Planning Group Advises Council on Y Lot

Ann Arbor planning commissioners are formally making recommendations to the city council about the future of the former YMCA lot at 350 S. Fifth, which the city purchased in 2003. The recommendations were passed unanimously, in the form of a resolution, at the commission’s Aug. 20, 2013 meeting. [.pdf of original planning commission resolution, before amendments]

The city council is exploring whether to sell that property, located across from the downtown Ann Arbor District Library and south of Blake Transit Center. Earlier this year, the city selected Colliers International and local broker Jim Chaconas to handle the possible sale, as the city faces a $3.5 million balloon payment this year from the purchase loan it holds on that property.

Now a surface parking lot, the site was zoned D1 as part of the original A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) zoning process. The site was also one of five parcels that was the focus of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s Connecting William Street project.

The planning commission resolution passed on Aug. 20 recommends that the lot, if sold, would use a request for qualifications (RFQ) and request for proposals (RFP) process, and that the city council would require some or all of these conditions:

  • A building that generates foot traffic, provides a human scale at the ground floor and creates visual appeal;
  • A “mixed use” development;
  • Any vehicular access and parking be accessed via the City’s Fifth Avenue underground parking structure;
  • An entry plaza or open space appropriately scaled and located to be properly activated by adjacent building uses and to be maintained by the developer;
  • The entry plaza or open space to incorporate generous landscaping;
  • Mandatory adherence to the Design Guidelines as interpreted by the Design Review Board;
  • A third party certification for the building’s energy and environmental performance (e.g. LEED Gold or LEED Platinum).

The goal, according to the resolution, is “to obtain a long-term, ongoing and growing economic benefit for the residents of the city.”

Highlighted in yellow is the location of the former YMCA lot, which the city of Ann Arbor is preparing to sell. A $3.5 million balloon payment on the property is due at the end of 2013.

Highlighted in yellow is the location of the former YMCA lot, which the city of Ann Arbor is considering selling. A $3.5 million balloon payment on the property is due at the end of 2013.

The idea for developing this resolution was first proposed by commissioner Bonnie Bona, and initially discussed at a July 9, 2013 working session. [See Chronicle coverage: "Planning Group Strategizes on Downtown."] Several commissioners subsequently discussed a draft version of the resolution – developed by Bona and commissioner Diane Giannola – at another working session on Aug. 13.

The Aug. 20 discussion lasted nearly 90 minutes, and included several amendments from the floor – all of them considered friendly, so that no separate votes were required.

Much of the discussion centered on the use of Connecting William Street as a framework for the resolution. Sabra Briere, who serves as the city council’s representative to the planning commission, suggested removing entirely references to the CWS project. The council never adopted the CWS report or took any action to implement the CWS recommendations, she noted. Briere felt that leaving those references to CWS in the commission’s resolution might make some councilmembers more resistant to it.

Wendy Woods, a former councilmember, countered that “our role is not to give pablum to council.” The commission’s role is to give advice as a body, regardless of how it might be received by the council. She also pointed out that it’s not necessarily Briere’s role to advocate for positions taken by the commission. “The planning commission is its own advocate and we stand on our own,” Woods said.

Both Bona and Giannola pointed to the amount of public input that had been solicited during the CWS process, and felt that it was more powerful for the commission’s recommendations to be supported by that input. Giannola didn’t want to get into the politics of guessing what the council might support, but offered to extract references to CWS from the two resolved clauses. That compromise was acceptable to Briere and the other commissioners.

During the discussion, Briere also reported that the broker has been meeting with councilmembers to talk about the Y lot. The broker is likely to suggest putting as few stipulations on the property as possible, she said, because he believes that such stipulations will lower the purchase price. That’s not necessarily what the council believes, she noted, but it’s what they’re being told.

The resolution, as amended, will be forwarded to the city council as an item of communication. That communication item might appear on the council’s agenda as early as Sept. 3.

This brief was filed from the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]