Conference Center: Cooked or Confusion?

As we explained previously, there are indications that a group of persons (not all known, but including city and county officials) are interested in seeing a conference center in the South Fifth and William Street area.  The earlier post has a link to a discussion of this by Roger Fraser, the Ann Arbor city administrator. In the council’s January retreat, he reported that an undisclosed group had presented a proposal for a convention center in the vicinity of the Library Lot.  Further, he noted that the group suggested that their proposal could be used as the basis for an RFP (request for proposals) issued by the city.  They humbly noted that their proposal might not be the winning proposal with such a process.  This Monday (July 6, 2009), council passed a resolution that appears to be laying the groundwork for this proposal to be considered.

The resolution, as originally put forth by Councilmembers Smith and Higgins, called for “the City Administrator to create and issue a Request for Proposals  (RFP)  for the development of the S. Fifth Ave. parking structure site” by August 3, 2009.  No further criteria for the RFP were delineated, other than that “the City Administrator shall incorporate appropriate elements of the Downtown Plan for identifying desired community objectives for the site, including open space, active uses at street level, and clear public benefits”.   It gave the administrator less than a month (until August 3) to accomplish this.  Proposals would then be due within 60 days after that.

This was a breathtaking abbreviation of the process for any meaningful discussion of how to dispose of an important city property.  First, what is the function of an RFP?  It is frequently used for procurement.  As displayed on the city’s website, various departments put out requests for suppliers to bid on everything from supplying toner cartridges to replacing water mains.  The more complex projects usually include engineering drawings, and all of them include detailed specifications to the level appropriate for the service sought.  Drawing these documents up is part boilerplate, part hard technical detail.

In recent years, the RFP process has been used to seek developers who would pay the city for property while accomplishing important civic goals.  Thus, the RFP document and its specifications in these cases are really a policy document, not a simple procurement task.  In the past, the council has turned to the DDA partnership committee (it includes city council members) to draw up a carefully tuned document that has gone through several revisions.  This type of document was used to solicit bids for replacement of the housing at the old Y, where the city hoped to use its ownership of the site to lure a developer who would satisfy all the objectives for it.  (It is now a parking lot.)  More recently, a closely held committee of mostly city staff and perhaps a couple of council members drew up the RFP for 415 W. Washington, another city property.  The RFP laid out a broad range of objectives, ranging from a monetary yield for the city to maintaining the floodway.  That project is still up in the air, since none of the three proposals received filled all the objectives.

So as a start,  the Library Lot RFP process is missing a set of clearly enunciated objectives, and a broader group of individuals, representing both citizens, elected officials, and staff, to agree on them.  While earlier RFPs stated that the city had to make money on the development deal, this resolution only suggests that outcome, and in discussion, CM Smith said it might be all right just to make sure it was “revenue neutral”.  Also, one month for preparation of the RFP and two months to respond to it are a very short period.  At a time of year when many staff and others are on vacation, this is a lot to ask if we are to expect a carefully phrased and detailed document.  Two months to respond assumes that developers have their pencils already sharpened.  And they will apparently be given very little guidance as to the objectives for the site, if the statements at council are sincere.  CM Smith said, “let’s see what kind of creative ideas are out there and see what we get”.  Discussion at council seemed to be of the “let a thousand flowers bloom” nature.  But what developer or civic group can formulate a solid proposal (these generally entail firm budgets and financial offers) in that time frame?

In discussion Monday night, CM Anglin accurately identified a couple of problems with the process.  He offered amendments to remove the time deadlines, and also to put in a public participation process, saying that the public has had no input into the desired use for this site. As he noted, “there is a feeling out there that this is a very special place”.  After a number of negative comments (several councilmembers said that the Calthorpe and A2D2 processes had been a sufficient discussion of the “core downtown area” and CM Rapundalo suggested to Anglin “if you aren’t up to speed on this, I suggest you go back and see what this body has done”), CM Briere offered some alternative amendments that included a public participation element, and CM Greden offered one that relaxed the time frame slightly. The final resolution calls for the RFP to be prepared by August 14, and to allow 90 days for responses.

Unfortunately, the public participation element appears to be ineffective, if not an outright sham.  After a lot of backing and filling, the council allowed as how the committee that would be reviewing the proposals should have a public meeting, and that there would eventually be a public hearing.  But this is a long way from a true interactive public process to determine the fate of this significant piece of public property.  (The last time the council proposed a development [a city hall] for the Library Lot, they were swamped with protests.)

So what we are left with is a poorly defined objective that is nevertheless going to happen at a rush (CM Higgins counted backwards so that a complete plan would be available by March 2010 at the latest).  And even with the extended deadline, it is difficult to see how city administration can present a sufficiently detailed and nuanced RFP, that will give clear guidance such that a wide variety of developers will spend the effort to propose innovative uses that will also enrich the city (or at least not sink us further in debt).  Unless there is already a handy draft sitting around.  After all, the mysterious conference center proposers made a offer.

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One Comment on “Conference Center: Cooked or Confusion?”

  1. Tom Whitaker Says:

    In my career in contracting and as an owner’s representative, I have both authored and responded to many RFP’s. As the developers who proposed on the 415 W. Washington site will tell you, it can cost a firm many thousands of dollars to prepare a proper response to an RFP. Developers expect they will win some and lose some (it’s how the game is played), but nothing makes them more angry than to spend all that money and have the RFP issuer simply bail on making a decision.

    I don’t know all the facts on the Y site RFP, but the City appears to now be 0-2 on major RFPs for developing City-owned sites. Now, the City is not only expecting developers to spend thousands on another RFP response–this time for the top of the new underground structure–but to do so with literally no idea whatsoever about what the City wants to build there or what the public will accept. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, but in this economy, with the City’s RFP track record, and no guidance provided for developers, I think the City will be lucky to get more than one response, let alone a plethora of ideas. However, we do know that at least one response is out there and ready to go–that of this mysterious conference center developer.

    The short time window initially proposed, would certainly not have been a problem this mystery firm since their proposal is apparently already complete. Having few parameters for the RFP will discourage others from submitting. Cynics could easily conclude that the “fix is in” for a conference center for this site. I hope not.

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