Downtown Planning Poised to … Pause

Ann Arbor DDA committee sets course to check in with council

The July 13 partnerships committee meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority drew an audience of around 35 people, many of them prominent community members.

Kit McCullough, Peter Allen, Mary Hathaway, Vivienne Armentrout

Before the start of the July 13 DDA partnerships committee meeting. Back row: Kit McCullough, Peter Allen. Front row: Vivienne Armentrout (partially obscured), Mary Hathaway. (Photo by the writer)

Based on the committee’s May and June meetings, many in the audience expected the committee to come up with some kind of recommendation for a public engagement process that would ultimately lead to alternate uses of some downtown city-owned parcels. The parcels currently serve as part of the public parking system. The context of the DDA’s planning for the public engagement effort is a city council resolution, approved on April 4, 2011, that outlined a detailed plan for the DDA to lead the process.

The so-called parcel-by-parcel plan emerged in late 2010 as part of “mutually beneficial” committee meetings that handled negotiations lasting over a year between the city of Ann Arbor and the DDA on a new parking contract. Under the new contract, which the two bodies finally ratified in May 2011, the DDA will continue to operate the city’s public parking system for the next 11 years.

The city council’s approval of the parcel-by-parcel plan in April and DDA partnerships committee meetings in May and June – the three months prior to Wednesday’s meeting – had provided some momentum towards translating the city council resolution into an actual timeline with action steps.

In fact, two attendees of Wednesday’s meeting had pitched their professional services to the DDA to lead that public engagement process, with events tied to tentative calendar dates. Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning, and Kit McCullough, a lecturer at the college, had provided a detailed timeline of meetings they could host during the fall, with delivery of a concept plan in January 2012, which could then be used to craft requests for proposals from developers.

If the process would not be led by Kelbaugh and McCullough, the committee was expected by many in attendance at its Wednesday meeting to chart some other path forward. But that’s not where the conversation led. DDA board member John Mouat described it as a “far-reaching, vague conversation,” which he had expected it would be. At one point, committee members even expressed uncertainty about whether the DDA or the city council would lead the process.

Typically, DDA executive director Susan Pollay gleans specific direction from the vaguest of conversations by her board’s committees. But when asked by Mouat at the conclusion of the meeting if she had clear direction, Pollay allowed only that she felt like she had more direction than before the meeting.

Based on the conversation at the meeting, part of that direction is that some kind of timeline for the process – which committee members thought would take at least a year – should, if possible, be included in an October 2011 city council working session.

In a follow-up phone interview, Pollay told The Chronicle that having the October 2011 working session as a target for a proposed plan would allow the committee and the full board to use their meetings over the next two months to work on the content of that presentation to the council. Checking in with the council on the public process before settling on it, she said, was important to the board.

The Audience

The sense of expectation of a concrete result from the committee meeting could be measured in part by the audience. Size alone would not be a fair measure, because several students from a University of Michigan class (taught by Kit McCullough) swelled the number of people in the room to around 35. But several prominent members of the community also attended.

The list of recognizable names in attendance included:

  • Jesse Bernstein, chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board. The AATA’s Blake Transit Center, slated for a rebuild, sits on the block bounded to the west and east by Fourth and Fifth avenues, and to the north and south by Liberty and William streets. The transit center sits immediately adjacent to key parcels the DDA is supposed to consider for future alternate use: the Library Lot and the former YMCA Lot.
  • Josie Parker, executive director of the Ann Arbor District Library, and Nancy Kaplan, a member of the AADL board. The downtown branch of the district library sits just to the south of the Library Lot – so-called only because of the geographic proximity and the number of library patrons who formerly used that surface parking lot for their library visits. The city of Ann Arbor owns the property – the DDA is building an underground parking structure there. At the city council’s July 5 meeting, Parker gave councilmembers an update on the library, and highlighted the impact of the library on Ann Arbor’s downtown.
  • Wendy Rampson, head of planning for the city of Ann Arbor. At a January 2011 DDA board partnerships committee meeting, Rampson had led board members in a conversation about the midtown character district – part of the A2D2 zoning regulations – as a way to make more concrete for board members what the parcel-by-parcel process might be like.
  • Doug Kelbaugh and Kit McCullough. Kelbaugh is former dean of the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and McCullough is a lecturer at the college. The two had pitched their services to lead the parcel-by-parcel process at the May 2011 partnerships committee meeting and had been asked to bring back something more concrete for the June 2011 committee meeting, which they did.
  • Peter Allen, a local developer who attended the partnerships committee meetings in May and June. Allen is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Michigan, and has asked students in his classes in the past to pursue class projects on the redevelopment of the area around the Library Lot.
  • Ethel Potts, former planning commissioner for the city of Ann Arbor.
  • Alan Haber, Odile Hugenot Haber and Stephan Trendov. The Habers have worked to promote the idea of a community commons use for the Library Lot, making it one of six proposals in response to a request for proposals that the city of Ann Arbor put out for developing the top of the underground parking garage on Fifth Avenue, which is currently under construction. The commons was not selected as one of the two finalist proposals, and the entire RFP process was terminated earlier this year with no selection of a proposal. Trendov is an architect and urban designer who developed some sketches for the community commons idea, which were presented to the DDA board at its November 2010 meeting.
  • Vivienne Armentrout, former Washtenaw County commissioner and former candidate for city council and library board. Armentrout’s account of the partnerships meeting is posted on her blog, Local in Ann Arbor.
  • Mary Hathaway, often identified as a local activist for peace and social justice.

Committee members in attendance included Bob Guenzel, former Washtenaw County administrator and the newest appointment to the DDA board. Guenzel was elected as board vice chair at the board’s annual meeting earlier in the month. Also there for part of the meeting was Tony Derezinski, a city councilmember representative to the DDA’s partnerships committee. He was not able to attend the whole meeting on Wednesday, because he was participating in interviews of the final two candidates for Ann Arbor’s city administrator job.

Also attending the meeting were outgoing DDA board chair Joan Lowenstein, operations committee chair John Splitt, and chair of the now-defunct transportation committee of the DDA board, John Mouat.

It fell to Mouat to run the meeting, because the two co-chairs of the DDA partnerships committee could not attend: Russ Collins and Sandi Smith. Mouat is an architect with the firm Mitchell and Mouat Architects.

Ancient History: November 2010 – April 2011

Where did the idea come from that the DDA should lead the exploration of alternative uses for city-owned downtown properties?

Two “mutual beneficial” committees (one from the city council, and one from the DDA board) began meeting in June 2010 to negotiate a new contract under which the DDA would continue to manage the city’s public parking system. They did so based on a term sheet that had been put forth in April 2010. One of the four items on the term sheet included the following [emphasis added]:

Development of City-owned Property Within the DDA District

The working group envisions that the DDA would serve as a visioning, initiation and implementation engine for development of City-owned property within the DDA district. The nature and extent of this role will be discussed, considered and, if approved, implemented in parallel to any omnibus [parking] agreement, but would not be part of that agreement.

The DDA board met in a retreat later that spring, when board members embraced that idea as a priority for the DDA. [Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor DDA: Let's Do Development"] That dimension of the mutually beneficial committee negotiations eventually led to the formulation of a “parcel-by-parcel” plan, which was ratified by the DDA board at its January 2011 meeting. The possibility of formulating the resolution as a contractual relationship was briefly floated but quickly abandoned.

Area of focus for DDA-led development process

Light pink areas are all city-owned land. The red outline area is the DDA tax district. The green rectangle is the smaller area of focus proposed by Sandi Smith – bounded by Ashley, Division, Liberty and William streets. (Image links to higher resolution image. Map data is available on the city's website at

The city council, for its part, had an opportunity to see a draft of the parcel-by-parcel plan as early as the city council’s Dec. 20, 2010 meeting – 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 that meeting. Taylor served on the city council’s mutually beneficial committee.

But the council required more time to achieve consensus on the plan – some councilmembers were not enthusiastic about assigning responsibility to the DDA for the task. Of particular concern was a clause in the plan that required reimbursement of DDA costs under certain conditions. Also a concern was the inclusion of the entire DDA district as the scope of the assignment. After twice postponing a vote on the plan, the council approved the plan at its April 4, 2010 meeting.

In its city council-approved form, the plan was reduced in scope to a rectangle bounded by Ashley, Division, Liberty and William streets. The city council version also included enhanced reference to a “robust” public process.

At Wednesday’s partnerships committee meeting, John Mouat reviewed some of the background of the city council-approved plan. He also summarized the four phases of the plan, which the DDA had been authorized to implement under the city council’s resolution:

  • Phase I – DDA assembles information and brings in development expertise: Assess potential downtown development sites.
  • Phase II – Visioning Downtown Development: Build upon the final A2D2 guidelines and strategies to develop a parcel-by-parcel plan. Each individual parcel is not expected to reflect every community goal, but in the aggregate the parcel-by-parcel plan will project a downtown consistent with the community’s downtown vision.
  • Phase III – Taking these ideas and shaping a strategic plan for city council approval: Finalize a parcel-by-parcel plan to articulate parcel-specific desired land uses and design components.
  • Phase IV – Implement the parcel-by-parcel plan. Pursue Parcel 1.

In Phases II and III, the detailed plan makes explicit reference to the “robust” public input that the DDA is to seek.

Recent History: Kelbaugh-McCullough Public Engagement Proposal

Doug Kelbaugh is former dean of the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Kit McCullough is a lecturer at the school. At the May 2011 partnerships committee meeting, the two had pitched their services to the DDA to lead a public engagement process as part of the parcel-by-parcel plan. Committee members had asked them bring back something more concrete for the June 2011 committee meeting, which they did.

The Kelbaugh-McCullough proposal was sketched out to the committee as follows:

  1. July-September 2011: Preliminary analysis, data gathering. This would prepare Kelbaugh and McCullough for the first public meeting.
  2. October-November 2011: Public meetings. The public meeting in October might be conducted in two separate but identical sessions to allow for a broader range of people to attend. They’d start with a presentation on the opportunities, constraints and possibilities, using examples from other communities. The conversation would be both broad, touching on the community’s aspirations for the downtown and a longer-term visions, as well as getting input that’s specific to the parcels. Kelbaugh and McCullough proposed focusing on the Library Lot (the top of the South Fifth Avenue underground parking structure), the old YMCA Lot (at William and Fifth), and the Palio Lot (at William and Main). They’d leave the Kline’s Lot (along Ashley, north of William) aside initially. For the November meeting, Kelbaugh and McCullough would return with two or three concepts to get response from the public.
  3. January 2012: Final concept plan. Feedback from the public would be consolidated into a final concept plan that describes massing, ground floor uses, public/civic uses, public space and pre-schematic site design. This concept plan could be used to craft future requests for proposals (RFPs) for the sites. The plan would then be presented to the DDA and the city council.

Recent History: Peter Allen’s Role

Local developer Peter Allen also attended the May and June partnerships committee meetings. He gave a presentation at the June meeting. In his remarks, some recurrent themes emerged. Those themes included: the significance of the role the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location, at the northeast corner of Fifth and William; the importance of rationing newly constructed space to the needs of the marketplace; and the importance of transportation connections.

Allen had begun canvassing property owners in the area the DDA will focus on, in part to test out some of the concepts he’s envisioned for the sites. Some of his own ideas have been shot down, he’d reported to the committee – like the idea of picking up and moving historic houses to different locations. At the May 2011 committee meeting, board member Bob Guenzel asked in what capacity Allen was conducting his conversations with downtown property owners. Allen told him he was doing that independently. From Chronicle coverage of that meeting:

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]

Allen attended Wednesday’s partnerships committee meeting with presentation boards ready, but ultimately committee members did not invite him to share the information.

Outcome: Pausing, Re-setting with October Goal

The committee did not push their work forward, and instead engaged in more of a retreat-style discussion of the issue. That was consistent with DDA executive director Susan Pollay’s remarks at the June committee meeting, when she suggested that committee members be prepared to engage in an extended conversation in that spirit.

When John Mouat began his remarks by talking about the need to “take a step back,” it served to signal that the day’s discussion was not intended to take the clear step forward that many in the audience were expecting. Another early indication to that effect came from Pollay. In reviewing the history of the parcel-by-parcel plan and how it had been ratified on the DDA’s side, Pollay noted that it had come out of the mutually beneficial committee’s work, and had come before the full board. However, she described how the “partnerships committee looked at it – kind of.” So the ensuing conversation was more about committee members thoughts regarding some of the meaning of the plan’s basics, more so than trying to come to conclusions about basic questions like: What people will do this work?

For example, the committee did not make any explicit decision to recommend that the full board accept the pitch by Kelbaugh and McCullough for their services. That essentially means that the DDA has, from a practical point of view, rejected it. Due to teaching schedules, the two had told the DDA that fall 2011 would be a feasible time frame, but after that it would be difficult. To prepare, the two would need to start in July or August.

And the cancellation of the August regular monthly meeting of the full DDA board means that no authorization of the funding for the services of Kelbaugh and McCullough would could be put in place before September. With no committee recommendation, it’s unlikely that the board would convene a special meeting in August for that purpose. Although committee members expressed a desire to convene a committee meeting in August, it was not clear if an amenable time can be found.

The prospect of Peter Allen’s explicit participation was also downplayed at Wednesday’s meeting. Mouat said he was apprehensive of the developer community being identified as leading the process. If he had his “druthers,” said Mouat, he’d love to see community leaders be an active part of the process. As examples, he cited Mark Hodesh, owner of Downtown Home & Garden, as well as ZingTrain, which is part of the Zingerman’s family of business. But as for who facilitates the process – DDA board members, staff, or a hired consultant – that would be a challenge to identify, he concluded.

One evident outcome of the committee meeting was that DDA staff would strive to frame out a timeline for the execution of the city council’s resolution. That timeline frame would be ready for inclusion on a city council work session agenda for October. The work session is already called for as part of the recently ratified contract between the city of Ann Arbor and the DDA, under which the DDA manages the public parking system.

Committee members were also in agreement that the process outlined in the council’s resolution would take at least a year. They also agreed that it should include a strong educational component, along the lines of the AATA’s public engagement process that began last year to develop a transit master plan for Washtenaw County.

On a lighter-hearted note, the committee agreed that the process needed some kind of name. The “parcel-by-parcel” nomenclature is somewhat misleading, because the planning is meant to focus on multiple parcels, but the actual issuance of RFPs is expected to take place one parcel at a time.

In a follow-up phone interview, Pollay told The Chronicle that the desire to check in with the city council – and get councilmember buy-in, before deciding on a public engagement process – was part of the reason the committee was not inclined to make a recommendation on Wednesday. But she felt that much of the work associated with Phase I in the plan can continue – assembling information and data about the parcels. And over the next two months, the timeframe proposal that’s pitched to the city council in October would be worked out by the committee and the full board – at their meetings between now and that time.

The spirit of caution about getting it right was evident in Pollay’s concluding remarks at Wednesday’s committee meeting. She called the opportunity for the DDA to execute the parcel-by-parcel plan a great opportunity, and said it was “important not to screw it up.”

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