There has already been plenty of outrage expressed about the decision by the Library Lot advisory committee (formally the RFP advisory committee) to drop the open space options for what I am now calling the Top of the Parking (the top of the underground parking structure to be built at the site of the former Library Lot). Commenters to the piece by the Ann Arbor Chronicle (oddly, there has been no coverage of the recent events by AnnArbor.com) and members of email listservs are criticizing the decision. As we also reported, the committee eliminated the two proposals, namely the Dahlmann Ann Arbor Town Square and the Ann Arbor Community Commons, on the basis that they did not benefit the city financially. Dahlmann offered to hand over $2.5 million in cash to the city, while the Commons proposal listed a number of public sources for funding and also suggested that community support (from private donors) would be forthcoming. But the committee noted that neither one had provisions for ongoing maintenance and that the Dahlmann millions would not be enough to develop the plans provided. (Recall that the city has now posted both conceptual and cost proposals on its RFP website.)
But as we noted in a previous post on this subject, the requirements of the RFP are both very broad and very simple. They are: beneficial use of the site (public space), environmental benefits (LEED, stormwater, etc.), and financial return. I asked at the time whether a project that filled the first two extremely well but not the third would be considered, especially since it reads: “In the absence of other considerations, the City has a fiduciary responsibility to obtain fair market value upon the sale of City assets (my emphasis).”
The selection criteria as outlined by the RFP don’t seem to take the first two criteria into account. Here they are:
Note that these criteria presuppose a development project. Also, it is curious that the Cost Proposal specifies a lease, as though this is the only anticipated result. Nevertheless, it says that the “cost proposal” is only weighted as 10% of the evaluation criteria. By summarily dismissing the open space proposals because they did not apparently fill this one criterion, the committee made the “cost proposal” equal to 100% weighting.
It is time for us all to take a deep breath and to examine what the real issues are here. Here is a preliminary list.
1. What is the best use of this site for the benefit of Ann Arbor?
Clearly, members of the committee (especially Councilmember Rapundalo, who was never shy about his bias) have concluded that the answer is “Something to fill the budget gap”. Other people are saying, “A conference center, because it will bring business and it is needed”. Many members of the public are saying, “An important public area that can function like New York’s Central Park and make the whole of downtown a better place to be”. But we have never had that discussion. Not just about what different people want. About what will really benefit the city, its residents, and its businesses best over the long run.
2. What should be the process in making the decision?
Council rushed into this RFP after the existence of the “Secret Plan” (see earlier post describing it) became more widely known. This proposal for a conference center had been floating around city hall for what is now over a year without any public disclosure. With the RFP, there has been at least some grudging effort at better transparency, with the RFP website, open committee meetings, a plan for public input at the interviews, and even posting the proposals in full on the website (after both AnnArbor.com and private citizens visited the city with FOIAs).
But we have never had a public discussion about what the best use of the “Library Lot” (now the Top of the Parking) is for Ann Arbor.
How would we do that? Obviously, some other way than rushing through a decision on a tight timeline designed to facilitate a massive development. The classic way would be to have a series of facilitated meetings and allow the public or even a structured group of “stakeholders” to review all possibilities, try to look ahead to what kind of future we wanted and what future events we think will impact us most (not an easy job, predicting the future). As flawed as the Calthorpe process was, I am rather nostalgic about it now since there was some effort to bring in various viewpoints; but I think the public did not behave well enough for those who would direct Ann Arbor’s future according to their own wishes. (I reviewed this briefly in this article.)
3. Will any of the present development proposals really benefit the city financially?
This will, of course, be subject to a lot of analysis and study. I haven’t had time to study the cost proposals in depth yet, and I’m glad the committee is considering hiring a consultant for that purpose. But we need to be careful how the terms are defined. We’ve heard a lot of “smoke and mirrors” finance plans lately at both the national and local level. It is possible for financial projections to look very positive until one examines the assumptions. We’ve already been subjected to several very dubious financial decisions for the city regarding development (the city hall and the underground parking structure). Remember the famous Disraeli quotation, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”? (Apparently he is not actually recorded to have said it.) Accounting devices with fallacious underlying assumptions have them all beat out. I think I am correct in saying that the city has never succeeded in a public-private partnership that actually paid off. (If you know of one, please inform me – I’d really like to know.)
4. Even if the accounting looks good, can Ann Arbor really support a conference center and do future events look favorable for this path?
This is going to need a lot of study, comparisons with other cities, and discussion about future trends. Not something for a quick decision, yet many people appear to have made it already.
5. Should the budget crisis be driving this decision?
I’m as concerned about city finances as perhaps anyone. I’m such a worrier that I even ran for council last year after retiring from the county Board of Commissioners and now I’m writing this blog. But there is something craven and low about the suggestion that in order to keep our city afloat, we should sell off our best real estate rather than use it for building a future city that gives us sustenance as a community. After all, after your family has sold off your antique furniture and Grand-dad’s gold watch, you still need to find a way to keep your household going from day to day. Selling our assets is a short-term solution at best. At worst, we may enter into arrangements where we are played as the fools and take the risk so that others may make money. That would be piling insult on injury.
I’d also like to note that there are a number of studies out there showing that a really prime public space can have truly beneficial economic effects. We have not planned the south 5th-Division area as an area and looked at what its future could be. There are many pieces in the air and who is to say that the open space is not the best solution economically? Further, proponents of the open space plans never had an opportunity to make a case as to how that space could be maintained or what its overall financial impact would be.
I hope that the council will take responsibility for stepping back from the brink and allowing a full discussion of what we are doing with one of our prime pieces of real estate. Anyone who feels as I do should write and/or call their council representatives and the mayor and ask them to give us a break.
UPDATE: According to a story in the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the mayor says that council might consider the open space proposals too.
SECOND UPDATE: The Chronicle has a story about the Ann Arbor District Library Board meeting in which the Library Lot proposals are discussed.
THIRD UPDATE: Peter Allen, ever the downtown development booster, says in a story on Concentrate that he sees the Library Lot as “downtown’s Diag”. Many of us think of the Diag as open space but he means a hotel and conference center.
FOURTH UPDATE: A group of citizens has sent a letter to the mayor and council asking for a better public process to decide the fate of the Library Lot. It also requests an opportunity for the open space proposals to be reviewed.
FIFTH UPDATE: The DDA has now approved $50,000 to hire a financial consultant to advise the RFP committee. Peter Allen is quoted as saying that we are about to make a “timeless, 100-year decision about what is it that makes a great, great city”. We’re in agreement there, Peter.
SIXTH UPDATE: In a remarkable email exchange (pdf available here), Stephen Rapundalo defends the RFP committee’s process in response to a message from Eric Lipson.
SEVENTH UPDATE: Process issues have been part of the discussion and the question of whether the use of the Library Lot has been adequately discussed. It is instructive to look at the 1991 Luckenbach Study (available here) – conducted by the same architect now part of the Library Lot parking structure team.