The Old Y and the New Conference Center

Two of the ongoing sagas of  the future development of downtown got new chapters today.  The Ann Arbor News reports today that efforts to snag one of the county-owned lots in the North Main area for very low income housing have failed.  This was not “affordable housing” as so many casual observers might understand it, but replacement for the 100 units lost when the YMCA moved to a new location and put the property on William at 5th Avenue up for sale.  As was explained at some length in an Ann Arbor Observer story four years ago, many of these single-room- occupancy housing units (which did not have kitchen facilities) were used by people who had once been at the Delonis shelter, or who needed very low-cost or nearly free housing because they had virtually no income.  Further, many (not all) of those former inhabitants needed “supportive housing” – in which they received a number of human services, including assistance with mental illness and substance abuse.  Efforts have been underway since 2000 to maintain or replace those 100 units with better quarters and to make them better adapted to the special-needs population that requires supportive housing, culminating with the city’s purchase of the site as the YMCA moved to a new location.  (A longer, more detailed history is available in the original draft of the 2005 Observer story.)  Council issued an RFP for a developer to construct the housing, together with a for-profit building.  The winner of that competition proposed to build the William Street Station .  But the financial arrangements for the project were always problematical, since the city hoped to avoid subsidizing it, but the developer expected to make a profit. Finally, the Council killed the project in late 2007.

Discussions of “what next?” were tossed into the lap of the newly formed Housing and Human Services Advisory Board (HHSAB).  As reviewed in the Ann Arbor Chronicle,  the HHSAB presented a recommendation in May 2008.  While favoring a re-issuance of an RFP to build 100 units of supportive housing on the old Y site, the report also opened up the possibility of using other sites, preferably those already in public ownership.  This would both make the project more affordable and allow an RFP process to go forward.  (The report, referenced in the Chronicle article, includes some cost estimations.)

The idea of using a different site began to receive a lot of unofficial encouragement at the same time that the idea of using the old Y site for a conference center suddenly emerged.  An Ann Arbor News account (April 2008) of a coffee meeting between the county administrator, Bob Guenzel, and Jesse Bernstein, Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce President, related that “Guenzel said he’d like to see plans for an Ann Arbor conference center take shape. Bernstein agreed.”  By December 2008 (as detailed by the Chronicle), the Council was hearing about three parking lots, two owned by the county, where the 100 units could be placed.  Also in December 2008, city administrator Roger Fraser made a presentation to the Council in its  Budget Retreat which he said “a group of folks…have made some conceptual plans” “at their own risk” to place a small conference center on top of the current Library Lot, using a “partnership” with the city, the DDA, and the private sector.  The “folks” further suggested that their efforts might be useful for the city to prepare an RFQ, which they understood they might not win.  Fraser went on to mention the idea of moving Blake Transit Center off its current site, roofing over 4th Avenue, and making use of all the liberated real estate for these plans.  Mayor Hieftje enthusiastically chimed in, “it allows us to keep the old Y lot intact”.

Sure enough, now that Council has voted to spend public money to install a $38 million underground parking structure under the Library Lot, Councilmember Sandi Smith announced that she will bring a resolution for a RFQ for a “private development partner” for the space above the parking structure.  However, this was postponed to July 1, 2009 so that other councilmembers can weigh in.  One can hear the machinery moving, though some of the pieces carry a lot of inertia. Last I heard, no decision has been made on whether to renovate Blake where it stands.

All of this leads to several questions.

1. What will be the effect of the resignation of Jesse Bernstein, announced today, as the Chamber of Commerce President?  He has been central to these moves toward a convention center and supported the moving of Blake as an AATA board member.

2. Will the Council continue to move towards a convention center on the old Y site before the location (and, for goodness sakes, the funding) for replacement housing is settled on?

3. Where was the public impetus for a major transformation of south Fourth Avenue?  Where was the public process?  Where has been the detailed workup to indicate the need or desire for the center?  And has the effect on our downtown in general of placing such a use-intensive facility there been considered?  And is there any notion of how finances would work and will this be addressed before “qualifying” any private “partners”? Where is the planning?

Update:  Karen Sidney supplied the attached letter of denial for the conceptual drawings presented by City Administrator Fraser to the Council at the January retreat.  Apparently, though they are driving policy, they are private.

Second Update: The document showing the total cost for the underground parking structure at the Library Lot is attached here .

THIRD UPDATE: For all related stories, see the Library Lot Conference Center page, where new articles are linked.

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3 Comments on “The Old Y and the New Conference Center”

  1. Karen Sidney Says:

    Small is a misleading term to attach to the proposed conference center. I did take a peek over some shoulders at the drawings and the proposed convention center covers the library lot, the Y site and Blake. There is a bridge over Fifth Ave to connect the project.

    $38 million is the official number for the parking structure. According to documents prepared by the city’s bond consultant, the total project cost is $58,771,849. When council voted on this project (Anglin was the only no vote), the public was told the parking was needed for downtown businesses. If the convention center is built, the parking will become $59 million of developer welfare.

    If the council majority really cares about affordable housing, they should focus on trying to save the housing in Courthouse Square. The Delonis center is placing individuals in that housing with substance abuse and mental health problems with no support services. Police and EMS calls are up and the disabled and elderly population are afraid to be in their own homes.

  2. Karen – you got denied on this request – did you appeal?

  3. Karen Sidney Says:

    I did not appeal because I did not think appealing to Roger Fraser would change the outcome unless I was prepared to go to court. I don’t think the city is complying with FOIA but you have to pick your battles.

    Fraser’s presentation at the retreat made it clear that the proposal was for a conference center complex that would cover the Library lot, old Y site and the Blake transit center. It would have been nice to see illustrations but that’s not worth fighting for.

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