Downtown Ann Arbor is the subtext for many of the intense debates about our city’s future. In part this is because of its role in defining both the image and the life of the city. In part it is because of its proximity to the main University of Michigan campus and the strong student presence that results. And in part it is because there is money to made by exploiting the very concept of Downtown.
This has meant that much recent conflict has been over the attempt to expand the limits of downtown, both in concept and in real ways, like denser development outside downtown’s currently planned borders (which are essentially the Downtown Development Authority’s district border). Thus the debate over Heritage Row (proposed for a residential neighborhood in a near-downtown area) has had many online commenters calling that area downtown. A similar effect has been seen with the Near North development, where several houses in a near-downtown residential neighborhood are to be razed, with a substantial contribution from the DDA (though the location is outside their district). Many people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, who would like to find decent, affordable (in the general sense) housing near the downtown and campus, have been resentful at what they see as an artificial distinction, while near-downtown residents feel embattled (see our early post on these two neighborhoods).
Downtown, the experience of life or leisure there, and its cachet are a limited resource that we are trying to sort out among ourselves. It is partly a realm of the imagination and it is also a sum of gritty decisions and choices. Some of the most difficult of these involve parking. Whether a visitor, a downtown worker, or a resident, we all want easy access to downtown and easy walkability to our destination. That is one reason that near-downtown neighborhoods are so appealing; one can simply walk downtown.
The DDA has been managing parking in the downtown since the early 1990s, and doing a very fine job of it, too. (See discussion of parking on the DDA website.) Unfortunately, this has also led the DDA into a thorny thicket where many competing interests are vying for this precious resource. It also has led to demands from the City Council for a big share of the parking revenue (as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle).
This week’s DDA committee meetings had several examples of the interaction of downtown’s future and the parking question. Its Economic Development and Communication committee hosted Mary Kerr, President of the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and Jennifer Owens, Vice President of Business Development, SPARK. The committee is trying to establish the DDA’s place in the local ecosystem for marketing Ann Arbor and especially its downtown. Their question to both could be paraphrased as: how do you see the importance of the downtown in your work, and what should happen to make the downtown even more attractive from an economic development standpoint?
Kerr’s answer was that tourists and conventioneers love Ann Arbor’s downtown, and it forms an important part of their impression of the community. (She repeated this several times, with variations.) But she mentioned that they would like to be able to walk from their hotel into the downtown (currently most hotels are at the outskirts). She said that parking was not a complaint for most. Yet clearly from her comments, the easy access to downtown was an important part of the experience.
Owens, on the other hand, said that parking was a major impediment to having businesses locate downtown. Potential business owners are frustrated with the lack of easily accessible parking spots. They expect to pay for them, of course, but those monthly permits (generally awarded on an annual basis; there is a waiting list for most structures) are hard to come by.
As I explained in a 2006 article published by the Ann Arbor Observer, parking permits do not really pay their freight. The charges for these permits are supported by hourly parkers, and by the growth in the system, which is nearly nil. (As we explained in a recent post, the costly payments for the roughly $50 million underground parking structure near the library are now being picked up by the tax increment financing; an indication that the parking system is no longer paying for itself.) The DDA has tried over the years to minimize the number of downtown workers actually demanding downtown parking. It has been a leader in promoting “alternative” [i.e., nonauto] transportation to and around the downtown and is now the main supporter of getDowntown, which provides almost free bus passes and promotes bicycling and walking.
But Owens was very clear that the high-tech companies who SPARK is wooing wanted parking, not mass transit. “These are people who earn very high incomes. They are not going to take the bus.” Her message to DDA was simple. If you want to bring more businesses downtown, it is parking, parking, parking.
An example was cited by DDA’s executive director Susan Pollay. She noted some complaints about parking from a recently relocated business. MyBuys, which was at 101 North Main Street, has now expanded and leased the former Kinko’s space (as reported by AnnArbor.com) on East Liberty. MyBuys (which is now employing DDA board member Newcombe Clark), was lured to Michigan by a $3.9 million tax credit from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and some local assistance from the City of Ann Arbor and SPARK. Apparently many of their employees are relatively low-income and can’t afford to pay a lot for parking. But in their old location, they were near enough residential neighborhoods that they could park there and walk to work. Now they are in what is probably the most heavily parking-impacted area in the city, State Street. The Liberty Plaza parking structure is already wholly parking permits (mostly commanded by McKinley) and Maynard often fills up in high-demand times. They are boxed in by the UM campus and nearby residential streets are already highly impacted. MyBuys is complaining about the lack of parking for employees, and as Pollay said, she gets the message that it should be free. (They are doubtless casting an envious eye on the deal given to Google, which got city-subsidized parking from the General Fund; see this discussion.)
So in a sense, what defines downtown is: anywhere within walking distance, especially if you can leave your car there. At the DDA’s Bricks and Money committee meeting, staff member Amber Miller presented her parking district study that would, in its broadest application, put anywhere in Ann Arbor that is within walking distance under the “parking management” of the DDA. Miller, who is a recent graduate of the UM urban planning program, argued hard for her more expansive view (see the explanation and excellent graphics by the Ann Arbor Chronicle). This would draw a 3,300 foot “buffer” around the downtown, reaching far into residential neighborhoods. (I was startled to see that my house, 2 miles from State Street and thus just walkable, was just inside the boundary.) In her concept, all of this area was possible parking for downtown and thus a reasonable area for the DDA to manage.
Miller also called out streets (not visible in this reproduction but called out in the Chronicle’s account, and colored purple in the projection shown at the meeting) that qualified under more restrictive criteria, including a nonresidential use for some parcels and not eligible for the Residential Parking Permit program. Committee members were reluctant to endorse the more expansive boundary, or even all the more distant and more obviously residential streets that qualified under the more restrictive guidelines. Roger Hewitt warned of a political firestorm. He said that putting streets like Sunset Road, for example, under the DDA management, would cause political problems that wouldn’t be warranted. The consensus of the committee seemed to be to offer to manage the “purple streets”, but maybe not even all of them. Miller, chagrined, pointed out that “land uses might change” (striking fear in this neighborhood advocate’s heart), but wiser heads apparently prevailed. Pollay also hastened to point out that the DDA would not necessarily plan to put parking meters on all streets under its management.
Regardless of the outcome of this immediate plan, it is clear that not just the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to downtown but also all those within any reasonable walking distance are not being regarded as excluded by all those plan boundaries (Downtown Plan, Calthorpe Plan, etc.) but are gradually being withdrawn into the economic entity that is Ann Arbor’s Downtown. There will be many more debates to come.
Postscript: Owens told an amusing story about bringing representatives from a Santa Barbara company to Ann Arbor in July. They were charmed. Wonder how much parking opportunity will be necessary to retain that charm during Ann Arbor’s winter?