Chapter Added to Fifth Ave. Historic Saga

Ann Arbor councilmember: "We've become a bit of a joke."

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Oct. 24, 2011): Monday’s meeting was added to the council’s calendar specifically for the purpose of taking a second and final vote on the Heritage Row planned unit development (PUD). The project would have rehabbed or reconstructed a row of seven existing houses on Fifth Avenue, south of William Street, and built three new apartment buildings behind them.

Carsten Hohnke Mike Anglin Ann Arbor City Council

In the foreground is Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) as his council colleague Mike Anglin (Ward 5) explained the reasons why he wanted to appoint a historic district study committee for the area south of William Street along Fourth and Fifth avenues.

Heritage Row had been considered and rejected more than once before by the council, with a history in front of Ann Arbor’s legislative body dating back well over a year. The project had been brought back for reconsideration because the demolition of the seven houses was apparently imminent – as part of the construction of City Place. City Place is a different, already-approved project on the same Fifth Avenue site by the same developer.

But by the Friday before Monday’s meeting, all four agenda items related to Heritage Row (site plan, zoning ordinance and their respective public hearings) had been deleted from the agenda. The developer had withdrawn the Heritage Row project.

With the construction of City Place a virtual certainty – along with demolition of the houses – on Monday afternoon Mike Anglin (Ward 5) placed a proposal on the agenda that would have started a procedure to establish a historic district in the area. The related moratorium on demolition in the study area would have, at least temporarily, blocked the City Place development.

But in the end, the council was in no mood to repeat the same exercise it had gone through two years ago. At that time, the council had appointed a historic district study committee, then subsequently rejected the committee’s recommendation that a historic district be established in the neighborhood. Arguing against the establishment of a historic district study committee this time around, Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) said he didn’t want the council to become a joke. Later during deliberations Margie Teall (Ward 4) ventured that already, “We’ve become a bit of a joke.”

Also on Monday afternoon, two other items – which asked the council to reconsider votes it had taken at the Oct. 17 meeting about the City Place project – were placed on the agenda by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). Kunselman was not interested in getting the votes reversed, but had questions he wanted answered. While other councilmembers agreed to reconsider the items, the council then dispatched them with unanimous votes after Kunselman’s questions.

That left one item on the agenda – added on Friday after the agenda’s Wednesday publication – that actually resulted in a vote that might change the course of events in the city. The resolution directed city staff to make recommendations on improvements to crosswalks throughout the city. Councilmembers expressed some interest in tweaking a new pedestrian ordinance that it approved on July 19, 2010.

Also at the meeting, the council went into closed session to discuss the city attorney’s performance evaluation. It resulted in no change to city attorney Stephen Postema’s salary, but allowed him to cash out 250 hours of accrued time before Dec. 31, 2011.

Fifth Ave. Historic District

On the council’s agenda was a proposal to reappoint a historic district study committee for an area along Fourth and Fifth avenues near downtown Ann Arbor. The council also had on its agenda a separate but related proposal to enact an emergency moratorium on demolition in the proposed study area.

The scope of the study would have included an area roughly from William south to Madison along Fourth and Fifth avenues, as well as some addresses on Packard Street. Members of the committee were proposed to be Ellen Ramsburgh, Tom Luczak, Ethel Potts and Susan Wineberg.

It was Mike Anglin (Ward 5) who pushed the historic district proposals forward.

Historic District: Background

The site where City Place and Heritage Row have been proposed, and the area further south near Madison Street, have a long history [timeline]. An area in the same vicinity had previously been studied by a committee, which resulted in a recommendation to establish a historic district south of William and north of Packard on Fourth and Fifth avenues. However, on July 6, 2010, the city council rejected the historic district on a 4-6 vote. Voting for the district on that occasion were Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and mayor John Hieftje. Anglin was absent that evening, but his yes vote would not have been enough to achieve the majority needed to pass the resolution.

The original recommendation to establish a historic district had been made by a committee established by the city council on Aug. 6, 2009, along with a moratorium on demolition in the area to be studied. [For additional background, see: "S. Fifth Ave: Historic District Development"]

The council had established that 2009 study committee (in conjunction with a moratorium) in an attempt to block the City Place matter-of-right project that had been considered by the council, but postponed until January 2010 – under an arrangement with then-developer Alex de Parry. [De Parry recently sold his interest in the project.]

When the historic district committee was established in August 2009, the City Place project was then brought forward and ultimately approved on Sept. 21, 2009, about a month after the historic district study committee and moratorium had been established. This was a key difference between then and now: Two years ago, the historic district study committee was appointed before there was an approved project on the site.

The same night in July 2010 when councilmembers rejected the Fourth/Fifth Avenue historic district, now nearly 15 months ago, they reconsidered a vote on the Heritage Row planned unit development for the same site as City Place. In the version before the council at that time, Heritage Row would have constructed three new apartment buildings behind seven existing houses and preserved the houses to historic district standards. The July 6, 2010 vote on Heritage Row was 7-3 in favor, leaving it one vote short of the 8-vote majority the project needed for approval. The council had initially considered the Heritage Row project on June 21, 2010 and rejected it on a 7-4 vote.

With Heritage Row and a historic district both rejected, and the City Place project approved, a number of efforts have been made since the summer of 2010 to avoid the construction of City Place. Those efforts culminated most recently in a council decision reached on Oct. 3, 2011 to reconsider Heritage Row another time. That came shortly after the ownership of the City Place and Heritage Row projects changed. The Oct. 3 decision to reconsider Heritage Row was hoped by many to culminate in a final vote at an extra council meeting scheduled for Oct. 24. However, on Oct. 21 news emerged that the developer had pulled the item from the Oct. 24 agenda.

City Place, Historic District: Public Commentary

Thomas Partridge introduced himself as an advocate for all those who can’t attend the meeting, seniors and disabled people. He called on the council to show the courage to withdraw the City Place items from their agenda. No other university city with the prestige of Ann Arbor has allowed itself to be bullied by land developers, he said. Other communities have turned aside businesses – like Walmart.

Partridge said the increasing power of corporations is a prime reason why Occupy Wall Street is gaining strength every day. Occupy Wall Street is about people taking themselves away from the comfort of their homes and families to demonstrate. Heritage Row is illustrative of corrupt business practices, he said. Alluding to the crosswalk items on the agenda, Partridge also called for safe access to all forms of transportation.

Rita Mitchell asked the council to take advantage of a chance to reset the process. She talked about the mutliple dimensions of benefit to doing that. The houses, she said, can’t be replaced. They’re valuable to residents, who live there. They provide unique living spaces. They provide for an interesting and unique landscape near downtown. The city of Ann Arbor’s website notes the 1824 founding of Ann Arbor and highlights the city’s historic districts. If we allow houses like these to be removed, she said, it would contribute to the erosion of a sense of time and place and neighborhood.

Mitchell stressed the importance of what Fifth Avenue means to the neighborhood. She urged reconsideration of the votes on City Place. She asked the council to support the appointment of the historic district committee and asked for the council to support the moratorium. She suggested that councilmembers could all be remembered for making a decision for the benefit of the community.

Ethel Potts noted that Ann Arbor is getting press about how great it is due to its walkability, great neighborhoods and charm. But she said that not everything built new in the city enhances its charm – there are some “clunkers” built, she said. The particular block on Fifth Avenue has historic houses and are well worth keeping for all of us, she said. She asked that the council support appointment of a historic district study committee and moratorium. After all the confusion the council has been through, she said, it’s worth taking a step back to consider the livability of the city. She also asked that they reconsider the amendments to City Place – the developer wanted those revisions for his own reasons, she said.

Kathy Boris supported the resolutions proposed by Mike Anglin (Ward 5) to establish a study committee and the moratorium on demolition. It was her understanding, she said, that the moratorium would apply to City Place. If no action were taken, the project would bulldoze away seven houses and replace them with apartment buildings. It would be a shame to dismantle the block. She urged the mayor and the council to protect historic houses and Ann Arbor’s heritage.

Historic District: Council Deliberations

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) led off deliberations by thanking everyone for their continued interest. He said the strong minority vote on the historic district in July of 2010 (which was 4-6 in favor, and would have been 5-6 had Anglin been present) indicates uncertainty on the part of the council. He thanked the community members who were willing to step up now and serve on another study committee. He described a process that would include establishing a historic district study committee, appointing its members that night, and asking them to meet that night and consider the recommendation made by the previous committee.

Kevin McDonald Mike Anglin

Assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald (standing) confered with Mike Anglin (Ward 5) before the Oct. 24 meeting started.

Anglin then spoke about other historic districts in Ann Arbor and historic districts in general. He described how Ann Arbor’s Old West Side historic district was established in a crisis situation. [Google Map of Ann Arbor's historic districts] Buildings were torn down and cinder block buildings were put up. A historic district study committee, he said, alerts the town to what is going on. He said we’re lucky to have a strong historic district statute in Michigan. The area proposed for study, because of its location near downtown, plays a unique role in the community. There’s an affinity for this area, he continued.

The council had allowed a great deal of student housing to be put in, he said, without opposition, because those projects are suitable for their locations, Anglin said. [Anglin was likely referring to Zaragon West, being built at Thompson and William.] But in areas where there’s a legacy of some kind, it’s different.

Anglin said he enjoys living in an area where things are clearly defined. [Anglin lives in the Old West Side historic district.] There are things he can do and things he can’t – he likes that. He said his neighborhood has lots of graduate students, so historic districts don’t stop diversity, but rather encourage it. Most of the homes are privately owned and well-maintained, he said. They provide lower and affordable rents.

Coming back to the question of the procedure that night, Anglin said the process would be to appoint the committee. The council would recommend that the committee meet that evening. The mandate would be to act as a committee to determine if the intended study area is threatened. He said it was his understanding that this part of the procedure was “pretty foolproof.” He said that councilmembers, as “guardians of the city,” have the right to do their own planning. He believed the council should do everything possible to try to help the proposed study area achieve some kind of historic designation.

Anglin returned to the issue of the strong minority view, saying that back on July 6, 2010, the vote had been 6-4 vote against establishing the historic district. He wasn’t at the meeting, he said, but would have voted for the historic district. By establishing a historic district, he said, the council would be leaving the city a beautiful statement about their terms in office.

Anglin allowed that the timeline would be shorter, but that is because one study has already been done. The citizens who were asked to serve on the new committee, Anglin said, had stepped right forward.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted that it’s the third time the issue of establishing a historic district study committee for the area has appeared before the council. The first time [on Dec. 15, 2008] the council did not support it. The second time [on Aug. 6, 2009] it was brought as a surprise to many, she said, but it passed. Many people felt it was warranted at that time. When the committee’s report came out, some councilmembers felt the case the committee had made was not strong enough to support establishment of the district.

Briere alluded to the city’s past experience with the establishment of historic districts where they’d initially been rejected by the council, but had eventually won approval in some form. Briere said she’d support establishing a study committee, because she thinks the area would benefit from historic district protection.

Other options, she said, have not materialized as strong protections for existing neighborhoods. For example, prevention of the accumulation of separate parcels for use to construct a single building was something that had not yet been brought forward.

She noted she had a problem with one of the “whereas” clauses:

Whereas, This proposed historic district is threatened by immediate development pressure and demolition or modifications not in keeping with the intent of the proposed district;

She said she was personally opposed to using every possible tool to prevent something [City Place] that the council had already approved. She proposed amending out that “whereas” clause. Anglin ventured he could live without it. Briere clarified that she interpreted that clause as direction to the committee. Anglin’s statement that the committee would meet that night, she said, belies the 12-month timeframe normally given for a historic district study committee to do its work. Anglin agreed to strike the clause as a “friendly” amendment and the change was made to the resolution without a vote.

Mayor John Hieftje said he’d voted to establish a study committee in the past and had voted in favor of the district. But the council had been wrestling around with it for a long time. The council as a body had voted no on the previous study committee’s recommendation, he said. Establishing a study committee creates expectations. It also puts a burden on the city staff. It re-does something the council has already spent a lot of time talking about. Hieftje said he had no expectation it would pass the second time around. He concluded that he didn’t think the council needed to go down the same road again.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) before the council meeting.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) before the council meeting.

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) allowed that she’d voted for formation of committee previously, but the data that had come back didn’t support the creation of the district. She saw no advantage in going through the same exercise again.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) said he appreciated Anglin’s efforts. Anglin had articulated the historic value in that area of the community, Hohnke said. Hohnke’s view was that those historic assets are worth preserving. He’d supported the historic district the first time around. But Hohnke said that if it moved forward, it would be with the expectation that the moratorium would be attached to it. Incorporating the clear view from the city attorney, Hohnke said, led him to conclude that it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the city to establish the study committee. [Before the council began deliberations, they held a closed session to discuss written communication from the city attorney that lasted around 25 minutes.]

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) noted that earlier in the meeting, someone had said they were concerned about the tone the city sends out. [It was Anglin, who during his communications had relayed a complaint from a constituent about the tone of warning letters sent out by the city in connection with rental property inspections.] By reconsidering and reconsidering and reconsidering something to which the council had apparently already brought finality to, it sends out the wrong tone, Derezinski said. He thought predictability and finality is an important aspect to the character of the city council. You have to accommodate the future as well as the past, he said. We don’t want to become a joke, Derezinski said.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) noted that the University of Michigan continues to buy land in the general vicinity of the proposed area of study (next to the Institute for Social Research, which has been expanding). He asked assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald if a historic district influences what the university does. McDonald, who specializes in land use issues for the city, answered in one word: No.

Anglin took on the perception that the council couldn’t make up its mind. “It’s not that we can’t make our minds up,” he contended. It’s that you tend to waver when you have important decisions. Indecision is often a good thing, he said. Indecision had allowed everyone to look at this area for a long time and to look at the scope of the neighborhood. Anglin reasserted his belief the procedure for establishing a study committee is foolproof and would not be contested.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) said she could appreciate the desire to maintain the row of charming houses. They present a certain rhythm as you stroll past. And they’ve been around for a long time. In an apparent allusion to a deal she’d helped work out in December 2010, but for which expected support at the council table from Carsten Hohnke had not been forthcoming, Smith said there had been opportunities to come to different conclusions along the way. She said she did not think it was now in the city’s best interest to establish a study committee and she could not support it.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) noted that this area of town and the issues surrounding it had been a part of the community conversation at least since 2008 when he was first elected to the council. It has presented moments of difficulty and reflection. He felt the reason the council was in the place it was that night was its “failure to achieve reasonable compromise.” There’d been a failure to accept something that was less than ideal. He had thought long and hard about whether the area is suitable for a historic district.

Nothing Taylor had heard had changed his conclusion. However, he said that if the council is in this situation because of a failure to compromise, then he felt he had to listen again, even if he felt there was no reason to think he would come to a different conclusion. There are people who are interested in devoting their time to the project and there’s an existing knowledge base. If the demolition is not attached to the resolution, he said he’d be open to listening and to learning.

Kunselman noted the issue certainly has a long history. He said he’d recently visited Chicago, where he’d seen a neighborhood that had some zoning in place that prevented the accumulation of parcels. He asked if it were possible to pass a zoning ordinance that specified a maximum lot size. The answer from assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald was: Yes, it’s possible.

Kunselman said he had no problem having a historic district study committee, but he was also looking to the existing R4C/R2A zoning district study committee. If that committee doesn’t take action, then he’d initiate a change in the zoning code to establish a maximum lot size. He said he’d hate to have something like City Place on Hamilton Place [the next street to the east from Fifth Avenue, where City Place is likely to be built]. In the Chicago neighborhood, he said, it was possible to have modern single-family homes right next to the old ones. The city has to allow for rebuilding, he said. He was open to learning and listening like Taylor, but concluded by saying that the council needed to move in some way.

Derezinski offered as a point of information on the R4C process – which he had kicked off with his first resolution made at the council table after winning election – that the committee had held a number of meetings, then doubled its size. He contended that the committee has been meeting consistently, and has added more meetings. The 10th and last meeting is scheduled for Nov. 9, he said. Everyone is welcome to come to add comments. It’s been a long and hard process, he said. He hoped to have a report from the committee in November, and then it’ll be up to council to decide what to do.

Hohnke said that since some councilmembers had expressed a desire to separate the resolution on establishing a study committee from the moratorium against demolition, he thought it would be worth considering establishing a study committee. But he had not had a chance to look at the staff input – it had come late to the agenda. If the council was going to consider the issue of a study committee independently, then a postponement would not have a negative effect, he said. So Hohnke moved to postpone the issue until the council’s next meeting.

On the postponement, Hieftje said the council had already done this, and had considered it over a long period of time. He did not expect he’d change his mind. Derezinski said it had been a long discussion for years and nothing has changed. It would be kicking the can down the road a little further, he concluded.

Outcome on postponement: The council rejected postponement, with only Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) supporting it.

Margie Teall (Ward 4) said she could not support establishing a study committee. Thinking about what Derezinski had said about kicking the can down the road, she said that as the council continued to do this, “We’ve become a bit of a joke.” The council continues to bring up the same issue and vote the same way, she said.

Briere finished off the deliberations by saying there’s a difference between a historic district and a designation in the register of historic places. She said that for the seven houses, the council had essential made a decision one and a half years ago. Her fear now is for the rest of the neighborhood – the other side of Fifth Avenue, Hamilton Place, and Packard Street. The rest of the neighborhood is worth protecting, she said, so the issue will come back to the council eventually.

Outcome on establishing the historic district study committee: The council rejected it, with support only from Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

When the resolution to establish the historic district committee failed, the related resolution on the moratorium was withdrawn.

City Place Votes Reconsidered

The council was asked to reconsider two votes taken at its previous meeting on Oct. 17 about the City Place matter-of-right project on Fifth Avenue south of William Street.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) Ann Arbor city council

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) looks on as Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) moves for reconsideration of a vote on the City Place project.

It’s worth distinguishing between the parliamentary notion of reconsideration and the common understanding of “to reconsider” as meaning something like “to contemplate again and reach a different conclusion.” When the council votes to reconsider a previous vote, it’s only settling the question of whether the vote will be taken again. If a vote to reconsider succeeds, then the council must vote again on the same question it considered previously.

The two votes on Oct. 17 had related to requests from the City Place developer. One request was to waive a landscape buffer requirement that was introduced through an ordinance change made after the project was initially approved in 2009. The second request was for approval of changes to the buildings that included a new window on the upper floors of the north and south-facing sides, and a change from horizontal siding to simulated shingle siding on the dormer.

Both re-votes were prompted by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), who had posed questions at the Oct. 17 meeting to which he did not feel he’d received adequate answers. One question related to fire exits for the upper floors of the development, which calls for demolition of seven existing houses to be replaced by two apartment buildings, separated by a parking lot.

City Place: Landscaping

Kunselman led off by saying that he did not have the same experience that his colleagues did with City Place. [He was not on the council when the project had been approved.] He just wanted to ask some questions, he said, and he asked for their indulgence. He assured his colleagues that he would move it along promptly, but noted that the City Place developer did not seem to have answers to his questions at the Oct. 17 meeting, so he wanted to try to get those answers that evening.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) said he appreciated the need to study issues carefully. But he said that this particular resolution had not been a surprise. He then stated that the council’s decisions need to have some finality. If the council keeps reconsidering decisions, the council is not well-served – because people need to have confidence in the finality of the council’s decisions. He said he was against the motion to reconsider the previous vote.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said she appreciated Derezinski’s remarks. However, the one time the council’s rules say that councilmembers can reconsider a vote is at the very next meeting. “That’s tonight,” she said. She concluded that Kunselman was following the rules exactly, and she thanked him for that. Margie Teall (Ward 4) asked Kunselman if there was information that he needed from the building inspector. Kunselman turned the question aside, saying that the motion before the council was to reconsider the previous decision. Mayor John Hieftje said that when the council had previously voted, he had all information he needed, but he was happy to reconsider the vote if Kunselman didn’t have the information he needed.

Outcome on reconsideration: The council voted to reconsider the previous vote on City Place landscaping requirements. Voting against the reconsideration were Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2).

The specific issue Kunselman wanted to ask about stemmed from a recent change to the city’s landscaping ordinance that requires a conflicting land use buffer of 15 feet between a building and any adjacent land zoned or used for residential purposes. In the case of the City Place project, this comes into play on the south side of the property, where there is not enough room for the required 15-foot buffer. The proposed City Place building is set back 16 feet from the property line, but an existing driveway for the immediately adjacent residential parcel is located on the City Place property where the buffer would be. There is an easement on the driveway.

In response to a question from Kunselman, city planning manager Wendy Rampson explained that when the landscape ordinance changed, it required a buffer between the building itself and the other property. There’s a driveway where the trees would need to be planted, she said. Kunselman asked if there was any possibility to install some vegetation.

Rampson allowed that there might be room for some kind of vegetation, but not trees. Conflicting land use buffers usually contemplate something more substantial, like a berm, she said. Kunselman asked if it were possible to add screening of some kind. The interaction concluded with Kunselman expressing his hope that the building and its occupants will be screened by the developer from ins and outs of traffic from the adjoining driveway.

Outcome on City Place landscape requirements on revote: The council voted unanimously to approve the flexible application of the landscape ordinance.

City Place: Elevations

During an earlier communications slot on the agenda, Kunselman inquired about asbestos abatement associated with the seven houses to be demolished for City Place. The city’s chief development official, Ralph Welton, attended the meeting to answer Kunselman’s questions.

Kunselman said he was concerned because a house demolished in his neighborhood cost quite a lot to have the work done, due to asbestos that was present on the site. He asked Welton to describe the asbestos situation for the seven houses on Fifth Avenue. Welton explained that a survey was done and that the survey did find some asbestos – it would need to be abated. But he said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) handles that. He said he really could not speak to the pricing, but he did note that it drops the cost to have several houses in one spot.

Kunselman led off the short deliberations on the reconsideration by saying he was not that familiar with the “area wells” [aka window wells] on the ground level. He’d also not received answers about questions he’d had on the windows for the mezzanine level.

Outcome on reconsideration: The council voted to reconsider the previous vote on City Place elevation changes. Voting against the reconsideration were Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2).

Kunselman said that the guardrails around the window wells were not part of the original site plans and now they’re included. What’s their purpose? he asked.

City Place site plan drawings

Excerpt from City Place site plan drawings showing the metal guard rail at the area (window) wells.

Responding to Kunselman’s question, Welton said he had seen the first set of plans – he could only talk about the code. He ventured that the reason for for the guardrails is to prevent people from falling into the window wells. Welton allowed that he’d heard that the developer was interested in reconfiguring the interior of the buildings with respect to the bedrooms, but that he had not discussed that with them. Welton said he’d had a conversation about the city code on how egress and sprinkling would work in bedrooms and mezzanine levels.

Kunselman asked if an egress window from the fourth floor would require a fire escape – no, replied Welton. Kunselman came back to the area well issue, asking why they now had guard rails. Rampson indicated that at the site plan stage, planning staff don’t typically get into that level of detail. However, when construction drawings are put together, that’s when elements like guard rails are shown. That’s why they’re shown now, but not before. They’re to ensure that people don’t fall in, Rampson said.

Kunselman asked for confirmation that the guard rails are not a site plan issue. Rampson described them as an appurtenance in a site like a light pole – it’s part of the site, but not the site plan. On an elevation drawing, she said, the city wouldn’t require somebody to show the light poles.

Outcome on City Place elevation drawings on revote: The council voted unanimously to approve the elevation drawings.

Crosswalk Improvements

Before the council was a resolution that called on city staff to make recommendations on improvements to crosswalks throughout the city, identifying locations where technologies like High-intensity Activated crossWalK beacons (HAWK), and Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFB) would be appropriate. The resolution directed city staff to focus on Washtenaw Avenue near Tappan Middle School and Plymouth Road near the intersection of Beal Avenue. According to the resolution, the staff is supposed to present recommendations for the Plymouth & Beal intersection sometime in December 2011.

Crosswalks: Public Commentary

At the time set aside for public commentary at the end of the council meeting, Kathy Griswold said she’d met with the mayor and with city staff to get a clearer understanding of what the sight-distance requirements are at intersections. She reminded the council that she’s advocated in the past for moving a crosswalk at King Elementary School, which is located midblock, to a four-way-stop intersection. The requirements for sight distance, she said, involved two drivers being able to make eye contact. She asked about bike lanes and pedestrians. How can the city have an ordinance that says the pedestrian has the right of way, if you can’t see the pedestrians?

Crosswalks: Council Deliberations

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) led off deliberations by thanking mayor John Hieftje for bringing the resolution forward. There’s always an opportunity to review engineering of pedestrian safety as part of the “three Es” – education, enforcement, and engineering. Hohnke called it a useful request to ask staff to explore alternatives. Although they had thought that a HAWK was the best thing out there, now it appears there could be something even better.

Stephen Rapundalo Tony Derezinski Sandi Smith

Seated is Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2). He's kidding around with Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) and Sandi Smith (Ward 1) before the meeting.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) also thanked the mayor for bringing the resolution forward. Rapundalo said he’d heard from many constituents about their experiences with this issue on Plymouth Road and he had some of his own experiences. He described the dangerous situations that arise from the city’s ordinance [cars stopping in a moving stream of rapidly moving traffic, in order to comply with the ordinance]. So as an aside, he said, the council might want to take another look at the language on “approaching” a crosswalk. Does that mean someone who is ready to step into the crosswalk, or someone who is two or three feet away? He ventured that maybe the council could add some clarity to the ordinance.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) noted the focus in the resolution on the part of Washtenaw Avenue near Tappan Middle School. He pointed out that it’s near the new Arbor Hills Crossing development. There’ll be a bus stop there, and it’s also near the Washtenaw Recreation Center.

Building on remarks by Rapundalo and Derezinski, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted it’s difficult to anticipate that a pedestrian is attempting to cross, when the crosswalk location is in the vicinity of a bus stop: Is the person trying to cross or are they waiting for the bus? In some other communities, Briere said, pedestrians are expected to signal that they’re intending to cross. The council should look at the language that’s been used, she said. Maybe the ordinance needs another level of tweaking.

Briere wondered if the issue could be postponed until the council’s first meeting in November. Hieftje wasn’t amenable to a postponement, saying he wanted to “get this out the door.” Briere was not insistent about the postponement, and stated the everyone had learned that the language is too vague.

Hohnke responded to some of the sentiment that seemed to be emerging that a further revision to the ordinance might be in order. [Hohnke was one of the architects of the initial ordinance revision.] With respect to the ambiguity that exists for bus stops located near crosswalks, he noted that many traffic regulations incorporate some ambiguity and require judgment. As an example he gave yellow lights. He paraphrased the law as requiring motorists to stop for a yellow light “if you can do so safely,” but what is “safely”? By way of background, the Michigan Vehicle Code states:

257.612 Traffic control signals
Sec. 612.
(1) When traffic is controlled by traffic control signals …
(b) If the signal exhibits a steady yellow indication, vehicular traffic facing the signal shall stop before entering the nearest crosswalk at the intersection or at a limit line when marked, but if the stop cannot be made in safety, a vehicle may be driven cautiously through the intersection.

Hohnke noted that the city’s old pedestrian ordinance required the same analysis of what “approach” meant. It simply required that analysis under slightly different circumstances, namely if a pedestrian was approaching their side of the roadway. [More detail on the differences between the old and the new pedestrian ordinance is included in the July 19, 2010 Chronicle council report, when it was enacted.]

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) said she appreciated moving the resolution forward that night and wanted to bring back another resolution addressing the ordinance. In the last couple of weeks, she said, she’d seen motorists stop on one side of the street, with motorists behind the stopped car honking their horns and shooting around them. This kind of issue exists in several locations, she said, where cars are traveling quickly and pedestrians don’t want to jump out into a crosswalk.

Hieftje mentioned how some residents had made a video of someone trying to cross the street and having to leap back to the curb to save their life. The question, he said, is how to provide some assurance to pedestrians that the motorist will stop – that was the puzzle to be solved. If the city had just decided to enforce the old state law, they’d have the same issues, he said. The existing state law was being violated routinely. He said his concern was that 4-5 lane roads would begin to divide the city.

Higgins replied to the mayor by saying it was not a 4-5 lane road where she’d observed the phenomenon she’d described – it was at Crest and Liberty. One motorist had stopped and motioned the pedestrians to cross, Higgins said, but the pedestrians could see traffic coming the other way and didn’t want to cross.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said he appreciated the mayor bringing the resolution forward. He said he was also interested in looking at the standard on “approaching.” The previous evening, he said, he’d sent out a constituent communication on the issue and his inbox has lit up. He said it was important to weigh the burden on the driver and the burden placed on the pedestrian.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) also thanked the mayor for bringing the resolution forward. He wondered why the council was limiting things to Washtenaw Avenue and Plymouth Road. What about Packard? Hieftje appeared irritated at the question and cited the first “resolved” clause, which speaks generally to crosswalks in the city. Hieftje told Kunselman that if he wanted the city staff to look at a particular crosswalk, he should send them an email.

Briere noted that one of the big problems that drivers have is that they’re adjusting to pedestrians crossing on streets where they’d never noticed pedestrians before. The idea that people are having to get used to is that they have to be alert to pedestrians, she said. It’s fortunate there’s only been “one rear-ender” so far, she said – both drivers were not from Ann Arbor.

Rapundalo followed up by saying that Briere’s comment had reminded him about the need for signage. He noted that many of the crosswalks are not equipped with signs. For crosswalks that do have signs, he said, they say that local law requires motorists to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, but the ordinance specifies “approaching” a crosswalk. That’s where some of the confusion is coming in, Rapundalo said. Hieftje said he was thinking about signs addressing pedestrians, warning them that even though it’s the law, the motorists might not stop.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the resolution calling on staff to study crosswalk locations in the city.

City Attorney’s Personnel Evaluation

The council held a closed session at the end of their meeting based on the part of the Open Meetings Act that reads:

15.268 Closed sessions; permissible purposes.
Sec. 8. A public body may meet in a closed session only for the following purposes:
(a) To consider the dismissal, suspension, or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, or to consider a periodic personnel evaluation of, a public officer, employee, staff member, or individual agent, if the named person requests a closed hearing. A person requesting a closed hearing may rescind the request at any time, in which case the matter at issue shall be considered after the rescission only in open sessions.

The personnel evaluation was for city attorney Stephen Postema. The city attorney and the city administrator are the two positions hired by the city council.

At the meeting, the council did not publicly address the issue of whether Postema had fulfilled the statutory requirement for a closed session by requesting that his personnel evaluation be closed. However, Postema’s contract contains a clause specifying that: “The results of the evaluation shall be in writing and shall be discussed with the Employee in closed session.”

When the council emerged from its closed session, Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) moved a resolution to amend Postema’s contract by allowing him to cash in 250 hours of accrued banked time before the end of the calendar year, but did not change his base salary. The award of the cash-equivalent of roughly 12% of his annual salary was based only on Postema’s performance in 2009-10. Postema’s base salary as reflected in city records for FY 2010 stood at $141,540.

Outcome: The council voted unanimously to authorize Postema to cash in 250 hours of accrued time.

After the vote, Postema volunteered that it was a pleasure to serve the city and that he and the council shared a common concern.

Postema started working for the city in 2003. After awarding percentage increases in Postema’s base salary in the early part of his career with the city, the council has more recently opted to award one-time lump sums, extra vacation days, or the ability to cash in accrued days, as it did this year.

An overview of Postema’s compensation history:

  • Oct. 24, 2011: can cash in 250 hours before Dec. 31, 2011
  • Nov. 5, 2009: can cash in 120 hours before June 30, 2010
  • Oct. 20, 2008: paid lump sum of 2.75% annual salary ($142,000); cash in 150 hours before June 30, 2009; allowed to engage in outside legal work
  • Nov. 5, 2007: base salary increased by 2.75% for “merit increase” and 1.25% “market increase;” vacation days increased to 25 days per year.
  • March 20, 2006: can cash in 80 hours of unused vacation time before June 30, 2006.
  • Oct. 5, 2005: base salary increased at Postema’s discretion up to 3%; awarded 80 hours of vacation time.
  • Sept. 13, 2004: base salary increased by 3% to $130,810; annual vacation days increased to 22 days;
  • April 3, 2003: started work at base salary of $127,000 (20 vacation days in addition to legal holidays)

Communications and Comment

Every city council agenda contains multiple slots for city councilmembers and the city administrator to give updates or make announcements about important issues that are coming before the city council. And every meeting typically includes public commentary on subjects not necessarily on the agenda.

Comm/Comm: Open Door Thank You

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) offered thanks to city administrator Steve Powers, who’d greeted her at the front door of city hall the previous evening to let her and residents into the building. She noted that the previous night was not a normal caucus night based on the council’s calendar set at the beginning of the year. But because the council had added a “regular” meeting to its calendar, the associated caucus, which is held the Sunday evening before all regular council meetings, was also due to be held.

Sabra Briere William Hampton

Before the meeting, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) chatted with William Hampton, president of the Ann Arbor chapter of the NAACP.

Briere said it was delightful to have someone waiting with a key – three residents had showed up for the event.

[No other councilmembers attended the caucus on Oct. 23, 2011. The majority of councilmembers, including the mayor, have a record of perfect non-attendance at caucus for the calendar year 2011. The meetings are, according to the city's website, meant to provide a chance for councilmembers "to discuss and gather information on issues that are or will be coming before them for consideration." The meetings are also described on the website as "optional."]

Comm/Comm: NCCAP Freedom Fund Dinner

William Hampton, president of the Ann Arbor branch of the NAACP, thanked the council for the chance to speak. He called their attention to the annual Freedom Fund dinner on Nov. 5 at 6:30 p.m. He said that several councilmembers were planning to come and he appreciated that. Although the mayor won’t be there, he said, mayor pro tem Marcia Higgins would be. This year, the speaker would be someone who many people have not heard of, he said. However, it was someone who was a sit-in demonstrator, who had been arrested and put in jail.

Comm/Comm: Civil Rights

Thomas Partridge said he has consistently urged the council to take civil rights into consideration and to provide access for the most vulnerable residents to voting booths that are properly maintained. But the council has ducked every opportunity to do that, he contended.

Present: Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Rapundalo, Stephen Kunselman, Christopher Taylor, Marcia Higgins, Margie Teall, Mike Anglin, Carsten Hohnke, John Hieftje.

Next council meeting: Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 301 E. Huron. [confirm date]

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  1. October 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm | permalink

    I am a strong supporter of pedestrian access but I think the ordinance as presently drawn is dangerous to pedestrians and difficult to enforce properly in a town where so many people from out of town are driving. How often have we seen impatient and inattentive (cell phone) drivers do dumb things? I don’t know how many times I’ve been driving just at the speed limit in the left-hand lane when a driver speeds past me in the right-hand lane to get ahead one car-length. And I was surprised when I first moved here that no one goes through intersections when the light first changes. Then I figured out it is because someone is always running the red light if they were approaching as it turned. With this driver culture, expecting good judgment at pedestrian crosswalks is a stretch.

    I’m with the pedestrian at Crest and Liberty who didn’t want to cross with oncoming traffic from the other direction. I’ve been observing my own ability to notice pedestrians while watching all traffic conditions (like drivers who go through red lights, cyclists ditto, side street eruptions, etc.). Even when I am attempting to be very alert and careful, I think I would have trouble seeing a pedestrian entering the road from the other side of the street, especially if I am traveling at 35 mph.

    I’d like to see a serious investment in signage, signalization and pedestrian refuges for busy streets, with clearly painted crosswalks as many places as possible (there should be some sort of traffic metric that could determine need) and good enforcement and education for stopping for pedestrians IN crosswalks. And wouldn’t pedestrians get more respect if we had sanctions against jaywalking?

    I appreciate the careful consideration of this issue by Council.

  2. By Barbara
    October 26, 2011 at 4:56 pm | permalink

    Thanks Mike. What is being done in the name of progress is a pity.

  3. October 28, 2011 at 6:54 pm | permalink

    The other 49 States have had pedestrian right-of-way laws for many years. It’s nice to see Ann Arbor finally catch up, and I hope some day Michigan will follow Ann Arbor and the rest of the world. It’s obviously going to take a while for people here to get used to the idea.

    I think the least confusing thing would be to align Ann Arbor’s law with the rest of the US. Most other States require vehicles to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. This doesn’t require any subjective judgement as to whether the pedestrian is approaching the crosswalk. It does require that drivers pay attention, something they’ve not been used to doing.

    Eventually the pedestrians will learn to cross the street instead of standing on the corner waiting for a gap, and the drivers will learn to recognize when pedestrians are trying to cross. This will take time. It will be well worth the effort.

  4. October 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm | permalink

    Yes, I agree (#3). I lived with that type of law in California and it worked well. I was nearly rear-ended on my first week in Ann Arbor because I stopped for a pedestrian. Couldn’t believe that Michigan didn’t have such a law.

  5. October 28, 2011 at 8:25 pm | permalink

    BTW, I was crossing Catherine today at the intersection of 4th and Catherine (on the west side of the intersection). Broad daylight. As I was crossing, the vehicle coming through from the east pulled into the intersection and nearly up to the crosswalk (and my body). Ann Arbor needs a law against jerks.

  6. October 29, 2011 at 7:09 am | permalink

    Michigan has such a law. I don’t know why Ann Arbor hasn’t been enforcing it. Here’s a link to a brochure on it: [link] and here’s a link to the law itself: [link]

    The difference is that Ann Arbor’s ordinance requires drivers stop, not just yield — and that ‘approaching’ rather than ‘in’ is the indicator. I drove across town yesterday with a skeptic in the car — and pointed out how drivers were stopping safely along Plymouth and at the Broadway Bridge, pedestrians were crossing, and we were all safe.

  7. October 29, 2011 at 9:13 am | permalink

    Re: 6

    MVC 257.612(ii) applies only to cars turning right on red, not to crosswalks in general. As far as I can tell Michigan is the only State that does not give pedestrians the right-of-way in a crosswalk.

  8. October 31, 2011 at 10:44 am | permalink

    Re: #7 and all other questions: I’m sorry. I should have responded more accurately, but I thought I had the right link.

    Here’s what the City used as it’s basis for the ordinance (an administrative rule):

    R 28.1702 Rule 702. Pedestrians; right-of-way in crosswalk; violation
    as civil infraction.
    (1) When traffic-control signals are not in place or are not in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way, slowing down or stopping if need be to so yield, to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is on the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or when the pedestrian is approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger, but a pedestrian shall not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into a path of a vehicle that is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield.
    (2) A person who violates this rule is responsible for a civil infraction.
    History: 1979 AC; 1981 AACS; 2002 AACS.

  9. October 31, 2011 at 8:25 pm | permalink

    Re: 8

    Michigan is the only State that does not have a law requiring motor vehicles to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. It does have an administrative rule that makes failure to yield a civil infraction, but this only applies to half of the crosswalk and is little known and never enforced.