On April 4, 2011, the Ann Arbor City Council acted to shut down the RFP process that had very nearly led to the development of a hotel and conference center on the Library Lot. We summarized some of that action in our last post of a chain on the subject. For nearly two years we had reported on the saga of efforts (originally secret) to install a hotel and conference center as proposed by the Valiant development group atop the new underground parking garage built next to the downtown Ann Arbor District Library. The posts and other important documents are listed on our Library Lot Conference Center page.
The effort to impose this plan on the citizens of Ann Arbor led to a remarkable uprising of civic fervor. Its defeat felt like a victory. But of course that wasn’t the end of the story. The forces that were behind the idea of a hotel and conference center are still with us. Now it appears that the concept is about to be brought forward again.
On the same night that Council laid the Valiant proposal to rest, it also passed a resolution directing the Downtown Development Authority to take charge of planning for the disposition of city-owned lots downtown. This launched what became the DDA’s Connecting William Street process.
I thought that Councilmember Sabra Briere did a good job of putting the history of all this into perspective in her recent constituent newsletter. Here is some of what she said:
Over a year ago the Council passed two resolutions. The first one had to do with ending the RFP process for the Library Lot. This resolution included a statement that any future planning for the library lot would include a ‘robust public process.’ The second resolution requested that the DDA ‘facilitate the process of redeveloping’ five city-owned parcels. This second resolution outlines a process that the DDA proposed to attempt a consensus on the development potential for each site. But the final resolution didn’t call for a robust public process, and the Council didn’t question the process outlined in the resolution. That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a public process, but it does mean that some of us have been dissatisfied with the way that process was conducted.
Amen to that, Sabra. Not that the DDA hasn’t been working very hard at their task. They appointed a special committee to review options. The proceedings have duly been documented at their site on Connecting William Street. They have conducted a survey and a number of public interaction events. They employed a consultant (actually, a couple of them). Here is the overview provided by AnnArbor.com. But there are some major disconnects with their approach and the “robust public process” that was initially promised. They have to do with the “the scorpion and the frog” relationship of the DDA and Ann Arbor residents. The DDA board is composed of people whose primary interest is in developing the downtown to a maximum density and real estate value. Residents often want a downtown that serves their needs, and consider that publicly owned lots should have a public purpose. (The group, Public Land – Public Purpose, formed in response to the Valiant proposal, stated the point succinctly.) These two goals are at odds. This has been especially evident in the resistance of the DDA to the idea of a downtown park or open space. (Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem was an early post with an admittedly snarky tone on that subject.) In the meantime, a group (the Library Green Conservancy) has been advocating forcefully for open space, indeed, a “central park” in the downtown, on the Library Lot. At DDA Partnership Committee meetings, the idea of a hotel on the Library Lot has resurfaced. This is presumably supported by the Lodging_Analysis conducted by their consultant. (This document appeared on the Connecting William Street web page at one time but has since been removed.)
Here is some more reflection from CM Sabra Briere’s newsletter:
One of the significant conflicts is about ‘density.’ For some, density is a catch phrase that indicates new construction in order to facilitate more folks living downtown. This increase in the number of people living downtown has been something the City and its residents have talked about for decades. At first, people talked about loft apartments. Then, they built more condominiums. Most recently, the increase in new residents has been due entirely to new student highrises – there are now nearly 5000 people living in downtown Ann Arbor, which is a pretty significant number in the last decade – nearly 2000 more – than there were in 2000. All of these new residential units are supposed to help provide the means for local businesses to remain open while making the street scene more active and the cultural life more varied.
But most of us don’t really want our downtown defined by student use. That’s one of the messages I’ve heard in the meetings on Connecting William Street. We want a downtown that’s a magnet for children and seniors, with places for folks to sit and read their – I almost wrote newspaper – electronic device, buy a pair of shoes, have lunch, sit and watch the world go by, drink our coffee and go to a meeting or a lecture. We want a downtown that holds events and activities we might want to attend; that we might want to show our guests, that we might want to brag about.
And for some, that means a respite from density – an offset, as it were, that’s cool and green and calm and refreshing. Something that sounds like a park.
Now the issue (0f how we dispose of downtown parcels) is coming to a potential decision point. The DDA is poised to present the Connecting William Street plan to a working session of the Council on January 14.
Note that the DDA has two public events scheduled before that:
• Wednesday, December 19th, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the Downtown Library (343 S. Fifth Ave) in the Multi-Purpose Room
• Thursday, January 3rd, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the DDA office (150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301)
There will be much to discuss, and a need for citizens to come to attention on this subject.