DDA Preps Downtown Ann Arbor Process

Discussion begins on city council parcel-by-parcel resolution

At its regular partnerships committee meeting on May 11, 2011, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board began discussing how to implement the city council “parcel-by-parcel” resolution passed on April 4, 2011. That resolution gives the DDA responsibility for leading a process to explore alternative uses for downtown parcels: the Library Lot, old Y Lot, Palio Lot, Kline’s Lot and the Fourth and William parking structure.

Area of focus for DDA-led development process

Light pink areas are all city-owned land. The red outlined area is the DDA tax district. The green rectangle is the smaller area of focus for which the DDA has been given responsibility to lead a process to explore alternative uses of city-owned surface parking lots. The green rectangle is bounded by Ashley, Division, Liberty and William streets. (Links to higher resolution image. Map data is available on the city's website at a2gov.org/data)

The parcels are currently used as surface parking lots – except for the Library Lot, which is the construction site for an underground parking garage that, when completed, will offer around 640 parking spaces. It was previously a 192-space surface parking lot.

The committee meeting included a presentation on the city’s sewer system from Cresson Slotten, a manager with the city of Ann Arbor’s systems planning unit.  The agenda also included a conversation with Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning, and Kit McCullough, who teaches at the school. The two are interested in helping facilitate the public process stipulated in the city council parcel-by-parcel resolution. Also interested in sharing information he’s gathering from downtown property owners is Peter Allen, a local developer who attended the partnerships meeting.

One major theme that emerged during the committee’s discussion is the idea that a public space can be successful if it is programmed, used and supported by the community, even if its design is lacking.

The parcel-by-parcel resolution was passed at the same meeting that the council voted to terminate the review process for proposals the city had solicited for use of the top of the underground parking structure.

The termination of that RFP review process came just before the council was supposed to consider formally signing a letter of intent to hammer out a development agreement for the finalist project – a hotel/conference center proposed by Valiant Partners. [Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Council Focuses on Downtown"]

Sanitary, Stormwater Sewer System

Cresson Slotten, an engineer who is a manager in the city’s systems planning unit, gave the DDA partnerships committee an overview of Ann Arbor’s downtown infrastructure, focusing on the sanitary and stormwater sewer systems. The sanitary system is designed to handle everything that goes down toilets, sinks, and showers, and that is treated at the wastewater treatment plant on Dixboro Road near Geddes Dam, before being piped into the Huron River. The stormwater system handles rain – the curb drains in streets, for example, lead to that system.

Slotten’s presentation came in the wake of a recent communication delivered by interim city administrator Tom Crawford at the city council’s May 2, 2011 meeting, which advised the council that the city’s sanitary sewer system had been threatened by recent rainfall. The system had been filled to the point of overflowing during recent heavy rains, he said, telling the council that local soils are saturated to the point that they cannot absorb additional rainfall. That means that all additional rain becomes runoff.

If the city maintains two separate systems – one for wastewater and one for rain – why does rainfall affect the wastewater system? As Slotten laid out to the partnerships committee, the sanitary sewer also receives flow from rainfall – because the footing drains of some buildings, including many residential properties, are connected directly to the sanitary sewer. Footing drains run around the perimeter of a building’s foundation, collecting water and leading it away from the foundation. Before 1981, it was common practice in southeast Michigan to connect footing drains to the sanitary sewer system.

It’s undesirable to have rainwater flowing through the sanitary sewer system, because it winds up at the wastewater treatment plant, where it gets treated. That’s an expense to the city – even though rainwater obviously does not need treatment before flowing into the river. The additional burden on the sanitary sewer can also cause sewage backups in basement drains.

By way of background, residents on Iroquois Place, near the intersection of Packard and Stadium, experienced dramatic sewage backups in their basements in June 2010 during a heavy rain. The city prioritized its footing drain disconnect program for the neighborhood, but city has denied damage claims, which for one homeowner amounted to $15,000. [Previous Chronicle coverage on the footing drain disconnect program from two years ago: "Drain Disconnect Time for Homeowners"]

Money for the Iroquois Place disconnections came in part from the University of Michigan, and was related to the renovations at the football stadium, which added load to the city’s sanitary sewer system. Due to the added burden, UM paid the city for 140 disconnections at a cost of $10,040 per project.

In fact, all new developments in the city are subject to a standard specification requiring that the additional burden to the sanitary sewer system be offset with footing drain disconnects. The offset specification was authorized by the city council in 2003, in response to an administrative consent order from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. [.pdf of city's standard specifications on added sanitary sewer burden] [.pdf of 2003 city council resolution authorizing standard specifications]

In his presentation, Slotten explained to the DDA partnerships committee how the standard specifications include a 20% system recovery factor: For 1.0 gallons of increased burden on the sanitary sewage system, 1.2 gallons of flow needs to be reduced elsewhere.

Slotten also outlined for the committee how new investment in additional capacity for either the stormwater system or the drinking water system is limited by the requirement that only the existing infrastructure that has reached the end of its useful life can be replaced at a cost to ratepayers – consumers who pay for drinking water and sanitary sewer service. That is, ratepayers don’t subsidize development or invest speculatively on system expansions. [This legal principle factored into the 1998 Bolt v. Lansing court decision, which involved a stormwater system expansion in Lansing.]

Slotten described it as a challenge for the future to contend with how developers are charged for localized expansions in the sewer system that are required to support a development. One scenario is that an initial development uses all of the available capacity, which means that the next development needs to mitigate the additional need. A third development might then be able to use that additional capacity paid for by the second development – which he said does not seem equitable. [.pdf of Slotten's infrastructure slide presentation]

Public Process: City Council Resolution

Slotten’s presentation on the downtown infrastructure was invited in the context of the DDA’s city-council assigned responsibility to lead a process to explore alternative uses for some of the city-owned surface parking lots in downtown Ann Arbor. The amended resolution narrowed in scope the original resolution, which called on the DDA to look at the entire DDA tax district. [.pdf of city council resolution as amended on April 4, 2011] [.pdf of city-owned parcels to be considered by the DDA]

Slotten’s presentation is part of the Phase I activity described in the resolution:

Public Services: Obtain detailed public infrastructure information for Parcels, including data on adjacent storm, water, and sanitary main capacity, hydrant coverage and other capacity-related information.

Somewhat more controversial than the public infrastructure component of the DDA’s process was the part of the resolution that addressed the kinds of input the DDA would seek from the community.

The council required several months to pass the resolution. Councilmembers had considered but postponed the resolution at its March 7, 2011 meeting, and before that at its Jan. 18, 2011 meeting. At the March 7 meeting, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) had complained that no revisions had been made to the resolution to accommodate objections made at the Jan. 18 meeting. [.pdf of the unamended resolution with the parcel-by-parcel plan] At that meeting, objections to the proposal included “resolved” clauses in the resolution that would (1) require placement of items on the city council’s agenda; and (2) under some circumstances require the city to reimburse the DDA for its expenses.

At its Jan. 5 board meeting, the Ann Arbor DDA board had approved a resolution urging passage of the council resolution, which had been circulated as early as the city council’s Dec. 20, 2010 meeting. At that time, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) had attached a copy of the draft resolution to the council’s meeting agenda, and alerted his council colleagues to it at the Dec. 20 meeting.

Receiving a good deal of discussion by the city council was wording in the resolution that, in its final form, reads as follows in relevant part:

Phase II …

  • Solicit robust public input and conduct public meetings to determine residents’ Parcel-level downtown vision
  • Solicit UM, EMU, and other higher education faculty to authorize class participation in the visioning process
  • Meeting(s) with UM Planning staff to maximize coordination
  • Meetings with business and community leaders to obtain their analysis of downtown’s strengths and weaknesses, its opportunities and inherent obstacles …

Phase III …

  • Solicit robust public input and confirm the extent of community consensus for the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan through public meetings and surveys
  • Hold meetings with business and community stakeholders to determine professional assessment of the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan …

Conversation with Kelbaugh, McCullough, Allen

Doug Kelbaugh is former dean of the University of Michigan college of architecture and urban planning. Kit McCullough is a lecturer at the college. Peter Allen is a local developer. All three attended the DDA partnerships committee meeting.

Conversation: Introductions

Kelbaugh told the committee members that two years ago he’d stepped down from the deanship of the the UM college of architecture – he’d moved to Ann Arbor 12 years ago to take that job. He said he thought it’s great that the city controls four key sites in the downtown area that the DDA is being asked to look at. He noted that he’d used the sites as student projects. Kelbaugh told the committee he lives downtown “right around the corner.” [He lives in the Armory building at the corner of Ann Street and Fifth Avenue. It was converted to residential living space by local developer and former DDA board member Ed Shaffran.]

Kelbaugh noted that he has a history of involvement in downtown Ann Arbor planning issues, having participated on a task force a few years ago. He said he enjoys living downtown. [.pdf of 2004 Downtown Residential Task Force report]

He mentioned that his colleague, McCullough, does not have a driver’s license, is thus sensitive to walkability issues. He stressed the need to have a 5-25 year vision for the downtown, so that the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. Public expectations shouldn’t be unreasonable, he said – those expectations should be aspirational, yet feasible.

Conversation: Constraining the Issues, Public Engagement

Board member Russ Collins mentioned to Kelbaugh that the partnerships committee had invited David di Rita of the Roxbury Group to its last meeting and he’d suggested that in terms of requests for proposals from developers, a somewhat more specific RFP would create a better outcome.

Rather than saying, “Here’s a plot of land, we’re accepting proposals,” Collins reported that di Rita’s advice had been to be more specific. [Di Rita had consulted for the city on the Library Lot RFP, a process which the city council terminated this spring. Chronicle coverage that includes parts of the April DDA partnerships committee meeting: "Balancing Ann Arbor, Detroit and a Vision"]

Kelbaugh responded to Collins by saying that good designers welcome constraints – they don’t necessary want a blank slate.

McCullough suggested that the public process could be used to get community consensus that can inform what the RFP says. Bob Guenzel – former Washtenaw County administrator and the newest appointee to the DDA board – wondered how much should be presented in advance of the public process. He ventured that you don’t just go out there and say, “What do you want the downtown to look like?”

Kelbaugh noted that Peter Allen, who was in the committee meeting audience, had volunteered to do a study, canvassing all the surrounding property and business owners around the sites. Kelbaugh felt that Allen’s work would be useful preparation. [The Chronicle encountered Allen downtown recently as Allen was beginning that canvassing work.]

So for the public engagement process, Kelbaugh told the committee that he and McCullough were thinking of two or three town hall meetings. McCullough said first meeting would be educational and would “set the table” for the public. For the second meeting, they would come back with two or three concepts. Kelbaugh said there will never be unanimous agreement, but there might be some overlapping agreement. He suggested that there are two ways to handle the public meetings: (1) hire a professional facilitator without subject matter knowledge; or (2) hire someone with subject matter knowledge – the Kelbaugh-McCullough alternative.

Kelbaugh made a case for a subject-matter expert by saying that it should not just be a list-making exercise. It wouldn’t just be a feel-good taking down of every idea that everyone has, he said. They could provide some real-time feedback. The session would have some “viscosity,” he said.

Responding to Collins’ concerns about the kind of reactions from the public that might be encountered, Kelbaugh said a certain amount of “ventilation” is good. You have to let people vent, he said, but you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.

DDA board member Sandi Smith noted that as much as the DDA is limited in focus to just the four parcels in the rectangle, she wondered how planning for the limited area could take into account how it should fit into a broader context – it’s not located in a vacuum. “How do you work that into public process?” she wondered.

McCullough suggested that an initial meeting can address what people’s aspirations are for the downtown. Kelbaugh observed that if there is any light rail planned for downtown, a choice for running it down Liberty Street would make a big difference, compared to bringing it down William Street.

Smith cautioned against inviting people to attach everything they want to a single parcel – that sets the whole thing up for failure, she said.

Conversation: Subject Matter of Downtown Ann Arbor

Part of the subject matter knowledge, Kelbaugh said, involves understanding what some of the physical constraints are. There are, for example, physical constraints on the Library Lot, which are further complicated by the nearby Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s Blake Transit Center. Smith noted that the “air rights” to a newly constructed Blake Transit Center would need to be factored into the thinking.

Kelbaugh said that he and McCullough actually think Kline’s Lot is “a different animal” from the rest of the parcels. McCullough thought that Ashley Street – which bounds the Kline’s Lot on the west – might need its own vision. Kelbaugh allowed that it’s true that the Kline’s Lot also fronts on William, like Palio’s Lot and the old Y Lot, but it seems like it might still need to be treated separately.

Kelbaugh said he was glad Library Lane is a done deal. Blocks that are that large tend to “clog up,” Kelbaugh said. [Library Lane is the east-west connection between Division and Fifth that's being created as part of the underground parking garage project.]

The community’s appetite for parkland would never be satisfied, Kelbaugh said. He observed that Ann Arbor doesn’t have a piazza that works, yet. He characterized Main Street as a real jewel, but said it has no place to gather – it’s just linear. Kelbaugh said the Library Lot is not really big enough to be a piazza, but it’s a possibility. As for an “outdoor living room”-type space, he said the Palio Lot doesn’t really work, because that kind of space needs to be mid-block.

Conversation: Programming, Design

Collins responded to Kelbaugh’s concerns about the Palio Lot by saying that it’s not just a matter of the space – it’s what goes on there. Collins related his experience as executive director of the Michigan Theater by noting that the community had rallied to save the theater, but a lot of people think that once the space is there, you don’t need to do anything else.


Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member Russ Collins before the May 11 partnerships committee meeting started. The board positions are volunteer. Collins earns his livelihood as executive director of the Michigan Theater. (Photos by writer)

The Ark, a nonprofit acoustic music club on Main Street, exists because of programing, not because there’s a natural market for folk music, Collins said. It’s well-programmed and the community supports it, he said – that’s why it exists. DDA board member Keith Orr noted that The Ark is not the easiest thing to spot or see, yet people throng to it. Collins reiterated that The Ark exists because the community supports it beyond ticket prices. He urged his colleagues on the committee to think about separating design from purpose. The community can create a space that’s valuable, even if it’s terrible space. He mentioned the Kerrytown Concert House and the Ann Arbor District Library as other entities that exist because the community supports them and because of their excellent management and programming.

Collins said the same could be done for Liberty Plaza – which is widely thought to be a poorly designed space on the corner of Liberty and Division. If there was $250,000 a year to put programs on in that park, it’d be a different story, he said – ice sculptures or an active stage on a regular basis, and the like. Josie Parker – director of the Ann Arbor District Library, who typically attends DDA partnerships committee meetings – noted that during the summer months, the Bank of Ann Arbor sponsors the Sonic Lunch concert series at Liberty Plaza, and that costs the bank money.

For programming, McCullough suggested that Campus Martius in Detroit as a good model. It’s programmed and supported as a space – the idea of an urban living room needs to be supported like that.

Conversation: Peter Allen’s Role

Amber Miller, a planning and research specialist with the DDA, asked how Kelbaugh and McCullough planned to bring into the process business owners and other stakeholders, in addition to public. Kelbaugh answered by saying Peter Allen’s role would be valuable. Kelbaugh also observed that McCullough would not be teaching during the fall term and would be available to do some of that work. He stressed the need to get people to participate who don’t normally come out to meetings – they need to get younger voices. Collins suggested that perhaps it’s the DDA’s job to figure out how to do that.

Asked to elaborate more on his role in the process, Peter Allen said what he’s trying to do in the next three months is talk to around 25 property owners about their business needs – he’s just getting started. He reported that he’d already talked to Herb David, who owns Herb David Guitar Studios. David has very strong feelings, Allen reported.

Allen said that the guitar studio, on the southeast corner of Liberty and Fifth, gives the area a lot of character – and David wants it to grow. He’d also talked to Ali Ramlawi, owner of the Jerusalem Garden restaurant (around the corner from Herb David), who sees good days coming. So far, Allen had only talked to about 10% of the people he plans to meet.


Peter Allen, standing, points out to DDA partnerships committee members the area he's focusing on in conversations with property owners.

One important property owner in the area is Bill Martin, who owns the building just west of Liberty Plaza. Allen said he wanted to talk to Martin about bulldozing the building – Allen stressed that he didn’t know if Martin would be open to that idea, and felt that fair market rate would need to be offered. Allen had two words for the credit union building on the block’s south side, east of the library: bulldozer bait.

The Kempf House, though, Allen characterized as an anchor. Allen felt like some of the other historic houses on the block could be picked up and moved around on the same block. Allen said he wanted to find out: What do property owners on the block think is good for their business?

Guenzel wanted to know in what capacity Allen was currently talking with business owners: “Are you doing that independently?” Allen told him he was doing it as a real estate broker, trying to help property owners analyze the situation – he’s doing it “on my own nickel.” The property owners would be potential clients, he said.

Guenzel wanted to know if Allen would share information. Yes, answered Allen, just as he had a decade earlier, when Washtenaw County had been looking for a site to place a consolidated homeless shelter. He said he’d helped point the county towards the property on East Huron Street, which was owned at the time by National City Bank. [.pdf of Jan. 19, 2000 Washtenaw County board of commissioners resolution]

Conversation: Next Steps

Kelbaugh said he would like to hit the ground running in the fall by preparing this summer, but noted that he and McCullough can’t do it for free. He’s found that work you do for free is not taken seriously.

Kelbaugh emphasized that the work he and McCullough were proposing to do would be parallel but independent and separate from Allen’s work.

Guenzel asked about a timeline. Kelbaugh suggested the start of school in the fall as a potential start of the public process. The summer would be a good window for gathering data.

Next steps: McCullough and Kelbaugh will come back to the DDA’s June partnerships committee meeting with a specific proposal. A calendar of all DDA meetings is available on the DDA website.