Looking Backward and Forward to the Conference Center

Now that the date (November 13) has come and gone for submission of proposals, we are all looking forward with anticipation to see what has actually been put on the table for what the city of Ann Arbor is calling “319 S Fifth Avenue Lot – RFP #743”.  As we previously reported, the issue surfaced at the January 2009 Council retreat, when City Administrator Roger Fraser revealed that the city had received an unsolicited proposal for a conference center.  Later, we were able to view and report on the proposal (The Secret Plan for the Conference Center and How the Secret Plan Would Work).  Later, Councilmember Sandi Smith brought forth a resolution for an RFP that would solicit proposals for a development on the “Library Lot”.  It seemed clear that this was a prelude to Council’s approval of a conference center plan.

Although we complained at the time that this RFP  was an abridgment of proper public process, it seems CM Smith was doing us a favor.  According to a selection of emails from a recent citizen FOIA, she was actually trying to broaden the discussion from a single-source decision.  In a January 12 email memo to Roger Fraser (two days after the Council retreat on January 10),  she says:

I feel very strongly that we need to address this area more globally than we are currently doing. Allowing a single proposal to move the idea of the conference center forward, stalling the parking structure and even moving the BTC onto Fourth all have huge ramifications on this central core. We have only one chance to get this right.

(The “BTC” refers to the Blake Transit Center.  There has been talk on and off, including at the retreat, about relocating it to free up the entire block south of the Federal Building, including the Old Y property.)

CM Smith, who is a long-time DDA board member, then moved to bring her council colleagues into the discussion for a January 23 meeting.  (As we noted earlier, there were no minutes for this meeting, so we don’t know how many councilmembers attended or what they discussed.)

But the emails show that the original proposers of the Secret Plan, the Valiant Group, continued a chummy collegial exchange with DDA officials.  Fritz Seyferth, a chief organizer, wrote on February 11, 2009:

Susan –
Please call with any feedback you got on the meeting re what may go above the parking structure. We have
received a more positive feedback from our concept from some on Council, so that is good.
Call anytime.. .Fritz

Later emails are mostly requests and transmittal of information, especially about the underground parking structure.  Still, from the tone, it is clear that at least in early months this year, the group was pretty sure they had an inside track.  With the issuance of the RFP, they have encountered some competition and, we hope, some chance for public scrutiny and comment about the fate of this parcel.

And there will be a lot to discuss.  There were six proposals submitted by the November 13 deadline.  AnnArbor.com’s article stated that they had some difficulty in getting a look at the proposals.  “Dee Lumpkin, the city’s procurement assistant…said she didn’t think copies of the proposals could be released while under review. A Freedom of Information Act request by AnnArbor.com for copies of the proposals is under review by the City Attorney’s Office and the city’s FOIA coordinator.”  As of today (November 20), the proposals have not yet been released, but the initial waiting period of five business days which the city was allowed by FOIA will expire today.  Meanwhile, the city did release a summary of the proposals and their contents.

Four were much as one might expect, some variation of a hotel/conference center or a housing development (Valiant Partners has now added condominiums to their mix):

Valiant Partners LLC Acquest Realty Advisors Inc Beztak Land Company Jarratt Architecture
White Plains NY Bloomfield Hills Farmington Hills Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor Town Plaza Hotel & Conference Center @Hotel and Retail Center All Seasons of Ann Arbor the Fifth a2
Hotel, conference center, condominiums, restaurant, retail Hotel, meeting spaces, retail, restaurant Senior citizen apartments, retail, restaurant, office Hotel, meeting spaces, condominiums, affordable housing, outdoor market, retail, restaurant
Conference center: 32,000 s.f.Hotel: 150 roomsCondos: 12Retail/restaurant: 5,000 s.f. Hotel: 190 roomsRetail & Restaurant: 8,850 s.f.Meeting space: 5,340 s.f. Senior Apartments: 148 unitsRetail etc: 12, 500 s.f. Hotel: 84 roomsCondos: 50-60Meeting Rooms: one floorRetail etc.: one floor

But two are different: the “Ann Arbor Community Commons” group, led by Alan Haber and Alice Ralph, proposed an open public space; and Dennis Dahlmann (Dahlmann Apartments) proposed a public park that is fully developed with features such as an ice rink, a pavilion, and a water feature.   Clearly there is a different vision there.  I hope that this vision is at least explored in the review process.

The proposals are presumably under so-called “technical review” by staff at this time.  According to an email from Jayne Miller, Community Services Area Administrator, it consists of the following:

Administrator Lead – Jayne Miller

Project lead – Matt Kulhanek

Attorney’s Office – Kevin McDonald

Planning & Development – Wendy Rampson

Systems Planning – Cresson Slotten

Project Management – Alison Heatley

Finance – Mike Pettigrew

Parks & Recreation – Jessica Black

DDA – Susan Pollay

Beginning December 4, the “advisory committee” appointed by Council will begin to consider the proposals.  (We hope they are allowed to see them before then.) Those are: CM Margie Teall, CM Stephen Rapundalo, Eric Mahler (Planning Commission), John Splitt (DDA Board), and Sam Offen (Parks Advisory Commission).

According to the schedule, the advisory committee is supposed to begin interviews the week of December 7 (after having met as a group only the previous Friday).   A recommendation is to be brought to Council at the second meeting in January.  This would ordinarily be January 18, but that is Martin Luther King day, and Council has not yet set its calendar for 2010.  Currently it is expected that Council would make a selection on their February 15 meeting, and then award the contract on March 1.  There is a sense of rush, since this begins the construction season, when the DDA will need to coordinate with a developer while constructing the parking garage.

The committee has a lot to consider.  They will have been advised by the technical committee of any flaws in the proposals such as poor site planning, unfeasible financing, or lack of responsiveness.  Ah, but there is the rub.  The RFP requirements are very short:

1. Beneficial use of the site. Any proposal for this site must demonstrate a clear benefit to the community and be consistent with the recommendations of the Downtown Plan, and A2D2 initiative. Preference will be given to proposals that incorporate a use (or uses) that provides a publicly available service to the community, for instance, building or open space that may be used for public meetings, recreation, or civic/ cultural events.

2. Environmental benefits. The development proposal should incorporate to the greatest extent possible environmentally sensitive design and energy efficiency features that follow Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. In addition,the project should propose innovative and environmentally friendly runoff water management and seek to improve water quality.

3. Financial return. The proposal must provide a positive financial return to the City. In the absence of other considerations, the City has a fiduciary responsibility to obtain fair market value upon the sale of City assets. Long-term lease or other property arrangements will be considered, but must meet this financial return criterion.

Note that #3 says that any proposal must be a moneymaker for the city in the absence of other considerations. Will the technical committee eliminate the two open space proposals if they do not fill that requirement but do a better job of filling the other two?

I hope that the citizen advisory committee does have a chance to consider all the proposals unless one appears to be fraudulent or otherwise irrevocably flawed, and that the open space proposals are not immediately discarded even though neither presumably is a straightforward sale or lease of the parcel.

Some other questions I’d like to think the committee will consider.

1. Is there really any demonstrated need for additional conference and hotel space?  Can we see some figures and not just take that as a given?

2. Will either a hotel or a residence use up all the expensive new parking that we are indebting ourselves to build? (I hope that we aren’t going to hear that senior citizens don’t need cars.  Tell that to the residents of Courthouse Square.)

3. Does it make sense to build condominiums and new retail space in this economic climate?

4. What is the liability to the city if we accept a proposal that is sufficiently financially unsound that the developer fails to get financing and the project is halted at inception or midway?  Note the fate of a project from an earlier RFP,  Ann Arbor City Apartments.  After passing through all the hoops, it has joined the list of downtown projects that didn’t get built.  What has been the cost to the city of that project?

This last concern is a big one.  The city does not have a good record on public-private ventures where we hoped to make money from our property and/or achieve some special objectives.  The purchase of the old Y lot and the failure of the project awarded through RFP (we are now being sued by that developer),  the stalled RFP for 415 W. Washington, and the old, old failure of the Tally Hall project.   (See the brief history in the Ann Arbor Chronicle; this building project was a blight on the landscape for years.)  I hope that the Council and the committee save us from another one of these expensive, frustrating, and often ugly experiments. (I know, some people like Ashley Mews.)

Despite the unhappy beginning of this particular episode (secret unsolicited proposals), let’s all hope that we are now looking forward to a real public discussion.  A good start would be making the interviews public.  One nice thing about the 415 W. Washington RFP process was that the interviews and presentations were public.  We need to seek a true public consensus about the best outcome for this little parcel next to the library.  It can indeed potentially have an important influence on the evolution of that entire area of downtown.  Let’s hope it can be something we all (mostly) agree on.

Note: see also the AnnArbor.com story on this subject.

UPDATE: CM Smith has objected to my frequent references to the January 23 meeting as a violation of the Open Meetings Act.  She explained that city staff generally posts such meetings on a piece of paper in the City Hall (and there is no record of these postings in general), and that in any event she was the only councilmember present, in a meeting with Roger Fraser.  Consider this a retraction of that allegation.

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6 Comments on “Looking Backward and Forward to the Conference Center”

  1. Tom Whitaker Says:

    “I hope…that the open space proposals are not immediately discarded even though neither presumably is a straightforward sale or lease of the parcel.”

    Until we get to see all the proposals, including the financial pieces, I don’t think we can assume that ANY of them involve a straightforward sale or lease of the parcel.

    • varmentrout Says:

      I have to agree. I know that was the hope, at least for some, but in the Secret Plan, for example, the arrangements were very convoluted.

  2. nancy k. Says:

    Thanks for another well organized column pulling the pieces together.

    The presentations by the selected firms are open to the public without the financial piece. The problem is that those not chosen we do not get to know about. Since there are so few proposals all 6 should be reviewed before the public. This was requested at the last caucus.

    Question: I thought that Scott Rosencranz was on the committee and not Sam Offen.


  3. SBean Says:

    Scott had a conflict, according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s coverage, so Sam Offen from PAC was chosen as his replacement.

  4. Alan Connor Says:

    I forgot about the Tally Hall fiasco. Your BLOG does a nice job of stating andal Connor clarifying the issues.

  5. Karen Sidney Says:

    Since the library lot is within the DDA district, all the city taxes will go to the DDA. Will the selection committee find that a project that gives more tax revenue to the DDA but no tax revenue to the city is a financial return to the city?

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