Posted tagged ‘politics’

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.

Ann Arbor in the Goldfish Bowl

July 16, 2009

We hear a lot these days about transparency and openness in government. What that refers to is having all business done in public view. That was the intent of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, both enacted in the mid-1970s. The Open Meetings Act sought to make all deliberations leading to legislative decisions subject to observation by the public, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives the public the right to view or request copies of documents (including correspondence and notes) generated in the conduct of government business.  But that was so Seventies.  As noted by Noah Hall of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in a recent Workantile Exchange seminar, governments often put up barriers to this access.  Hall has an impressive grasp of the tactics needed for full access and has applied them frequently in pursuing issues of interest to GLELC.  His most recent moment in the spotlight followed his FOIA of Ann Arbor City Council emails, in the context of a letter to the city regarding the parking garage planned for the Library Lot.  (We linked to some of the emails in an earlier post, and recently released emails are available here.)  The resulting flap has provided some welcome entertainment but has also revealed that the council majority has not exactly embraced the whole transparency paradigm.

Here’s the problem.  Once deliberations, negotiations, and deal-making come into view, all interested parties start to ask questions, make demands, and generally cause a fuss.  As Mayor Hieftje commented (not happily) in a DDA committee meeting I attended some years ago, “We live in a goldfish bowl”.  Transparency is inhibitory to getting business done in an efficient way.  After all, once you have all the information that you yourself require, and you know the agenda and purpose you want to pursue, why involve a lot of backseat drivers?  You don’t really need “public input”.

The council majority clearly does have a set agenda and the emails show how directly they are pursuing it.  The February 17 emails include discussions within the group heading off a possible postponement of a  resolution to authorize bonds for $55 million, partly to pay for an underground parking structure.

“The Bonds are to be issued for the purpose of financing the construction of a 677 space, four story underground parking structure and streetscape improvements along Fifth and Division Streets. The project includes a new street running west to east on the north side of the Ann Arbor Public Library, utility improvements under Fifth Avenue and Division Street, and a new downtown alley. The footprint of the project will be from the west side of Fifth Avenue to the west side of Division Street and under Fifth Ave from the northern edge of the current parking lot to William Street. The parking structure will be built in a manner to allow future construction of an up to 25-story building on the site. The project will also include the construction of streetscape improvements on Fifth Avenue and Division Streets from Beakes to Packard including improved crosswalks, new streetlights, trees, sidewalks, bike lanes, and curb.”

But prior to that February 17 vote, there were plenty of other discussions.   As was mentioned in an earlier post, a private plan for a conference center was presented at the January council retreat. Subsequently, CM Sandi Smith (only recently elected after a long tenure on the DDA Board, of which she is still a member)  issued an invitation to all her council colleagues for a January 23 meeting at the DDA office with engineers designing the underground structure. “Before this comes to council, I want to hear where the project is now. I also want to investigate the ideas about what can be built on top of the structure…”  Now, it would have been possible to make this meeting legal according to the Open Meetings Act.  The meeting could have been posted (announced on a bulletin board, at least), open to the public, and minutes could have been taken that were subsequently available to the public. I have not attempted a FOIA to establish whether or not any of these things were done.  So – potentially the entire council had a substantial discussion, prior to a formal vote, on the underground parking structure and its potential use for aboveground building, without being in the goldfish bowl. And, as we have reported,  the Council has now passed a resolution calling for an RFP for the aboveground structure (a.k.a. the conference center?).

Efficiency is satisfying.  It gets things done.  Those who employ it may even believe that they are performing a public good.  But the purpose of transparency, with its ensuing public discussion, though messy, is both to guarantee the public an opportunity to respond to major initiatives and to guarantee that good and honest decisions are being made.  I hope that the Mayor and the council majority will consider this before making additional commitments to major projects.

Note: The email transcripts published on the Neighborhood Alliance website, of which one set is linked to here,  were excerpted and edited by an individual other than myself and I cannot make any representations as to their complete accuracy, though I believe the excerpting to be a good-faith attempt.

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.

The Council Emails and Political Culture

June 7, 2009

I have not always found myself agreeing with the editorial stance of the Ann Arbor News, but their recent editorial about the council emails was right on course.

The editorial, paired with not one but two articles about the revelation that some council members were sending each other truly nasty emails about other council members – as well as discussing council business in an apparent violation of the letter (and certainly the spirit) of the Open Meetings Act – was a source of considerable satisfaction to one (me) who is still dismayed, though no longer shocked, about the inherent nastiness of politics.

Here are the actual council emails that the article seems to be discussing.

The emails surfaced with discussion of a potential lawsuit in a letter from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center against the city, with reference to the approval of the underground parking garage under the “library lot”.  As reported earlier, the letter alleges that the parking garage will cause environmental damage.  (The Ann Arbor Chronicle story linked to in the previous sentence explains all the details.)  But the significance to local politics is that for once, someone with sufficient institutional backing has chosen to challenge the way business is being done at the City of Ann Arbor.  This brought about a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the City for emails during council meetings during a certain period.  The City has formerly made this sort of request very hard to pursue (by imposing outlandish charges, for example), but in this case they were successful.

Others will parse and argue the Open Meetings Act violations. Briefly, the question is likely to be whether email communication to a group smaller than a quorum, in the midst of a public meeting where there is a quorum, and deliberation is taking place, is a violation of the act.  (A quorum is a majority of the body, in this case six.) I say that this is a side discussion within a meeting and should have been subject to public scrutiny.

But the other point the emails highlight is the toxic nature of current Ann Arbor politics.  For some years now, a coalition that we could call the power circle, the In Group, or the council majority, have been in command.  When I first moved to Ann Arbor, the council was divided between Democrats and Republicans.  The Republicans could reliably be expected to take up the causes supporting business and the Democrats, all the traditional liberal causes (except for parks, which required a citizen initiative).  Then gradually all the people on council bore the label of Democrat (including a couple of former Republicans).  Since the local Democratic party was mostly organized to support Democrats against Republicans in the general election, this put a monopoly in power, and they were able to enjoy several years unchallenged except by token and easily vanquished Republicans.  (The last serious Republican candidate for Mayor, Jane Lumm, had no chance against the tide of Democratic votes for Kerry in 2004.)  Once in place, a Democratic incumbent was seldom challenged, and usually there was no contest even in a first election. This was made even smoother by a practice of appointing chosen candidates to fill vacated seats, so that there was an instant incumbent.

But a few wavelets began to appear in this smooth sea.  The chosen candidates of the ruling coalition began to encounter challenges.  In the troublesome First Ward in particular, first Kim Groome (2002) and then Ron Suarez (2006) were elected. They weren’t with the program (which I will characterize loosely as pro-development without arguing all the points).  As a result, they were treated badly.  Although I’ve never heard this directly from her, it is thought in some circles that Kim Groome was driven out of town by nastiness.

How does a group control unruly members?  By the classic methods: shunning, nasty comments, and body language.  In the case of an elected body, this is called “marginalization”.  When the target speaks, everyone’s attention is elsewhere.  Nasty comments are applied directly or to others.  Smirks behind not-too-well held hands.  Meetings are held without the target’s being informed.  Appointments are made only to unconsequential committees.  Emails and other messages are either not returned or are given short or nasty twists.   Note the references to pandering (actually paying attention to one group or another) and the “Golden Vomit Award” given to Sabra Briere (I’m sure that whatever comments she was making at the time were considered and well-spoken).  If this were a gang of chimpanzees, similar methods would be used, perhaps using more fruit and fewer electronics. Some commenters on Arbor Update have defended this behavior as “juvenile” but essentially trivial. But should our government be run by a bunch of schoolyard bullies?  We’d like to think that issues are deliberated and decided rationally and with the public good in mind, not by intimidation.

When I lost the primary for the 5th Ward seat last summer, I asked for a recount (the final tally showed that I lost by 53 votes out of over 3,000).  As reported at the time, my observers for the process were campaign supporters: my opponent Carsten Hohnke brought mostly city council members from the ruling circle.  Only the newly elected ones (Tony Derezinski and Christopher Taylor) acknowledged that I existed and spoke to me.  Carsten and the others were stony-faced and ignored me.  It was sadly indicative.

UPDATE:  The Ann Arbor Chronicle has posted a very thoughtful analysis of the deeper policy implications of the council email revelations.