Posted tagged ‘planning’

Farewell to Zanzibar

July 29, 2009

In which the fate of Zanzibar is linked to the success of our downtown, with some history.

I always wanted to like Zanzibar (the Ann Arbor restaurant) more than I did.  The place that it occupied in my mind was idealized and dreamy, starting with the name. Zzzzanzibar.  Remember the Bill Harley song?,

Zanzibar is very far,

You can’t get there in a car.

The place seems so unreachable and unknowable that it typifies the exotic ideal, though some people have made it.  Ann Arbor’s Zanzibar played on this beautifully, with its gorgeous mural, its colorful fabric hangings suspended overhead, and its promise of “pan-tropical cuisine”.  I liked the idea of warm exotic food and fruit from Latin America, Africa, Asia – all along the equator, like a world trip just by stepping in the door.

Unfortunately, my dining experiences there were uneven, not so much unsatisfactory as not achieving expectations, and in latter years, we often stopped and read the menu outside, then moved on. The descriptions (meals had moved from complex dishes to variously seasoned meat entrees)  didn’t promise quite enough delight to merit the prices.  Then there was the final disappointment, on a cold rainy evening when it seemed the ideal spot to eat before a run across campus to see the Royal Shakespeare Company.  We joined a number of unhappy would-be diners who sat or stood in the entryway for half an hour before being told that we definitely could not be seated without a reservation.  Most of the restaurant was not in service.  It was a weekday evening and apparently they didn’t expect much business, so didn’t bring in the workers.  We finally escaped into the cold for a quick bowl of soup at Ashley’s.

And now it comes to an end.  Even in mid-June there was some hope that it might survive, but it closed on June 18.   The story is more complex than just another restaurant that didn’t make it during the recession.  It is integral to the story of how Ann Arbor’s downtown is developing, and how current development trends affect its success.

As I indicated in an earlier post, our downtown is showing signs of strain.  Or I could say that “Downtown is in trouble.”  But what does that mean and how can anyone make a pronouncement about the health of downtown?  This might be said to be a question of metrics.  How we measure the health of downtown probably depends on the place where we stand in terms of our expectations of it.  Vacancies are a symptom anyone can recognize.  There are too many downtowns across the nation where a sad progression of empty storefronts finally leads to urban renewal or simply abandonment.  We’re not likely to get there, but even a few vacancies on a street can lead to an unfortunate “gap tooth” effect that makes pedestrians less eager to visit the area.  Another related metric is rental rates (the problem reported earlier).   And ultimately, this will also rebound upon property values, both of which affect people who have an investment in downtown’s real estate.

But I’m more concerned with a qualitative measure: the types of retail establishments and their success. For those of us who live in Ann Arbor and want to visit and enjoy the downtown, having vigorous successful local businesses that fulfill real needs (even if they are only entertainment and dining) is important.  And State Street has been stressed in this regard for some time.   As early as 2001, it was noticed that local businesses, with their often unique characters, were being lost while chain restaurants were moving in.  State Street’s proximity to the UM campus has always made it a natural location for student-oriented businesses, but it used to hold its own as a place the general population would want to visit.  I remember when we would walk from our home (then on the east side) to State Street to spend an evening browsing in the old Borders (for those under the age of 100, Borders used to be a wonderful independent bookstore) and strolling the street, delighting in the storefronts and perhaps ending up in one of the restaurants like Thano’s Lamplighter (served pizza and Greek food) for dinner. Actually, State Street was an important book destination.  In addition to Borders, there were Shaman Drum, Books in General (a second-floor walkup with a great selection of used books, including technical ones), and the quirky Kaleidoscope, with some collectibles and paperbacks in certain genres.  Of course Dawn Treader was and happily is just a few steps down Liberty.  I heard anecdotes and  read interviews from international scholar-visitors who said that they loved to come to Ann Arbor for the books. Now all are gone, except for Dawn Treader (Kaleidoscope has moved to North Fourth and Borders is a struggling outpost of a national corporation, not the beloved local bookstore of earlier days.)

The job of keeping State Street vital fell in part to the State Street Area Association.  (Visit the “Our Neighborhood” tab; it has a great history by Grace Shackman, with pictures.)  Two active members were Roger Hewitt, a partner in the management of Red Hawk and Zanzibar restaurants, and Karl Pohrt, the owner of the respected Shaman Drum Bookshop. Both were concerned about the issue early.  Both of them conceived of the idea that the solution was to bring more residents downtown, thus creating a stable customer base.  As I wrote in an article published in 2006,

“Karl Pohrt, the owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop, was recently quoted in Business Review as saying that downtown is like an ecosystem and that housing downtown is important to its survival. And at a Democratic Party meeting in March, State Street restaurateur Roger Hewitt argued that building more housing is the ‘only way’ to save weak downtown retailers.”

Both Pohrt and Hewitt have been on the Downtown Development Authority board.  (Hewitt has recently been its chair, and served as its spokesman.)  Both have been active in politics. (Pohrt once ran for City Council, and Hewitt has been an active contributor to local campaigns.)  In his more recent service on DDA, Hewitt has been a strong proponent of downtown residential development. Along with a strong push from council for affordable housing (which was thought to follow naturally with increased supply),  Hewitt’s advocacy has been significant in bringing more high-rise development to the downtown.  He has been in a position to make a difference as a member of the A2D2 and adhoc Downtown Steering Committees.

But has the advent of major development downtown, and the State Street area in particular, been good for our home-grown retail businesses? (Of course, not every plan submitted has been built.) The evidence, whichever metric you might chose, seems to indicate not.  One of the earliest new developments was Corner House Apartments, right on State Street. At DDA meetings later, Hewitt was heard to comment that what was needed was long-term residents downtown.  But student-oriented developments like Corner House seem to be the most supportable from a development viewpoint.  They haven’t brought success to local businesses on State Street.  And now, sadly, both Zanzibar and Shaman Drum are, literally, history.  In an article about the changes on State Street, Newcombe Clark is quoted as saying, “it would take a conscious effort on the part of landlords and brokers to steer State Street away from the fate of South University, which has seen a stagnant retail scene and deferred maintenance on many buildings”.  Unsaid is that this has been an effect of a predominantly student-oriented customer base.  Hewitt himself is quoted in the same article as acknowledging that “It was a shopping destination for the whole community…It appealed to a broader section of the whole community than it does now.”

It is eerily appropriate that Hewitt’s next venture will be to open a carryout sandwich shop and convenience store in the Zaragon high-rise near South University.  And unfortunately, the dream of Zanzibar, as well as our old local-friendly State Street, is very far.

UPDATE: The space once occupied by Zanzibar is now occupied by Sava’s Café.  My one visit was not as positive as that of the reviewer on AnnArbor.com.  Probably I was still suffering from the loss of the mural.  My lunch companion was happy with his hamburger (Knight’s ground beef).  But my tomato bisque was overly thick and salty and the tuna salad I ordered seemed to be solid tuna with just a little mayonnaise mixed in.   The server was nearly stymied by my request for crackers to go with it. (I didn’t finish either one.) Overall, it will probably not be a destination restaurant, but may serve the visitors to State Street for other reasons adequately.

Zoning Changes Simplified, and the Moratorium

July 22, 2009

As promised, Councilmember Sabra Briere sent out an inquiry to her constituents in preparation for her vote on the proposed R4C/R2A moratorium.  With it, she helpfully included a thumbnail summary of all the zoning decisions to be made in Ann Arbor’s near future, with a  map to show the areas affected.

As she notes, “If you live in the downtown area, you live in the neighborhoods colored pink in the Zoning Activity Map.  This is the area involved in the A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) study process.  We are nearly done with that, but not quite.  So far, we expect to vote on the final zoning and design guidelines in the fall.   (Editor’s note: postponed to the September 8 council meeting. Links to documents at the Planning website.)

“If you live in the areas colored yellow – or even just near them – you are in the areas currently impacted by the Area, Height and Placement zoning review, which is looking at (mostly) multi-family, commercial, industrial and office zoning.”  (Editor’s note: this is sometimes called the Chapter 55/59 revisions [big file]. Public meetings have been scheduled and anyone may go to any meeting.  Only the ones in the 3rd and 5th wards remain.  They are July 23 at Cobblestone Farm and July 30 at Forsythe, both at 6:30.)

“And if, like me, you live in the orange areas, you could be impacted by a development moratorium, and you definitely could be affected by the proposed study of R4C and R2A zones.”

CM Briere goes on to explain (the following has been edited for continuity),

“The Council has recently confronted a number of development proposals that fit the R4C zoning specifically but that don’t fit the master plan for the area of the proposal.  This disparity between the zoning regulation and the master plans has created significant difficulties for the adjacent neighborhoods, the planning staff, the Planning Commission, the Council – and even the developers.  The Council has felt constrained to approve projects that are not necessarily consistent with the plans and goals the citizens of set out for the City’s future.”

“Because these projects, often called ‘by right’ but truly just within the zoning, are likely to continue to be proposed, the Council decided to empanel a committee to look at the R4C and R2A zoning and the various area plans, and see how these can be brought into conformance.  At the same time, the Council directed the committee to address issues about the future use of these areas, and what types of protections should be created for the neighborhoods represented by these zonings.”

“Right now there are three projects under consideration. One of these is City Place, which just received a postponement until January, 2010. Another is The Moravian, which is proposed for the block of Madison between 4th and 5th Avenues, opposite Fingerle’s Lumber. The third is a speculative PUD (Planned Unit Development) being requested for Casa Dominick’s. No building is currently planned for that location, but the property owners would like the land zoned PUD.”

She asks the following questions (again, edited for brevity and consistency):

1. How do you feel about closing off demolition and development while the study committee studies R4C and R2A areas? (Editor’s note: remember this is for 180 days in the current draft resolution.)

2. Do you believe it’s fair to impose a moratorium while there are projects under consideration?

3. Do you believe, if a moratorium on development is imposed, that it should extend to the entire R2A and R4C areas? (… “the R4C and R2A areas are scattered all over the City.  However, the resolution is focused on the Central Area.”)

4. Is there anything else?

CM Briere invites any and all to respond to her by email (sabra.briere@gmail.com).  But it seems to me that this also serves as a good script for you to contact your own representatives on council and let them know what you think.

If you do nothing else, do take a look at that Zoning Activity Map.  It provides a really good perspective on all the zoning changes in the works.

Update: The Ann Arbor Chronicle has a long explanatory article about the Area, Height, and Placement proposals.

City Council and City Place

July 21, 2009

Two items appeared on Monday’s Council agenda that related in some way to City Place.  One was the resolution to approve the site plan.  The other was the moratorium on site plans under the current R4C zoning. (See the two previous posts for more discussion.)  Neither one passed.  Neither was defeated.  The story continues.

As expected, consideration of the City Place “by right” site plan was postponed, as requested by the developer.  Council retired into a closed session for attorney-client communications immediately after public comment.  When the City Place resolution came up on the agenda, CM Derezinski was prepared.  He moved to postpone until the second meeting in January (2010).  His postponement motion included a direction to staff to assist with delivery of yet another PUD application by the developer, Alex de Parry.

The actual text of the amendment:

“Based on a written request from the developer, dated July 17, 2009, I move that Council postpone consideration of the City Place site plan until the 2nd meeting in January, 2010, that Council direct Planning and Development Services to accept and process a PUD application for this site following its established procedures, and that if the developer wishes to withdraw the PUD application, that the City Place site plan be scheduled for public hearing and consideration within 35 days of receipt of a written request of the withdrawal from the developer.”

He also stated that there seemed to be a way open to satisfy both the needs of the petitioner and of the city (the neighborhood association was not mentioned).  CM Smith commented further that it must be a good compromise if no one is happy at the end.  That must have been an interesting closed session.  There was also discussion of appearance of the project on the agenda at any time with 35 days notice.

The moratorium in R4C/R2A zoned areas was postponed to August 6.  CM Derezinski made a strong pre-emptive statement that appeared to be laying out an argument that a moratorium was too difficult, too perilous to consider.  He called it “the nuclear option” – “don’t drop the bomb without serious consideration”.  Though CM Anglin’s comments in support of his motion were mostly directed toward the City Place development (somewhat moot at this point because of the expected postponement and possible withdrawal altogether of the “by right” R4C-based site plan), others made points about the broader impact of a moratorium.  But they don’t seem to have read the resolution very carefully. CM Taylor, CM Rapundalo, and CM Derezinski all emphasized the notion that it affected 1300 separate properties, and they were pursuing an argument that this would affect the owners of each property equally, with obligations for notification and other complications requiring much more staff work.  CM Hohnke even compared this moratorium to the proposals for the Library Lot in a need for public input.  Yet the moratorium resolution clearly and specifically excludes most development proposals on these parcels:

RESOLVED, That City Council hereby imposes a moratorium on all new development that requires site plan approval, expansion of existing development that requires site plan approval, zoning changes, special exception uses, or other comparable zoning items, in the R4C and R2A zoning districts, and that any petitions or permits for such items be deferred for a period of 180 days from the date of this resolution in conjunction with the study and revision of the zoning ordinances pertaining to these districts, with the following exceptions:

· Approval of development, redevelopment, or the issuance of building permits for projects that do not require an approved site plan, including but not limited to construction of or addition to one single or two-family dwelling or accessory structure on a parcel

· Applications or permits which involve routine repair and maintenance for an existing permitted use

Clearly the only parcels that would be affected would be those for which a major development was proposed, and most of those parcel owners would not have a concern.  (Recall that the moratorium is proposed for only 180 days, and that there is also an appeals process.)  CM Briere very nicely stated that she personally favored the resolution, but that the constituents of the First Ward needed to have a chance to weigh in.  With some support from the Mayor, she was able to pull back the reconsideration date to August 6 (from August 17).

You had to be there department: Political theater may be one of the most underappreciated art forms.  I admit it, I’m a political junkie and love nothing more than a long meeting crackling with suspense over the amendment to the amendment.  But this meeting included lots of mixed media.  In addition to cleverly designed models designed to show how roofline relates to height, a speech with picket signs that somehow combined a boycott against Israel, support for Iranian democracy, and outrage over the demolition of historic houses,  public comment included Libby Hunter’s lovely soprano voice in a song to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (I include only one of three verses):

Developers are coming to your neighborhood real soon

They will tear down all the houses and build apartments cheap and huge

More sewer backups, traffic jams and LEDs real cool

Development goes marching on

Council sat patiently until the audience then joined in (text had been passed out):

Glory, Glory Hallelujah

Density is coming to ya

You have no voice, council’s made the choice

Your neighborhood will succumb

Development goes marching on.

At this point the Mayor bestirred himself and protested that “only one person may speak at a time”, but the song went on to its conclusion without a gavel strike.

Update: Per request, I’ve attached the complete text of the song here.  I’ll fill in details about authorship as I am able to obtain them.

Second Update: I’ve pasted in the actual text of CM Derezinski’s amendment, which our city clerk, Jacqueline Beaudry, graciously provided.

Third Update: The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s account of the meeting includes a useful chronology of the City Place project.

Fourth Update: The Development Hymn now on YouTube for your listening enjoyment.

City Place and the R4C Zoning Classification

July 18, 2009

As was discussed here earlier, an enduring issue in the background of the debate over the City Place proposed development has been the role of the Central Area Plan in determining how the Germantown area – and all the city’s neighborhoods near the downtown core – should be developed.  Sadly, the zoning map was never revised to reflect the goals of the CAP.  Specifically, the predominant zoning, R4C, allows for much greater density than that indicated by a reading of the CAP.  Worse, in combination with a rather labored definition of a “household” in our code, R4C allows a peculiar configuration into a “housing unit” designed solely for student occupants, with individual locked bedrooms adjoining a central living area.  It is not a form of apartment design that is likely to be used by other demographics at any time in the future, and provides for a very high income from one “housing unit”.  So the R4C, when applied to a neighborhood of homeowners, will create high-density buildings that will not support long-term tenants or families.

City Council passed a resolution to form a committee to study possible changes to the zoning ordinance for R4C and R2A categories on July 6. But while these admittedly defective (for today’s purposes) zoning classifications remain on the books, developments are still being considered for sensitive areas. The Germantown Neighborhood Association has been lobbying for a moratorium on development under the old zoning definitions. Tom Whitaker, the president of the association, posted a number of discussions of this issue on their blog. You might suppose that since the R4C version of City Place has been temporarily set aside by the developer in favor of seeking approval for a new PUD proposal, the GNA’s urgency on a moratorium might be scaled back  Not so.  Here’s what Whitaker said in a recent email (quoted with permission; emphasis mine):

“Yet another twist to the on-going saga of City Place.  Yesterday, Alex de Parry’s attorney, Scott Munzel, sent a letter to the City requesting that they table the City Place vote until early November in order to allow time for Mr. de Parry to submit yet another PUD proposal…This proposal is the same one we were discussing with Mr. de Parry in February/March, but called off our talks when he submitted the “R4C” project, often called his “by right” project.  This alternative proposal, as Mr. de Parry would like to see it, would be much larger in terms of density – as much as 180+ occupants.  The design calls for complete demolition of one of the seven historic homes, with the rear portions of the other six demolished and the front portions dismantled and stored off-site.  Then, an underground parking structure would be built, almost to the lot lines, and a large, long gable-roofed structure built along the length of the combined parcels.  The pieces of the dismantled houses would then be brought back and attached to this new structure.  They would be spaced and ordered differently from their current configuration and nothing would remain of the original foundations or interiors.”

“The Germantown Neighborhood Association objected to some of the key elements of this plan including the destruction of the houses and the overall size of the project (both density and physical size).  Our preference has always been to see the houses restored and then supplemented with well-designed additions or perhaps carriage-house structures with additional units.  With State and Federal historic tax credits available for approved work on historically-designated buildings, we think a project could be created that would enhance the neighborhood rather than destroy it, and still provide for a reasonable profit for Mr. de Parry.  First, we would all need to work together to get our neighborhood established as an historic district.”

“We were not surprised by this last-minute maneuver on City Place.  Many of us have always felt that the “R4C” project was simply a threat being used to “encourage” the neighbors and the City to approve a much larger PUD.  In fact, it was first drawn up specifically to show at a planning commission meeting last year, when the “brownstone” PUD version of City Place was being considered.  Even while the R4C project was working its way through the approval process, Mr. de Parry’s team was calling, emailing and meeting with anyone who would give them the time of day to try and promote his newer “alternative PUD”.”

“Folks, we are all concerned about the historic character and integrity of Germantown, but this all boils down to zoning ordinances that are too weak and subject to broad interpretation.  Council knows this, which is why they voted to study the zoning in R4C/R2A in order to correct it and bring it into compliance with the Central Area Plan.  We need your continued support for the moratorium, regardless of what happens with City Place.  This issue is bigger than any single project.  The City and the neighborhood will not be off this merry-go-round until City Council calls a moratorium and proceeds rapidly with the study and correction of the zoning.  We can’t tell Mr. de Parry what to build, but if the City had its zoning in shape and compliant with the Central Area Plan, it would be clear to all what he could NOT build.”

On Monday, July 20, the Council will be considering a resolution calling for a moratorium on developments requiring a site plan in areas currently zoned R4C and R2A, while the city awaits the findings of the study committee. It does not prevent construction of projects not needing a site plan, is for up to 180 days, and has an appeal process.  Here’s hoping that Council will approve it without regard to political faction issues (Mike Anglin is its sponsor), because it is needed if we are to make our planning procedures rational, predictable, and in accordance with public will, as expressed in the Central Area Plan.

Another Reprieve on City Place

July 17, 2009

As explained in an earlier post,  the last configuration of City Place – a “by right” development purporting to be consistent with the current zoning of the site – was sent back to Planning Commission for technical reasons.  Council directed that the PC should review it immediately and return the proposal to Council on July 20.   Accordingly, the item appeared on next week’s agenda after an inconclusive review by PC (the vote was 5-1 to approve but 6 votes were required for approval).

Now, in yet another change of course, the developer, Alex de Parry has requested another postponement through a letter from his lawyer.    The letter states that de Parry requests that the item be postponed till the first Council meeting in November.  By then, however, he is hoping that a new PUD application will have moved through the planning process.

Many have speculated that a new PUD was de Parry’s true aim all along.  He has already seen two such proposals rejected by Council and talks with the Germantown neighbors broke down some time ago.  But apparently he is willing to believe that the third time can be the charm.

Conference Center: Cooked or Confusion?

July 7, 2009

As we explained previously, there are indications that a group of persons (not all known, but including city and county officials) are interested in seeing a conference center in the South Fifth and William Street area.  The earlier post has a link to a discussion of this by Roger Fraser, the Ann Arbor city administrator. In the council’s January retreat, he reported that an undisclosed group had presented a proposal for a convention center in the vicinity of the Library Lot.  Further, he noted that the group suggested that their proposal could be used as the basis for an RFP (request for proposals) issued by the city.  They humbly noted that their proposal might not be the winning proposal with such a process.  This Monday (July 6, 2009), council passed a resolution that appears to be laying the groundwork for this proposal to be considered.

The resolution, as originally put forth by Councilmembers Smith and Higgins, called for “the City Administrator to create and issue a Request for Proposals  (RFP)  for the development of the S. Fifth Ave. parking structure site” by August 3, 2009.  No further criteria for the RFP were delineated, other than that “the City Administrator shall incorporate appropriate elements of the Downtown Plan for identifying desired community objectives for the site, including open space, active uses at street level, and clear public benefits”.   It gave the administrator less than a month (until August 3) to accomplish this.  Proposals would then be due within 60 days after that.

This was a breathtaking abbreviation of the process for any meaningful discussion of how to dispose of an important city property.  First, what is the function of an RFP?  It is frequently used for procurement.  As displayed on the city’s website, various departments put out requests for suppliers to bid on everything from supplying toner cartridges to replacing water mains.  The more complex projects usually include engineering drawings, and all of them include detailed specifications to the level appropriate for the service sought.  Drawing these documents up is part boilerplate, part hard technical detail.

In recent years, the RFP process has been used to seek developers who would pay the city for property while accomplishing important civic goals.  Thus, the RFP document and its specifications in these cases are really a policy document, not a simple procurement task.  In the past, the council has turned to the DDA partnership committee (it includes city council members) to draw up a carefully tuned document that has gone through several revisions.  This type of document was used to solicit bids for replacement of the housing at the old Y, where the city hoped to use its ownership of the site to lure a developer who would satisfy all the objectives for it.  (It is now a parking lot.)  More recently, a closely held committee of mostly city staff and perhaps a couple of council members drew up the RFP for 415 W. Washington, another city property.  The RFP laid out a broad range of objectives, ranging from a monetary yield for the city to maintaining the floodway.  That project is still up in the air, since none of the three proposals received filled all the objectives.

So as a start,  the Library Lot RFP process is missing a set of clearly enunciated objectives, and a broader group of individuals, representing both citizens, elected officials, and staff, to agree on them.  While earlier RFPs stated that the city had to make money on the development deal, this resolution only suggests that outcome, and in discussion, CM Smith said it might be all right just to make sure it was “revenue neutral”.  Also, one month for preparation of the RFP and two months to respond to it are a very short period.  At a time of year when many staff and others are on vacation, this is a lot to ask if we are to expect a carefully phrased and detailed document.  Two months to respond assumes that developers have their pencils already sharpened.  And they will apparently be given very little guidance as to the objectives for the site, if the statements at council are sincere.  CM Smith said, “let’s see what kind of creative ideas are out there and see what we get”.  Discussion at council seemed to be of the “let a thousand flowers bloom” nature.  But what developer or civic group can formulate a solid proposal (these generally entail firm budgets and financial offers) in that time frame?

In discussion Monday night, CM Anglin accurately identified a couple of problems with the process.  He offered amendments to remove the time deadlines, and also to put in a public participation process, saying that the public has had no input into the desired use for this site. As he noted, “there is a feeling out there that this is a very special place”.  After a number of negative comments (several councilmembers said that the Calthorpe and A2D2 processes had been a sufficient discussion of the “core downtown area” and CM Rapundalo suggested to Anglin “if you aren’t up to speed on this, I suggest you go back and see what this body has done”), CM Briere offered some alternative amendments that included a public participation element, and CM Greden offered one that relaxed the time frame slightly. The final resolution calls for the RFP to be prepared by August 14, and to allow 90 days for responses.

Unfortunately, the public participation element appears to be ineffective, if not an outright sham.  After a lot of backing and filling, the council allowed as how the committee that would be reviewing the proposals should have a public meeting, and that there would eventually be a public hearing.  But this is a long way from a true interactive public process to determine the fate of this significant piece of public property.  (The last time the council proposed a development [a city hall] for the Library Lot, they were swamped with protests.)

So what we are left with is a poorly defined objective that is nevertheless going to happen at a rush (CM Higgins counted backwards so that a complete plan would be available by March 2010 at the latest).  And even with the extended deadline, it is difficult to see how city administration can present a sufficiently detailed and nuanced RFP, that will give clear guidance such that a wide variety of developers will spend the effort to propose innovative uses that will also enrich the city (or at least not sink us further in debt).  Unless there is already a handy draft sitting around.  After all, the mysterious conference center proposers made a offer.

The Old Y and the New Conference Center

June 24, 2009

Two of the ongoing sagas of  the future development of downtown got new chapters today.  The Ann Arbor News reports today that efforts to snag one of the county-owned lots in the North Main area for very low income housing have failed.  This was not “affordable housing” as so many casual observers might understand it, but replacement for the 100 units lost when the YMCA moved to a new location and put the property on William at 5th Avenue up for sale.  As was explained at some length in an Ann Arbor Observer story four years ago, many of these single-room- occupancy housing units (which did not have kitchen facilities) were used by people who had once been at the Delonis shelter, or who needed very low-cost or nearly free housing because they had virtually no income.  Further, many (not all) of those former inhabitants needed “supportive housing” – in which they received a number of human services, including assistance with mental illness and substance abuse.  Efforts have been underway since 2000 to maintain or replace those 100 units with better quarters and to make them better adapted to the special-needs population that requires supportive housing, culminating with the city’s purchase of the site as the YMCA moved to a new location.  (A longer, more detailed history is available in the original draft of the 2005 Observer story.)  Council issued an RFP for a developer to construct the housing, together with a for-profit building.  The winner of that competition proposed to build the William Street Station .  But the financial arrangements for the project were always problematical, since the city hoped to avoid subsidizing it, but the developer expected to make a profit. Finally, the Council killed the project in late 2007.

Discussions of “what next?” were tossed into the lap of the newly formed Housing and Human Services Advisory Board (HHSAB).  As reviewed in the Ann Arbor Chronicle,  the HHSAB presented a recommendation in May 2008.  While favoring a re-issuance of an RFP to build 100 units of supportive housing on the old Y site, the report also opened up the possibility of using other sites, preferably those already in public ownership.  This would both make the project more affordable and allow an RFP process to go forward.  (The report, referenced in the Chronicle article, includes some cost estimations.)

The idea of using a different site began to receive a lot of unofficial encouragement at the same time that the idea of using the old Y site for a conference center suddenly emerged.  An Ann Arbor News account (April 2008) of a coffee meeting between the county administrator, Bob Guenzel, and Jesse Bernstein, Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce President, related that “Guenzel said he’d like to see plans for an Ann Arbor conference center take shape. Bernstein agreed.”  By December 2008 (as detailed by the Chronicle), the Council was hearing about three parking lots, two owned by the county, where the 100 units could be placed.  Also in December 2008, city administrator Roger Fraser made a presentation to the Council in its  Budget Retreat which he said “a group of folks…have made some conceptual plans” “at their own risk” to place a small conference center on top of the current Library Lot, using a “partnership” with the city, the DDA, and the private sector.  The “folks” further suggested that their efforts might be useful for the city to prepare an RFQ, which they understood they might not win.  Fraser went on to mention the idea of moving Blake Transit Center off its current site, roofing over 4th Avenue, and making use of all the liberated real estate for these plans.  Mayor Hieftje enthusiastically chimed in, “it allows us to keep the old Y lot intact”.

Sure enough, now that Council has voted to spend public money to install a $38 million underground parking structure under the Library Lot, Councilmember Sandi Smith announced that she will bring a resolution for a RFQ for a “private development partner” for the space above the parking structure.  However, this was postponed to July 1, 2009 so that other councilmembers can weigh in.  One can hear the machinery moving, though some of the pieces carry a lot of inertia. Last I heard, no decision has been made on whether to renovate Blake where it stands.

All of this leads to several questions.

1. What will be the effect of the resignation of Jesse Bernstein, announced today, as the Chamber of Commerce President?  He has been central to these moves toward a convention center and supported the moving of Blake as an AATA board member.

2. Will the Council continue to move towards a convention center on the old Y site before the location (and, for goodness sakes, the funding) for replacement housing is settled on?

3. Where was the public impetus for a major transformation of south Fourth Avenue?  Where was the public process?  Where has been the detailed workup to indicate the need or desire for the center?  And has the effect on our downtown in general of placing such a use-intensive facility there been considered?  And is there any notion of how finances would work and will this be addressed before “qualifying” any private “partners”? Where is the planning?

Update:  Karen Sidney supplied the attached letter of denial for the conceptual drawings presented by City Administrator Fraser to the Council at the January retreat.  Apparently, though they are driving policy, they are private.

Second Update: The document showing the total cost for the underground parking structure at the Library Lot is attached here .

THIRD UPDATE: For all related stories, see the Library Lot Conference Center page, where new articles are linked.