DDA Gives More Time To Near North

Also: Potential parking rate increases called start of conversation

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Sept. 7, 2011): In the main business of its September meeting, the DDA board voted to renew a $500,000 grant previously awarded to Avalon Housing for its Near North affordable housing project on North Main Street. The project is planned to include 39 units of affordable housing on the site where eight now-vacant houses stand.

Russ Collins Gary Boren

Russ Collins (left) shakes hands with former board member Gary Boren, who was recognized for his service at the DDA's Sept. 7, 2011 board meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The Near North decision came over the objection of three board members, who expressed concern over unanswered questions about the project’s timeline. Avalon had also requested that the intent of the resolution be expressed in the form of a contractual agreement and that the period of the grant be two and a half years, instead of the maximum two years normally attached to DDA grants. The additional time is needed in order to cover a sufficient period to achieve LEED certification.

Representatives of the construction trades, who objected to the selection of the Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction as the general contractor for the Near North project, as well as a resident spoke against the DDA’s grant award during the time allowed for public participation.

The three votes against the grant renewal came from Newcombe Clark, Roger Hewitt and Russ Collins. With the absence of board members Keith Orr and Bob Guenzel, the 12-member board still achieved the minimum seven votes it needed for approval of the grant.

Despite his absence from Wednesday’s meeting, Guenzel was voted as the new chair of the DDA board, filling a vacancy in that position left when the recently elected chair, Gary Boren, was not nominated for reappointment to the board when his term expired on July 31. Boren was on hand to accept a resolution of appreciation for his service on the board.

In connection to the officer election timing issue, Clark asked for a review of the board’s bylaws by the board’s executive committee. Clark has raised the issue during the July officer elections for the last two years. Because the mayor has been reticent about his intended appointments, DDA board members have elected their officers for the coming year without knowing if all board members with expiring terms will be reappointed. Clark asked that the bylaws possibly be changed so that board officers are elected after appointments are made, so that it’s clear who will be serving on the board.

In other business, the board unanimously passed a resolution of support for the RiverUp! program amid some discussion of the appropriateness of the resolution – in light of the fact that the Huron River does not flow through the DDA tax district.

The board also passed a resolution encouraging the Washtenaw County board of commissioners to enact an economic development tax on county residents. About half of the tax proceeds would go to Ann Arbor SPARK. The resolution came at the request of DDA board member Leah Gunn, who also serves on the Washtenaw County board. The Ann Arbor city council had previously passed a resolution encouraging the county board to enact the tax. The county board gave initial approval to the tax later that evening.

As part of the reports from various board committees, Roger Hewitt stressed that the parking rates and hours of enforcement discussed at the previous week’s operations committee meeting were merely the start of the discussion. The DDA is currently discussing what kind of proposal it will present to the city council at a November joint work session on parking. Under its new contract with the city to manage the public parking system, the DDA’s authority to set rates and hours of enforcement comes with specific requirements on public input.

The city council also has directed the DDA to explore alternate uses for some of the city-owned surface parking lots in the downtown. Board members got an update on the status of the DDA’s effort to plan how to implement that directive. 

Near North Housing Grant

The board was asked to consider renewal of a grant to Avalon Housing that board members had originally approved in early 2010 for the Near North affordable housing project on North Main Street.

The grant is for $400,000, with another $100,000 available if the project achieves certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) – a green building certification system. The grant would be paid when the project receives a certificate of occupancy. Avalon must also have an agreement in place with the city/county office of community development to ensure that income eligibility requirements are met for all residents.

Vacant Houses Near North

A vacant house on North Main Street on the site of the planned Near North housing project.

The income eligibility requirements for the 39 units in Near North are based on affordability as defined for two categories of apartments. For 25 apartments, rents must be affordable to households with incomes at less than 50% of area median income (AMI). The remaining 14 apartments are for supportive housing and will have Section 8 rent subsidies.

The Near North project is outside the DDA tax district boundary, but is within the quarter-mile radius established by DDA board policy for such housing fund expenditures.

The planned unit development (PUD) for the Near North project was given approval by the Ann Arbor city council on Sept. 21, 2009.

Near North Grant: Public Commentary

Michael Appel, Avalon’s associate director, led off public participation time by describing the request for an extension of a previous grant the board had authorized to Avalon for its Near North affordable housing project. He sketched out the basics of the project: There would be 39 units on North Main Street, the main entryway to downtown. The project will meet the city’s housing goals, he said.

Appel ticked through some of the timeline points for the project. He noted that Avalon was awarded the DDA funds early in 2010.

By way of background, it was at the Jan. 6, 2010 meeting that the DDA board took that vote. By board policy, grants automatically expire at the end of the fiscal year following the year they are awarded. That board policy was established by a vote of the board at its March 4, 2009 meeting.

While the DDA grant period has come to be thought of as a two-year period, two years is actually a maximum in calendar terms. That maximum could occur if a grant were awarded in early July, just after the start of the DDA’s fiscal year – the grant would be good through the end of the fiscal year, ending on June 30 two years later. But if a grant is awarded in early June, the end of the next fiscal year would be only 13 months away.

In a followup email to The Chronicle, Appel clarified some of the dates, which he’d inadvertently misstated in addressing the board. The accurate timeframe for Avalon’s application for tax credits was spring 2010. The tax credits were awarded in the summer of 2010. Appel went on to explain that a key piece of funding – brownfield tax credits from the state of Michigan – were eliminated by the legislature during tax reform legislation after the 2010 elections. By the summer of 2011 new legislation had been passed, which preserved the brownfield funding source.

In addressing the board, Appel stressed that the general contractor Avalon had selected [Rockford Construction] had worked hard to solicit a wide range of bids for subcontractors. Around 1,500 solicitations had been sent out, he said.

Appel concluded with two specific requests of the DDA. He noted that the DDA doesn’t typically sign grant contracts, but rather works off of resolutions. Avalon was requesting that the resolution before the DDA staff include authorization of the DDA staff to draw up a formal contract. The four-minute time limit on public speaking time expired before Appel could get to his second request: to extend the grant period beyond the usual timeframe, which would have ended the grant period on June 30, 2013.

The rationale for the extension was based on the need to have the building in operation for some period of time in order to gather sufficient data to achieve LEED certification. The DDA’s grant makes $100,000 contingent on achievement of LEED certification and the other $400,000 contingent on a certificate of occupancy.

Tom Yax spoke on behalf of U.A. (United Association) Local 190, a union of plumbers, pipefitters, service technicians and gas distribution workers. He told the DDA board the local union basically supports the awarding of the grant.

However, Yax described his union’s opposition to the award of the general construction contract to Rockford Construction, because of Rockford’s location in Grand Rapids and concern that, as general contractor, Rockford would award subcontracts to non-local workers. When you give work to outside contractors, Yax said, they make money, then leave the community, and they don’t do any charity work in the community. Yax described a range of community efforts by the union. He encouraged the use of local businesses and contractors. Every dollar spent locally passes through the economy six times, he said.

So Yax explained that the union was against awarding the grant unless assurance could be given that there would be local contractors. Why spend money on contractors who leave? he asked. Near North is a prevailing wage job, so there’s no reason not to hire local contractors with local workers, he said.

During the time for public participation at the end of the meeting, Margaret Schankler introduced herself as a resident who lived behind the Near North property. She called it unfortunate that the board had extended its usual grant period to December 2013, but that they didn’t have four minutes for additional public participation before the vote.

By way of background on public commentary, the DDA board entertains public participation at the start of its meetings by allowing up to four people to speak – it’s possible to sign up in advance. If fewer than four people sign up, people from the audience who have not signed up are invited to address the board. In no case are more than four people allowed to address the board at the start of the meeting.

Later, at the conclusion of the meeting, an unlimited number of people can address the board. The time limit for all speakers is four minutes. Public bodies like the DDA board are required under the state’s Open Meetings Act to allow any member of the public to address them during their meetings.

Schankler told the board that she’d heard the phrase “closing in a few weeks” more times than she could count. She commended board member Newcombe Clark for asking questions. She noted that the neighborhood had worked with developers and negotiated something they thought the whole neighborhood could live with. That had come after the neighborhood had urged Avalon to build a much smaller project – but they’d been told it needed to be that large to make the numbers work. She criticized the fact that only 14 of the 39 units in Near North are for supportive housing.

She said that the still-unbuilt units of Near North are being counted as replacements for the 15 units that Avalon is eliminating in connection with its project at 1500 Pauline. Considering the 1500 Pauline project and Near North, the two projects together result in no net gain for supportive housing in Ann Arbor, she said.

Schankler also contended that the existing houses (now vacant for two years) previously rented for rates that were half what will be charged for the new units. She also pointed to the high cost of construction for the new units – $378 per square foot. She told the board that’s twice as much as it would cost to build a two-bedroom condo.

Schankler criticized the lack of more publicly documentable progress on the project. She also criticized the fact that the existing houses had been allowed to deteriorate beyond repair, which she contended was intentional in order to ensure brownfield funding.

Now, the DDA had a chance to step back from the project and to redirect scare resources more wisely inside the DDA district. [The Near North project is outside the DDA tax district, but within the quarter-mile radius the DDA board has set as the area in which it's willing to invest housing dollars. In this the DDA has relied on advice from its legal counsel that it is legal to take this approach.]

Also at the end of the meeting, during time allotted for public participation, Ron Motsinger of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 252 told the board that the local union represented hundreds of building contractors in all trades. He pointed to current levels of unemployment in some trades of over 33%. Local workers are hurting for jobs, he said. He had been excited to see the Near North project come in, but was disappointed that Rockford Construction was chosen as the general contractor.

Motsinger contended that Rockford has a track record of not using local contractors. Hutzel, a 150-year-old local company, had not been notified to bid on the project. He had no confidence Rockford would use local labor. Motsinger said the local had done $100,000 worth of charity and community work, citing specifically that it had bought scoreboards for Skyline High School. It really would have been nice to make sure it’s local people who are hired, he said. There are local general contractors who could have done the job. He said it was disappointing to see the resolution rushed through.

Rob Turner who represents District 1 on the county board of commissioners, also addressed the board at the end of the meeting. He is the owner of Turner Electric Service Inc. in Dexter. He said he was excited when the Near North project was approved – it helped poor people and he was happy for that. It could also help the building trades, he said. But when he heard that Rockford Construction had been selected as the general contractor, he was disappointed. As an alternative, he mentioned O’Neal Construction as a local general contractor who has experience with federally-funded projects.

Turner described Rockford as dealing with “non-responsible bidders.” Non-local firms don’t shop and buy locally, he said. He acknowledged that his firm was asked to bid on the Near North project. However, he’d received the invitation to bid just one week before. He’d tried to get a set of plans online but was unable to obtain them that way. They had been available physically in Grand Rapids and Bloomfield Hills, he said. He asked the board if that kind of bid process sounded conducive to local contractors. Given that the grant contract is not done, he said, he thought some language could be added to ensure that local companies had better access to the work.

Near North Grant: Board Deliberations

When the board took up the issue of the grant renewal, Appel was asked to the podium to clarify the nature of Avalon’s request. Appel explained that Avalon anticipated closing on their deal in the next month or so. The other funders will want written assurance that the $400,000 plus the $100,000 (contingent on LEED certification) is committed from the DDA. When Avalon closes, Appel said, the other funders will want to know that the $500,000 commitment is secured. DDA executive director Susan Pollay had told him, Appel said, that it’s not DDA standard practice to create a grant agreement.

Newcombe Clark DDA board member Near North

DDA board member Newcombe Clark.

The second part of the request was a longer-than-usual grant period. If renewed now, then June 30, 2013 would be the natural expiration, he said. Appel requested that it be extended through Dec. 31, 2013, because by then the building would be operating long enough to achieve LEED certification.

Joan Lowenstein asked what the potential impact would be if the decision were put off until the operations committee could again review it and bring it back to the board. Appel said he was worried that a delay could affect the closing on the deal. Lowenstein invited Appel to talk about the bidding and the local contracts, which had been raised during public participation time at the start of the meeting.

Appel said that Avalon had looked at a number of issues in selecting a general contractor. Among them were the contractor’s experience in Washtenaw County, the experience building this type of housing, and experience with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). Avalon had selected Rockford Construction because Rockford brought the most to the table, including experience in Washtenaw County. Before issuing bids, Appel said, Avalon had made sure that local subcontractors were well represented. For the early bid packets, only one-quarter came from western Michigan, where Rockford is located.

Appel said that because the project has federal funding, it brings with it various requirements for oversight – that includes prevailing wage requirements. There’s a highly-regulated open bid process. The bids were widely circulated for anyone to download the specifications, Appel said. He said he understood and respected the desire to support local businesses. Federal regulations make sure that everybody has access to the bidding process, he said.

Appel cautioned that a delay at this point would not allow Avalon to bring a document to the closing that showed the funding is secure.

Board member Newcombe Clark indicated that he thought the urgency was generated by the DDA board’s bylaws, not by Avalon’s timetable.

Pollay explained that the Avalon grant had sun-setted on June 30, 2011. The renewal had been discussed at the previous week’s operations committee meeting, Pollay said.

Clark said he had supported the Near North project and that he still supported it. He wanted to see it “come out of the ground,” he said. But Clark he said he also wanted to see his questions answered. He felt the DDA board was being rushed into creating closing documents, and the extension was for longer than the DDA’s usual grant period – it was for a 2.5 year extension. He’d wanted to explore several questions. Clark concluded that he could not support the project, based only on the information he had.

Responding to a question from board member Leah Gunn, Appel explained that the overall Near North project is relying on the DDA grant money – other funders need to know that the DDA’s commitment is there. Clark chimed in, “We’re free equity.”

Appel continued by saying that a copy of a DDA board resolution is not what real estate attorneys are accustomed to seeing at a closing. He said Avalon needed something that third parties would understand in the context of a real estate closing. Board member Roger Hewitt observed that the board was being asked to support the resolution when the document doesn’t exist yet.

Mayor John Hieftje said that the DDA’s offer of a grant was very sincere and he didn’t have a problem putting it in writing. He said he trusted the executive committee of the DDA board to do that. [According to DDA board bylaws, the executive committee consists of the chair, vice chair, treasurer and recording secretary. The last former chair is a non-voting member, and the executive director is a non-voting ex-officio member of the executive committee.]

Hieftje said that Avalon has to balance a lot of different factors with other entities that are larger than the DDA. Timing issues are hard. He said the DDA had committed to the Near North project a long time ago. Board member John Splitt also indicated that he had no problem with voting for the resolution. Board member John Mouat also supported the project. He noted that an incredible amount of time and work has been put in to make the project work. He said the DDA board owed it to the community to support it.

Responding to the concerns raised by representatives of trade unions, Gunn explained that the board doesn’t have the ability to say who gets a contract. She also noted that new state legislation forbids CUB (Construction Unity Board) agreements – it’s not for the DDA to decide. [CUB agreements are negotiated between local trade unions and contractors, and require that contractors who sign the agreement abide by terms of collective bargaining agreements for the duration of the construction project. In return, the trade unions agree that they will not strike, engage in work slow-downs, set up separate work entrances at the job site or take any other adverse action against the contractor.]

Comments from Hieftje and Gunn established that the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County both needed to take action to revise policies to make them conform to the new state legislation on CUB agreements.

Clark asked for information on the site plan and whether it needed to be renewed with the city. Lacking other information, he said, he had to default to his own expertise. Clark said he did not want to go through the winter with vacant houses sitting on the site. He lamented the fact that the board did not have more time to consider the resolution.

Board member Sandi Smith said she’d been trying for seven years since she’d been appointed to the DDA board to spend the housing fund balance. It’s been difficult to add even a single unit of affordable housing, she said. If the DDA were to pull its commitment from the Near North project, it’s not as simple as picking another project that comes along. It would take a lot of time to develop another project. The DDA has been familiar with the Near North project for a long time, Smith said. She echoed Clark’s sentiment, however, that the houses need to come down. There’d been problems with people squatting inside them, she said.

Clark then suggested that out of the $500,000 grant, $100,000 be slated specifically for demolition and be paid upfront, not made contingent on a certificate of occupancy or LEED certification. If the project meets the DDA’s goals and the board is already willing to spend the money, then “Let’s have lots, not squatter places.” Lowenstein, who was chairing the meeting, noted that Clark’s suggestion would need to come in the form of an amendment to the resolution.

Smith seconded Clark’s suggestion that the DDA would front the $100,000 to Avalon to carry out the demolition of the houses. Hewitt said he was supportive of the project, but still had the same concern that the board would simply be trusting that everything will be worked out. The board needs better documentation, he said.

Smith asked if the demolition could be incorporated into the terms of the grant contract. Mouat felt it would further complicate what is already very complicated. He felt the board needs to be supportive of the project and make it happen as soon as possible. Adding a condition on the demolition would be another hindrance, he said.

Board member Russ Collins “called the question” on the amendment earmarking $100,000 for demolition of the existing housing on the Near North site.

Outcome on amendment: Clark’s amendment earmarking $100,000 for Avalon to demolish the houses on North Main received support only from one other board member, Russ Collins.

Almost immediately after the vote on the amendment, Gunn called the question on the main resolution.

Outcome on resolution: The board approved the $500,000 grant extension to Avalon, with dissent from Clark, Collins and Hewitt.

Near North Grant: Coda on Calling the Question

At the conclusion of the board meeting, Hieftje asked that the board bylaws be reviewed with respect to the parliamentary procedure of “calling the question,” to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak twice before the question has been called. He said he’d had his hand raised to speak on the Near North question and didn’t get to say something.

By way of background, under Robert’s Rules, the parliamentary move to close debate is actually called “moving the previous question.” More colloquially it’s referred to as “calling the question.” The motion needs a second, then requires a vote with 2/3 majority. The motion itself is not debatable, however.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the calling of the question on both occasions did not receive a vote. When something like this happens, contrary to the rules of procedure, it’s always in order for someone to raise a point of order to insist on the proper administration of the rules. Had Hieftje done so, it’s possible that his desire to speak might have been recognized at that point.

Parking Rates, Enforcement

At the meeting of the DDA board’s operations committee meeting the week before, on Aug. 30, 2011, the committee meeting packet included a set of items proposed to be included as part of the agenda for a joint city council/DDA board working session scheduled for  Nov. 14. The board did not have an item on its Sept. 7 agenda concerning parking rates.

Parking Rates, Enforcement: Background

A recent report in AnnArbor.com left the impression with some readers that a set of items in the Aug. 30 committee materials was already a recommendation of the DDA board. The article did not include the context of the DDA’s April 2010 Parking Report, which is referenced in the committee meeting materials.

That parking report had been produced by the DDA in response to a city council directive, given in late 2009. The city council directive had stemmed directly from a resolution considered by the city council, but not passed at that time, calling for the extension of parking meter enforcement hours.

The city council’s idea to extend evening enforcement hours was part of a strategy to replace revenue that the city had projected for new parking meters the city had wanted to install in areas near the downtown – against the advice of the DDA. The city wound up not installing most of the meters.

The city council’s revenue replacement strategy was put together by Sandi Smith, who is both a city councilmember (representing Ward 1) and a DDA board member. Included as part of Smith’s revenue replacement strategy was the assignment of revenue from two city-owned lots – 415 W. Washington and Fifth & William – directly to the city of Ann Arbor.

Additional context includes a planned joint working session with the city council. At its Aug. 30 meeting, the operations committee discussed items to be proposed to the council at that joint working session. The session, scheduled for Nov. 14, is contractually required as the result of a new agreement struck in May of 2011 under which the DDA manages the city’s public parking system. From the contract:

Joint Working Session. As part of the annual established calendar for City Council Working Sessions, City Council shall designate one working session in the fall of each calendar year as a joint working session with the DDA. The agenda for the working session shall be prepared by the City Administrator in accordance with Council Rules and in consultation with the Executive Director of the DDA. It is recommended that a portion of such agenda be dedicated to a discussion of operations under this Agreement and the utility of creating a joint study committee to address areas of mutual interest.

The timeline for rate increases stipulated in the contract requires three DDA board meetings, over the span of at least two months. The contract calls for announcing and indicating in writing the intent to increase rates at a DDA board meeting. At the next subsequent board meeting, members of the public must have an opportunity to address the board on that issue. And the board is contractually bound not to vote on the rate increase until the board meeting after that.

Based on the assumption that the DDA would not formally proceed with the contractually-stipulated changes to rates or enforcement hours before the council/DDA joint working session on Nov. 14, the DDA board could not take a vote on those changes until its February board meeting. On that scenario, the announcement of intent would come at the board’s December meeting, the public hearing would take place at the January meeting, and a vote could take place at the February meeting.

Parking Rates, Enforcement: Possible Agenda Items

In broad strokes, on Aug. 30 the operations committee was presented with possible items for the Nov. 14 joint working session that fell into two broad categories: hours of enforcement and parking fees. The note on hours of enforcement indicates that a possible item on the working session agenda could be a recommendation to extend the current on-street meter enforcement hours (currently from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to 10 p.m.

The possible agenda items for parking rate changes include: increases in monthly permit parking for some structures and lots; increases in entrance fees to some structures; and increases in miscellaneous categories like art fair and meter bags.

Possible agenda items for rate changes also include adjustment downward of some parking fees, as part of a proposal to set rates based on demand. On-street spaces in highest demand would have a higher rate ($1.80/hour); on-street spaces in lowest demand would have a lower rate ($1.00/hour); and on-street spaces in the middle of the demand range would not have their rates changed.

Demand is defined in terms of the amount of revenue currently brought in by each meter. The pilot program described in the committee’s packet would be implemented in a rectangle bounded by State Street on the east and First Street on the west. Huron and William streets would be the respective north and south boundaries of the pilot program to set meter rates based on demand.

Parking Rates, Enforcement: Public Commentary

Maura Thomson, executive director of the Main Street Area Association (MSAA), addressed some recent talk about proposed changes to parking rates and enforcement hours. Back in late 2009, a resolution was considered by the city council that contemplated evening enforcement hours. [Chronicle reporting from that timeframe includes "City-DDA Parking Deal Possible" and "Most Aspects of Parking Deal Approved"] Thomson reminded the DDA board that in 2009, merchants were vocal in opposition to evening enforcement. [Within hours of the appearance on the city council's agenda of the resolution calling for evening enforcement, the Ann Arbor Area chamber of commerce had fired off a memo in opposition.]

In the wake of that city council discussion [which ultimately did not result in a formal call for evening enforcement], the DDA was then asked to come up with a plan. Thomson said that the MSAA was involved in that work through participation in focus groups. The MSAA had also surveyed its membership, Thomson said. She indicated that there was overwhelming opposition to extending enforcement hours. There was also a sentiment that some kind of free parking component needs to be included. She said it feels like “we’re back to where we started.” Part of the balance of higher rates and longer enforcement hours outlined in the April 2010 parking report produced by the DDA is a free parking component as part of the demand management strategy, Thomson said.

Thompson was alluding specifically to a passage from the April 2010 report that reads:

Free structure parking is being used in other Michigan cities with mixed use downtowns, as the offer of free is very attractive and easily understood. The DDA believes that every parking space has value, but if used correctly, using this pricing strategy may lessen demand at the meters and extend parking more broadly throughout the system.

Thomson asked the DDA board to consider that aspect of the plan – it allows for a positive communications strategy. She was dismissive of a free parking component based on the hours of enforcement early in the morning [also discussed in the report]. If we’re all being honest, she said, the free component from 8-9 a.m. has no correlation to evening enforcement. She compared that strategy to saying that enforcement of meters from 6-8 a.m. would have a positive impact on parking revenue. So she asked that “truly free” parking be tied into any plan to extend hours of enforcement.

Tom Murray introduced himself as a member of the MSAA and owner of Conor O’Neill’s on Main Street. He warned that if the DDA enacts the plan as currently discussed, people will go elsewhere for entertainment. Addressing the issue of employee parking in the evening, Murray said that the DDA was directed to provide a plan to communicate specific options for evening employees. But the discussion from the last committee meeting the previous week didn’t indicate any specific options, Murray said.

Murray ventured that his staff would continue to find a way to get outside and feed the meters. Customers, on the other hand, won’t go outside and they’ll receive tickets – that will become a problem. Murray said that when we read about employees, we forget that employees are also customers. We need to incentivize employees, not punish them. A truly free parking component needs to be explored, Murray said.

Murray encouraged the DDA to find creative ways to reach out to employees. Employees would take advantage of alternatives if they are safe and affordable, he said. He also suggested that the entire program should be on a pilot basis, not just the meter rate schedule. The plan current under consideration hurts downtown, Murray concluded.

Addressing the board at the time for public commentary at the end of the meeting, Jessica Johnston of Falling Water on Main Street asked the board to reconsider any decision to extend hours of parking enforcement. Based on face-to-face interaction with her customers, she told the board there would be a negative reaction to it. The downtown economy is already fragile, she cautioned, and she ventured that the dinner crowd could be eliminated by the proposal.

As part of his report from the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, Ray Detter said the advisory council continues to support the DDA’s effort to implement parking/transportation demand management. He said some of the things in the media he’d read were not terribly accurate. He stated that the advisory council had always assumed that the possibility of extending hours would include a free component.

At the start of public commentary, Joan Lowenstein, who was chairing the meeting, had stressed that public commentary is not the occasion for a back-and-forth kind of thing. However, board members do sometimes use their own time at the board table to respond to concerns raised during public commentary.

And in response to the public commentary, board member Roger Hewitt stressed that the operations committee meeting had been the start of a discussion – he appreciated the input from the public. Hewitt said he felt the way the proposal had been characterized in media reports was unfortunate.

Naming Guenzel Chair, Thanking Boren

On the agenda were resolutions to name Bob Guenzel as board chair and Leah Gunn as vice chair, and to thank Gary Boren for his service on the board. [Guenzel did not attend the board's meeting.]

Naming Guenzel, Thanking Boren: Background

The board had been without a chair because board member Gary Boren, who had been elected to that post by his board colleagues at their July 6, 2011 meeting, was not nominated by mayor John Hieftje for reappointment. Boren’s term expired on July 31. Boren was replaced on the board by local attorney Nader Nassif.

Guenzel, who retired last year as Washtenaw County administrator, was elected vice chair of the board at the July meeting. Gunn’s other public service currently includes representing District 9 on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

The evening before the DDA’s board meeting, at the Sept. 6 city council meeting, three nominations to the DDA board were on the agenda for confirmation: Joan Lowenstein (reappointment), John Mouat (reappointment), and Nader Nassif (new appointment replacing Boren). The nominations had been announced at the council’s previous meeting, on Aug. 15.

At the council’s Sept. 6 meeting, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) made the rare request that the council’s confirmation of the mayoral nominations be done separately on roll call votes for each nominee. The votes on the appointments of Mouat and Nassif were unanimous. However, Kunselman voted against the reappointment of Lowenstein. All other councilmembers present voted for her.

Naming Guenzel, Thanking Boren: Board Deliberations

At the DDA board’s Sept. 7 meeting, Newcombe Clark noted that the board is tasked by its bylaws to elect officers at the July annual meeting. [That has historically come before the mayor has chosen to announce whether he would be reappointing board members whose terms were expiring later in the month.] Clark reminded board members that he’d raised the issue at the last two annual meetings. From The Chronicle’s report of the 2011 annual meeting:

Roger Hewitt nominated current vice chair Gary Boren to serve as chair.

Newcombe Clark asked if Boren’s term was being renewed – that is, would he be reappointed by the mayor to serve on the board? By way of background, outgoing chair Joan Lowenstein’s term on the board ends on July 31, 2011, as do the terms for Gary Boren and John Mouat. Boren has been a vocal proponent of the idea that the DDA is an independent corporate body and not an arm of the city of Ann Arbor.

Last year, Clark had pointedly abstained from voting in the officer elections over the lack of information about reappointments to the board. From Chronicle coverage of the July 7, 2010 DDA annual meeting:

Abstaining from each of the officer votes was board member Newcombe Clark.

Clark explained to The Chronicle after the meeting that there’d been no indication from the mayor whether the two board members whose appointments are expiring July 31 – Jennifer S. Hall and John Splitt – would be reappointed. Clark said he could thus not be certain of the full range of choices for board officers.

Splitt was reappointed; Hall was not. Bob Guenzel was appointed instead of Hall.

In response to Clark’s question this year, Lowenstein said they did not know that yet. Mayor John Hieftje, sitting at the board table, did not offer any statement about whether he planned to nominate Boren for the city council’s approval for reappointment.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Clark stated that he would like to see the bylaws adjusted so that officer elections are not held until after the status of reappointments is known. Otherwise, he said, board members are being asked to vote for chair and vice chair without knowing if they’ll continue on the board. Nothing is lost and a lot is gained by making the change, Clark said. He stated that he wanted formally to ask the executive committee to look into it: “We owe each other more than this.”

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the resolution thanking Gary Boren for his service, as well as the resolution naming Bob Guenzel chair of the board. Boren, who attended the meeting to receive the recognition from his colleagues, made his way around the table and shook hands with the board members.

County Economic Development Tax

The board was asked to consider a resolution urging the Washtenaw County board of commissioners to use Act 88 of 1913 to levy a tax in support of economic development in the county. A public hearing on the tax was scheduled for the county board’s meeting later that evening.

At its Aug. 15 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council passed a similar measure urging county commissioners to levy the tax.

For the last two years, the county board has levied the tax. It has previously used a rate of 0.043 mill. (One mill is $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value.) This year, the county board is contemplating a millage rate of 0.05 mills. Because Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee legislation, the county board does not need to put the issue before voters in order to levy the tax. The county board could, by the Act 88 statute, levy such a tax up to 0.5 mills, or 10 times the amount it is considering for next year.

The Act 88 tax received initial approval by a 7-3 vote at the county board’s Sept. 7 meeting. The three commissioners voting against it were Alicia Ping (R-District 3), Wes Prater (D-District 4) and Dan Smith (R-District 2). Commissioner Ronnie Peterson was absent. A final vote is expected on Sept. 21.

The anticipated $688,913 in millage proceeds will be allocated to several local entities: Ann Arbor SPARK ($230,000), SPARK East business incubator ($50,000), the county’s dept. of community & economic development ($131,149), Eastern Leaders Group ($100,000), promotion of heritage tourism ($65,264), Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP – $15,000), Washtenaw 4-H, operated by the Michigan State University Extension program ($82,500) and Washtenaw Farm Council 4-H Youth Show ($15,000).

During the brief DDA board deliberations on the resolution, Leah Gunn, who also serves as a county commissioner, indicated that it was “very small millage,” that would cost $5.38/year for the average homeowner. It supports important economic development efforts like Ann Arbor SPARK and agriculture, she said. Gunn told her DDA board colleagues that she would appreciate them voting for it, so that she could take it to the county board of commissioners meeting later that evening.

Outcome: The DDA board voted unanimously in favor of the resolution urging the county board to levy the economic development tax.


Before the board was a resolution expressing support of RiverUp!, a collaborative effort among several organizations – including the Huron River Watershed Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters – to improve the Huron River corridor.

The resolution states that the DDA will assist in wayfinding efforts that would help connect the river with visitors to the downtown, but it does not specify a budget for that effort. [For background on the RiverUp! initiative, see Chronicle coverage: "RiverUp! Focuses on Revitalizing Huron River"]

During board deliberations, mayor John Hieftje stressed that he’s been involved with the RiverUp! project since the beginning and expressed his support for the resolution.

John Mouat questioned the project’s relevance to the DDA. He said as much as he wished it did, the Huron River doesn’t flow through Ann Arbor’s DDA district. What caused him concern, he said, is when something becomes “a bit of a stretch” and he wanted to voice that as a general concern. He wanted to know specifically how support of the DDA board adds to the project.

Sandi Smith pointed out the focus on wayfinding in the DDA’s resolution. She said her thought in bringing forward the resolution is that a University of Michigan freshman might be standing on campus and not know about the recreation amenity just 3/4 mile to the north. She allowed that the DDA can’t relocate the downtown to the river, but it’s also important not to forget that it’s there.

Outcome: The DDA board voted unanimously in favor of the resolution expressing support of RiverUp!

Communications, Committee Reports

The board’s meeting included the usual range of reports from its standing committees and the downtown citizens advisory council.

Comm/Comm: The Varsity, Alleys

Ray Detter reported out from the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, which meets monthly on the evening just before the DDA board meetings. He noted that The Varsity at Ann Arbor would be coming before the planning commission on Sept. 20. [The Varsity is a proposed 13-story, 173-unit, 178,380-square-foot apartment building for approximately 418 students. It would include 77 parking spaces, and would replace the two-story office building and parking lot currently on the site, located on Washington Street, just west of the First Baptist Church.]

Detter said that the advisory council would continue to support the city’s newly enacted downtown design guidelines – the advisory council doesn’t oppose The Varsity. He reported that members of the advisory council had attended the design board review meeting for The Varsity, as well as the citizen participation meeting, and offered their suggestions. Detter said that in response to feedback, the developer had made some changes, but had not really addressed the issue of the view from East Huron Street.

Detter praised the work that the developer had done with the First Baptist Church, which had resulted in plans for a walkway connecting East Huron and Washington Street.

Detter said the hope was that the south entrance to that walkway on Washington would connect to the alley that runs between Washington and Liberty. That alley, Detter said, has been allowed to turn into a place for smelly dumpsters and urinating panhandlers. Detter reported that the advisory council had met with DDA executive director Susan Pollay, assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald, interim city administrator Tom Crawford and mayor John Hieftje.

As a result, Detter reported, that group has moved ahead to form a committee to develop a plan for the alley. Some of the goals are to get better placement of the dumpsters, add awnings, and install better lighting. He expressed the hope that it could be turned from a dangerous, dirty, disgraceful alley into an asset.

Comm/Comm: Downtown Parcels

As part of the report from the board’s partnerships committee, Sandi Smith reported that the committee continues to discuss how the DDA will implement a city council directive to explore alternate uses of some city-owned parcels in the downtown. Smith stressed that the idea is to build on all the work that’s come before, not to recreate everything.

Amber Miller, the DDA’s planning and research specialist, had sketched out a draft of a process, to which committee members had responded favorably. It involved two parallel tracks – a technical component and a community outreach component. Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning, and Kit McCullough, who teaches at the college, attended the partnerships committee meeting. They’d previously pitched their services to the DDA to facilitate a public engagement process.

The two UM architecture faculty were receptive to Miller’s sketch and suggested that they could develop a “road show” as a presentation that could be delivered by DDA staff or some other person on multiple occasions to different community groups. The conversation about the alternative use of downtown parcels was to continue at the committee’s next meeting on Sept. 14.

Comm/Comm: Regular Parking Report

Roger Hewitt delivered highlights from the monthly parking report from July: hourly patrons were down 5%, revenues up 2%. Art fair revenue was down about $5,000 (2%) compared to last year. Hewitt said the weather had an impact, but the horrible, hot temperatures had put a smaller dent in revenues than he’d been anticipating. Responding to a question from John Mouat, Hewitt said the revenue from art fair parking is not budgeted separately. Russ Collins called the $5,000 variance not significant. Hewitt agreed that it’s “a drop in the bucket.”

Comm/Comm: Unaudited FY 2011 Budget Numbers

Roger Hewitt pointed to the unaudited financial statements from the end of the 2011 fiscal year. He noted that by state law the DDA has to amend its budget every year to reflect the best estimate of where the organization stands financially. The audit is in process now, and the DDA expects that the numbers will be the same at the end of the audit.

Of the items that Hewitt ticked through, the scaling back of expenditures on parking maintenance drew scrutiny from board member Newcombe Clark. He wanted to know if the amount reflected an additional revised downward expenditure on maintenance. Yes, answered Hewitt, but the reduced maintenance activity was still within the DDA’s engineering consultant’s recommendations.

Clark noted that painting is cosmetic unless you don’t do it for several years – then it becomes structural. Hewitt assured Clark that over a 10-year period, the DDA would spend the same amount it had originally planned. Hewitt described the DDA’s approach to maintenance as “fanatical,” so felt like the DDA was in very good shape with respect to the maintenance issue.

Hewitt noted that the fund balance had decreased considerably from a high of around $20 million several years ago and the DDA had spent down a good deal of it. Those numbers would continue to go down, he said.

Comm/Comm: go!pass

John Mouat reported that the getDowntown advisory board had advised increasing the cost of go!passes to employers from $5 to $10. With the popularity of the program, all of the funds had been expended, he said. However, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) had passed a resolution at its last meeting adjusting the price it charges for go!pass rides over the next two years to calibrate it to the amount already pledged by the DDA for that period. That led Mouat to conclude that: “We’re covered for go!passes.” [For detailed Chronicle coverage of the go!pass AATA funding decision, see "AATA Reduces Charge for go!pass Rides"]

Comm/Comm: Bicycle Parking

John Mouat gave an update on information about bicycle parking downtown, provided by a DDA summer intern. Highlights included: 1,000 bike parking spaces downtown; 83% of bikes parked are locked to hoops instead of lampposts; the bicycle map has been updated; the last of new vegetable-shaped hoops have been installed at the farmers market.

Comm/Comm: Construction Updates

John Splitt reported that the Fifth and Division streetscape improvement project is mostly complete, except for the 300 block of South Fifth Avenue – that section will need to wait until construction of the underground parking structure on South Fifth is further along. On the 200 block of South Fifth, just some lampposts remain to be installed.

The underground parking structure site along Fifth Avenue is now is getting very busy, Splitt reported. Waterproofing work is being done on the east dog-leg side of the project. Columns and slabs are getting poured in the other two phases – the middle and the Fifth Avenue side. [The project is being built from east to west.]

Comm/Comm: State of the Downtown Report

At the board meeting, the previous release of the DDA’s State of the Downtown Report was acknowledged. The report features a raft of statistical information about the DDA district, including acreage, building square footage by category, population trends, real estate occupancy rates, crime trends, and the like. Interspersed through the text are photos, including a cover photo by Seth McCubbin.

Present: Nader Nassif, Newcombe Clark, Roger Hewitt, John Hieftje, John Splitt, Sandi Smith, Leah Gunn, Russ Collins, Joan Lowenstein, John Mouat

Absent: Keith Orr, Bob Guenzel

Next board meeting: Noon on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [confirm date]

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  1. September 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm | permalink

    The DDA Board’s 4-person limit for speaking before the meeting is not explained anywhere on their website, and no procedure for signing up is listed there either. I sent an email to the director and office manager requesting guidance on how to sign up, and that email has not been answered.

    Those of us who occasionally comment at Council know that you must call the Clerk’s office as close to 8:00 a.m. on the meeting day to be one of the 10 people allowed to speak. What was the beginning time for signing up for the DDA? The selected speakers were already listed on the agenda for the noon meeting.

    Apparently you have to be a long-time participant and also a very motivated individual to speak to the DDA board before the meeting.

    The phone number for the DDA office is 994-6697. I don’t recommend email.

  2. By Tom Whitaker
    September 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm | permalink

    What about the 400 and 500 blocks of South Fifth Avenue? They were included in the plans for this bond issue approved by the City and DDA.

    “John Splitt reported that the Fifth and Division streetscape improvement project is mostly complete, except for the 300 block of South Fifth Avenue – that section will need to wait until construction of the underground parking structure on South Fifth is further along. On the 200 block of South Fifth, just some lampposts remain to be installed.”

  3. By Eric Boyd
    September 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm | permalink

    Where can one find the updated bicycle map mentioned in the article?

  4. By Rod Johnson
    September 14, 2011 at 3:21 pm | permalink

    That 500 block of South Fifth designation is a little misleading, since it’s only the part north of Packard. The bulk of the 500 block is south of Packard and is not part of the plan, except for some work on the Fifth/Packard intersection. That said, I have no idea what the status of Fifth between Packard and William is. The corresponding block of Division seems to have been done, right?

  5. September 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm | permalink

    Re: [3] updated bicycle map

    From the DDA website, this one bears a 2011 file name: [link]

  6. By Margaret Schankler
    September 14, 2011 at 6:36 pm | permalink

    Vivienne is correct in her description of the sign up procedure (or lack there of) for speaking slots at the DDA meeting. There were no instructions on the website for advance sign-up, and when I arrived 10 minutes before the meeting I received a pre-printed agenda with the names of those signed up to speak already listed in print.

    The chair could have made an exception to allow a few more people the opportunity to speak before the vote. The rush to approve this grant was a disservice to an open public process.

    I appreciate the coverage of this meeting and Dave’s reporting. However, I’d like to add the full text of my remarks below for anyone interested in more detail.

    The DDA has an opportunity to step back from a wasteful project and redirect scarce dollars toward the downtown.

    I live near the site and our neighborhood group had urged Avalon to build a smaller project that would offer more supportive housing units. But this idea was rejected. We were told that the building had to be this size to “make the numbers work” . As a result only 14 of the 39 units are supportive housing.

    Since then Avalon has asked to count these yet unbuilt units as replacements for the 15 the units that Avalon is choosing to tear down and replace at Pauline using CDBG funds. So there is no net gain in supportive housing for Ann Arbor.

    Meanwhile the 25 workforce units planned for NENO will rent for more than DOUBLE what our previous workforce neighbors paid per bedroom before they were evicted more than two years ago to make way for this project. (Eight houses with 27 bedrooms total were allowed to rot)

    But not only will the NENO units be costly to rent, they are insanely costly to build. According to the developers own figures in your packet, each 750 square foot, 1 bedroom apartment will cost $284,000.00 or $378 per square foot. That is TWICE as much as a median two-bedroom Ann Arbor condo, and 20 percent MORE than a median 3-bedroom single family home. ($52K per unit was spent for the land)

    The only real beneficiaries of this project are the for-profit investors (3 Oaks) who paid $1.3 million for the 9 lots and will receive more than $2 million for it, plus a $500K developer fee IF the project is ever built. Which brings us to the question – WHEN will it be built?

    The only publicly recorded progress made in the 2 years since you first approved this grant is:

    1) Ownership of the parcels was transferred from 3 Oaks (a group of private investors) to the non-profit NENO Partnership, thereby removing the property from the tax rolls, a loss to the city of $40-50 thousand per year in property tax revenue.

    2) The NENO non-profit partnership is now obligated to mortgages in excess of $2.4 million dollars, which I assume, but cannot verify, is mostly in the hands of the for-profit investors (3 Oaks). They also appear to still be in need of close to 9 million dollars they hope to raise from the sale of Low Income Tax Credits, which should have closed last January but did not.

    3) And if you call blight progress, viable housing stock has been allowed to deteriorate beyond repair, creating the blight necessary to receive 1.2 million in brownfield funding.

    I respectfully suggest that the DDA’s scarce funds be invested much more wisely within the downtown borders.

  7. September 14, 2011 at 10:09 pm | permalink

    I find the claim of 1000 bike parking spaces downtown hard to believe. I count 37 on Main Street, for example. And only 12 covered spaces within a block of Main Street. How many covered car parking spaces are there within a block of Main Street?

  8. September 14, 2011 at 10:25 pm | permalink

    Re: [7] 1,000 bicycle parking spaces

    Jim, it’s possible that you’re counting “spaces” differently from the intern. A couple of days ago, at a planning commission meeting [link], this same issue came up when a petitioner objected to the 10 spaces in the agreement, when he knew he’d agreed to install 5 hoops:

    He called Cheng’s attention to the fact that the revisions to the supplemental regulations specify 53 spaces for vehicles and 10 Class C bicycle parking spaces. Sprinkles noted that the number of bicycle spaces should be five. Cheng clarified that it’s five hoops, two bikes on each side, for a total of 10 spaces.

    Of course for some of the downtown hoop designs, it’s a real art to get a bicycle locked to both sides of it. I wonder how the intern counted the repurposed parking meter posts — those would be a challenge for two bicycles.

    But in any case, I suspect that the number of hoops was 500, for a total of 1,000 “spaces.”

  9. September 15, 2011 at 10:44 am | permalink

    Margaret (#6), my understanding is that the brownfield funding is due to soils contamination on the site, not the condition of the housing stock. See [link] which reads in part:

    The Property is considered an” eligible property” as defined by Act 381, Section 2 because the
    Property meets the definition of a “facility”, as defined by Act 381. The property was identified
    as a “facility” based on the results of soil and groundwater sampling conducted by NTH, Inc. on
    April 3, 2009, and Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc. (SME) on February 11, 2010, for the
    constituents listed below:

    * Benzo(a)pyrene, arsenic and lead were measured in soil samples at concentrations above
    the Part 201 Generic Residential Cleanup Criteria and Screening Levels (residential
    cleanup criteria) for Drinking Water Protection and/or Direct Contact.

    * Arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, selenium, silver and zinc were
    measured in groundwater samples at a concentration above the residential cleanup criteria
    for Drinking Water and/or GSI.

  10. September 15, 2011 at 12:45 pm | permalink

    I looked it up. There are 1,967 parking spaces in the three structures within one block of Main. I would guess about 80% of these, or 1,600 are covered. That compares to 12 covered bike hoops, which I will generously count as 18 bike parking spaces.

  11. By Margaret Schankler
    September 16, 2011 at 8:04 am | permalink

    Good to know about the Brownfield funds, Ed. Thank you. My information on the basis for Brownfield funds came from Bill Godfrey. He stated that blight was the criteria they would use to apply. Perhaps, when soil testing was done they discovered this reason.

  12. By Tom Whitaker
    September 16, 2011 at 9:28 am | permalink

    Arsenic is naturally-occurring in the soils in Ann Arbor, at levels that are above certain environmental standards (standards that change periodically). UM has had to deal with this at several sites along Allen Creek, trucking thousands of yards of soil to an approved landfill, only because it had this naturally-occurring arsenic.

    The City’s old service yard and buildings are right across Main Street from the Near North site. Has that site been tested as the possible source of the petroleum by-products, considering it is uphill and upstream (Allen Creek) from Near North? Maybe from the old gas stations next door (although they are downstream/downhill)?

    Seems to me that the source ought to be identified or the replacement soil will simply absorb the same stuff and this will be government money down the drain (in the form of tax credits).

  13. September 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    Question: is it possible that much of the contaminated site is actually the current Summit Party Store, which looks to be a converted gas station? Also, that portion is presumably going to become part of the “Greenway” according to recent Council action. What implications for remediation are indicated, since there will be no buildings on it? Aren’t remediation standards predicated on use?