Archive for January, 2011

A2: Future Stars

On her Relish blog, local photographer Myra Klarman posts an array of dynamic photos taken at the recent 2011 FutureStars performance at Pioneer High School. She writes: “Once again, color me blown away. Not just by the performances and the production values (lots of great effects!), but also by how much the community supports this event. Tickets, which were available online, sold out quickly. The house crew worked feverishly to locate seats to accommodate everyone.” [Source]

A2: Business

The Detroit News reports that stock for Ann Arbor-based Borders Group dropped 16% on Tuesday morning, following a Wall Street Journal report that the bookstore chain has hired a law firm to protect it from bankruptcy: “In the past week, Borders’ stock price has zigzagged after unnamed-source reports … on developments with the bookseller’s talks with both lenders and publishers on restructuring its finances. Borders has stopped payments to some book vendors and is suffering from a cash crunch. When talks reportedly get close to providing new credit or restructured payments for Borders, the stock price rises. When the publications report that Borders isn’t winning over publishers or other moves, the price usually drops.” [Source]

Planning Commission Weighs In on Parks

Amy Kuras, Ann Arbor’s park planner, last talked with the city’s planning commission in June of 2010, soliciting their feedback for an update on the Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan. She’s in charge of revising the plan, and met with planning commissioners again last week, this time with a draft that’s in the final stages of revisions.

1936 Ann Arbor News article

An article from the May 19, 1936 Ann Arbor News about the city's parks system. Copies of some pages from this 1936 issue were hanging on the walls of the city hall conference room where the planning commission held its Jan. 11 working session, which focused on parks.

The commission will formally consider adopting the PROS plan at its Feb. 1 meeting, when there will also be a public hearing on the plan. It will then be forwarded to city council for final approval.

The plan – a document that in its current iteration is roughly 140 pages long – is required to be updated every five years in order for the city to be eligible for certain state grants. The proposed plan covers 2011 through 2015.

In addition to an inventory of the city’s parks system and assessment of current conditions, the PROS plan includes a listing of goals and objectives for the system, a needs assessment and an action plan. [The draft plan, a 5.1 MB .pdf file, can be downloaded from the city's website. It's also being sold at Dollar Bill Copying – $12.94 for a black-and-white copy, or $43.48 for color. In the following article, The Chronicle has included .pdf files of each of the nine sections separately.]

Commissioners spent about two hours giving Kuras feedback on the draft. Though they offered some revisions, the group praised Kuras for the breadth and depth of the effort – a process which has spanned more than a year. [Full Story]

Column: Accidental Auto Journalist

I am not a journalist – I just play one, as the saying goes.

Auto show media credentials

The author's media credentials for the North American International Auto Show. (Photos by the writer.)

So what was I doing at the Press Preview of the North American International Auto Show a few days ago at Cobo Hall? Even though I’m an architect in my day job, I also do some writing for, a blog focused on issues of technology and the environment. And I’ve also contributed to several other online media outlets in the past few years.

My writing sideline started with a focus on green building technology. But because of my proximity to Detroit, I found myself receiving forwarded invitations to auto industry events.

So while I’ve never particularly thought of myself as a “car guy,” I’ve come to find myself acting in the capacity of an automotive journalist. I have now attended the North American International Auto Show three or four times as a member of the press.

Despite having developed some familiarity with the process, I still feel like an interloper – as though I’m getting away with sneaking in someplace I’m not supposed to be. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Library Board Members Sworn In

At their Jan. 17, 2011 meeting, the four board members of the Ann Arbor District Library board who were elected in November were sworn in by Judge Elizabeth Hines of the 15th District Court. They include three incumbents – Jan Barney Newman, Barbara Murphy and Ed Surovell – and Nancy Kaplan. This is Kaplan’s first elected position. Other board members are Rebecca Head, Prue Rosenthal and Margaret Leary.

The board also elected new officers: Margaret Leary, president; Prue Rosenthal, vice president; Barbara Murphy, treasurer; and Jan Barney Newman, secretary.

This brief was filed during the AADL board meeting at the downtown library’s boardroom. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

A2: Transit

The Livingston Daily Press & Argus publishes an update on a proposal by Eric Sutton, founder of the Interstate Traveler Co., who hopes to build a hydrogen-fueled, magnetic levitation transit system in southeastern Michigan. From the report: “The plan would connect Detroit to Ann Arbor along Interstate 94; Detroit to Grand Rapids along Interstate 96; and Ann Arbor to Brighton along U.S. 23. It calls for 84 stations, and connects four airports and every hospital within the interstate route. It would include three service-oriented businesses in each 10,000-square-foot station. His MagLev plan would distribute utilities along the proposed route, including hydrogen that could be used for future hydrogen fueling stations along the route and in industry.” [Source]

Greenbelt Gets Equestrian Request

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Jan. 12, 2011): The owners of Cobblestone Farms in Webster Township – Jim and Darlyn Daratony – have applied to the greenbelt program for a parcel adjacent to their business.

Jim Daratony

Jim Daratony, owner of Cobblestone Farms in Webster Township, made a presentation at the Jan. 12 meeting of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. To the right is Jennifer Merrick-Brooks, an equestrian trainer and coach. (Photos by the writer.)

It’s the first equestrian-related property to be considered for the greenbelt, so they came to commissioners to make their case for including it. The land is used for a sport called “eventing,” which includes a cross-country component. Jim Daratony said the eventing competitions that they’ve held so far on the property have drawn people from as far away as Texas – he stated that it’s having a positive economic impact on this area.

Commissioners also heard from John Satarino, one of the original advocates of the greenbelt program, who spoke during public commentary. He urged them to consider making more outright acquisitions of property, which could then be open to the public. Much of the land protected by the greenbelt is done through the purchase of development rights, with the land remaining private property.

In her staff update, Ginny Trocchio reported that in 2010, the greenbelt program had protected just over 1,000 acres of land, bringing the total of greenbelt land to nearly 3,000 acres. [Full Story]

AATA Route 7

From Blake to Briarwood and back, three bicyclists at three different stops used the front bus bike racks. Outside temperature 19 F.

UM: Research

UPI reports on a recent University of Michigan study of cancer patients, which found that one in five cancer patients continue to experience chronic pain two years after diagnosis. The report quotes Carmen Green, the study’s author: “All in all, the high prevalence of cancer and pain and now chronic cancer pain among these survivors, especially blacks and women, shows there’s more work to be done in improving the quality of care and research.” [Source]


This chronicler fell hard on invisible ice a few doors downhill from The Ann Arbor Chronicle headquarters. Homeowner had salted lightly, but totally non effective. had to crawl up the cold icy sidewalk to find footing to stand. Enough pain for tears and lingering limping. Moral: please remove the ice from your sidewalks! At best it hurts to fall, at worst there can be serious damage to people. This was a gutter dripping on the sidewalk and freezing. Dangerous!

First & Liberty

Large white poodle running loose criss-crossing intersection. Tried looking friendly and sweet talking it to get it to approach. Canine response similar to typical human when I attempt same. Tore off in direction of downtown. Humane Society advises calling central dispatch 734.971.3954 to report, which I did.

Frederick McDonald Misidentified

In a recent article on Ann Arbor’s local officers compensation commission, we gave incorrect biographical information for one of the LOCC members, Fred McDonald. We confused Mr. McDonald with one of his sons, Frederick L. McDonald II. The senior McDonald is partner in the law firm Hamilton McDonald & Carter. In connection to the membership eligibility requirements for the LOCC, which were discussed in that article, we also failed to point out that the senior McDonald’s son, Kevin, is employed by the city of Ann Arbor as an assistant city attorney.

We note the error and omission here and have corrected the original article.

Ann Arbor Council Service: What’s it Worth?

Editor’s note: At a mid-December 2010 film premiere in Ann Arbor, Kirk Westphal unveiled two of his latest works. The second of them he described as suitable for “true wonks” – “The Council-Manager Form of Local Government.” The movie is an introduction to how the council-manager system is different from a strong mayor system. The city of Ann Arbor uses a modified version of the council-manager form. One issue that arises in the film is cost: How do the two systems compare with respect to compensation?

In this article, The Chronicle takes a look at some of the recent history of compensation for Ann Arbor’s mayor and city councilmembers. The context for this reflection also stems in part from the fact that 2011, as an odd-numbered year, will be an occasion on which mayor and councilmember salaries are re-evaluated for 2012 and 2013.

As a minor part of his 2010 campaign for a Ward 5 city council seat, Newcombe Clark promised that if elected he would donate to charity the annual councilmember salary of $15,913. At a Main Street Area Association candidate forum, Clark gave this rationale for his promised salary donation: Negotiations with the city’s labor unions would be difficult, if councilmembers were collecting “a single dime” for something they should do on a volunteer basis.

For most Ward 5 voters, Clark’s promise and its premise were not a deciding factor, and Democrat Carsten Hohnke was re-elected on Nov. 2 to a second two-year term with 69% of the vote. The remaining 31% of the vote was split – 22% for Republican John Floyd and 9% for the independent Clark.

Still, based on last year’s city council budget discussions, current city councilmembers recognize that their own compensation is part of the relevant context for any financial sacrifices they might request of others. Last year, a council request for sacrifice came as the city was negotiating with the firefighters union to prevent layoffs, and as the council requested a reduction in non-union staff compensation by 3%. In that context, some councilmembers, including the mayor, announced a voluntary 3% salary giveback of their own. For councilmembers, that meant writing a $477 check, while for the mayor it represented $1,273. [The mayor's salary for 2010 is $42,436.]

So as the city council enters its budget planning phase for fiscal year 2012, compensation levels – for non-union and union labor alike, as well as for elected city officials – could become one focus of the conversation. That’s especially true, given that FY 2012 is the first year of a two-year budget planning cycle. Even though the council approves each year’s budget separately every May – for the fiscal year beginning July 1 – the planning takes place in two-year cycles. And it’s the first year of the planning cycle when the context is set for the second year.

Compensation for councilmembers and the mayor is also set on a two-year cycle, and 2011 will be a calendar year when a decision could be made to change their salaries. The every-odd-year session of the local officers compensation commission (LOCC) – the body that sets council and mayoral salaries – is prescribed by the state enabling statute on which the city’s LOCC ordinance is based.

With the LOCC scheduled to meet sometime in 2011, and with two current vacancies on the seven-member body, it’s a suitable time to reflect on: (1) the history of the LOCC’s recommendations over the last decade; (2) the rationale behind those recommendations; and (3) the way that expectations of the mayor and councilmembers have been implicitly defined through those recommendations. [Full Story]

Main Street

Scaffolding in front of the Pratt block will soon come down as masonry work – in its final stages – is completed, says Sally Gillo of the Shaffran Companies. [photo]

UM: Hoke Headlines

Bill Shea writes a column for Crain’s Detroit Business about how the hiring of University of Michigan football coach Brady Hoke “is a headline writer’s dream — and possibly a nightmare for readers who don’t appreciate terrible puns and sports-page word-play.” The column includes a long list of Hoke-y headlines, and suggests creating a Brady Hoke Headline Drinking Game. “Every time you see one of these howlers, take a drink of your favorite adult beverage.” [Source]

Parking Money for City Budget Still Unclear

On Jan. 5, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board held a retreat to discuss current negotiations with the city of Ann Arbor about the agreement under which the DDA manages the city’s parking system. And this past Monday, the respective “mutually beneficial” committees of the city council and the DDA board met to continue their conversation on the parking contract – a dialogue that has taken place in public view since June 2010.

Newcombe Clark, Sabra Briere

Left to right: Teddy Bear (on screen); DDA board member Newcombe Clark; Ward 1 city council representative Sabra Briere. Clark and Briere were chatting during the break between the regular DDA board meeting and the DDA board retreat. Briere did not take part in the meetings – she was there as a member of the public. The teddy bear was featured in a video short that was meant to kick off the retreat with a bit of humor. (Photos by the writer.)

Two days later, at Wednesday’s meeting of the DDA partnerships committee, board member Gary Boren reported back to his colleagues about the conversation that had taken place at Monday’s mutually beneficial committee meeting. Boren was frank in his assessment that the city’s team appeared intransigent.

To Boren, it appeared that city representatives had staked out their position, and they saw anything less than that position as meaning the city was not receiving what it is properly owed. For his part, Boren considers the DDA to be in the driver’s seat, because the current contract runs through 2015, and would not require the additional payments the city is seeking for that period.

At the partnerships committee meeting, Susan Pollay – executive director of the DDA – drew attention to the fact that there will be an increasing sense of urgency to firm up the contract as both the city and the DDA put together their respective budgets for the next fiscal year. The city administrator will need firm numbers by March, she suggested.

In this report, we put Boren’s comments and the ensuing discussion by the DDA’s partnerships committee in the context of the DDA’s board retreat last week, when board chair Joan Lowenstein noted, “We’re not a savings bank. We’re supposed to spend money.”

The retreat included a discussion of the kinds of projects the DDA would like to undertake over the next 10 years, some of which would need to be deferred, depending on the amount of parking revenue the DDA passes through to the city. The DDA also appears ready to defer some of its scheduled maintenance to the parking decks, if the maintenance activity is of a more aesthetic or cosmetic nature.

It emerged during the retreat that the politics of parking contract negotiations include the city’s ability to fund public safety – firefighters and police. The speculation was floated at the retreat that it might actually help the city’s negotiating stance with its labor unions, if the DDA took a firmer approach to the parking contract. [Full Story]

UM: Sustainability

The University of Michigan has released its annual sustainability report, providing data on energy use, renewable energy use, water use, and other areas. The report looked at the period of July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010 – the university’s fiscal year – and found that while the physical size of the university grew by 8%, energy use decreased by 4%. Another factoid: “In FY 2010, the university generated 16,000 tons of solid waste, which is equal to 410 pounds per person, a decrease from the 430 pounds per person generated in FY 2009.” [Source]

A2: Research

The Detroit News reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Chrysler are expected to announce a new R&D project in Ann Arbor next week, focused on developing drivetrain technology for light duty vehicles. An announcement with details of the project is planned at the EPA lab on Ann Arbor’s north side. The News reports that Chrysler has “applied for billions of dollars in loans from the Energy Department to make its vehicles more fuel efficient.” [Source]

UM: Football

Wall Street Journal columnist David Roth writes about the University of Michigan’s decision to hire Brady Hoke as its next football coach: “On Wednesday morning, Wolverines fans find themselves… well, how happy they are is kind of a case-by-case thing. But they and their team have a coach, and something to talk about.” [Source]

Washington & State

1:30 p.m. Peregrine falcon in the tree on Washington, by First United Methodist Church at 120 State St. I watched as it perched and then swooped down out of the tree and headed east along Washington. Pretty cool! First time I’ve seen it, having heard of its presence in the area. [link]

A2: Energy Efficiency

A recent USA Today column on the best “green” homes of 2010 features an Old West Side house renovated by Matt Grocoff, who got top mention in the “rehab” category. The article features a photo of Grocoff and his wife sitting in their home’s clawfoot bathtub – fully clothed, of course. [Source]

Ann Arbor Hotel First to Get Design Review?

On the evening of Jan. 5, 2011, First Hospitality Group Inc. hosted a citizens participation meeting for the hotel project it’s proposing at the southwest corner of Washington and Division streets. The proposal calls for a 9-story, 104-room, LEED-certified building, facing South Division. The meeting, held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, was required by city ordinance – before submitting a site plan for the city to review, developers must invite owners of property within 1,000 feet of a proposed project to a forum that describes the plan.

Four corners at Washington and Division

The corners of Washington & Division, clockwise from top left: NW (former Ann Arbor News building); NE (411 Lofts); SE (McKinley's Towne Center); SW (parking lot, site of proposed Ann Arbor Hotel). Image links to larger file.

Much of the conversation between residents and First Hospitality’s Ira Ury revolved around the city’s downtown design guidelines. Even before the meeting, as Ury and resident Ilene Tyler introduced themselves, Tyler wanted to know if First Hospitality had used the design guidelines to develop the schematics on display.

Ury explained that his team had used the draft of the design guidelines that is available on the city’s website. But that draft, which dates from late 2009, has undergone considerable revision since February 2010, when the council appointed a task force to undertake further study and make a recommendation. The task force has been meeting almost weekly for the better part of the past year.

The task force unveiled its draft at a city council work session on Monday, Jan. 10. One key difference between the 2009 draft and the version the task force has now unveiled is the re-introduction of the original design guidelines advisory committee’s October 2007 recommendation for a design review process. It would be a mandatory process overseen by a design guidelines review board, with voluntary compliance by petitioners. But as Ray Detter, president of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, put it to Ury on Wednesday, if a developer doesn’t comply with the recommendations of the review board, “Everyone will know!”

Depending on the timing of city council approval of the design guidelines, First Hospitality’s project could be the first site plan that undergoes a formal design guidelines review process. At the council’s work session, Ward 4 councilmember Marcia Higgins said she planned to attach the final draft to the city council’s Jan. 18 agenda as a communications item, and to bring it forward for council approval at the Feb. 7 meeting.

What exactly are these design guidelines? Where did they come from? When might they be approved? [Full Story]

A2: Caldecott Medal

The Detroit Free Press reports that Ann Arbor illustrator Erin Stead has won the Caldecott Medal, a prestigious award for illustrators of an especially distinguished picture book. The book, “A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” tells the story of a sick zookeeper and the animals that take care of him; it was written by
Stead’s husband, Philip Stead. The article quotes Erin Stead: “We love books. We have a real reverence for picture books. We met very young and we’ve been talking about them ever since. This has floored us.” [Source]