Planning Group Acts on Connecting William

The Ann Arbor planning commission has voted to add the Connecting William Street plan to its list of resource documents that support the city’s master plan. It was the main agenda item at the commission’s March 5, 2013 meeting, and was approved unanimously. By adding the CWS plan to the list of resource documents, the planning commission did not alter the city’s downtown plan or the master plan.

However, there was some concern about whether the agenda item had been adequately publicized. Those concerns were voiced by several people during public commentary before and after the vote, which led Wendy Woods to attempt to reopen the item for reconsideration at the end of the meeting. The vote to reopen the item failed 6-2, with support only from Woods and Sabra Briere. So the original unanimous vote stands.

Streetscape view towards the east from Ashley Street

Streetscape view looking down William Street toward the east from Ashley Street – a schematic rendering of the Connecting William Street recommendations.

Since summer 2011, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has been working on the Connecting William Street project, which was undertaken following a directive from the city council at its April 4, 2011 meeting. The work focuses on future use of five city-owned parcels in the downtown area: (1) the Kline lot (on the east side of Ashley, north of William), (2) the lot next to Palio restaurant (northeast corner of Main & William), (3) the ground floor of the Fourth & William parking structure, (4) the former YMCA lot (on William between Fourth and Fifth), and (5) the top of the Library Lane underground parking garage on South Fifth, north of the downtown library.

The DDA board adopted the recommendations at its Jan. 9, 2013 board meeting. The city council was briefed on the recommendations at a Jan. 7, 2013 working session, but has not yet acted on them.

The city council’s directive had called for the DDA to engage in a public process with experts, stakeholders and residents, and then to develop a plan for those parcels. The council’s resolution described a step in the process when the city council and the planning commission would adopt the recommendations on the five parcels into the city’s downtown plan. The downtown plan is one component of the city’s master plan. Other components include: the land use element, the transportation plan, the non-motorized transportation plan, parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, and the natural features master plan.

Based on the phasing described in the council’s April 2011 resolution, any request for proposals (RFP) to be made for the five parcels would come after the planning commission and the city council formally adopt recommendations on the five parcels into the downtown plan.

The agenda item for the planning commission’s March 5, 2013 meeting – posted on the city’s online Legistar system – also referenced the downtown plan: “The Planning Commission will consider whether to consider the Connecting William Street Plan as an amendment to the Downtown Plan.” But prior to the meeting, no resolution or staff memo for this item had been posted.

The resolution handed out at the meeting did not mention the downtown plan. The resolution, recommended by staff and ultimately approved by commissioners, stated:

RESOLVED, That the Ann Arbor City Planning Commission hereby approves the “City of Ann Arbor Resource Information In Support Of The City Master Plan Resolution,” dated March 5, 2013.

An attachment to the resolution provided an updated resource list, with the Connecting William Street plan as one of 13 resources. The items are also listed online, on the city’s website for its master planning documents. Other resource documents include the downtown design guidelines, the Washtenaw Avenue corridor redevelopment strategy, and a flood mitigation plan, among others.

Amber Miller of the DDA gave a presentation during the March 5 commission meeting, similar to those given to the council and the DDA board. DDA executive director Susan Pollay also was on hand to answer questions. Much of the discussion among commissioners focused on the issue of open space. Miller noted that recommendations on that issue have been deferred to a committee of the city’s park advisory commission. That downtown parks committee is in the early stages of its work – it was scheduled to meet earlier in the day on March 5, but that meeting was canceled. [For background, see Chronicle coverage: "Committee Begins Research on Downtown Parks."]

The need for more open space and a centrally located downtown park was also highlighted by the five people who spoke during the planning commission’s March 5 public hearing on Connecting William Street. Most of the speakers are affiliated with the Library Green Conservancy, which is advocating for a park on top of the Library Lane parking structure – one of the five site in the Connecting William Street plan.

In public commentary after the commission’s vote to accept the plan as a resource document, four people spoke to criticize commissioners and the DDA for how this process has been handled. Woods said her decision to ask for reconsideration of the item was prompted by concerns raised during this final public commentary. She felt that it wouldn’t hurt to wait two weeks until the commission’s next meeting, so that more people could have the chance to weigh in, if they wanted.

Briere had expressed strong reservations before casting her original yes vote. She supported Woods in her effort to reconsider the item, suggesting that postponement would be appropriate. She expressed concern that the commission was deciding to use the CWS plan as a future planning document – which would be referenced when the planning staff and commission make their recommendations to the city council on site plans and other planning and development actions. Given that importance, Briere wanted to be absolutely certain before accepting it.

Other commissioners disagreed. Kirk Westphal – the planning commission’s chair who also served on a leadership committee that helped craft the Connecting William Street plan – said he felt extremely comfortable with the public process that had led to these recommendations. Eric Mahler also argued against reopening the item for another vote, saying the commission needed to bring closure to this long process. He was satisfied that sufficient public notice had been provided.

It’s unclear how the council will proceed with the Connecting William Street plan. Pollay told planning commissioners that the DDA will be following the council’s guidance as it moves forward. Councilmembers have already taken a first action step related to one of those parcels – the former YMCA lot. At this week’s city council meeting on March 4, 2013, the council voted to direct the city administrator to prepare an RFP (request for proposals) for brokerage services to sell the lot. A $3.5 million balloon payment on the property is due at the end of 2013.

This brief was filed shortly after adjournment of the planning commission meeting. A more detailed report will follow: [link]