County Board to Vote on Packard Square

On Tuesday, May 17, 2011 the Washtenaw County board of commissioners spent three hours at a special working session continuing a discussion of the Packard Square brownfield project in Ann Arbor, and debating how to craft a broader policy related to issuing the county’s full faith and credit for projects with private developers. The board is expected to take an initial vote on the Packard Square project at its May 18 meeting.

The board had been asked at its May 4 meeting to give initial approval of a $1 million grant application and $1 million loan from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, for brownfield cleanup at the proposed $48 million Packard Square development – site of the former Georgetown Mall. The board was also asked to authorize designation of the county’s full faith and credit as a guarantee for any loan that might be awarded, up to $1 million. It was that guarantee that raised concerns among some commissioners, who were uncomfortable putting the county potentially on the hook for a private developer – especially since back taxes are owed on the property, and the county is facing a large deficit in the coming years.

Instead of voting, the item was taken up at a May 5 working session, and then again at Tuesday’s special working session, where the same issues were raised during a wide-ranging debate. The meeting was attended by Ann Arbor city councilmember Marcia Higgins, who represents the area (Ward 4) where the project is located, and Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator. Representatives of the developer, Bloomfield Hills-based Harbor Companies, were also on hand, as were several members of the public and county staff.

Ultimately, commissioners tentatively agreed to move ahead with an initial vote on the Packard Square brownfield plan and state grant application at their Wednesday, May 18 meeting, but to hold off on a vote for the state loan. Board chair Conan Smith also agreed to draft a full faith and credit policy to give to commissioners on Wednesday, drawing on the discussion at Tuesday’s special working session.

Elements of the policy could include: (1) ensuring that the project has a clearly articulated public benefit; (2) setting a cap on the county’s financial exposure, as expressed by a dollar amount or as a percentage of its cash reserves; (3) requiring taxes to be paid before the project moves forward; and (4) requiring that the local munipality where the project is located put up its full faith and credit as well.

Packard Square’s 6.5-acre site includes land contaminated by a dry cleaning business that operated there. The developer is proposing a mixed-use development, with retail and office space along with 230 apartments. The project’s site plan and brownfield plan had been approved by the Ann Arbor city council on Monday, May 2.

This brief was filed shortly after adjournment of Tuesday’s working session, which was held at the county administration building at 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.