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

11 Comments on “Density and the Conference Center”

  1. Jack Eaton Says:

    Thank you for the continuing discussion on the use of the downtown library lot.

    The different visions of the neighborhoods and the pro-land speculation Council is not a question of development versus open space. Rather, it is a question of how we realize the density in the downtown area.

    I, for one, believe that if we wish to create a vibrant downtown based on increased residential density, we must include open and green spaces for those future residents. An open space that provides for social gathering and/or recreational activity is essential if we wish to encourage high quality downtown residential life.

    The current plan to build a conference center downtown is not relevant to effort to increase downtown residential density. It will be a tower full of minimum wage jobs, not an economic engine. It primarily will be used by out of town visitors, not by downtown residents or residents from the outlying neighborhoods. It will entangle the City and its taxpayers in risky financial burdens. It will not provide an incentive to live downtown and will not provide disincentive for living outside the tax base that will pay for this disaster when it fails.

    High density residential use of the downtown area requires some foresight. At a minimum, it requires the City to plan open space for the downtown residents. The library lot is publicly owned land and should be used for the common good of city residents.

    • John Floyd Says:


      Are the library folks really suggesting that convention attendees will come use the library? I thought the point of the convention center was to attract people to bars and restaurants.

      I agree with your implicit point, that even condos on that site would create more vibrancy than a convention center. Still, more people increases the urgency for more open space.

      You are right on re: the lack of connection between the greenbelt and open space in town. We need both.

      Problem now: how to get people currently in power un-locked from their rigid positions. The current dynamic is win-lose. People have been known to chose the worse of two alternatives just so as not to appear as having backed down, or “lost”. We either have to find a graceful way for The Power Elite to change their minds (without them feeling they were forced into it) or we have to storm the electoral Bastille & throw them out. Mere rational argument will not win the day.


      The livability of downtown is, indeed, related to the existence of nearby open space. Cramming tens of thousands (even merely ten thousand) more people into central Ann Arbor without a place to throw a frisbee, walk a dog, or walk a stroller is not a recipe for long-term success. The A2D2 process has migrated so far away from the Calthorpe conclusions – which themselves were alleged to be rigged by participants – that the premise of A2D2 having wide public support is no longer a serious one.

      • varmentrout Says:

        Yes, the Valiant group mentioned that they could cooperate with the library in setting up “research areas” that high-tech visitors could use. The Acquest group made frequent reference to the library in design of their open space with reading areas, other open space (eek!) uses. (Hope they had plans to keep only the right people reading there.)

        Wendy Rampson made a comment that by building meeting rooms the city could alleviate pressure on the library to build meeting rooms and thereby save them money.

  2. Leslie Morris Says:

    Vivienne, thanks for pointing out the attempted hijacking of the greenbelt voters as pretended downtown density increasers. The greenbelt voters were merely the latest in a long line of park and open space supporters that stretches back at least to 1966. Some Ann Arborites would like to see a denser downtown, but I have seen no public vote or survey results that would indicate that they are a majority.

    My own position is the following: I agree that tall buildings for any purpose belong in the downtown core. To increase housing density in what is already the densest part of the city is to build housing that is necessarily expensive; what is referred to as “land cost” must include the cost of destroying what is already on the land. The market for high-density housing is very limited; most Americans prefer single-family houses with yards. Those Ann Arborites who do like to live downtown and can afford to want a pleasant environment,and as Jack Eaton and John Floyd have pointed out above, that includes open space.

    I think the DDA’s position is easily understandable as an attempt to focus development pressure on the downtown. All new downtown development pours money into their coffers for downtown spending. Parkland does not. Development, whether commercial or residential, that is outside the downtown provides tax revenues for all kinds of local government spending for the benefit of citizens at large. Downtown development benefits downtown only.

  3. Alice Ralph Says:

    Not only do many persons improperly conflate “greenbelt” and “density”, but also foggily generalize “development” and “construction” or building. By charter, the Downtown Development Authority is not an agency for real estate develpment alone. Other areas of focus include “Identity, Infrastructure, Transportation, Business Ensouragement, Housing, [Development Partnerships],Community Services and Sustainability” as published in their Renewal Plan document. (Their words, not mine.) My observation here is that downtown development should be *economic* as much as real estate. (A not-so-highly paid consultant was recently shocked that our DDA did not have either a marketing or economic plan.) Because the context exists, area planning should recognize both abstract and tangible history. Downtown “development” should primarily be *economic* development, which may, or may not, include bulldozing or “big tall buildings”.
    Disclosure: I am the author of the “Commons” proposal for the Library Lot and prepared the public presentation. I thank community members who have, and are, contributing to this ongoing public conversation about sustainable values.

    • varmentrout Says:

      A good point, Alice. Many of us have been concerned about the loss of local businesses in the downtown, for example. The DDA’s solution has uniformly been greater downtown residential density. The DDA, of course, does derive its TIF income from new development, so there is an inherent bias toward development as new buildings, not support of existing businesses.

  4. So this article has been nagging at me for a while. I’ve been wondering, “is my memory really that bad, I was sure there was a lot of debate about density leading up to the Greenbelt vote.”

    I’ve finally gotten around to doing some digging myself. I loaded up the Ann Arbor News archives from the library website.

    Of the 139 articles, letters to the editor, and op-eds about the greenbelt millage, 39 discuss “density.” The question of downtown density was a big part of the debate.

    How much so? The headline of a Friday, October 31, 2003 article was, “Density discussion dominates greenbelt forum.”

    Sounds like a big issue.

    And an October 24, 2003 article states that, “Hieftje said the guarantee of open space would lead the city and township to be more receptive to higher density developments where infrastructure exists.”

    This was a big relief to me knowing that density was part of the debate.

    I see two possible interpretations of the past:

    1. Vivienne’s argument that voters made their choice based only on the ballot language and did not believe they were buying into a promise of increased downtown density;

    2. My experience of the promise of the greenbelt as part of an anti-sprawl initiative that provided a clear way to say, “don’t build there,” with a promise that there would be more openness to building in the city.

    So is there a “greenbelt link” to density? I see evidence that there is, and that was the evidence that I voted on in 2003.

  5. varmentrout Says:

    Yes, Chuck, clearly there were some discussions of density happening at the same time. I was personally aware of the fact that there was a parallel discussion of downtown density. However, I have spoken to a number of fervent supporters of the greenbelt initiative who denied any thought of a downtown density link to what they were voting for.

    And the bottom line is, people vote (conceptually and legally) for what is on the ballot. Suppose there were a ballot initiative for an income tax, for example, and a discussion occurred at the same time that the city could afford to do more about human services, especially to the homeless, if the income tax were passed. This could be a very vigorous and open discussion. If an income tax were passed, would it obligate the city to new homeless shelters? I don’t think so.

  6. John Floyd Says:

    People voted for what was on the ballot, not for discussions or ideas that some people had, that were not mentioned on the ballot. Not everyone thinks that re-locating the population and economic center of Michigan from Detroit to Ann Arbor is “Green”, or desireable.

    We have a great mix of small town intimacy and convenience, with some of the best of urban life. The more you tip the balance in favor of “urban”, the more ills of urban life you will generate. That’s why many of us choose to be here – to avoid many/most of the ills of urban life, while still having a civilized existence.

  7. varmentrout Says:

    This was clearly an in-the-eye-of-the-beholder issue. Chuck is certainly correct that there were discussions of density occurring at the same time as the Greenbelt vote. (And I’m impressed with his research.) As my 2005 article says, Mayor John Hieftje even said in an interview that it “makes sense” to link the two. The DTRF was founded in October 2003 (before the vote) and tellingly, McKinley gave at least $11,000 to support the greenbelt initiative. (They were in the midst of a good deal of downtown development.)

    The campaign literature for the greenbelt millage didn’t mention density, though. It promised an end to increased traffic and featured a lot of pictures of kids on swings.

    I suspect that there were in fact quite a few people in Ann Arbor, especially those who were connected with the UM planning and architecture school, who saw the greenbelt as part of an overall strategy, including density. But I am also convinced that this connection didn’t get through to a lot of the voters. And the bottom line is that density wasn’t on the ballot and we didn’t commit to it as a community because we passed the greenbelt millage.

    • Sahba Laal Says:

      To me as some of the comments point to; Density and Open Space are not two opposing ends of the development spectrum rather that they are complementary aspects of the same whole. Density should lead to more open space. Library lot development proposal should have started with an open space scenario (on the ground) as a given part of the development equation and then a density to satisfy the social, economic and cultural aspects of the overall arrangement (AADL, Surrounding businesses, Historic District on Liberty and Liberty Plaza) determined as a result. Open space is an integral part of high density development. They are logical outcome of each other, so to speak. If a clear, useful and level connection is not made from Library Lot with Liberty Plaza, then a golden opportunity would be missed to create a central plaza/park for downtown.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: