Archive for the ‘Downtown’ category

Core Spaces and The Soul of Ann Arbor

April 16, 2017

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.

Rendering of proposed Core Spaces building as proposed to Council.

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?

This article from the Ann Arbor Observer (2005) outlined many issues and described the Calthorpe public process. (Click for link.)

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.

Projection of desired building density (700 F.A.R) for Library Lot in DDA study, 2013. Purple area is unreinforced “plaza”.

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.

From page 42, Downtown Development Strategies, Calthorpe Associates, 2005

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. ”

 

 

 

 

Public Properties, Public Process, and the DDA

December 15, 2012

On April 4, 2011, the Ann Arbor City Council acted to shut down the RFP process that had very nearly led to the development of a hotel and conference center on the Library Lot.  We summarized some of that action in our last post of a chain on the subject.  For nearly two years we had reported on the saga of efforts (originally secret) to install a hotel and conference center as proposed by the Valiant development group atop the new underground parking garage built next to the downtown Ann Arbor District Library.  The posts and other important documents are listed on our Library Lot Conference Center page.

The effort to impose this plan on the citizens of Ann Arbor led to a remarkable uprising of civic fervor.  Its defeat felt like a victory.  But of course that wasn’t the end of the story.  The forces that were behind the idea of a hotel and conference center are still with us.  Now it appears that the concept is about to be brought forward again.

On the same night that Council laid the Valiant proposal to rest, it also passed a resolution directing the Downtown Development Authority to take charge of planning for the disposition of city-owned lots downtown.  This launched what became the DDA’s Connecting William Street process.

Map of the area DDA is planning under Connecting William Street process

Map of the area DDA is planning under Connecting William Street process

I thought that Councilmember Sabra Briere did a good job of putting the history of all this into perspective in her recent constituent newsletter.  Here is some of what she said:

Over a year ago the Council passed two resolutions.  The first one had to do with ending the RFP process for the Library Lot.  This resolution included a statement that any future planning for the library lot would include a ‘robust public process.’  The second resolution requested that the DDA ‘facilitate the process of redeveloping’ five city-owned parcels.  This second resolution outlines a process that the DDA proposed to attempt a consensus on the development potential for each site.  But the final resolution didn’t call for a robust public process, and the Council didn’t question the process outlined in the resolution.  That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a public process, but it does mean that some of us have been dissatisfied with the way that process was conducted.

Amen to that, Sabra.  Not that the DDA hasn’t been working very hard at their task.  They appointed a special committee to review options.  The proceedings have duly been documented at their site on Connecting William Street.  They have conducted a survey and a number of public interaction events.  They employed a consultant (actually, a couple of them).  Here is the overview provided by AnnArbor.com.  But there are some major disconnects with their approach and the “robust public process” that was initially promised.  They have to do with the “the scorpion and the frog” relationship of the DDA and Ann Arbor residents.  The DDA board is composed of people whose primary interest is in developing the downtown to a maximum density and real estate value.  Residents often want a downtown that serves their needs, and consider that publicly owned lots should have a public purpose.   (The group, Public Land – Public Purpose, formed in response to the Valiant proposal, stated the point succinctly.)  These two goals are at odds.   This has been especially evident in the resistance of the DDA to the idea of a downtown park or open space.  (Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem was an early post with an admittedly snarky tone on that subject.)  In the meantime, a group (the Library Green Conservancy) has been advocating forcefully for open space, indeed, a “central park” in the downtown, on the Library Lot.  At DDA Partnership Committee meetings, the idea of a hotel on the Library Lot has resurfaced.  This is presumably supported by the Lodging_Analysis conducted by their consultant.  (This document appeared on the Connecting William Street web page at one time but has since been removed.)

Here is some more reflection from CM Sabra Briere’s newsletter:

One of the significant conflicts is about ‘density.’  For some, density is a catch phrase that indicates new construction in order to facilitate more folks living downtown.  This increase in the number of people living downtown has been something the City and its residents have talked about for decades.  At first, people talked about loft apartments.  Then, they built more condominiums.  Most recently, the increase in new residents has been due entirely to new student highrises – there are now nearly 5000 people living in downtown Ann Arbor, which is a pretty significant number in the last decade – nearly 2000 more – than there were in 2000.  All of these new residential units are supposed to help provide the means for local businesses to remain open while making the street scene more active and the cultural life more varied.
But most of us don’t really want our downtown defined by student use.  That’s one of the messages I’ve heard in the meetings on Connecting William Street.  We want a downtown that’s a magnet for children and seniors, with places for folks to sit and read their – I almost wrote newspaper – electronic device, buy a pair of shoes, have lunch, sit and watch the world go by, drink our coffee and go to a meeting or a lecture.  We want a downtown that holds events and activities we might want to attend; that we might want to show our guests, that we might want to brag about.
And for some, that means a respite from density – an offset, as it were, that’s cool and green and calm and refreshing.  Something that sounds like a park.

Now the issue (0f how we dispose of downtown parcels) is coming to a potential decision point.  The DDA is poised to present the Connecting William Street plan to a working session of the Council on January 14.

Note that the DDA has two public events scheduled before that:

• Wednesday, December 19th, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the Downtown Library (343 S. Fifth Ave) in the Multi-Purpose Room
• Thursday, January 3rd, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the DDA office (150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301)

There will be much to discuss, and a need for citizens to come to attention on this subject.

What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process?

July 14, 2011

Certain words have their moments in the sun, where they seem to be on every tongue and carry strong meaning that is generally recognized.  Later they become trite or worse and fall into disuse. A particularly good word right now is “robust”.  The dictionary meaning of this word is “strong, healthy, vigorous”.  It is used in particular fields, such as referring to a robust statistical test or a computer system that is resistant to failure.

The word made a marked entry into Ann Arbor politics with the passage of two resolutions on April 4, 2011.  As we reviewed in our previous post, this was the night that the Library Lot Conference Center was laid to rest.   The first resolution, that killed the Valiant proposal and terminated the RFP, contained this phrase:

RESOLVED, That future planning and proposals for this site shall include a robust public process.

The second resolution, which assigned responsibility to the DDA for RFP development of the four city-owned lots, laid out four phases in the process.  In Phase II, the DDA is enjoined to

Solicit robust public input and conduct public meetings to determine residents’ Parcel-level downtown vision.

For Phase III, the DDA should

Solicit robust public input and confirm the extent of community consensus for the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan through public meetings and surveys.

These admonitions were welcome to many of us who support public participation in important civic decisions.  But what does it mean, exactly?

CM Sandi Smith objected to the inclusion of the word “robust” in the first resolution.  When we commented on that in an earlier post, she commented in return that “I do not at all object to the public process which is not only important but mandatory. My objection was to the subjective nature of the word ‘robust’.”

CM Smith has a point.  On hearing the word, many of us think we know what it means.  But on examination, what satisfies this requirement?  A single public meeting on a subject?  Opportunity for public comment? Computerized surveys?  Focus groups? Working exercises? And to what extent and how should public sentiment be incorporated into a final conclusion?  Is overwhelming opposition a veto? Perhaps we need a consensus on this question before we will be able to answer the more substantive ones.

The Library Lot, the DDA, and the Ann Arbor RFP Process II

July 13, 2011

The history of plans to develop Ann Arbor’s Library Lot goes back literally decades (see the 1991 Luckenbach study).  But most recently, as documented in our long blog series listed on the Library Lot Conference Center page, the effort to develop the lot hinged around RFP 743.  The first post of this series described the making of the RFP (released on August 14, 2009).  At the end, it all came apart, as mostly described in the last post of the blog series on the conference center.  On April 4, 2011, the Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution that terminated the RFP and the sole remaining proposal from Valiant Partners was conclusively rejected.

But at the same meeting, Council established a new process for the downtown surface lots.  In a not-so-tacit recognition that the city-directed RFP process had undergone a fairly spectacular failure, the Council asked the DDA to take it on.  But the area assigned to the DDA was not the entire city, but rather the city-owned lots in the area south of Liberty.

City-owned parcels assigned to DDA for RFP process - click for larger image

The DDA’s Partnership Committee cheerfully took this on (even before the final resolution was passed) and began scheduling regular discussions at their monthly meetings, featuring different city officials and others, reviewing different aspects of planning.  (See our post, Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem, and the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s excellent summary of the June 2011 meeting.)

As the Chronicle details, the June meeting appeared to set the Partnership Committee up for a vigorous, proactive approach to a broad downtown planning exercise.  Doug Kelbaugh (a UM professor familiar to many long-timers as instrumental in putting together the Calthorpe process) and his colleague Kit McCullough submitted a brief proposal involving some brief but substantial public participation.  Peter Allen did one of his typically scintillating presentations (Allen sometimes seems to be several places at once when speaking to his elaborate schemes), based in part on his talks with many community leaders.  He emphasized the many community connections that he would draw upon and stated that he would like to see a 20-story building, to be the definitive Ann Arbor skyline object, on the Library Lot.  It seemed that Allen and Kelbaugh were competing to some extent for the job of the “consultant”.  Meanwhile, at the June meeting there was also some substantive discussion by Albert Berriz and others at the table (described by the Chronicle).  Susan Pollay stated that the July committee meeting would be an intense retreat-style meeting at which the group would make real decisions about setting the course for the process.

Today’s Partnership Committee played to a full house.  Not only were there many citizens in the audience, but McCullough’s UM class, Josie Parker of the AADL, Peter Allen, Kelbaugh and McCullough, and someone making a video tape.

The result was anticlimax.  The expectant audience waited for several minutes before a diminished committee took their seats.  The meeting was chaired by John Mouat  in the absence of both the co-chairs (Russ Collins and Sandi Smith).  No experts were called to speak and Allen, Kelbaugh and McCullough were never mentioned.   Committee members spoke in generalities and the entire meeting seemed conducted under water, so slow and vague each step was.  Mouat spoke admiringly of a couple of other recent plans (the Urban Forest plan and the AATA’s Transit Master Plan) as examples – and meditated aloud on how a community can reach consensus. He expressed a dislike of the very word “development” and said that he didn’t want the development community to be too closely linked to the process.

Some reference was made to RFP 743 (the sad example that put the current process in place).  Susan Pollay astonishingly characterized it as “an abbreviated council RFP process that never got very far”.  She also made a point that the city needs to indicate to developers what incentives will be available.  The Valiant Partners, she said, came in with lots of ideas of what the city could do for them “only to have the community recoil”.  Ably put, that.  Joan Lowenstein also brought out a very cogent point, which is that the city has tried to achieve every possible goal in past RFPs and that this is not realistic.

But in general, there was no instrumental discussion at all.  The group seemed literally to be trying to last out the clock.  They did succeed in instructing staff (Pollay and Amber Miller) to put together a timeline for a process of about a year.  The subject will also be added on to a working session that the DDA has already scheduled with Council for October (principally about parking).

What happened?  Clearly something has interrupted the headlong progress toward a comprehensive downtown planning process.  Audience members gathered in small groups afterwards to ask each other the meaning of it all.  We didn’t have answers.

UPDATE:  See the Chronicle’s more complete coverage of this meeting.