Density and the Conference Center
As the debate about what will happen on Top of the Parking continues, part of it is being conducted on a familiar Ann Arbor battleground. After we were told earlier that the RFP Advisory Committee’s main concern was the financial benefit to the city, given the city’s big budget troubles, suddenly the old division between proponents of parks vs. “density” has emerged. Indeed, when some members of the advisory committee say the word “park”, it is spat out like a bad word. But a major thrust on defining the fate of the former Library Lot as being about density has come from a strange quarter: the Ann Arbor District Library board and its director, Josie Parker.
As we reviewed earlier, the new look at the Library Lot and its possible uses began with the AADL, which began in 2006 to do strategic planning toward a new library addition. The DDA and Council both responded by beginning to plan for an underground parking structure, ostensibly to assist the AADL. But only two months after the DDA approved a plan to build the structure, the AADL (in November 2008) voted to suspend their construction plans. As the city has progressed toward making a decision about the use of the surface above the parking structure, the AADL has been the elephant in the room, often alluded to but rarely heard from. But at the December 21 AADL board meeting, when the board engaged in a rather tentative discussion about the proposals on the table, board chair Rebecca Head suddenly came out with the classic “greenbelt link” density argument. Her statement (paraphrased from my incomplete notes) was approximately this: an open space option was not a sustainable choice for the library lot. A basic tenet of sustainability is that density should be in the city and open space should be in “appropriate” (her word) places, namely outside the city. The greenbelt initiative was to place parks and greenbelt around the city, and infill should take place within it.
This theme was then repeated by Josie Parker at the interviews conducted by the RFP committee on January 19, when the Dahlmann open space proposal was being discussed. She was asked her opinion about the proposal and stated that she believed the greenbelt came with the assumption that density is a priority in the city.
At the advisory committee’s January 21 meeting, where they were reviewing proposals in light of the interviews, DDA director Susan Pollay made an unexpectedly vehement statement opposing a park or open space on the lot and characterizing density as a source of “energy” on behalf of the library. Pollay, who has been working closely with Parker since the days of planning the library expansion, said that open space would not be used there and that it would “leach off” the library, that traffic was needed to support the library and bring energy to it. The library, she said, is the true community gathering space and only the two hotel/conference center projects were “legitimate” projects that will support the library in its growth. (My reaction was to wonder why the library needs a hotel to bring people to it – it is a draw in itself.) Then outgoing community services administrator Jayne Miller chimed in with a riff on how the city had been trying for years to get downtown density. She said that the greenbelt initiative gave the city a direction to increase density and they had been working on it for years with the A2D2 process and other efforts and why would we waste that when we had an opportunity to increase downtown density.
As I reviewed in an article first published in the Ann Arbor Observer in December 2005, city voters approved a millage (popularly known as the Greenbelt millage) in 2003. The resolution is worth rereading in its entirety, as is the ballot language. See here. There is no mention anywhere of density or balancing growth within and without the city. Instead, the resolution leads with this resounding whereas statement:
Whereas, The City of Ann Arbor has long been identified as desirable place (sic) to live, work and visit in part because of the presence of parks, open space and natural habitats, watercourses and farmland in and around the Ann Arbor community;
Note that part about “in and around the Ann Arbor community”? Yet development proponents have ever since been claiming that in approving the greenbelt millage, voters also approved increased density within the city while open space belongs outside it. This is what I have termed the “greenbelt link”. (See my 2005 article for a lengthy discussion with quotes.)
Pollay is understandably frustrated, since the DDA’s mission is to promote downtown development and yet the only successful project (at least, one that has been built) it has managed so far on city property is Ashley Mews. The Three-site Plan, which would have built a parking structure on the city lot at First and William and developed the Kline’s Lot and First and Washington public lots (this was reviewed relatively recently by the Ann Arbor Chronicle), was truncated so that the only completed plan was the City Apartments/Village Green project on the First and Washington lot, currently delayed by lack of financing. A great deal of venom was expressed by DDA board members at the time against the Sierra Club and neighborhood advocates who succeeded in taking First and William off the table. (The Kline’s Lot project was not seen as feasible at all, given the market.) The Downtown Residential Task Force, which published its report in 2004 (available here), had its main impetus from the DDA (and its then board chair was the chair of the task force). The DRTF provided the meat of the argument for downtown density and its inception was at the same time as the greenbelt millage initiative. Clearly in the minds of many in the development community, the two were joined, and Pollay has been one of the strongest proponents of this notion. But that is not what the voters saw on the ballot, or in the campaign literature. Even so, the usage of the term “density” has slipped into being synonymous with “development”, which is not accurate. Most planning documents and studies (including the DRTF) mean “residential density” when they use the term – in other words, that more people live in the area, not that tall buildings sprout up. If you accept the greenbelt link (which I emphatically don’t), you’d be asking where all the condominiums or apartments are, not looking for hotel and meeting rooms.
Of course, another thinly veiled reason to oppose open space next to the library is its history of difficulties with the troubled population of the old YMCA. Before the old Y was emptied, some of the tenants with drug, alcohol, and other socially undesirable problems often hung around the entrance to the library. Liberty Plaza, the only open space downtown, has also had a history with the homeless or “vagrants”. Fears of a recurrence of such problems were repeatedly alluded to by RFP committee member Eric Mahler’s references to “security problems”. In response to a question from Stephen Rapundalo at the interviews, about “less desirable elements”, Parker asserted that the space might not be well maintained: “it is our experience that people do not clean up after themselves – you have to monitor them”.
Also at issue are the economics of a park or open space vs. a development. It was frequently mentioned at advisory committee meetings that parks take operational (maintenance) money that the city doesn’t have. It has been assumed that the development proposals will bring a positive economic benefit (but more about that in a future post). Miller, in a rather startling outburst, said at the last meeting that she wanted the ice rink removed even from the Valiant proposal. “You don’t make money off effing free skating!” (Really, that is what I heard.)
Still, in the end the open space vs. density argument is really about two competing visions of what kind of city Ann Arbor will be in the future. Is it to be a gracious community where quality of life is defined by community festivals in the open air? Or a bustling center of activity with visitors bringing wealth to enlarge business opportunities? The dichotomy is much more nuanced than that, obviously. But at heart the competing visions are what add passion to the debate.
UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle has now published an account of the Jan. 21 advisory committee meeting that quotes a number of the discussions.Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, Sustainability