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The Top of the Parking Decision

December 20, 2009

Winter scene from the Dahlmann Ann Arbor Town Square proposal

There has already been plenty of outrage expressed about the decision by the Library Lot advisory committee (formally the RFP advisory committee) to drop the open space options for what I am now calling the Top of the Parking (the top of the underground parking structure to be built at the site of the former Library Lot).    Commenters to the piece by the Ann Arbor Chronicle (oddly, there has been no coverage of the recent events by and members of email listservs are criticizing the decision.  As we also reported, the committee eliminated the two proposals, namely the Dahlmann Ann Arbor Town Square and the Ann Arbor Community Commons, on the basis that they did not benefit the city financially.  Dahlmann offered to hand over $2.5 million in cash to the city, while the Commons proposal listed a number of public sources for funding and also suggested that community support (from private donors) would be forthcoming.  But the committee noted that neither one had provisions for ongoing maintenance and that the Dahlmann millions would not be enough to develop the plans provided. (Recall that the city has now posted both conceptual and cost proposals on its RFP website.)

But as we noted in a previous post on this subject,  the requirements of the RFP are both very broad and very simple.  They are: beneficial use of the site (public space), environmental benefits (LEED, stormwater, etc.), and financial return.  I asked at the time whether a project that filled the first two extremely well but not the third would be considered, especially since it reads: “In the absence of other considerations, the City has a fiduciary responsibility to obtain fair market value upon the sale of City assets (my emphasis).”

The selection criteria as outlined by the RFP don’t seem to take the first two criteria into account.  Here they are:

Note that these criteria presuppose a development project.  Also,  it is curious that the Cost Proposal specifies a lease, as though this is the only anticipated result.  Nevertheless, it says that the “cost proposal” is only weighted as 10% of the evaluation criteria.  By summarily dismissing the open space proposals because they did not apparently fill this one criterion, the committee made the “cost proposal” equal to 100% weighting.

It is time for us all to take a deep breath and to examine what the real issues are here.  Here is a preliminary list.

1. What is the best use of this site for the benefit of Ann Arbor?

Clearly, members of the committee (especially Councilmember Rapundalo, who was never shy about his bias) have concluded that the answer is “Something to fill the budget gap”.  Other people are saying, “A conference center, because it will bring business and it is needed”.  Many members of the public are saying, “An important public area that can function like New York’s Central Park and make the whole of downtown a better place to be”.  But we have never had that discussion. Not just about what different people want.  About what will really benefit the city, its residents, and its businesses best over the long run.

2. What should be the process in making the decision?

Council rushed into this RFP after the existence of the “Secret Plan” (see earlier post describing it) became more widely known.  This proposal for a conference center had been floating around city hall for what is now over a year without any public disclosure.  With the RFP, there has been at least some grudging effort at better transparency, with the RFP website, open committee meetings, a plan for public input at the interviews, and even posting the proposals in full on the website (after both and private citizens visited the city with FOIAs).

But we have never had a public discussion about what the best use of the “Library Lot” (now the Top of the Parking) is for Ann Arbor.

How would we do that?  Obviously, some other way than rushing through a decision on a tight timeline designed to facilitate a massive development.  The classic way would be to have a series of facilitated meetings and allow the public or even a structured group of “stakeholders” to review all possibilities, try to look ahead to what kind of future we wanted and what future events we think will impact us most (not an easy job, predicting the future).  As flawed as the Calthorpe process was, I am rather nostalgic about it now since there was some effort to bring in various viewpoints; but I think the public did not behave well enough for those who would direct Ann Arbor’s future according to their own wishes.  (I reviewed this briefly in this article.)

3. Will any of the present development proposals really benefit the city financially?

This will, of course, be subject to a lot of analysis and study.  I haven’t had time to study the cost proposals in depth yet, and I’m glad the committee is considering hiring a consultant for that purpose.  But we need to be careful how the terms are defined.  We’ve heard a lot of “smoke and mirrors” finance plans lately at both the national and local level.   It is possible for financial projections to look very positive until one examines the assumptions.  We’ve already been subjected to several very dubious financial decisions for the city regarding development (the city hall and the underground parking structure).  Remember the famous Disraeli quotation, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”?  (Apparently he is not actually recorded to have said it.)  Accounting devices with fallacious underlying assumptions have them all beat out.  I think I am correct in saying that the city has never succeeded in a public-private partnership that actually paid off. (If you know of one, please inform me – I’d really like to know.)

4. Even if the accounting looks good, can Ann Arbor really support a conference center and do future events look favorable for this path?

This is going to need a lot of study, comparisons with other cities, and discussion about future trends.  Not something for a quick decision, yet many people appear to have made it already.

5. Should the budget crisis be driving this decision?

I’m as concerned about city finances as perhaps anyone.  I’m such a worrier that I even ran for council last year after retiring from the county Board of Commissioners and now I’m writing this blog.  But there is something craven and low about the suggestion that in order to keep our city afloat, we should sell off our best real estate rather than use it for building a future city that gives us sustenance as a community.    After all, after your family has sold off your antique furniture and Grand-dad’s gold watch, you still need to find a way to keep your household going from day to day.  Selling our assets is a short-term solution at best.  At worst, we may enter into arrangements where we are played as the fools and take the risk so that others may make money.  That would be piling insult on injury.

I’d also like to note that there are a number of studies out there showing that a really prime public space can have truly beneficial economic effects.  We have not planned the south 5th-Division area as an area and looked at what its future could be.  There are many pieces in the air and who is to say that the open space is not the best solution economically? Further, proponents of the open space plans never had an opportunity to make a case as to how that space could be maintained or what its overall financial impact would be.

I hope that the council will take responsibility for stepping back from the brink and allowing a full discussion of what we are doing with one of our prime pieces of real estate.  Anyone who feels as I do should write and/or call their council representatives and the mayor and ask them to give us a break.

UPDATE: According to a story in the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the mayor says that council might consider the open space proposals too.

SECOND UPDATE: The Chronicle has a story about the Ann Arbor District Library Board meeting in which the Library Lot proposals are discussed.

THIRD UPDATE:  Peter Allen, ever the downtown development booster, says in a story on Concentrate that he sees the Library Lot as “downtown’s Diag”.  Many of us think of the Diag as open space but he means a hotel and conference center.

FOURTH UPDATE: A group of citizens has sent a letter to the mayor and council asking for a better public process to decide the fate of the Library Lot.  It also requests an opportunity for the open space proposals to be  reviewed.

FIFTH UPDATE: The DDA has now approved $50,000 to hire a financial consultant to advise the RFP committee.  Peter Allen is quoted as saying that we are about to make a “timeless, 100-year decision about what is it that makes a great, great city”.  We’re in agreement there, Peter.

SIXTH UPDATE: In a remarkable email exchange (pdf available here), Stephen Rapundalo defends the RFP committee’s process in response to a message from Eric Lipson.

SEVENTH UPDATE: Process issues have been part of the discussion and the question of whether the use of the Library Lot has been adequately discussed.  It is instructive to look at the 1991 Luckenbach Study (available here) – conducted by the same architect now part of the Library Lot parking structure team.

The Upset that Wasn’t and the Ann Arbor Election Schedule

November 11, 2009

“All this has happened before and it will all happen again.”  §  In a sense that applies to political campaigns, and yet it is also true that each one is unique.  The recent 4th Ward Ann Arbor city council race (ending with the election of November 2009) was unusual in many ways. It also brought up an old debate about the Ann Arbor election schedule and its effect on how representative these elections are.

Marcia Higgins and Hatim Elhady at a Ward 4 candidate forum. Photo by the Ann Arbor Chronicle

As we previewed in an earlier post, the contest was between Marcia Higgins, a 10-year veteran and a Republican turned Democrat, and Hatim Elhady, a 23-year-old UM student (graduating this December) running as an Independent.

In the ordinary course of things, this should not even have been a contest.   Incumbency and experience should count for something, and usually do. She is a familiar member of the community.  Further, Higgins has apparently been a diligent council member, a member of key committees who often asked pointed questions of staff at council meetings.  But Higgins was the target of a lot of complaints about being “missing in action” “a zero”, and similar complaints about lack of constituent support, especially on Arbor Update. Further, she is one of the Council Party, the council majority faction who took some damage in August. And she faced an energetic and personable opponent who had a strong support base.

Higgins ran afoul of her constituents on several fronts.  She voted for the 42 North development though the South Maple neighborhood considered it out of scale and damaging to neighborhood integrity; after the original PUD was voted down by council, council approved a “by-right” site plan in spite of arguments by the neighborhood that it was not really in compliance.  Though the development is apparently not going through at this time, the approved site plan presents a risk.  Jack Eaton, a neighborhood activist, says, “The property where 42 North was to be built is still for sale. It is my understanding that the developer did not exercise the option to buy the property. The currently pending proposal to change the Area Height and Placement zoning regulations would allow an even more extreme project to be built on that site. The amendments would allow taller buildings to be erected on that property. If a development included under-building parking…, a new 42 North project could include more buildings on the same property….”  Accordingly, the South Maple Neighborhood Group endorsed Elhady.

Perhaps the most glaring problem for Higgins was the criticism that she and her fellow council member Margie Teall have taken for the city’s inaction on the Stadium Bridge.  The bridge (photos here) began to deteriorate visibly this last year after years of delay (an extensive consultant’s report is here). According to a February 2008 memo,  the city staff identified serious problems with the bridge in 2007, but  “We have not able to move forward on the preliminary design of the bridge over S. State Street or the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks because we are waiting for the 4th Ward City Council members to nominate and confirm a Citizens Advisory Committee to assist us with the public engagement process.” The delay meant that no “shovel-ready” plans were available when the federal stimulus money was made available, and the city did not apply for funding from that program.  The bridge is now truly scary to drive over or under.  It has become a symbol of mismanagement by a Council Party that has voted to build an expensive police-courts building while cutting services – and neglecting this vital piece of infrastructure.

In spite of all these negatives, she won by slightly less than 2 to 1. So what happened?  Did Higgins’ base of support reach farther than it first appeared?  Or did she outcampaign Elhady?

Looking at the results precinct by precinct is somewhat instructive.  Elhady won in his home precinct, #2, which is largely inhabited by students. But although Elhady was endorsed by the Michigan Daily, the other predominantly student precinct, #1, actually went for Higgins.  The total numbers of votes in the two precincts were low.  Elhady did relatively well in Precinct 7, the focus of unhappiness with Higgin’s lack of support on the 42 North development, and with absentee voters, but even there his percentages were lower than Higgins’.  Higgins did well in her home precinct (#4) and the adjacent #8 (counted together), as well as in the near-Burns Park precincts, #3 and #5 – and those were where the votes were. (Results from the Washtenaw County election reports.)

Precinct Higgins Elhady Write-in % Elhady % Higgins
1 21 12 1 35.29% 61.76%
2 17 25 0 59.52% 40.48%
3 191 69 1 26.44% 73.18%
4 & 8 450 201 6 30.59% 68.49%
5 193 86 7 30.07% 67.48%
6 315 161 6 33.40% 65.35%
7 361 301 2 45.33% 54.37%
9 347 233 5 39.83% 59.32%
AVCB 288 211 5 41.87% 57.14%
Totals 2183 1299 33 36.96% 62.11%

On the whole, it was a dignified campaign, and one in which Higgins was mostly missing in action (this was eventually explained as due to her need to attend to a desperately ill adult daughter). Although a headline on referred to the email scandal and Elhady was quoted in that story as saying the emails were “immature” and “inexcusable”, his campaign literature and the video interview in the same story make no mention of it. In that interview and in the story about League of Women Voters debate which Higgins was not able to attend, he emphasized instead his views of fiscal management and being open and accessible to constituents, as well as straight governance issues like the Stadium bridge.  At a Fourth Ward candidate forum, the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s account of the discussion has Elhady merely stating that he supported the recently defeated resolution to make the emails accessible. And indeed, although Higgins participated in some of the infamous email exchanges, she did not seem to engage in the nastiness displayed by some others.  Probably the most fire in the campaign was generated by the fuss over a strategic decision by Elhady’s campaign not to give an in-person interview to a former Ann Arbor News reporter, which resulted in a good deal of criticism on the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s resultant column and its commenters.  Still, in videotaped interviews elsewhere, he gave a good account of himself, and his final advertisement was earnest in tone, and carried some fine endorsements.  The greatest flaw in his campaign may have been a matter of timing; he chose early on to run as an Independent in the November general election, rather than in the August primary, when the Council Party suffered its defeats.

Elhady made a game effort to explain this decision on the Other Perspectives CTN television series, but his reasoning didn’t ring true.  Though he cited at various times a wish to appear independent and not subject to partisan pressures, it is clear that he was pursuing a student vote strategy.  In doing so, he was participating in the long-running debate about Ann Arbor’s electoral system.  Over many decades, there have been arguments about how our city council elections can be most fair and representative, and various factions have not hesitated to change the system to their advantage when possible.  Recently, UM students in particular have complained that the fact that most decisions are now being made in the August primaries has disenfranchised them.  Elhady apparently took this to heart. One of his early positions was to support institution of IRV (Instant Runoff Voting).  The way this works is that, in an election with more than two candidates,  voters express first, second, etc. preference for a candidate.  If no candidate gets a majority of the votes, votes from the candidate with the least votes are redistributed based on the second preference of those voters. Of course, this makes sense only when there are more than two candidates on the ballot, and it would replace partisan primaries.  Larry Kestenbaum, who is now the Washtenaw County Clerk, proposed using IRV in odd years only while retaining Ann Arbor’s partisan elections in a review of the history of our electoral system (2005).  His justification was that the odd-year primaries could be eliminated, and that would save money. Kestenbaum also said in an August 2009  Arbor Update thread that “From a public participation standpoint, making low-turnout odd-year August primaries the real decision point for city elections is a disaster” and suggested that moving all primaries to May would be an alternative to IRV voting.  But he also commented that the student participation in the August primaries was “non-negligible”.

IRV has most frequently been favored by third party groups, since it allows them to be present on the ballot and compete at least for the second preference of voters who might otherwise feel that they are “throwing their vote away”. The last big push was when Huron Valley Green Party raised the issue of IRV voting and attempted without success to get a measure on the ballot in 2004.  But Ann Arbor did once vote by IRV.  According to one account, Albert Wheeler was elected Mayor of Ann Arbor in 1975 on an IRV ballot. IRV was approved by voters in November 1974 after Republican James Stephenson won with less than a majority of the vote because Human Rights Party and Democratic Party candidates split the remainder of the vote.  Wheeler, the Democratic candidate,  actually came in second on first-preference voting, but when votes for Human Rights Party candidate Carol Ernst were redistributed according to second preference, won by 121 votes out of 29, 501.   This was challenged by Stephenson, but was upheld.  Republicans then organized a petition drive and IRV voting was abolished in an April 1976 election.

But Ann Arbor’s election schedule was altered more recently.  Traditionally, City Council elections were held in April, and elections for higher office in November.  This was thought to favor Republicans, since these elections typically had a low turn-out and long-term voters were predominantly Republican.  (I remember helping with some of these campaigns in which we were obliged to slog through snow and mud in order to campaign from door to door. )  But Tom Wieder and Dave DeVarti, both still active partisan Democrats, and a UM student (John Pollack) organized a citizen petition drive in 1992 to move the city elections to November.  Wieder recalls that they circulated petitions during the March 1992 Democratic Presidential primary and successfully got the measure, called VINE (Voter Initiative for a November Election) on the November 1992 ballot, where he remembers that it passed with 58% of the vote.  The Democratic ward organizations (which still could put on a field campaign) carried brochures to doors all over the city.  (As the ward chair,  I helped organize the Second Ward to carry literature, helping to elect Bill Clinton as well as pass VINE.) The first November city council elections were held in 1993;  there is no mention of a primary election in August 1993 in council minutes.  As we have noted earlier,  the August primary is now when the major contests are being held.

The “off-year” elections (held in odd-numbered years) are often decided by relatively small numbers of voters.  This has been an advantage to challengers.  Since only informed and motivated voters are likely to turn out in a odd-year August primary, the key for any candidate is to reach his or her voters and get them out.  In elections with a larger turnout, the candidate’s job is different; it is necessary to convince the broad population of voters, many of whom may not be paying much attention to a local race.  This happened with the November 2009 election, when the WISD millage was on the ballot.  It is instructive to note that Elhady’s margin of  loss  was lower on absentee ballots than in most precincts (his campaign sent out letters to absentee voters).  His strong campaign was doubtless overwhelmed by the many voters who simply voted for the experienced incumbent and long-term community member without having followed every moment of the campaign.

Much of the recent impetus toward some change in election schedules has been the perceived need to include students. Elhady was clearly gambling that student turnout really could make a difference in a November election.  Students presumably would not have been motivated by the millage vote but might be induced to turn out to elect a fellow student.  The Michigan Daily did endorse Elhady, and he conducted a vigorous student campaign (pizza and registration drives) in addition to his campaign aimed at residents.  But in the end, the student precinct 4-1 did not even give him a majority of its few votes.  The Independent label may have hurt him; there was criticism and puzzlement expressed about this issue on Arbor Update. (Post-election, Elhady admits that he will now be active in local Democratic party races.)

So, for better or worse, it looks as though the August primary is still going to be the important contest.  Unless we follow Kestenbaum’s thinking: “These days, I am leaning reluctantly toward nonpartisan city council elections rather than IRV.  That would move the main decision point to November without requiring special arrangements or changes to election procedures.”  Wieder, who has opposed non-partisan elections in the past, says he would now have less objection.  But would that ensure greater student participation? “The students aren’t going to vote in an odd year local election.  In the even years you would have a greater participation by students but it would be hard to get much traction or visibility on local candidates.”

Would Higgins have met the same fate that Leigh Greden did if Elhady had run against her in the Democratic primary instead?  We’ll never know.  But he gave the hypothesis of the need for more student participation in local elections a fair test.  Not that it will keep the subject from coming up again.

§ Yes, I liked Battlestar Galactica too but the recurrent history theme is not original with it.

The Westside Marauders and Crime in Ann Arbor

September 9, 2009

This post has been edited and augmented; the original version was published September 9, 2009 and this edited version is published September 11, 2009.

It had to happen – our nice little safe neighborhood finally became the target for crime.  I live in the Sunset-Brooks area and for years have examined the Ann Arbor Observer monthly crime map with more than a little touch of smugness, since our section of the map was always so nice and clean.

But a couple of weeks ago the phone calls started to let us know that people were experiencing break-ins.  Someone is invading houses during the day, usually when they think no one is home.  According to the police memo, this has been going on since May.  Bad enough.  Lock your doors.  But apparently the efforts are becoming more strenuous.  I heard today that last weekend the thieves used an axe to break down a door.  This conjures up some pretty scary pictures.

As I have announced at the top of this post, we are meeting with the police on September 10 to learn what we can.  But this brings up a broader question, one that I have seen discussed in email listserve groups for some months: how are the city budget cuts and reduction in force of our police affecting our safety?

Informal figures overheard at council meetings indicate that between 25-27 officers accepted early retirement packages from the city as part of the budget cuts.  That is a reduction in force of approximately 20% (the force was about 138 officers).  Will this mean we are more vulnerable to crime?  Our mayor says we shouldn’t worry.

Here is his response to a constituent (widely published on a listserv; typos are as delivered):

I discussed your neighborhood this morning with the Police Chief and City Administrator. We went over the most recent crime numbers up to last Saturday and at this time there is no noticable up-tick in the statistacal data. However, our goal will be to insure that it does not get that far.  Perhaps it seems unusual in the way that many of us think about Police Chiefs but our Chief still goes out on patrol himself and often rides along with patrol officers. He was recently in your neighborhood with one of the patrol officers who grew up there.

The Chief will be scheduling a meeting for early September so the PD can communicate directly with you and your neighbors.

In the meantime it would be helpful if you could be as specific as possible in communications with the PD. Calling 911 when you see something suspicous would really help. Someone trying to gain entry to a house they do not own is something that should be reported immediatly.  Observing someone using drugs on the street, in a park, etc., would also qualify as a reason to call with specific information.

The number of officers on Patrol in our City is the same as it has been for several years and they will be paying special attention to your area. As I explained to someone else who wrote earlier today, crime statistics continue on a long term downward trend in our city but that does not mean certain areas don’t need special attention from time to time. The AAPD will do their best to keep your neighborhood safe.

John Hieftje

Somehow the reassurances about “no uptick in statistical data” are not very satisfying.  Do we have enough police officers to investigate and mitigate a crime wave in our little neighborhood?  I’m looking forward to hearing what the officer has to tell us tomorrow.  But I wish we would stop reducing our force at a time when the economy is down.  I’d like to go back to our nice little crime-free zone as soon as possible.

UPDATE: A neighborhood meeting was held on September 10 at the Free Methodist Church on Newport.  The sanctuary was overflowing (we counted over 100 people attending).  Sergeant  Matthew Lige spoke in general terms about how investigations are conducted.  He advised homeowners who detect entry to call 911 immediately (or perhaps Detective Michael Lencioni, who has been assigned to the case) and avoid handling items in the house (including a door or window that might have been used to gain entry, or places where there might be footprints).  He stressed the importance of keeping evidence intact (but joked that they rarely get “CSI moments” where a single piece of evidence solves the case).  In describing cases of burglary in our neighborhood* since May, a very common pattern emerged and a single suspect seems to be involved in at least many of them. (*roughly the area circumscribed by  Spring, Miller, Newport and Sunset)  Several members of the audience related their own experience with this man.  He is a young (18-25) African-American, thin, light-skinned, with a little bit of chin hair and sometimes wearing a gold cross.  He typically rings doorbells, and if the door is answered, engages in conversation in which he asks for help in  looking for a relative, sometimes named “Veronica”.  (A couple of people have described trying very hard to help, even getting out the phone book.)  One woman said that he was nicely dressed and spoke well, “very Ann Arbor”.  He carries a bag or backpack, and although this was not said explicitly, seems to be on foot.  Evidently if no one is home, he goes to the back of the house and enters either by cutting screens, breaking windows, climbing to the second story window, or in one case, using the homeowner’s own hatchet to break down a door.  Jewelry, electronics, and other easy portable items are taken.  At least 19 of these break-ins have been reported.  (’s story says 20.)

The sergeant asked people to watch the neighborhood and to call if  “anyone suspicious” was seen.  But he cautioned that the police can not take a person into custody just for looking suspicious.  When asked about increased police patrols for the area, the sergeant shuffled his feet and said that “we are working as diligently as we can though we don’t have the numbers we had”.

About those numbers: in the last budget, police officers were offered an early retirement option.  The city budgeted $6.7 million to pay for it.  It was anticipated that about 12 sworn officers would take the offer.  As a result of a flood of early retirements, at least double that number have left.  (No official count has been released, to my knowledge.)  I’ll note that my experience with the county sworn officers is that they are often young enough when they retire to take another similar job with another law enforcement agency.

SECOND UPDATE: Thanks to the FBI data picked up by A2Politico and then by, a full article on crime in Ann Arbor now reveals that we have had increased crime citywide as well as in our northwest neighborhood.  A meeting with the police chief and the mayor is scheduled at Miller Manor The Community Center at 625 N. Main St. on Saturday, September 19, 9 a.m.