Posted tagged ‘planning’

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.

City Place and Council Connections

June 19, 2009

With all the changes and contortions that City Place has gone through since 2007 when it was first mentioned, you would expect some pretty heavy politics.  The most affected councilmembers would naturally be those who represent the residents. During my council campaign in 2008 (I opposed Carsten Hohnke for the Fifth Ward seat on the City Council), I do not remember that it was much of an issue, though I stated whenever possible that I was in favor of retaining the historic buildings on South Fifth.

I recall that later that year, Mike Anglin spent many hours meeting with “the neighbors” who live in the area, now being called Germantown.  He was joined by Hohnke after he was elected, though I don’t know details of those meetings.  However, on December 15, 2008, a proposal to form a historic district study committee was defeated on Council, with only three votes (Councilmembers Anglin, Briere, and Teall) in favor of it.  The other newly minted Fifth Ward councilmember, Hohnke, voted against it.  Establishment of a historic study district would not in itself have prohibited the development, but would have been the first step in recognizing the value of the buildings in the area and their history.

After the failure of the second version of the PUD at Council on January 5 (the only votes in favor of the plan were Councilmembers Rapundalo, Taylor, and Greden), there seems to have been an acceleration of activity, with many hours of meetings. The new neighborhood association, the Germantown Neighborhood Association, began to exert much more influence and to bring more facts and arguments to the table.

Since the second postponement of consideration of the site plan (see the previous post in this series), negotiations have reportedly picked up all round.  The political winds have brought the news that Hohnke has been actively promoting the passage of the site plan when it comes back to the council agenda, with the thought that further negotiations with neighbors and other interested parties could continue after that.  An interesting tidbit was brought forth in the discussion at the June 15 Council meeting, when, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, “Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) began deliberations on the City Place site plan approval by indicating to his colleagues that he had brought information to the city attorney’s office concerning a possible conflict of interest on his part with respect to the City Place project. He stated that councilmembers had the analysis provided by the city attorney’s office and indicated he was prepared to accept their recommendation, if any, on the topic.”

Clearly, considering Hohnke’s key role at this point, any conflict of interest is worth examining.  From what I have been able to glean, the information given to council members was merely that the city attorney did not consider the circumstances to be sufficient to cause concern.  I wondered whether the information that I learned last summer connecting Hohnke with Daniel Pampreen might be involved, so I took some trouble to substantiate it. I have attached several documents indicating that the business (Kinetic Energy, Inc., under the assumed name of Vie Fit) operated by Hohnke’s wife, Heather Dupuis, is either owned by Pampreen or he has a substantial share in it. His (Pampreen’s ) is the only name appearing in the assumed name application , where he names himself as “owner/director”.  In the 2005 report , he is the President, Secretary, Treasurer, Vice President and Director (with two other directors).  Heather Dupuis is not yet listed.  In 2007, Heather Dupuis is now the registered agent, but Pampreen is still the President and only Director. (The box indicating “no changes” is checked in 2008, not attached.)  Finally, in 2009, Dupuis is shown as the President, Pampreen is the Secretary and Carsten Hohnke is the Treasurer.  All three are directors, together with the two others first listed in 2005.

So why is this connection with Daniel Pampreen of relevance to City Place?  For one thing, he owns 437 S. Fifth, a property included in the proposed City Place project.  For another, he is a well-known property owner,  student landlord (Dan’s Houses) and developer.  According to one account, he owns at least 50 properties.  He has recently (again according to the cited account) become interested in development of student housing and was involved in the deal that replaced the lamented Anberay Apartments with the high-rise, high-cost Zaragon Place.  Whether Pampreen is involved at any level in the City Place project other than as the owner of an included property, I don’t know.  But he clearly has an interest.

City Place and the Vision Thing

June 18, 2009

Good news for those of us who care about the Germantown neighborhood, historic preservation, and neighborhoods in general.  The City Place site plan for a significant part of South Fifth Avenue that was on Council’s June 15 agenda has been sent back to the Planning Commission for re-review.  According to the Ann Arbor News report, the reconsideration by the commission will be on July 7, and there will also be a new public hearing at that time.  The City Council could receive the new recommendation as early as July 20, and again according to the News, a fresh public hearing will be held.  That is an important detail, because when the vote at council was postponed previously, the public hearing was held over, so that speakers would not be able to appear a second time.

This project has been around in some form for a couple of years now and was rejected by Council as a Planned Unit Development for the second time in January (2009).  The developer was unable to carry the day on convincing Council that the public benefit from the plan met the requirements for rezoning to a PUD.  At the time, the developer, Alex de Parry,  displayed an overtly unattractive conceptual sketch for a “by right” alternative plan – one that would supposedly meet the standards for its current zoning of R4C. The implication was “here is what you’ll get if you don’t approve the PUD”.

A by-right site plan was indeed promptly produced and recommended for approval by the Planning Commission on April 21 as reported earlier.  It was consideration of that site plan that has been postponed once by Council, then sent back to the Planning Commission.

The City Place project in all its configurations has proved to be a capsule lesson in the development issues facing Ann Arbor.  So many of the technical details, legal considerations, and most of all, the hopes and aspirations of different members of our community are embodied in this one project.  Of course, there are several other pressing projects and policy decisions in process, including a couple of major plan revisions and zoning changes.  But City Place draws the thumbnail.

Future posts will explore the rapidly moving history of this project further, and the underlying issues and perceptions that it embodies.

What Are Plans Good For?

April 27, 2009

It seems at times that in Ann Arbor today we are living in a miasma of plans. So many plans being devised, discussed, revised, reviewed, and ultimately adopted.  Even for the really intensely interested (and I count myself among those so obsessed), it is often more convenient to put off reviewing the latest plan, since the details are dizzying and the implications can be dismaying.  But these plans, when in skillful hands, can shape our future. They can be used for bureaucratic justification, political manipulation, good public discourse, or simply go onto a shelf to be ignored.

I’m not a trained (urban) planner, but I’ve served on a county planning commission and advisory board, and have also edited three books on planning, including a methods text, so I’m very familiar with the process.  Ideally, a plan is the result of planning staff’s research and data collection at the direction of policymakers (aka elected or appointed officials).  The staff puts together a number of propositions and/or questions, and has a number of meetings with interested members of the public.  Traditionally in Ann Arbor, a public committee was appointed to work with the staff on the plan, and then took comments from other members of the public who came to their meetings.  Finally the staff compiles all this into a document which is then further reviewed and commented on, with formal public hearings, and the plan is then finally adopted by the City Council after review by the Planning Commission.

But what is the plan good for after all this?  That is a matter of serious controversy that affects some current projects.  As explained earlier, there are a couple of projects on the table that do not coincide with the Central Area Plan, a good plan that went through all the steps described relatively recently (roughly 15 years).  But the position of such plans in Michigan law has been ambiguous.  It has long been thought that master plans have no statutory authority in Michigan, that is, they do not comprise the rule of law.  Classically, a new master plan should then be followed by a new or revised comprehensive zoning ordinance that enacts all the policy statements in the plan into zoning code.  Unfortunately, this was not done for the Central Area Plan and it is not clear to me that any of the existing master plans in Ann Arbor (they have been done by sectors over many years) have been reflected in a zoning ordinance.  The plans are basically vision and policy statements, often with very specific land use recommendations, but it is not clear how defensible they are if challenged by someone who has a development proposal that is denied because it is inconsistent with the plan.

This question has been reviewed recently in an excellent analysis on the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  It quotes Tom Whitaker, the leader of the Germantown neighborhood group, as citing some recent case law that does indicate that master plans have statutory authority.  I hope that our city government gives these arguments a careful review.  Otherwise, the vision of how our city should be configured, developed through laborious process and massive investment by the public, will be ignored in favor of narrowly drawn zoning code.

Speaking of plans, I admired the finesse of the AATA board, who recently passed a support statement (only) for the Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update .  This “adoption in concept” basically says “okay, guys, some good ideas there” without committing the AATA to anything.   As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the board thought the price tag for this ambitious plan was a bit high. The AATPU requires watching, as does the recent effort to consolidate the different land use plans.

UPDATE: Whitaker further elaborates on the  Germantown blog a case for the importance of master plans based on recent legislation.  As he notes, the Michigan Planning Enabling Act of 2008 has given these plans a much more substantive role.  As the legislation notes, “ In general, a planning commission has such lawful powers as may be necessary to enable it to promote local planning and otherwise carry out the purposes of this act.”  (Section 125.3831, item 4.)  Some of the legislation is possibly confusing since much of it is addressing the interaction between the county planning commission and municipalities.  (Municipalities include cities, villages, and townships.)  Our own Washtenaw County no longer has a planning commission (and many other counties don’t have a separate one).  The Planning Advisory Board completed the Comprehensive Plan for Washtenaw County while I was still serving on it (adopted 2004).  It is not primarily a land use plan, though it makes some broad recommendations.  An earlier joint planning act decreed that the county should review municipal land use plans to be sure that they conform to the general county plan and are not in conflict with the plans of adjacent municipalities.  These reviews were advisory in nature, making only comments and recommendations, not vetoing plans.  This new act appears to strengthen that interaction.

The language of the 2008 act does make it clear that master planning is important, and that planning commissions should take a broad overview of  land use in making decisions.  I hope that the planning commission chair, Bonnie Bona, and the city council representative, Anthony Derezinski, will take the time before the next meeting to review the updated legal status of these plans before refusing to take them into account in site plan decisions.