Ann Arbor Parks Plan Moves to City Council

Planning commission OKs five-year PROS document

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Feb. 15, 2011): Planning commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the city’s Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan on Tuesday, and gave parks planner Amy Kuras a round of applause for her work updating the document over the past year.

Evan Pratt, Jeff Kahan

Ann Arbor planning commissioner Evan Pratt, left, gets a handout from Jeff Kahan of the city's planning staff prior to the commission's Feb. 15 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Earlier in the evening, the plan was also approved by the city’s park advisory commission. Both groups suggested minor revisions, and the document will next be forwarded to the city council for final approval in early March.

Updated every five years, the PROS plan is a comprehensive look at current assets and future needs. The current update spans 2011 through 2015. It’s a document required by the state to qualify for grant funding.

Discussion of the PROS plan was the main agenda item at Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted less than an hour. The commission also set a public hearing for its March 1 meeting, regarding a request by Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity to convert the church at 730 Tappan Ave. into a fraternity house.

During his communications, commission chair Eric Mahler reported that the city’s Library Lot review committee – the group that’s evaluating potential development atop the city-owned underground parking structure being built on South Fifth Avenue – will meet next on March 3. Tony Derezinski, who serves as the city council’s representative to the planning commission, highlighted two upcoming public forums regarding a Washtenaw Avenue corridor improvement authority, set for Feb. 23 and March 2.

No one spoke during public commentary on Tuesday, but nine students from Skyline High School attended the meeting as part of a class assignment. 

PROS Plan Update

Planning commissioners have given input on the Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan at several previous meetings. [See Chronicle coverage: "Planning Commission Postpones Parks Plan" and "Planning Commission Weighs In on Parks"] A public hearing was held on the plan at the commission’s Feb. 8 meeting. On Tuesday, no one from the public spoke on the issue.

PROS Plan Update: Staff Report

Amy Kuras, the city’s parks planner who’s coordinated the current update, gave a brief report on revisions that had been made since the Feb. 8 meeting. Highlights include:

  • In a chart providing census data related to parks acreage, information was added to reflect non-city parks and open space acreage, including land owned by the University of Michigan, Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
  • Greenview and Dicken Woods Nature Area were added as part of the inventory section.
  • Information was added to compare Ann Arbor with national standards: “National standards exist, although there are wide variations in their application, for the ideal amount of park acreage per resident. The National Park and Recreation Association standard for park acreage is approximately 10 acres per 1000 people. Ann Arbor’s park system ratio is much higher, at over 18 acres per 1000 people, but this is based on Ann Arbor residents placing parks as an important value for the community. Having a neighborhood park within ¼ mile of every resident is a goal that is nearly achieved as this is considered a reasonable distance for pedestrian access, although there are a myriad of factors that influence that distance, including major streets that need to be crossed, other public open space, such as public schools with play areas, and amount of private green space available to residents.”
  • Information was added about the distinctiveness of downtown parks and open space, and about factors used in planning for parks in urban areas.
  • The map of the city’s greenbelt was updated to include properties acquired and preserved.
  • Additions were made regarding the proposed Allen Creek Greenway: (1) mentioning that the desire for a greenway would include the floodway portions of city-owned properties at 415 W. Washington, 721 N. Main, and First & William; and (2) a master plan for the greenway should be developed with stakeholders, including the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor Railroad.
  • Explanations for budget pie charts were added.

PROS Plan Update: Commissioner Deliberations

Jean Carlberg thanked Kuras for changing the chart with census data to include information about non-city parks and open space. However, she noted that the parks acreage-per-resident calculation hadn’t been altered to reflect that change. Factoring in the non-city parkland and open space would change that calculation dramatically, she said, especially for the city’s south sector. She also suggested that future PROS plans include a chart indicating how much of the city is within a quarter-mile of greenspace. [One of the city's goals is to have a neighborhood park available within a quarter-mile for all residents.] Such a chart would help them identify gaps.

Carlberg also had a question about the parks and recreation budget. The budget charts indicated that for fiscal year 2011, general fund revenues for parks and recreation were $2.41 million, but expenses were $3.64 million. How could this be, she asked, since expenses should equal revenues.

Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, explained that unlike an enterprise fund, which is expected to cover its expenses with the revenues it generates, the parks and recreation operations are covered by the general fund. It’s not expected that revenues will cover expenses, he said. The roughly $1.2 million difference is a net cost to the general fund, he said. [The public market and the golf courses operate as enterprise funds, though they also tap general fund dollars.] Smith suggested adding a sentence of explanation to the budget section.

Carlberg indicated that it still wasn’t clear, and said they should both think about ways to better explain it.

Diane Giannola said she had concerns with two sentences in the section on the Allen Creek Greenway: “Since 2005, the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy, a non-profit corporation, was established, to help with design and acquisition of the greenway. A report outlining a proposed route was completed by the Conservancy in 2008.”

Colin Smith, Amy Kuras

Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, and parks planner Amy Kuras, who led the effort to update the PROS plan.

The conservancy isn’t a city-sanctioned entity, she noted, nor has the city council approved the conservancy’s plan. The sentences read more like a marketing brochure for the group, she said, and it’s confusing, since the city also had a separate task force on the greenway. She asked that the sentences be deleted.

Erica Briggs said she understood Giannola’s point, but that it might be helpful to have information about the conservancy as an additional resource for people who are interested in the greenway. After more input from other commissioners, Kuras was directed to remove those sentences and include them as a footnote to the section.

Giannola also flagged another section, which referenced the city-owned Library Lot. [An underground parking structure is being built on the site at South Fifth Avenue, and the city is exploring what kind of development, if any, should be put on top of the structure. It is considering a project for a hotel and conference center that was proposed in response to a city-issued request for proposals (RFP).]

Giannola objected to a clause [indicated below in italics] in the needs assessment section, related to neighborhood parks and urban plazas: “Discussion concerning downtown open space should continue, especially as the underground parking structure at the library lot is constructed, as well as to plan for developer contributions and small pocket parks.” The clause is too political, she said, given the controversy surrounding development of the Library Lot. The PROS plan should be a neutral document, she said.

Evan Pratt agreed, saying they had previously discussed the desire not to attach specific projects to general policy statements.

As the discussion came to a close, Wendy Woods asked how copies of the PROS plan would be made available, after the plan is finalized. Kuras replied that they expect most people to access the document online, but that there will be some copies at city hall, for a fee. Woods clarified that the fee would simply cover the costs of printing – it would not be a revenue stream for parks and recreation.

Outcome: The planning commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan. It will next be voted on by the Ann Arbor city council for final approval.

Communications, Updates

There were several updates and communications from staff and commissioners on Tuesday.

Communications, Updates: Budget, Washtenaw Avenue Corridor

Tony Derezinski, a planning commission who also represents Ward 2 on Ann Arbor’s city council, reported that the council had a work session the previous night on a “very dreary subject” – the FY 2012 budget. [The Feb. 14 work session focused specifically on police and fire services. Earlier budget work sessions have covered the 15th District Court and the community services unit, which includes planning and parks.] Derezinski said the process is daunting, given that they need to address a $2.4 million deficit. There will be cuts, he said, “unless miracles happen, and I don’t see one on the horizon right now.”

Derezinski also highlighted two upcoming public forums regarding a Washtenaw Avenue corridor improvement authority, set for Feb. 23 and March 2. [The Feb. 23 event will be geared toward business owners and held at 7:30 a.m. at Paesano Restaurant, 3411 Washtenaw Ave. The March 2 meeting will be primarily for residents. That meeting begins at 7 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm, 2781 Packard Road. There will also be a public hearing on the issue at the city council’s March 7 meeting.] He noted that all four jurisdictions that are spanned by Washtenaw Avenue – Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township and Ypsilanti Township – have passed resolutions of intent to explore forming a corridor improvement authority (CIA), but added “that was the easy part.”

Communications, Updates: Planning Projects, Retreat

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, gave several updates. She noted that the staff’s work plan for the year has been updated – projects include the Washtenaw Avenue corridor project, South State Street corridor project, medical marijuana ordinances and the A2D2 design guidelines review process, among others. [.pdf file of FY2011 planning staff work plan]

Rampson also noted that they’d be scheduling a planning commission retreat soon – last year, that occurred in late March, she said, and March would likely be a good time for it again this year. [See Chronicle coverage of the March 30, 2010 retreat: "Ann Arbor Planning Priorities Take Shape"]

Communications, Updates: DDA, AATA

Rampson reported that she attended a partnerships committee meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority last week. The committee has been working on a proposal – called the parcel-by-parcel plan – to redevelop city-owned surface parking lots in the DDA district. [See Chronicle coverage: "DDA Embraces Concept of Development Plan"] The committee wanted to know more about how that might happen, Rampson said, and she characterized the discussion as a good one.

It sounds like the DDA is interested in exploring development for the area around the city-owned Library Lot underground parking structure, she said, which includes the surface parking lot at the former YMCA site and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s Blake Transit Center.

Derezinski had also attended the DDA partnerships meeting, and said it was “a lot more civil” than the previous one. He said there have been “directional” issues between the DDA and the city, which he added are being worked out.

[By way of background, the parcel-by-parcel plan was an outgrowth of discussions between the DDA and the city to renegotiate a parking agreement that governs the DDA's management of the city's parking system. At the council's Jan. 18, 2011 meeting, councilmembers deliberated on a resolution that would have articulated the DDA's role in redevelopment of the surface lots. They ultimately voted to postpone action on the resolution. Chronicle coverage: "DDA-City Deal Stalls"]

Regarding another DDA-city project, Eric Mahler reported that the city’s Library Lot review committee – the group that’s evaluating potential development atop the city-owned underground parking structure being built on South Fifth Avenue – will meet again on March 3. [Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, DDA executive director Susan Pollay said the meeting will be held at 9 a.m. in the fourth floor conference room of city hall, 301 E. Huron St.]

Related to the AATA, Rampson briefed commissioners on the transit agency’s efforts to develop a countywide master plan. She had attended a Feb. 14 forum on the issue, which she said was well attended. [For more information about the master plan effort, see Chronicle coverage: "AATA: Transit Study, Planning Updates"]

Communications, Updates: Citizen Participation

Erica Briggs reported that the commission’s citizen participation committee met last week. They’ve decided that their next step will be to survey people who’ve already been involved in giving input in some way, to get feedback on ways to improve the citizen participation process.

Present: Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.

Absent: Bonnie Bona

Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, March 1 at 7 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]