At the Ann Arbor city council’s March 7, 2011 meeting, a visitor from the east – Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber – spoke during a public hearing, calling Washtenaw Avenue a “lifeline” between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The road cuts through four jurisdictions: Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Pittsfield Township. The four local governmental units have been collaborating over the last two years to find ways to improve how the Washtenaw corridor functions – in terms of traffic flow, and future business/residential development.
That’s what the public hearing was about. The Ann Arbor city council is considering whether to work with the other three communities to establish a corridor improvement authority (CIA) along Washtenaw Avenue. Schreiber was at Ann Arbor’s meeting to encourage the council to consider forming a CIA, thus joining with his city and the two other municipalities along Washtenaw. The council took no action on March 7 – by state statute, they cannot take the step to establish a CIA until 60 days after the public hearing.
A corridor improvement authority is a tax-increment finance district, similar to a downtown development authority – but specifically designed for commercial corridors instead of downtown areas. [.pdf map of proposed Washtenaw Avenue CIA district ] At the March 7 public hearing on establishing a Washtenaw Avenue CIA, Schreiber was one of only two people to speak.
But five days earlier, on March 2, around 20 people attended a presentation by city of Ann Arbor planners at Cobblestone Farm. And they were joined late in the meeting by Stephen Rapundalo, who represents Ward 2 on the Ann Arbor city council. Washtenaw Avenue is a boundary between Ward 2 on the north and Ward 3 on the south. Some of those 20 residents aired their criticisms as well as support of the CIA proposal. In addition to some concerns about the administration of the authority, attendees expressed disagreement with each other about the kinds of solutions the corridor needs.
Some agreed with the conclusions of a joint technical committee that’s been working on the issue: The corridor would benefit from added transit infrastructure and greater accessibility to non-motorized transportation, as well as increased residential density. Others saw that stretch of Washtenaw Avenue as needing mainly additional lanes in the roadway to improve traffic flow.
On the administrative side, city planner Jeff Kahan explained that the possibility of establishing a CIA along Washtenaw Avenue would be greatly helped by a revision to the relatively new state statute that allows such CIAs to be created – a revision that would explicitly articulate that the four jurisdictions could form a single authority. As the statute is currently written, four separate authorities would need to be formed, and then operated under some kind of inter-governmental agreement.
So where did this idea come from that four separate units of government might collaborate on creating a corridor improvement authority for Washtenaw Avenue? It pre-dates by at least two years Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent call for greater collaboration among government entities. But Snyder was at least indirectly involved in providing some impetus behind the effort.
Origin of Concept: Ann Arbor Region Success
City planner Jeff Kahan began his presentation to the Cobblestone Farm audience by describing how the Washtenaw corridor improvement concept had evolved out of a planning effort called Ann Arbor Region Success. The effort involved 70 different community leaders, he said.
By way of additional background, the group of 70 people formed back in 2008 and divided into smaller work groups to focus on specific areas to develop long-term success strategies for the region. The group was led by six co-chairs: Martha Bloom, vice president of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation; Jeff Irwin, then chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners; Mark Ouimet, then a Washtenaw County commissioner; Rich Sheridan, president and CEO of Menlo Innovations; and Larry Voight, executive director of the nonprofit Catholic Social Services.
In November 2010, Irwin, a Democrat, and Ouimet, a Republican, were elected to represent District 53 and District 52, respectively, in the Michigan state House.
Also now in Lansing, and listed on the “leadership team” of the Ann Arbor Region Success group (as CEO of the venture capital firm Ardesta) is Rick Snyder – a Republican who was elected governor of the state of Michigan in November 2010.
The Ann Arbor Region Success initiative included a housing and land use work group. Richard Murphy, who was then a planner with the city of Ypsilanti and now works for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, was part of that work group. Responding to a Chronicle emailed query, Murphy reported that the work group had identified several themes that eventually worked their way into the concept for the Washtenaw corridor: walkability, high-quality transit, and a range of choices for housing, transportation mode, and destinations. Infill development was identified as a tool for achieving some of those goals.
[Murphy's colleague at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Sam Offen, attended the Cobblestone Farm meeting. Offen's name is possibly recognizable to readers as a member of the city's park advisory commission; he also serves on the Library Lot RFP review committee.]
An “action team” then took the Washtenaw Avenue corridor as a specific area of focus, which led to the formation of a joint technical committee, composed of around 30 members of various governmental and private groups drawn from the four communities crossed by Washtenaw Avenue. [.pdf of the action team report on Washtenaw Avenue]
The joint technical committee, which included many of the members of the action team, eventually recommended that the four communities along Washtenaw Avenue collaborate in forming a corridor improvement authority under the state’s enabling legislation [.pdf of Public Act 280 of 2005] [.pdf of the joint technical committee report]
At its December 20, 2010 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council passed a resolution of intent to collaborate with the three other municipalities along Washtenaw Avenue to form a CIA.
Problems with Washtenaw Corridor
At the Cobblestone Farm meeting, Kahan reviewed the characteristics of the corridor that the joint action team and the technical committee had identified as problematic. They include:
- Expansive, carless parking lots
- Frequent traffic congestion
- Higher-than-average crash rates
- Inadequate pedestrian crossings
- Missing sidewalks
- No amenities for bicyclists
- Numerous vacant parcels
- High vacancy rates of commercial storefronts
Formation of the Authority: TIF
Kahan explained to the group at Cobblestone Farm how the joint technical committee had proposed a Corridor Improvement Authority (CIA) as a financing mechanism to pay for solutions to the various problems it had identified along Washtenaw Avenue.
A CIA, Kahan explained, is a tax-increment finance district – similar to a downtown development authority, but specifically designed for commercial corridors. A tax-increment finance (TIF) district is a mechanism for “capturing” certain property taxes to be used in a specific geographic district – taxes that would otherwise be used by the entity with the authority to levy the taxes. [In the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority TIF district, for example, a portion of the property taxes that would otherwise be collected by the Ann Arbor District Library and other taxing entities are instead used by the Ann Arbor DDA for improvements within the geographic district of the DDA.]
Not all the taxes in a TIF district go to the TIF authority. Instead, as Kahan explained, upon creation of a TIF district, a baseline is defined for the current taxable value, and it’s only the difference (the increment) between the baseline value of a property and the increased value of a property in the future – say, through redevelopment – that would be subject to tax capture through a TIF authority like a CIA.
In discussion with the Cobblestone audience, Kahan indicated that the exact definition of the TIF capture for a Washtenaw CIA was somewhat of an open question. It’s not settled, for example, whether the increment to be captured would include the increased value of a property due to simple appreciation (inflation), without any investment or improvement in the property. The enabling legislation would allow inflation to be included or not, depending on the exact tax increment financing plan of the CIA. [The Ann Arbor DDA tax capture is defined so that the initial increment between the baseline property value and the value due to an external improvement is captured by the DDA, but subsequent appreciation on that added value reverts to the original taxing authority.]
Corridor improvement authorities cannot capture certain kinds of taxes. For example, taxes collected under the state education act (Public Act 331) or by an intermediate school district are exempt from capture by a CIA. In addition, the governing body of an entity that levies taxes in a CIA’s district has the opportunity to opt out. From the state enabling legislation for CIAs [.pdf of Public Act 280 of 2005]:
(5) Except for a development area located in a qualified development area, not more than 60 days after the public hearing on the tax increment financing plan, the governing body in a taxing jurisdiction levying ad valorem property taxes that would otherwise be subject to capture may exempt its taxes from capture by adopting a resolution to that effect and filing a copy with the clerk of the municipality proposing to create the authority. The resolution shall take effect when filed with the clerk and remains effective until a copy of a resolution rescinding that resolution is filed with that clerk.
Forming an Authority: Cooperation Required
Before the Cobblestone meeting started, Kahan told The Chronicle that using the existing state statute, which is relatively new, could pose a challenge to the kind of CIA that Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Pittsfield Township would like to form. The act provides for a way for each of these local units to form a CIA and a way for them to operate them jointly. From the statute:
A municipality that has created an authority may enter into an agreement with an adjoining municipality that has created an authority to jointly operate and administer those authorities under an interlocal agreement under the urban cooperation act of 1967, 1967 (Ex Sess) PA 7, MCL 124.501 to 124.512.
What is not completely clear is how the interlocal agreement would work. For example, under the statute each CIA needs to have a governing board with at least five, but no more than nine members. If a governing board for all four CIAs were formed as the simple union of all the boards of the four municipalities, then the resulting board would consist of at least 20 members, exceeding the limit of nine specified in the statute.
Kahan said the joint technical committee has been working with Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat who now represents District 53 in the state House, to explore the possibility of an amendment to the statute. An amendment could provide for the direct formation of an authority by multiple municipalities.
In a followup phone interview, Irwin told The Chronicle that he’d forwarded an amendment request to the House Legislative Services Bureau, and that it had been returned with further questions. Right now, his understanding is that there’s a dual-track approach: (1) amend the statute – which would move only at the pace of the state legislature; and (2) sort out the board membership issue with respect to collaboration between the four municipalities.
Forming the Authority: Upsides, Downsides
At the Cobblestone Farm meeting, Kahan sketched out the basic advantages and disadvantages of using the CIA as a tool to address problems in the corridor. The mechanism of the TIF district keeps the additional tax revenue generated by increased development inside the corridor’s district, and the idea is that this helps to attract additional private investment as well. While this helps to focus funds on the area where problems have been identified, Kahan allowed that these funds could otherwise go to municipalities where the challenges in balancing budgets are getting greater every year.
Kahan continued by saying that the collaboration and cooperation required by this particular CIA would likely be looked on favorably by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration. Snyder’s administration has sent a clear message to local units of government that the state expects them to demonstrate efforts to collaborate and consolidate in order to qualify for various kinds of state aid.
In a phone interview with The Chronicle about the CIA, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber remarked that this kind collaboration has been happening long before Snyder started talking about it. In addition to the four-way collaboration on the CIA, he pointed to the Ypsilanti Community Utility Authority (YCUA), which provides drinking water or sanitary sewer services to the city of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Pittsfield Township, Augusta Township, Sumpter Township and Superior Township.
Schreiber also pointed to the current discussions between the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township to collaborate on police services.
As one of the initial downsides to a CIA, Kahan cited the increased layer of administration – it could take a while for the TIF to generate much money for the CIA. And during that initial lean period, there would be costs – perhaps for an executive director, for legal services, office space, secretarial services and the like. It might be necessary for the four municipalities to provide financial support for the CIA’s administrative needs until the CIA started receiving enough revenue from its TIF to become self-sustaining, Kahan said.
What’s an Improvement?
The kind of infrastructure improvements the joint technical committee has recommended for the corridor include many projects that could be summarized under the general rubric of “complete streets.”
At its March 7, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council passed a resolution affirming its commitment to “complete streets” – the idea that streets should be constructed to accommodate a full range of users, from pedestrians, to bicyclists, to public transit vehicles, to privately owned automobiles.
For Washtenaw Avenue, that would include a bike lanes, installation of sidewalks where they are missing or broken, and creation of transit nodes with bus stops that have amenities like benches, shelters and arrival information.
These are the kind of improvements that resonated with several people in the audience at Cobblestone Farm, including Larry Krieg. As a planner with Ypsilanti Township, Krieg is a member of the joint technical committee. Krieg has also championed the idea of Washtenaw Avenue as an important corridor in remarks he’s made while addressing the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board. Krieg maintains the blog Wake Up, Washtenaw!
Krieg told the group gathered at Cobblestone Farm that Washtenaw Avenue was seen as a potential talent corridor, a geographic location with the potential to attract 20-40 year olds to stay in the area. Krieg described how many younger people can’t imagine why they should be required to have an automobile in order to do ordinary things in life, and are interested in living in places where they can get where they want to go by using public transit.
Responding to Krieg was resident Vic Elmer, who said that what Krieg was describing was simply not reality – “that’s not the way America works right now,” he said. If a road has been properly designed, he contended, traffic will flow smoothly. What Washtenaw Avenue needs is an expansion of car lanes, not additional bike lanes. He characterized the configuration of some local bike lanes as poorly engineered, saying that he’d witnessed several near-accidents. If bike lanes were considered all that important, he said, why doesn’t the city plow snow all the way to the curb? [The city of Ann Arbor's snow plowing strategy is not curb-to-curb, but its goal includes clearing snow from bike lanes.]
Elmer, along with others who attended the Cobblestone Farm meeting, pointed to the intersection of Washtenaw and Huron Parkway as particularly problematic. Cars stack up there, they said. They suggested that what’s needed is a larger right-of-way at that intersection.
Some at the meeting saw the introduction of transit nodes and pedestrian amenities like crossings and sidewalks as just more obstacles for cars to traverse, slowing down automobile traffic. The joint technical committee’s report actually concurs with the view that there are too many bus stops along the corridor – but they are necessary because the lack of sidewalks makes it unreasonable to expect bus passengers to get very far by walking. So part of the proposed concept is to install complete sidewalks along the corridor, which would allow the consolidation of multiple bus stops into single transit nodes. These nodes would then have better amenities – benches, shelters, and arrival/departure information.
One step towards providing pedestrian access along the corridor will start construction this year, without a CIA. That project is for a non-motorized path along the north and east sides of Washtenaw Avenue, from Tuomy to Glenwood. The Ann Arbor city council approved a special assessment on adjoining property owners to construct the path late last year. At the Cobblestone meeting, Kahan explained that a special assessment can be used only to construct a new amenity like the non-motorized path, but not to repair an existing one like broken sidewalks along other parts of the corridor.
The role of US-23 in the corridor was drawn out by someone in the audience who asked the rhetorical question: What kind of vehicles would be exiting from US-23 onto Washtenaw Avenue – bicycles and pedestrians? The point was that key to the corridor’s economic health is automobile traffic. When another attendee somewhat whimsically posed the question of what it would take to relocate the exit ramps to some location other than Washtenaw Avenue, Wendy Rampson – head of planning for the city of Ann Arbor – said she didn’t think businesses currently located along Washtenaw Avenue would appreciate that.
While much of the focus of the conversation at Cobblestone Farm focused on the kind of infrastructure improvements that might be undertaken to help the corridor, Kahan and Rampson also pointed to the possibility that a CIA could help create a more uniform zoning and permitting process along the entire corridor, to help expedite development. The city of Ann Arbor recently approved revisions to its area, height and placement (AHP) zoning code that are intended in part to help support the kind of pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented development that the joint technical committee has recommended for the corridor.
Revisions to Ann Arbor’s AHP zoning includes provisions that encourage increased residential density through mixed use – something that was met with some resistance at the Cobblestone Farm meeting. Wouldn’t more people living along the corridor translate into even more congestion and curb cuts? Kahan explained that part of the goal of the zoning and planning piece of the joint technical committee’s recommendation is to reduce the number of curb cuts by providing appropriate zoning regulations.
In his phone interview with The Chronicle, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber said that coordinating the zoning and permitting requirements along the corridor was something worth pursuing in itself, even if infrastructure improvements might be a longer time coming.