Public Properties, Public Process, and the DDA

On April 4, 2011, the Ann Arbor City Council acted to shut down the RFP process that had very nearly led to the development of a hotel and conference center on the Library Lot.  We summarized some of that action in our last post of a chain on the subject.  For nearly two years we had reported on the saga of efforts (originally secret) to install a hotel and conference center as proposed by the Valiant development group atop the new underground parking garage built next to the downtown Ann Arbor District Library.  The posts and other important documents are listed on our Library Lot Conference Center page.

The effort to impose this plan on the citizens of Ann Arbor led to a remarkable uprising of civic fervor.  Its defeat felt like a victory.  But of course that wasn’t the end of the story.  The forces that were behind the idea of a hotel and conference center are still with us.  Now it appears that the concept is about to be brought forward again.

On the same night that Council laid the Valiant proposal to rest, it also passed a resolution directing the Downtown Development Authority to take charge of planning for the disposition of city-owned lots downtown.  This launched what became the DDA’s Connecting William Street process.

Map of the area DDA is planning under Connecting William Street process

Map of the area DDA is planning under Connecting William Street process

I thought that Councilmember Sabra Briere did a good job of putting the history of all this into perspective in her recent constituent newsletter.  Here is some of what she said:

Over a year ago the Council passed two resolutions.  The first one had to do with ending the RFP process for the Library Lot.  This resolution included a statement that any future planning for the library lot would include a ‘robust public process.’  The second resolution requested that the DDA ‘facilitate the process of redeveloping’ five city-owned parcels.  This second resolution outlines a process that the DDA proposed to attempt a consensus on the development potential for each site.  But the final resolution didn’t call for a robust public process, and the Council didn’t question the process outlined in the resolution.  That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a public process, but it does mean that some of us have been dissatisfied with the way that process was conducted.

Amen to that, Sabra.  Not that the DDA hasn’t been working very hard at their task.  They appointed a special committee to review options.  The proceedings have duly been documented at their site on Connecting William Street.  They have conducted a survey and a number of public interaction events.  They employed a consultant (actually, a couple of them).  Here is the overview provided by AnnArbor.com.  But there are some major disconnects with their approach and the “robust public process” that was initially promised.  They have to do with the “the scorpion and the frog” relationship of the DDA and Ann Arbor residents.  The DDA board is composed of people whose primary interest is in developing the downtown to a maximum density and real estate value.  Residents often want a downtown that serves their needs, and consider that publicly owned lots should have a public purpose.   (The group, Public Land – Public Purpose, formed in response to the Valiant proposal, stated the point succinctly.)  These two goals are at odds.   This has been especially evident in the resistance of the DDA to the idea of a downtown park or open space.  (Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem was an early post with an admittedly snarky tone on that subject.)  In the meantime, a group (the Library Green Conservancy) has been advocating forcefully for open space, indeed, a “central park” in the downtown, on the Library Lot.  At DDA Partnership Committee meetings, the idea of a hotel on the Library Lot has resurfaced.  This is presumably supported by the Lodging_Analysis conducted by their consultant.  (This document appeared on the Connecting William Street web page at one time but has since been removed.)

Here is some more reflection from CM Sabra Briere’s newsletter:

One of the significant conflicts is about ‘density.’  For some, density is a catch phrase that indicates new construction in order to facilitate more folks living downtown.  This increase in the number of people living downtown has been something the City and its residents have talked about for decades.  At first, people talked about loft apartments.  Then, they built more condominiums.  Most recently, the increase in new residents has been due entirely to new student highrises – there are now nearly 5000 people living in downtown Ann Arbor, which is a pretty significant number in the last decade – nearly 2000 more – than there were in 2000.  All of these new residential units are supposed to help provide the means for local businesses to remain open while making the street scene more active and the cultural life more varied.
But most of us don’t really want our downtown defined by student use.  That’s one of the messages I’ve heard in the meetings on Connecting William Street.  We want a downtown that’s a magnet for children and seniors, with places for folks to sit and read their – I almost wrote newspaper – electronic device, buy a pair of shoes, have lunch, sit and watch the world go by, drink our coffee and go to a meeting or a lecture.  We want a downtown that holds events and activities we might want to attend; that we might want to show our guests, that we might want to brag about.
And for some, that means a respite from density – an offset, as it were, that’s cool and green and calm and refreshing.  Something that sounds like a park.

Now the issue (0f how we dispose of downtown parcels) is coming to a potential decision point.  The DDA is poised to present the Connecting William Street plan to a working session of the Council on January 14.

Note that the DDA has two public events scheduled before that:

• Wednesday, December 19th, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the Downtown Library (343 S. Fifth Ave) in the Multi-Purpose Room
• Thursday, January 3rd, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the DDA office (150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301)

There will be much to discuss, and a need for citizens to come to attention on this subject.

Explore posts in the same categories: Business, Downtown, Neighborhoods

6 Comments on “Public Properties, Public Process, and the DDA”

  1. Jack Eaton Says:

    Thank you for this important update.

    As you note, First Ward Council member Sabra Briere discusses the history of the Council resolution that gave the responsibility to study the City-owned properties to the DDA in her December constituent newsletter. Among other things, Council member Briere noted:

    “But the second resolution didn’t call for a robust public process, and the Council didn’t question the process outlined in the resolution.”

    I think this statement is misleading. The Council resolution adopted a three phase process. The first phase essentially required the DDA to look at prior downtown planning documents. In the second phase, among other tasks, the Council instructed the DDA to:

    “Solicit robust public input and conduct public meetings to determine residents’ Parcel-level downtown vision.”

    Again, in the third phase of the process, one element of process was:

    “Solicit robust public input and confirm the extent of community consensus for the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan through public meetings and surveys.”

    While I admit that the resolution did not use the exact words “robust public process”, the resolution required the DDA to seek robust public input in two of the three phases of the process. Anyone who participated in the survey or public meetings, as I did, should be able to admit that the process was designed to avoid public input that did not fit the desired result. The process was fundamentally flawed and the flawed process should be cause for the Council to reject the DDA’s recommendations


  2. The funny thing about the call for a “downtown park” is that there is an existing downtown park, Liberty Plaza. No one seems to think that it’s an ideal use of that land. I wonder if it might be easier on everyone to completely rethink that spot – remove the tangled maze of hard concrete planters and benches, and make it more pleasant and accessible from the street.

    The site is a quarter of an acre, so it could easily be reimagined into something better than what it is.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Liberty Plaza certainly needs to be revised. The DDA’s proposal does call for a renovation and rethinking. It has simply never been welcoming, and does not really serve for large gatherings and events.

      My personal view is that it might better be sold for appropriate development. The corner should be valuable real estate now that Liberty is becoming more popular. If so, the city should preserve a connector into the center of the block, where a decent-sized public open space could be developed, including the Library Lot. The connector would help it integrate into the rest of downtown.

      I was just looking at the map shown above. Oddly, the map does not include Kempf House, which is public space though perhaps not in government ownership. Putting that together with some connector through the private property in the center of the block could create a really decent public space.

  3. Timothy Durham Says:

    Do citizens draw up plans and bring them to the meetings? How do you know what can/cannot be done on specific plots?

    For instance, what if the city retained ownership of the site but provided a semi-circle of micro-business/seasonal stalls (shoe repair, coffee shop, bakery, soup and sandwich, tailor, cider and donuts, produce, etc.) like a hybrid of the Farmers Market and Nichols Arcade, which surrounded a baseball diamond shaped green surrounding a band shell in one of the corners? A plaza of tables and chairs at the top, bandshell at the corner. Grass in the summer, skating rink in the winter.

    People could take carry-out from Earthen Jar and Jerusalem Garden and eat at city-maintained tables, chairs, umbrellas (or the businesses that sell food could be encouraged to maintain the seating and trash by lower rents). Surround the site with shade trees…

    I could see the Top of the Park relocating to such a plaza, Art Fair concerts, etc. Groups could reserve the bandshell all year (through the Parks Dept.) for rallies, concerts, plays, speeches, etc. A public Forvm! And, more importantly, businesses that have been priced out of downtown could rent a (subsidized) stall and provided a needed downtown service.

    Critical to the success of any downtown plaza or park is a steady supply of users at all hours of the day (Thank you, Jane Jacobs). Not just a lunch crowd, so businesses must be a mix supplying humans even at night, so maybe a pub, night-time plays, late skating. Otherwise it gets taken over by drug dealers and panhandlers and then people stop going there altogether.

    The Library lot seems the perfect size for this, but, as Liberty Plaza proves, parks are tricky.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, your vision is similar to that which many of us hold.

      The first issue is to come to agreement that the Library Lot is the appropriate place for a public space. Many details after that to be decided.

      • Timothy Durham Says:

        Well then, there must be an architect who feels the same way and can come up with a counter-proposal that “public space” proponents can sign on to and present? I’d pony up some money for that.


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