This Land is – Our Land?

This land is your land, this land is my land…This land is made for you and me. — Woody Guthrie

The concept of public land goes back so far that it is practically racial memory. The history of many peoples has been the war over open common land vs. privately held lands. Even today there are wars in some locations (e.g., Africa) between herders and farmers. Perhaps the best documented case of a transition from publicly held to privately held land, enclosure, is in England.  Enclosure led to wealth for those who held the land, and forced many laborers into cities where they formed the basis of the Industrial Revolution.  In this country, the great expanses of land “liberated” from the indigenous peoples who treated them as a common birthright made land ownership available to many common people via the Homestead Act. Property ownership is still one of the best predictors of wealth accumulation and a great majority of people still hope to own their “little bit of heaven”.  But despite this drive, we tend to see public land as ours, held in common. In other words, it is our land, to be used for our benefit.

Public Land in Ann Arbor, Defined

Probably the greatest cause of civic strife in Ann Arbor over the years has been the dispute over public land. What is it? First, it is owned by a public entity, whether that is the public schools (but not a charter school), the University of Michigan, or an authority such as the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.  But when owned by the City of Ann Arbor, – that is when many of us feel ownership.

Public Land is a zoning category and is shown on maps as PL.  As defined,  “This district is designed to classify publicly owned uses and land and permit the normal principal and incidental uses required to carry out governmental functions and services.”   

It has 10 “permitted uses”.It seems clear that the authors of this classification were thinking about parks right off the top.  Note that sentence in the first use about structures that are not incidental to the use of the land?  The first three items are about parks and open space. Most of the others are about obvious governmental functions, though item (f) might raise some questions. The PL designation is restrictive and creates a barrier to development.

Zoning for two important blocks along William St. Dark red is D1, burnt umber is D2.

Public ownership does not mean PL zoning.  For example, none of the public parking lots in the downtown are PL. They are all zoned D1 (core downtown) or D2 (edge). (The Ann Arbor GIS system contains a very detailed zoning map.)

Two of the most hotly disputed public land holdings in Ann Arbor, the old Y lot and the Library Lot, have never been zoned PL. Note that the Ann Arbor District Library and the Blake Transit Center (and Post Office) are all PL, as is Liberty Plaza.  This means that those parcels could not be developed unless they are rezoned, but no such obstacle exists for the two former parking lots.

Proper Uses of Public Land

So regardless of zoning, what is the proper use of land owned by a public entity? One hopes that it is for a civic purpose, that is, a purpose that will enhance the condition of the civic body, its residents, its businesses, and its private property owners (taxpayers).

And how do we define that civic purpose?  That is the job of the policymakers (City Council and certain boards and authorities).  We have many policy priorities in the City of Ann Arbor, well recognized and discussed over years. They include environmental objectives such as energy conservation, management of storm water, and conservation of open space;  enhancement of business activities (especially in regard to downtown properties), and attention to zoning and planning dictates. Another objective that has become more and more urgent is the provision of affordable housing, both in the sense of subsidized housing for the most vulnerable populations and in so-called “workforce” housing for moderate-income (60%- 100% or sometimes even 120% of median annual wage) people.  And for downtown parcels, parking for automobiles is still desired, though often criticized.

But wait – there is another objective.  Land in Ann Arbor has become so valuable that it is a resource ripe for extraction.  One can actually mine money from it, especially if it is in or near downtown. Given the perennial structural deficit that the City often runs, and the ambitions of the Council majority (and now, our very forward-looking City Administrator), it is irresistible to look for a cash return as well.  The downtown parcels are actually pots of money just sitting there unrealized.

Given the value of downtown parcels, it is a temptation for Council to try to attain all their policy goals and at the same time realize a cash return.  This inevitably sets them up for some awkward gymnastics. Developers may wish to develop downtown, but they also insist on making a profit.  It is called “Return On Investment”.  After all, developing parcels and negotiating with politicians is a lot of work.

Another complication is that there has been a fluctuating policy in which sale of city property was designated to be deposited in the City Affordable Housing Trust Fund.  The history was well reviewed in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. This policy puts a moral and political pressure on the Council to obtain a cash return on the property.  But obtaining cash and also the type of development that they want is truly challenging.

Let’s Do an RFP

The most direct and effective way for Council to obtain policy goals and also a reasonable financial objective is to execute a Request for Proposals.  Typically these invite proposals from developers to fit some predetermined criteria and also invite them to offer their best price.  Also typically, there need to be some guidelines for how the proposals will be reviewed and the City is always free to refuse all offers.  (This actually happened in the case of 415 W. Washington, where an RFP issued in 2008 attracted relatively few bidders, and none of the proposals met the standards of the Council.)

The history of RFPs, as used by the Ann Arbor City Council to dispose of public land, is rather sad.  The first RFP issued for this purpose in recent history was for affordable housing on the lot recently vacated by the old YMCA (we now know this as the old Y lot).  The logic and history behind that RFP were described in an article for the Ann Arbor Observer (the actual published version was edited for length and content but this is the most complete version).  We told some of the story here of the William Street Station, the project that won the bid but was killed within a week of being finalized.

Another RFP was issued ostensibly to find an appropriate developer for the Library Lot, the former parking lot next to the Ann Arbor District Library.  That story is told here and in many posts about the long struggle over the Valiant proposal to develop a hotel and conference center.  (See the page Library Lot Conference Center for a list of posts.)  Ultimately, the Council terminated the RFP and made no awards. Instead, it directed the DDA to take another look, with the evident intention that there should be a comprehensive downtown planning process.   The beginning of this “look” is told here, and the end was the Connecting William Street project, in which the DDA sought to convince us that every surface lot should be built to its highest possible density.   That report was never taken up by Council, though the Planning Commission, under the leadership of Kirk Westphal, placed the report on a list of “resources”.

With these successes behind it, the Council sought to make things simpler.  Both the Y lot and the Library Lot were simply placed with a broker and put up for sale.  But neither Council nor the Ann Arbor public could quite shake the notion that public land should be sold only with some public benefits attached to the deal.  (We reviewed both the history of the Library Lot and its importance in Ann Arbor’s culture and concept of ourself in our post, Core Space and the Soul of Ann Arbor.) Thus, both of these sales became mired in court cases.

But that is a story for later.

NOTE: The “Council majority” referred to here is the Taylor caucus (the “Powers That Be“) that has existed for some years, in succession to the Hieftje caucus. A minority of Council members (the “Neighborhoods“)  have opposed many of the policy directions and substantive decisions. However, the recent primary has apparently changed those ratios.  See The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor for details.

 

 

Explore posts in the same categories: Basis, civic finance, politics, Sustainability

5 Comments on “This Land is – Our Land?”

  1. Jeff Hayner Says:

    P for Parks. PL for Public Land. This distinction should be made with parks given additional protections under law.

  2. varmentrout Says:

    Yes, I’m hoping to address Parks zoning in a different post. As you indicate, it has special protections and therefore is not easily granted.


  3. Thanks for this Vivienne. This is nitpicky, but by putting “taxpayers” in parenthesis next to “private property owners,” are we to assume then that renters [people paying private property owners for the right to squat on their private property] are not taxpayers?

    • varmentrout Says:

      I had to look for the place that term was used. It was here:

      “a purpose that will enhance the condition of the civic body, its residents, its businesses, and its private property owners (taxpayers)”

      The effort here was to be inclusive, not exclusive. Who “owns” a city? What group of people have a sense that they belong to a civic entity, and it to them? Note that residents includes anyone living there, including renters. People who do not live there or own property but do conduct a business there are included. People who own property and pay taxes to the city (whether or not they live there or do business there) are also included.

      In that regard and context, renters are not taxpayers. Yes, their rent payments pay taxes (we mean property taxes; all other taxes are paid to other entities) but they don’t pay them directly. However, they are residents and therefore included as the “owners” of the city in that phrase.


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