It seems to have gone on forever. But really, only for about a decade. Now here we are, once again deciding on the fate of the Library Lot – that small precious piece of real estate next to the Ann Arbor District Library.
The Ann Arbor City Council will vote on this resolution on April 17, 2017. It either will or will not award development rights for the Library Lot (retaining ownership of the actual land) to Core Spaces, which describes itself as “a full‐service real estate development, acquisition and management company”, and further identifies its target markets as “educational”, in other words, student-oriented. The result will be a 17-story building, bigger than anything we could have imagined 10 years ago.
Feelings are running high and the volume of email to Council must be stupendous. Just to make the drama more intense, because the resolution disposes of city property, it requires 8 of 11 Council votes (counting the Mayor). Three CM have made their dislike fairly public (Eaton, Kailasapathy, Lumm). So each one of the remaining 8 can be the one to make or break the deal. It is generally understood that Mayor Taylor favors it. Are all the rest committed to support it, in the face of a great deal of public opposition? Some, especially those who are new to Council or up for re-election, are likely feeling the heat.
Why is this so important to so many? Its importance (as measured by heat and light generated) is far more than most tall building development projects downtown. There are many facets to the issue. But most of all, this decision is symbolic about the direction that Ann Arbor is headed. In many ways, it is a battle for the soul of Ann Arbor.
What Do We Want To Be?
The battle for the future of Ann Arbor has been the underpinning of our politics for over 10 years. One could argue that it began with the election of John Hieftje as Mayor in 2000, or the renewal of the DDA Charter in 2003. That launched an emphasis on downtown development that has changed not only the appearance of Ann Arbor’s downtown, but its perceived purpose and use. There was also a shift in the objectives for the city as a whole. We have often thought our city to be rather special, in a community-supportive, casually fun but also fairly intellectual, colorful but not in an overly contrived sort of way. See our post, What Does it Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie. In other words, a city to serve its citizens and welcome visitors on our own terms. But in recent years, a new agenda has been espoused by the majority on our City Council. This is spelled out at length in The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. Briefly, it is to transform the city into a cradle of entrepreneurship and enterprise, especially by attracting “talent” (young people who can start or sustain high-tech enterprises). Much of this is based on the concept of the “Creative Class”, as described by the urbanist Richard Florida in his 2002 book.
One could argue that Ann Arbor is doing very well and is succeeding in this talent-seeking strategy. We are listed over and over again on national lists as in the top 10 for various qualities. Maps showing economic success usually show our Washtenaw County as standing out. But interestingly, Richard Florida himself has had something of a change of heart. Florida’s recent book, The New Urban Crisis, recognizes that the type of “success” we have enjoyed has come with a cost to whole swaths of demographics. As he says in a recent article,
As techies, professionals, and the rich flowed back into urban cores, the less advantaged members of the working and service classes, as well as some artists and musicians, were being priced out….I found myself confronting the dark side of the urban revival I had once championed and celebrated…As the middle class and its neighborhoods fade, our geography is splintering into small areas of affluence and concentrated advantage, and much larger areas of poverty and concentrated disadvantage.
And a summary from another article :
America today is beset by a New Urban Crisis. If the old urban crisis was defined by the flight of business, jobs, and the middle class to the suburbs, the New Urban Crisis is defined by the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated—accompanied by rising inequality, deepening economic segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing.
Sure enough, a graphic from the article shows that Ann Arbor is #11 on his “Urban Crisis Index”. Do increasing economic inequality, loss of affordability in housing, and racial/class segregation sound familiar? Washtenaw County paid good money a couple of years ago for a consultant to tell us this about ourselves. So, Ann Arbor is succeeding as a business proposition. Is it losing what makes it successful as a place to live? As a community in the whole?
(Florida will be keynoting this year’s SPARK meeting on April 24. It’ll be interesting to hear what he says about our local situation.)
The Importance of the Library Lot
So what does the Library Lot have to do with all this? Because the Library Lot belongs to the entire City of Ann Arbor, and thus presumably its public, and because the project is so wildly out of scale with the downtown historic districts that supposedly make our downtown successful, not to mention the residential neighborhood immediately to the south, and because while this is a public asset, the benefit to the Ann Arbor public has not evidently been a consideration. (No public process has been employed to arrive at this use.) For all these reasons, the debate has been more passionate than for other downtown projects. The Ann Arbor public continue to assert ownership. For that reason, it stands as a symbol of the decisions to be made about our downtown, and thus our city.
But many other interests have eyed this choice little bit of real estate for particular ends. The DDA has had a single-minded intent to increase the magnitude of development in the downtown, generally. A group of influential insiders put forth a plan as early as 2008 to build a hotel and conference center on the lot, with the DDA’s assistance. The Library Lot Conference Center controversy and battle is recorded in this series of posts. The effort was finally killed by Council resolution in April, 2011 after a public campaign by concerned citizens. Meanwhile, the DDA had constructed an underground parking structure in which part of the structure was specifically reinforced to support the intended hotel.
Things slowed down for a bit while the Ann Arbor District Library planned to build a new library. The new building would not have been on the Lot (the current building would first have been demolished) but doubtless the Lot would have been used for staging. However, that bond proposal was defeated in November, 2012. The DDA sprang to the task of planning the immediate area in a project called “Connecting William Street”. They used a pseudo-public approach (online surveys, public meetings) which unsurprisingly arrived at the conclusion that a tall building was needed on the lot. The plan met with derision in some quarters and the City Council declined to adopt it. It was added to the “resource documents” for the Planning Commission in March, 2013.
In a memorably feckless act (thank you, CM Kunselman), Council passed a resolution in April 2014 to hire a real estate broker. They put the Lot up for sale. Although the resolution cites the Connecting William Street project, no further effort was made to establish what the Ann Arbor public saw as the best use for this site. Further, it accepted the notion that the reinforced portion of the lot would be used for building. So here we are.
The Calthorpe process, 2005, is often cited as demonstrating that there was a public process followed for the fate of this parcel. There was a report on Downtown Development Strategies issued (many recommendations have been ignored). It does not make a specific recommendation on the Library Lot. However, it calls for building height to be stepped down toward the residential neighborhoods, especially that last block before William. And it calls for a Town Square.
It’s Not Just About a Park
Admittedly, the idea of a downtown “Central Park” (or Town Square) has been a major theme of the disputes about the Library Lot. The Library Green Conservancy has been advocating vigorously for a park on the portion of the lot without special reinforcement, and there was that whole problem with collection of signatures on petitions. The DDA has been trying to put a damper on that idea for years. (The Connecting William Street exercise did not even acknowledge the possibility.)
It’s Not Just About the Parking
The deal has serious implications to downtown parking. It would give away a substantial part of this expensive structure to a private enterprise. (Some historical details are here: note we will be paying interest for many years to come.) There are also legal questions that have not been satisfactorily answered. Read it here. Finally, it will reduce access to downtown by its customers. Downtown business organizations have objected.
It’s About Our Downtown, Our City
Our social media and comment pages are flooded with anguished complaints and worries about this project. It is clear that our citizens do not believe this will enhance our experience of our city and that it will likely damage the downtown. The comments shown below are from my personal social media feeds (Facebook, Nextdoor) and are unedited but anonymous because I don’t wish to make the writers’ identity the issue. (Click on the boxes to read at full magnification.)
Note that these comments are all about quality of life and the viability of our downtown businesses. There is a concern about the resilience of this part of our community, and of course the Downtown is still the center of town, and a location that affects us all.
If Council does vote to approve this deal, they will be going against the express wishes of a substantial number of their constituents. Based on comments in the media, it seems that they are dazzled by the cash offer. A complication is that it will supposedly be an assist to “affordable housing”. But the benefits in that regard are modest. (One scenario even has the City paying over a million dollars back in order to obtain more units.) We have not really had a city-based discussion about what we want in “affordable housing” or what our best means of achieving that are. It seems imprudent to sell off one of our choicest assets for this purpose, especially since so many questions persist about the effects of the parking on both businesses and city finances. If our city finances are so challenged (and they do not seem to be) we should be looking at savings or new taxes instead of selling off our real estate.
Or – is Council going to go ahead with this because of the dogma of dense development? In that case, are they considering the health of our present community? Or are they aiming for a different one? If the latter, they’d better consider more carefully the consequences of their actions. A city is a complex ecosystem. The Council has a solemn duty here. I hope that they vote to preserve our community. It has so much good, still.
ADDENDUM: Here is the Ann Arbor News preview of tonight’s vote. “And the consequences of whichever way the council votes could last for generations.” Yup.
UPDATE: The Council voted to sell the lot, 8-3. All the usual suspects voted as anticipated. Here is what Mayor Taylor had to say about it.
“I love Ann Arbor the way it is. We are not Chicago or Detroit, and I don’t want to be. ”