not included in the report.]

The issue of commissioner expenses came up earlier in the meeting in another context. Judge introduced a resolution that would have eliminated retirement pensions and health care for commissioners, saying that the change would save the county more than $25,000 annually. She noted that she had circulated the resolution to commissioners prior to the meeting, though it was not on the agenda. No one seconded the motion, and it died without further discussion.

Also related to budget issues, the board gave initial approval to levy an economic development tax of 0.043 mills. Known as the Act 88 millage, it is expected to generate roughly $611,266 annually and would cost homeowners $4.30 for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value. Because Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, it can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. Three commissioners – Judge, Ouimet and Wes Prater – voted against the measure, and Jessica Ping abstained, citing the fact that a recipient of the funds, Ann Arbor SPARK, is a client of hers.

Another millage – one that, unlike Act 88, will be on the ballot – would support the Ypsilanti District Library. Linda Gurka, a member of the library’s board of trustees, spoke during public commentary to drum up support for the millage increase that will be on the ballot for Ypsilanti District Library voters. Also during public commentary, Todd Clark, co-chair of this year’s United Way of Washtenaw County‘s fundraising campaign, spoke in support of a proposed coordinated funding model for local nonprofits. [Full Story]

Washtenaw: Health Care

The Washtenaw Health Plan’s Plan A – for low-income adult residents – is open for enrollment until Nov. 30, according to the agency’s website. Residents qualify if they have no minor children at home, and their income is $316 a month for a single person (up to $595 a month for job income only) or $425 a month for a married couple (up to $731 a month for job income only). [Source]

Hoover & State

Big blue UM bus turning north (left for the bus) onto State from Hoover cuts off lights-and-siren blaring police squad car tearing down State Street southwards; officer navigates around the end of the bus and continues. Two other police cruisers had zoomed past a minute earlier.

A2: Gubernatorial Race

The Detroit Free Press looks at Rick Snyder’s investments as a venture capitalist. Snyder, the Ann Arbor businessman and GOP candidate for governor, operated two firms – Avalon Investments and Ardesta, both based in Ann Arbor. From the report: “What happened to Ardesta and Avalon is key to understanding Snyder’s most recent business experiences in Michigan. The performances of these investment vehicles show that the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s business track record has been mixed. While Avalon proved to be a big success, Ardesta has struggled.” [Source]

Washtenaw Board Per-Diem Report Released

The controversy over possible inappropriate per-diem spending by Washtenaw County commissioner Mark Ouimet, which emerged during public commentary at the board of commissioners’ Oct. 6 meeting, grew more heated at the board’s Oct. 20 session, as several speakers during public commentary – as well as some fellow commissioners – came to his defense. County GOP leaders Mark Boonstra and Wyckham Seelig accused the Democratic board majority of partisan politics, and said they’ve launched their own investigation into commissioner spending, specifically citing out-of-state travel by Kristin Judge. Ouimet, a Republican running for state representative in District 52, has been accused of claiming per-diem expenses to which he wasn’t entitled.

County clerk Larry Kestenbaum, a Democrat, released a report prior to Wednesday’s … [Full Story]

Economic Development Tax Gets Initial OK

At its Oct. 20, 2010 meeting, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners gave initial approval to levy an economic development tax of 0.043 mills. Known as the Act 88 millage, it is expected to generate roughly $611,266 annually and would cost homeowners $4.30 for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value. Because Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee Amendment, it can be approved by the board without a voter referendum. The millage would be used to fund Ann Arbor SPARK, the Food System Economic Partnership, and other groups doing economic development work. Voting against the measure were commissioners Kristin Judge, Mark Ouimet and Wes Prater. Jessica Ping abstained, saying that Ann Arbor SPARK is a client of hers. … [Full Story]

PAC Recommends Argo Dam Bypass

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Oct. 19, 2010): Though the proposal facing park advisory commissioners wasn’t directly related to the question of whether to keep or remove Argo Dam, PAC heard from nearly a dozen people during public commentary who aired their views on that topic.

John Lawter, Dave Barrett

Dave Barrett, right, talks with fellow park advisory commissioner John Lawter prior to the start of PAC’s Oct. 19 meeting. Barrett represented PAC on a selection committee that recommended reconstruction of the Argo Dam headrace and embankment. (Photos by the writer.)

The resolution that PAC ultimately approved was a recommendation to build a bypass channel in the Argo Dam headrace for $988,170, and to add whitewater features for an additional $180,000. The $1,168,170 project would be designed by Gary Lacy of Boulder, Colo., and built by TSP Environmental, a Livonia firm.

City staff said this was the only proposal submitted that met the requirements laid out in the city’s request for proposals (RFP). The plan calls for removing the canoe portage, replacing it with a series of “drop pools” so that no portage is required. The project will also improve accessibility of the path – which is part of Washtenaw County’s Border-to-Border trail – and address problems in the headrace embankment that were identified by state officials. The work is tied to a consent agreement that the city reached with the state in May, laying out steps that the city must take to deal with some long-outstanding structural issues.

Commissioner Tim Berla voted against the resolution, calling it a “protest vote” because removal of Argo Dam hadn’t been considered as an option – that same point was made by several speakers during public commentary. Park staff has indicated that this project doesn’t preclude removing Argo Dam in the future, if that’s a decision that the community makes.

Funding for the project is available from the city’s Parks Rehabilitation & Development millage and the drinking water fund, according to city staff. An additional $50,000 might be available from the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission, to help pay for a portion of the project related to the county’s Border-to-Border trail.

Several people – both commissioners and speakers during public commentary – questioned the appropriateness of using the water fund for this purpose, saying that Argo dam has nothing to do with drinking water. Local attorney Scott Munzel argued that using the water fund to pay for dam-related projects might be illegal, based on case law, because it’s being used as a way to skirt the Headlee Amendment. Munzel is a board member of the Huron River Watershed Council, which has lobbied vigorously to remove the dam for environmental reasons.

The proposal for reconstruction of the headrace and embankment will now be forwarded to city council.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, PAC members heard an update from parks staff about this season’s activities at the city’s three outdoor public pools – at Buhr, Fuller and Veterans Memorial parks. The former supervisor for Buhr Park Pool, Gayle LaVictoire, also gave a brief presentation to commissioners about her new job as volunteer outreach coordinator for the parks system, a newly created position.

And at the end of the meeting, Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, announced that the Ann Arbor Senior Center received more residents’ votes than other city facilities in a recent contest sponsored by Stonyfield Farm, and will receive $15,000 from that firm. [Full Story]