Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

City Council: Zaragon Place Continued

4. June 2007 • Juliew
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Monday, June 4 at 7:00 pm. Ann Arbor City Hall
City Council Agenda


  • Zaragon Place Site Plan and Development Agreement, 619 East University Avenue (a ten-story, 99,982-square foot mixed use building, consisting of 66 dwelling units, ground floor retail space, and 40 underground parking spaces.)
  • Malletts View Office Center PUD Site Plan and Development Agreement, 385 East Eisenhower Parkway (this proposal includes the sale of a parcel of city-owned land)
  • An Ordinance to Amend Sections of the city code to Provide Dog Play Areas in City Parks
  • Resolution to Approve a Professional Services Contract with Beckett & Raeder, Inc. in the Amount of $99,440.00 for the Farmers Market Renovation and Expansion per RFP No. 652, Establish a Total Project Budget of $109,384.00,

A local resident notified me the other day that someone (not CTN) is posting City Council meetings and some planning and historic district meetings on Google Video. This is great! Here is the link.

  1. Hopefully, the updated plan for Zaragon Place will show they have added windows to all the bedrooms, but I’m not holding my breath. They are no longer tossing about the “LEED” word since the Planning Commission was truly unimpressed with their sustainable and environmental building concepts. As the minutes reflected: “The petitioner has noted there are no minimum energy efficiency requirements in the Zoning Ordinance. However, they have indicated that sustainable design strategies will be utilized wherever economically feasible to minimize energy consumption.” Tierra Place it isn’t!

       —Juliew    Jun. 4 '07 - 07:38PM    #
  2. Wait a second — the way Easthope just spit out “blahggers” on DS-21 (city-owned property) I’m not sure we can take that as a shout out.

       —Dale    Jun. 5 '07 - 06:15AM    #
  3. Yeah, I’m taking notes. Council is in rare form tonight. I think there was something in their A2H20 (Resolution DC-1).

       —Juliew    Jun. 5 '07 - 06:52AM    #
  4. Wow, my old 4th Ward reps are catching a taste of HRP-era governance:

    “Whereas, Buying bottled water reinforces the view that water is a commodity to be privatized and sold for profit, instead of the principle that water is a public resource- a common good;”


    But what about DS-21 earned a slur on the good folks of the online community? I wasn’t watching – any context? (Mayhaps when it appears on google video…)

       —Murph.    Jun. 5 '07 - 03:51PM    #
  5. OK, I’ll bite. What is DS-21? The posted agenda stops at DS-20.

       —David Cahill    Jun. 5 '07 - 05:10PM    #
  6. “The posted agenda stops at DS-20”

    I’m not sure which posting of the agenda you mean, but if there was a standard posting that did not include the item prompting Easthope’s comment, that’s somewhat ironic, given the context of the remark.

    CM Easthope was responding to CM Kunselman’s suggestion that the item in question be broken apart into (1) the sale of an easement (2) revocation of an old City Council resolution requiring the proceeds from the sale of City-owned property to go into the affordable housing fund.

    CM Kunselman’s point was that a major policy change deserved the kind of discussion and public notice associated with its own agenda item. Greden felt that the fact that the resolution revocation was included in the title made it clear that Council wasn’t trying to hide anything. And CM Greden also pointed out that the discussion was being carried out on live TV. Higgens countered that the resolution revocation was not a part of the item’s title in the agenda posted on the website—it was just the property sale. [And it’s worth noting that the CTN subtitle indicating the topic of discussion included just the property sale]

    So CM Easthope’s reference to bloggers was to bolster the contention that this business was being conducted in the light of day: bloggers will be watching and commenting, so it’s not light we’re trying to slip this through unnoticed. While CM Easthope did give the word ‘bloggers’ an little extra English, I thought it was consistent with straightup emphasis as opposed to disparagement. The spirit of the exchange is reflected in CM Easthope’s comment to CM Higgins: “I know. You’re the Queen of Process.” [I think in response to CM Higgins’ own claim off mic that she was the Queen of Process] Which was eventually followed by CM Higgins’ “I hope that one day, Chris, you will be known as the King of Process.” That part of it, I saw as light-hearted pokes in the ribs.

    What wasn’t light-hearted was the tone of CM Easthope’s objection to what he felt was CM Kunselman’s unfounded insinuation that something devious and untoward was going on.

    In the end, CM Kunselman’s effort to separate out the items failed, but had support from CM’s Higgens, Suarez, Johnson. There may have been another voice in favor as well.

       —HD    Jun. 5 '07 - 06:39PM    #
  7. Damn, Dave, you’ve got great notes. 21 wasn’t on the printed agenda because it was added at the last minute. (Council, in fact voted to approve the agenda, then CM Woods objected because 21 [I think that was the one; my notes aren’t as thorough as HD’s] hadn’t been distributed, so they voted again once everyone had looked at it.

    This was a fun one to watch as there were a number of haphazard moves that exacerbated differences on the parts of councilmembers so there was more debate than usual.

       —Dale    Jun. 5 '07 - 07:07PM    #
  8. A correction to Dale’s statement in #7. DS-21, the item that provoked the conversation, was on the agenda when I looked on Friday. It was another resolution that was added late and it was CM Higgins that referenced it. It was about the state budget cuts and how they were driving cities to ruin.

    Seemed to me like Kunselman was showboating on DS-21. I thought it was easy to follow. It seemed appropriate to bring it up the first time they are selling land in many years. They have some big sales coming up, the old YMCA for example. When they sell that they will need to use the proceeds to pay off the loan.

    The old resolution passed back in 1998 said that all proceeds must go into the affordable housing trust fund but obviously they can’t do that with the Y for instance so they changed it to be on a case by case basis. Last night they put the proceeds into the trust fund, $27,000(?).

    Back in 1998 the council did not face a melt down in the state budget, they had money to spare so it was a different atmosphere. They also did not have another mechanism to put funds into the trust fund, now they do.

    Everybody agreed with the new policy and voted for it in the end.

    Zaragon Place seemed more interesting. In the case of this big building the neighbors were all for it and there was nobody there to speak against it. In the end the state housing policy trumped the city code and everybody had to vote for it even those who seemed to have problem with it.

    The weirdest conversation was about the A2-H2O resolution. Looked like no one knew where Higgins was coming from. The purpose was to advocate keeping Great Lakes water in the basin and that was clear. Nor sure what she wanted.

       —LauraB    Jun. 5 '07 - 09:37PM    #
  9. Broadway Village, the eterniproject, reared its ugly head at last night’s Council meeting.

    That morning there had been a special meeting of the Washtenaw County Brownfield Authority (WCBRA) about the project. The reason for the meeting was to correct a minor problem in the tax documentation.

    Kevin McGraw, one of the developers, was there, and reported a new problem with the cleanup. They have been injecting potassium permanganate to remove the original pollution caused by the dry cleaners. However, the permanganate has solubilized copper, selenium and chrome from the soil, which creates a completely new pollution problem. The groundwater is moving toward the creek at 340 feet per year. McGraw said they were not happy because they were not liable under state law for the original contamination. But now, he said, with the metal extraction problem they actually are acquiring liability for a pollutant.

    Jessica Eisenman, the county’s brownfield staff person, said the DEQ was “scared” about this situation.

    I did not attend this meeting. I forwarded notes taken at the meeting to Council member Ron Suarez (D-First Ward). At the Council meeting, when an uncontroversial agenda item about the developer paying for a bond lawyer came up, Suarez said he had received some material from a constituent about the WCBRA meeting. Matt Naud, the city’s environmental person, said the meeting involved sending a corrective letter to the state about the tax documentation.

    Suarez then asked about the permanganate. Surprisingly, Stephen Rapundalo (D-Second Ward), cut Suarez off by making a point of order saying Suarez’ question was “off topic!”

    So Suarez did not get his question answered.

       —David Cahill    Jun. 5 '07 - 09:43PM    #
  10. Rapundalo’s point of order was the following: that Suarez was asking if the city should be paying for legal services when there might be some doubt about the project based on info Suarez didn’t quite understand, passed along by someone who might have been there (RS wasn’t), when the city wasn’t in fact paying for the services and it was a developer passthrough. Hieftje (or, as he was hilariously called last night, “Hefty”) suggested Suarez get some more info and bring it up at caucus so everyone could talk about it when it wasn’t related to the agenda at hand and there could be more discussion.

    Third-hand, unconfirmed concerns invoking fear and catastrophe regarding Broadway Village? I never would have seen Dave Cahill’s involvement in this.

       —Dale    Jun. 5 '07 - 09:58PM    #
  11. DS-21 was on the agenda but not after DS-20 so I understand why Dave missed it. It was instead just before DB-3, the Malletts View Site Plan because the property sale was related to that development.

    The old agenda’s made a lot more sense…

    “Mayor Hefty” is what Tom Partridge (?) the guy who speaks 3 or 4 times at every meeting says every time he speaks to “the city, the county, the state and the nation.” He makes almost the same statements nearly every meeting of the county commission.

       —LauraB    Jun. 5 '07 - 10:19PM    #
  12. Yes, his “spirit of the sixties” bit is quite renowned in this household.

       —Dale    Jun. 5 '07 - 10:31PM    #
  13. My impressions of the meeting last night.

    Interesting note: Council/Mayor/City didn’t know anything about the proposed speed limit increases on local roads so Resolution DC-5 was put together to require the state to notify the City prior to doing any sort of speed limit increase on city streets. Woods said she thought the speed limit increase was “asinine” and other Council members and the Mayor agreed wholeheartedly. The resolution passed unanimously.

    Zaragon Place. In general, Council liked the look of the building, but didn’t like the lack of retail and the design of the apartments. State standards supersede City codes so no matter how much we hate it or how much it goes against local codes, nothing the City can do about it. Johnson said Michigan Building Codes are considered to be some of the worst in the country. He is going to work on a resolution so the City building codes can supersede State codes if they are more stringent (things like a window in every bedroom which is part of the local code). He made a very interesting comment that having more student housing on South U isn’t going to do anything for the retail because the students are already in this area but aren’t shopping on South U because they are shopping on State Street, which is prettier and has sites big enough for “anchor” stores (Borders, Urban Outfitters, Steve and Barrys, and American Apparel). He did say he would be much more supportive of Zaragon Place if it had a big enough retail space for “anchor” retail. I found the take on the novelty of business owners as “neighbors” very odd. Of course they are neighbors—this shouldn’t be a new thing to Council. Lowenstein’s impassioned plea that Council always does what the neighbors want just annoyed me personally because she certainly didn’t support the neighbors at all on the 828 Greene issue. One way or the other, but you can’t say you “always” support the neighbors because that is a lie.

    The A2H2O thing was funny because the A2H2O bottles are one of Hieftje’s favorite things (I think it is a great idea) and Higgins and Teall were just slamming on them (yes, plastic bottles are bad, but that isn’t what they really wanted to say). I think the resolution was poorly conceived and executed, although the cause was good. All the Council members got a little feisty after this discussion.

    My favorite part of the meeting though was where every Council member blanched at the idea of Planning Commission having any further say in the disposition of the $40,000 parks contribution from Zaragon Place(as had been originally placed in the agreement) and with much indignation and sputtering, immediately gave the power to distribute the funds to the Council. Bad Planning Commission: how dare you think you can have some say in this city! Seems to me that City Council should not spend their time micromanaging the distribution of parks contribution funds. Don’t we have City Staff who is well versed in exactly this sort of thing? Or how about the Parks Committee? Or how about, say, the Planning Commission. Or the Downtown Advisory Committee? I think City Council is the least reasonable place to put this. Get over yourselves people. Try updating some ordinances rather than fritter about on this sort of thing.

       —Juliew    Jun. 6 '07 - 02:59AM    #
  14. Julie — I had the exact same reaction to the Zaragon parks/South U Assoc. money. Yeah, put it in the hands of council and watch a well-considered idea get delayed and crushed into oblivion.

    What was funny about A2H20 was how the Mayor responded (twice) how difficult it would be to offer water at events with all the sterilization big water dispensers would require. Then Higgins noted that A2H20 costs the city $.50 a bottle and, IIRC, there are 20-30,000 bottles out there a year for such purposes.

    Maybe we could just up the Mayor’s pay some more to have him “ding” an A2 water glass at public events for the promotional effect.

    Julie, I think Kunselman led the charge on most of those Zaragon Place concerns on retail, rather than Johnson, who emphasized the building code. Easthope, in my opinion, got off the line of the night when he said “If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say ‘I support downtown density’ but not with this project, I could retire,’” though I think it’s true in Kunselman’s case.

       —Dale    Jun. 6 '07 - 05:23AM    #
  15. I am the person who went to the WCBRA special meeting to find out what was going on, at the suggestion of David Cahill. David and I worked on this project when I was on the Board of Commissioners (I opposed it), I subsequently wrote some articles about it, and I had not been following it for the last year. I attended, not as an advocate (or David’s assignee) but just to find out what was going on. I also took along my city council candidate, Mike Anglin, who is concerned about the city’s investment in this project (the city may or may not be issuing bonds very soon in some amount between $33 and 40 million; Tom Crawford, the CFO , told me via email that the situation is “fluid”; you may be aware that the city staff has been tracking the project assiduously via an expert committee for the last year).

    The following is the text of notes that I sent to several persons, including David Cahill and city staff (none of whom were present at the WCBRA meeting), on Monday, June 4. It was the source used for comment by Ron Suarez. As to Dale’s comment about “unconfirmed” notes, I can only say that I recorded what I heard to the best of my ability, without any preconceptions of what would be said. I assume that minutes of the meeting will be available from WCBRA staff in a week or two. (WCBRA stands for Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, very professionally staffed by county planning personnel, especially Jessica Eisenman.) If any person would like an official transcript or to confirm this information, I suggest that you go to the county website,, to the planning department, and then follow the obvious links.

    The following is verbatim what I sent out earlier to several individuals.

    Notes from the special WCBRA meeting of June 4, 2007

    Please note: I cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of these notes. There was no written material supplied and the group was referring to emails they had received earlier.

    The purpose of the meeting was evidently to decide whether the authority would send a letter to MEGA. It was never stated explicitly what the letter would say, but it seemed to be that the authority would recognize and correct an apparent discrepancy between the text and tables in the county brownfield plan. While the table indicated that about $96 million in taxes can be captured, the text states that the amount to cover approved activities is $40 million. The difference, according to an old memo I found in my files, is the interest payable on the $40 million. Evidently the authority was being asked to validate the $96 million figure.

    It appeared from what was said that this letter was necessary in order to get MEGA to take some step necessary for full authorization of the project. It may have had to do with the funds available from the state to reimburse school taxes and SBT. The authority voted unanimously to send the letter (at least one person, Jeff Irwin, was absent). It was unclear whether MEGA raised the question about a possible BF plan amendment or someone else. (nb this would have to go through both city council and county board again) but the letter was evidently a stop-gap measure, at least. Some comment about maybe an amendment will be offered later.

    Other interesting information was supplied by the Strathmore representative, Kevin McGraw. In no particular order:

    · The city imposed a 75% pre-lease requirement. If construction doesn’t start soon, they will begin losing their lessees.
    · Key Bank is putting pressure on them. It has formed a syndicate of banks to front the estimated $120 million needed to complete the project, of which Key will only fund $30 million. Thus “we have to get this done” (referring to the MEGA action?).
    · They need bonds issued by the city by July or August in order to begin construction.
    · Because of the city’s conservative appraisals, the bonding amount is now only $33.2 million, but this must be increased.
    · They (the developers) had originally meant to put in about $4 million but their investment is now up to $28 million.
    · MEGA would increase the school tax capture, on approval by WCBRA.
    · The DEQ/MEGA grant/loan of $700/300 thousand will expire at the end of the year
    · MEGA’s involvement expires in 4 years
    · Big problems with the cleanup. They have been injecting potassium permanganate to remove the PCE (perc). However this has solubilized copper, selenium and chrome from the soil, which creates a completely new pollution problem. Further, the groundwater is moving toward the creek at 340 feet per year.
    · DEQ is unhappy with this state of affairs. (Jessica Eisenman said DEQ was “scared”.) They and the city’s consultant (EarthTech?) (working on the Ashley contamination site) recommend a “permeable reactive barrier” which would insert filters to retain the pollutants, that would then have to be changed out every few years.
    · Gretchen McKernan, the developer’s consultant, said that they (would?had?) installed a slurry wall around the parking structure, but this had actually drawn groundwater toward the creek. (Not sure whether this is a predicted or observed phenomenon.)
    · The developer is unhappy because they were not liable under state law for the perc contamination. (If they had not gone for brownfield funds), they could legally have just paved over the area and left it alone. Now with the metal extraction problem they actually are acquiring liability for a pollutant.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Jun. 6 '07 - 05:29AM    #
  16. I like Julie’s assessment of the council meeting. (Bob Johnson is a wise member of council. I hope he is running again.) It seems like long term he has been close with the mayor who made the argument that downtown is really another neighborhood, just like a residential area.

    As to the A2H20 hassle, this was all about not shipping water out of the great lakes basin. If Higgins wants to do away with the plastic bottles for city events she would have to figure in the cost and the environmental impact of preparing big containers as Dale notes, plus the paper cups. Suarze chimed in with the fact that people would just bring their own plastic bottles so why not have excellent city water?

    As for the money for parks, why not let the planning commission decide? I don’t know about this, the council may be right in reserving this power. The planning commission is not an elected body but then I guess I could go either way.

       —LauraB    Jun. 6 '07 - 06:38AM    #
  17. I’ll take the opposite view and ask why the Planning Commission should be deciding where the parks contribution should be spent? I doubt they have the authority to make such a decision and doesn’t the city have a Parks Commission that would be better informed on the needs and priorities when it comes to parks? It sounds like it was a carrot offered by the developer to entice the Commission to approve the project. IIRC, the Commission has a CIP plan that includes parks improvements. The PC should have identified a project or projects from that plan to be completed with that money as part of the approval. By reserving a pot of cash to be doled out for who-knows-what, the PC looks a like they confused their role as a reviewing body with the political body that already exists at City Council.

       —John Q.    Jun. 6 '07 - 08:19AM    #
  18. John Q, your argument makes sense if this donation was indeed a “parks” donation. However, in this case, the developer refused to do a parks donation on the grounds that there were no parks nearby and they shouldn’t have to fund anything that wouldn’t directly help their residents. So their original solution was to buy a $40,000 statue to go into their courtyard and call that a “public donation.” Planning Commission rightly declined that offer but suggested the developer work with City Staff to come up with an alternate plan. When the issue was brought back before the Commission, staff and the developer had worked out that the $40,000 donation could go to the South University Area Association for public amenities (benches, street trees, landscaping, that sort of thing). This was acceptable to the Planning Commission on the condition that the money had to be used for public good. In other words, the Merchants couldn’t use it for advertising or infrastructure or things that were not directly related to a public amenity. In order to insure that the money was used appropriately by the South U Area Association and the developer (neither of which seemed entirely trusworthy), Planning Commission added the part about having to approve the proposed uses. So although you could say it was a Planning issue, it is actually more reasonable to just make it a Staff decision. It isn’t something that City Council needs to look at (they don’t normally oversee these donations).

       —Juliew    Jun. 6 '07 - 05:29PM    #
  19. The Google Video of Monday’s Council Meeting is now available. The “blahggers” comment is at 3:03:30.

       —Juliew    Jun. 7 '07 - 02:49AM    #
  20. Bob Johnson (D-First Ward) is not running for re-election, according to a Democratic Party e-mail I just got. His retirement is a major loss to the City.

    The e-mail says that there will be a special meeting of First Ward Democrats at noon this Saturday, June 9, at the Community Center, 625 N. Main, to discuss the First Ward opening. Interested candidates will have a chance to make pitches for support.

    The filing deadline for nominating petitions is June 25. The primary is August 7.

       —David Cahill    Jun. 7 '07 - 05:20PM    #
  21. Can we get Todd Leopold to move to the 1st ward?

       —Dale    Jun. 7 '07 - 06:27PM    #
  22. Wendy Woods (D-Fifth Ward) already has one primary opponent: Mike Anglin, who filed his petitions with the City Clerk this morning.

       —David Cahill    Jun. 7 '07 - 10:57PM    #
  23. Having spent time with a number of other communities’ zoning ordinances and development procedures, I’m even more convinced that Ann Arbor’s Council reviews too many site plans. You’ve got a planning commission: use them. Don’t like the decisions they make? Appoint different people.

    In most communities, the Council (or Township Board) will handle rezonings, because those are ordinances, and PUDs, but the majority of site plans come out of Planning Commission with either an approval, an approval-with-conditions/changes, or a denial, and that’s that.

    This whole deal with City Council coming in and overturning the table at the end of the process is a waste of everybody’s time. As Todd has repeatedly said, both the uncertainty and the time consumed in the process lead to poor development (why try anything creative if you’re just going to end up redesigning it expensively?) and sprawl (because the Townships are easier to deal with).

    In Ypsilanti, most site plans and special uses get an approve, or approve-with-conditions, on their first trip through Planning Commission. (The bad proposals are generally weeded out/discouraged by staff, so the PC mostly sees approvable plans.) As a result, a developer can literally submit plans and have an approval a month later, if they’ve got a decent design.

       —Murph.    Jun. 8 '07 - 01:52AM    #
  24. The story I heard was that the approval process used to stop with the planning commission but some time back (70’s?) a final step was put in, council approval of developments. One last chance for people to waylay a project. Sometimes though, as with Zaragon, the council overrules the planning commission and a development is approved so I guess it can go both ways. Although, if council had not been legally required to approve it because it met the zoning, it could have gone down unless big changes were made.

    Maybe the people demanded it, I don’t know all the history but I have never heard of anywhere in Michigan where the people are harder on developments than A2. Seems like there are very few developments that do not have opposition but it also seems like this group of council members sorts it out fairly well.

    Ypsilanti is a completely different dynamic.

       —LauraB    Jun. 8 '07 - 08:29AM    #
  25. “I have never heard of anywhere in Michigan where the people are harder on developments than A2.”

    Despite the fact that many of the people are only concerned when it happens in their backyard, in the long run, the community is better off by having an engaged citizenry who are willing to speak out about development. In too many communities, residents are oblivious or are left in the dark about development and how it impacts their community until it’s too late to do anything about it. Ann Arbor doesn’t always get it right but in many areas, I would say it is getting right more often than many other communities.

       —John Q.    Jun. 8 '07 - 09:23AM    #
  26. Unless you’re interested in affordability.

       —Dale    Jun. 8 '07 - 05:43PM    #
  27. We’ve gone over this ground before, haven’t we? I don’t think Ann Arbor is any more unaffordable than Birmingham or Grosse Pointe and one can live in Ann Arbor and not have to rely on a car which we all know is a huge hidden cost to living in 90% of the US. Nor is it cheap to live in places like Troy or Macomb Township even though they’ve allowed just about anything to be built.

       —John Q.    Jun. 8 '07 - 05:53PM    #
  28. The median rent in Grosse Pointe is $863. The median renter income is $67K. I’d say that’s a lot more affordable than Ann Arbor.

       —ann arbor is overrated    Jun. 8 '07 - 06:19PM    #
  29. Would an engaged citizenry be unable to give input on projects if they were decided at the PC level? I submit they would, but the PC would be more insulated from stupid neighborhood politics. Having multiple levels of input and obstruction in the development process not only adds cost to business, it is incredibly inefficient for government. TEN YEARS and still no dog park, John — is this acceptable to you? This is the LEAST CONTROVERSIAL issue since the city’s renowned “the sky is blue” resolution back in the 70s. How much is that in staff time and city cost — $25,000? More? For something that could have been done in 6 months. That’s a DOG PARK, a development that CITIZENS are promoting.

    If I had more time to do housing research, I would start a project evaluating the cost of public input (economist Edward Glaeser is already working on this). Maybe the owner of Cake Nouveau would like to chime in on their rehab/CofO process — how long did it take them to open and how much money did they lose in the process?

    Ann Arbor is doing OK. It has a few more amenities than some other communities but they cost a whole lot more.

       —Dale    Jun. 8 '07 - 07:49PM    #
  30. John Q. – Come on. Are you seriously offering, “we’re more affordable than Grosse Pointe and Birmingham,” as an argument that Ann Arbor has no affordability issues? I’ve come to expect far better counterpoints from you.

    OTOH, relevant to AAIO’s response, the fact that GPF’s median renter income is so much higher than Ann Arbor’s (which I don’t have a number for onhand?) is some indication that Ann Arbor is “affordable” in the sense that “lower income households can – empirically – live in A2 despite higher housing costs. As you note, transportation costs (e.g. access to job costs) are among the offsetting factors.

    That hardly indicates to me, though, that Ann Arbor has no overall affordability issues. (Paging Nancy Shore…)

       —Murph    Jun. 8 '07 - 08:10PM    #
  31. Well, I really wish I had the data for different size apartments in Grosse Pointe. Because the average rent on a 2-bedroom in Washtenaw County is $934. I have no idea what the average size of that $863 rental in Grosse Pointe is, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s at least not much smaller and has far more amenities. And this in a town that is well-enough-known for not being affordable that a whole John Cusack movie could be based on its ritziness.

       —ann arbor is overrated    Jun. 8 '07 - 08:16PM    #
  32. Okay, the data I posted before was actually for Grosse Pointe Farms. According to, the average rent in Ann Arbor is $891 and the average rent in Grosse Pointe is $845.

       —ann arbor is overrated    Jun. 8 '07 - 08:30PM    #
  33. The income figures for A2 are way off if you are going to use them as compared to rents. Students show up in a very low income bracket but we all know that many of them can and will pay mega-bucks for rent because the money comes from home, wherever that is. Student’s relative affluence drives up rents.

    A2 is a highly desirable place to live, it continues to win awards for quality of life. In a high demand city, (current market conditions aside) people tend to snap up homes (purchase) and apartments ASAP. They often pay over the asking price just to get the house. Does anyone know of another high demand city where they have solved the AH problem? Would it work in Michigan?

    I seems like A2 has affordable housing programs and they have met with some success for those in the lower income brackets but even that comes very hard. Except for PUD’s I don’t think there is a way in Michigan to mandate A.H.

    The relatively new payment in “liew” system holds promise to bring more dollars forward. If the Historic District board ever allow Glen-Ann apartments to go forward, something well over a millon would go into the trust fund. Do that a few times and there begins to be some real money.

    I thought I read about an new affordable housing development coming to the city council soon.

       —LauraB    Jun. 8 '07 - 11:52PM    #
  34. I don’t think there is a way in Michigan to mandate A.H.

    What we have done is mandated a lack of affordable housing by allowing neighborhoods to block new buildings, accessory dwellings and any zoning changes that would accommodate renters. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “mandating” affordable housing as if the current situation is a result of an unregulated market. It’s not.

       —ann arbor is overrated    Jun. 9 '07 - 12:05AM    #
  35. ‘Are you seriously offering, “we’re more affordable than Grosse Pointe and Birmingham,” as an argument that Ann Arbor has no affordability issues?’

    I don’t recall that I said that Ann Arbor has “no affordability issues”. But let’s stay on the topic. How many other cities are making any effort to address the issue of affordability? Head on up to Troy and ask about their affordable housing programs. Or back to Grosse Pointe. What are any of the GPs (you can pick from any of the 5) doing to make housing more affordable? Ann Arbor, for all of its “overrated” qualities, is at least making some effort to address AH issues.

    As for the debate on whether A2 mandates a lack of affordable housing, we’ve been over that ground before. I’m still not convinced that if all of the measures that others have argued for were in place that we would see any appreciable differences in housing prices. When a city becomes a desirable place to live, rental rates and housing prices reflect that.

    So that we’re not rehashing old arguments, I’ll put this challenge out to AAIO and others – name a desirable city or location that has grown its way out of the overpriced housing market through higher density, granny flats, zoning changes, etc. I’m open to being convinced. Provide the numbers and examples and I’ll look at them.

       —John Q.    Jun. 9 '07 - 01:28AM    #
  36. Would an engaged citizenry be unable to give input on projects if they were decided at the PC level? I submit they would, but the PC would be more insulated from stupid neighborhood politics. Having multiple levels of input and obstruction in the development process not only adds cost to business, it is incredibly inefficient for government.

    What we have done is mandated a lack of affordable housing by allowing neighborhoods to block new buildings, accessory dwellings and any zoning changes that would accommodate renters.

    I think these are oversimplifications of a very complicated process. It is an easy thing to blame housing costs on neighborhood politics, but every neighborhood is different and I would say that Planning and Council have stupider political games. In our neighborhood with the 828 Greene Street project, we were arguing against the new development because it would be more expensive and provide a particular sort of non-flexible housing. And gee, guess what? The housing it provides is a) more expensive than what was there or surrounding houses and apartments and b) less flexible, which means it is c) not rented. I was speaking with a few Council people about the fact that it has not rented up and they said “who would have thought student housing in that neighborhood wouldn’t rent?” Um, everyone who lives there? We told you that, but you all said “you just don’t want students in your neighborhood.” Actually, lots of people would love to have students in our neighborhood, but the students don’t want to be there. You want a four to six-bedroom house or apartment? I can point you to several in my neighborhood that are not rented up for the summer and have no prospects for the fall. They used to be single-family 2 to 3-bedroom places that were owner-occupied or always fully rented, but now are expensive 4-6 bedroom places that are empty. Great. Good job everyone, that density thing has really helped out a neighborhood and a community.

    The houses that are student houses now used to be affordable “single-family” houses (some rental, several duplexes, some owner-occupied), but by being billed as “student houses” rather than just “houses,” their sale prices doubled. In this market that now prices them out of the low-end home-owner market and also is now pricing them out of the rental market. It is making more sense for owners to take these houses as losses than it is to rent them at a reduced rate. What happens now? I wish I knew because it really stinks to see houses sit empty whose owners can’t afford to sell or can’t sell but no one can afford to rent either. Granted, a lot of the blame for these goes to over-eager out of town landlords who think they can make the big bucks by buying a house in Ann Arbor and renting it out to rich Ann Arbor students. But students are neither as dumb nor as rich as people think. So affordable housing is lost in neighborhoods that are right for it and we try to create affordable housing in new developments, which rarely works and is the most expensive way to have affordable housing. Are more housing units really better? It depends on where they are, how they are built, how they work in their context. I think we could do a much better job with affordable housing than we do. How about instead of building new “affordable” housing, we work with existing empty houses and apartments to update them, maintain them, and provide housing at certain percentages of income. This would be more cost-effective than building new and would take some of that burden away from the new construction.

    Now I totally agree that having multiple levels of input and obstruction in the development process adds cost and I think the development process in Ann Arbor is horrible. However, I don’t agree that taking the neighborhoods out of it is the answer. Take Council out of it. That is where the real costs come in. Do what Boulder does now and get neighborhood input prior to any project planning. Then you can actually have real input at the conceptual level, not just lots of objections, and projects can be made better. Yes, everyone will have to compromise, but the end result will be better for it. Why on earth would you want to build something no one likes? What point is there in that? It doesn’t bode well for a project. What happens now in Ann Arbor is that we get really crappy project proposals, the neighbors object (often appropriately) to the crappy project, the Planning Commission says the project is crappy and votes it down, then Council says the project is crappy but there isn’t anything that can be done about it, a crappy project gets built, and then doesn’t sell or rent. Yippee. Upland Green, Liberty Lofts, Tierra Place, are all buildings whose neighbors supported them and they are good projects. Not everything gets shot down, but most of the projects that come up are not good projects. They are designed and built solely to make money for the owner and most of the time they don’t even do that. So lets figure out how to make this better. I think design guidelines are a good start. Not to make everything look alike, but to use design guidelines to incorporate some community values into the building process—green buildings, pedestrian-friendliness, some nod to the design norms of a particular neighborhood (and every neighborhood is different). I think we need to involve stakeholders at a more appropriate time—not give them three minutes a year into the process. And we certainly need to get rid of either the Planning Commission or the Council approval of every project because that double process isn’t getting us good projects, it is getting us bad projects and people should object to bad projects.

       —Juliew    Jun. 9 '07 - 01:49AM    #
  37. Good comments Juliew. I initially passed on Dale’s statement that:

    “Having multiple levels of input and obstruction in the development process not only adds cost to business, it is incredibly inefficient for government.”

    but following up, it reeks of an incredible amount of arrogance that views the public (and taxpayers) as something to be tolerated (if forced to) but entirely unnecessary to the process. Government doesn’t exist in some vacuum, it’s there to serve and represent the residents. When it stops doing so and places efficiency and the needs of the development community over the entire community, it’s time for a major housecleaning.

    Perhaps that’s not what you meant. Perhaps you meant those comments as Juliew did to mean that having PC and Council approval is unnecessary if there’s a process for the neighborhood to have input on the front-end. I could agree with that in most cases. With well-written ordinances, a good commission, and avenues for resident feedback, there’s no reason that the PC couldn’t be the final call on more of those decisions.

    But if your comments were directed at the public’s input, the amount of disdain that you display for residents is chilling. I would have that you are too young to have become so cynical, so quickly. I’ve seen city planners who have the attitude that the public is a nuisance to be tolerated and one wonders why they waste their time in a public service position when there are plenty of developers who will pay them more for such cynicism.

       —John Q.    Jun. 9 '07 - 02:52AM    #
  38. John Q, I think you’re taking an inclarity in Dale’s statement as an opportunity for an unnecessary attack. I read Dale’s statement as,

    Would an engaged citizenry be unable to give input on projects if they were decided at the PC level? I submit they would [be able to have input], but the PC would be more insulated from stupid neighborhood politics.

    So let’s attack his unclear writing, not his non-existent citizen-hating.

    I also think Juliew’s leaving out the case where PC approves of a project and then Council shoots it down – it’s not as if PC is barring the gates and Council’s rubber-stamping everything.

    In either case, I think the step of Council direct consideration could/should probably be dispensed of. PC typically goes through much more in-depth considerations of the projects; Council should set the framework and let the PC put projects through the wringer and see how they come out.

    Which isn’t to say that the current situation would be perfect if only Council removed themselves from the process. A pre-proposal meeting with neighbors could very well be built into the process. Off the top of my head: require the developer to set a meeting date and mail invitations to all residents within 300 feet of the project site, perhaps with a City planning staff member in attendance to answer factual questions about regulations. Meeting must take place before formal application. (And a smart developer would do this at the conceptual phase, a few months before formal application, so that they haven’t sunk money into all the details already.) Some developers will quit entirely; some will forge ahead despite criticisms, treating the requirement as just a formality – which can be expected to cost them at the PC phase, if the issues are significant; and some will revise to take some of the concerns into consideration.

    I think Upland Green was a good case of what this could look like, albeit a little late in the process. The developer brought plans to PC that were flat and had a large front setback. Among the complaints raised at the meeting were (1) the neighbors to the rear of the site thought the buildings were too close to them, and (2) other neighbors thought the buildings should be taller and closer to the street, rather than replicating the suburban crap that fills most of Plymouth Road. (Why, yes, I was one of the neighbors in that meeting…) The developer asked for a chance to revise the plans, the PC tabled, and the developer came back with plans that shifted the bulk of the project towards the front of the site, satisfying both the neighbors to the rear and the urbanist neighbors.

       —Murph.    Jun. 9 '07 - 04:55AM    #
  39. That’s the way I intended it. Also, the counterpart to “multiple levels of delay and obstruction” is “one level of delay and obstruction [or input],” rather than “none.”

       —Dale    Jun. 9 '07 - 06:38AM    #
  40. Here is news from the AA Democratic Party meeting this morning. There was a panel discussion on green energy. Apparently DTE Energy is not making renewable energy a priority. (No surprise there.) The City has joined the Ecology Center in intervening in the pending case before the Public Service Commission to set rates, including rates for renewable energy.

    Mayor Hieftje announced that the City is considering creating its own “electricity authority.” Nothing is definite yet, because the state’s regulations do not encourage formation of new “authorities,” and because applying is staff-intensive.

    Nonetheless, if the City does this, then it can take its own steps to procure renewable energy from various sources. Plus, having our own “authority” would put pressure on DTE Energy to be more reasonable.

       —David Cahill    Jun. 9 '07 - 10:26PM    #
  41. What happens now? I wish I knew because it really stinks to see houses sit empty whose owners can’t afford to sell or can’t sell but no one can afford to rent either.

    That situation won’t last. The rents will, sooner or later, drop to what the market will bear regardless of how much the current owners spent to buy or build the property. That may happen with the current owners giving up the properties to the bank and having them resold at a lower value that will allow lower rents, but it will happen.

       —mw    Jun. 11 '07 - 07:45PM    #
  42. You’ve got a lot of faith in the “market,” mw.

       —Dale    Jun. 11 '07 - 08:51PM    #
  43. You’ve got a lot of faith in the “market,” mw.

    I’ve got faith in financial necessity. People who own buildings can’t afford to let them sit half empty indefinitely. Sure, the owners will try to avoid lowering rents for existing tenants for a while, and may accept a few empty apartments to do that (and try to get new people to move in with ‘first x months free’ deals for new tenants). But existing tenants will see those deals and grab them in other buildings if their current landlords won’t negotiate.

    That seems like a much more sensible view than the idea that the new apartments are somehow inherently more expensive and that, as a result, nobody will live there.

       —mw    Jun. 12 '07 - 04:10AM    #
  44. I see two problems that are related. Property owners and managers are far fewer in number with much better organization and coordination than renters. Thus, I think the owners can and will hold out with vacancies longer than we would anticipate in a competitive market. In addition, renters are on the losing side of a significant information assymetry (not to mention the lack of fluidity in the rental market). There are rather divergent rents all over town and I don’t see a very strong central tendency like you anticipate.

    I do hope you’re right, but I’m pessimistic that we will see anything different from the last 80 years.

       —Dale    Jun. 12 '07 - 09:04PM    #
  45. I’ve got faith in financial necessity. People who own buildings can’t afford to let them sit half empty indefinitely. Sure, the owners will try to avoid lowering rents for existing tenants for a while, and may accept a few empty apartments to do that (and try to get new people to move in with ‘first x months free’ deals for new tenants). But existing tenants will see those deals and grab them in other buildings if their current landlords won’t negotiate.

    The problem with this argument is that it assumes that all landlords are in it for the rent. Turns out that rent is only one of three (probably more) ways of making money on a rental property. It is most likely the prime consideration for an apartment owner and apartments seem to have more cushion built in so those rents are always the first to drop. That is already happening now with “special” deals and lower rents in many apartment complexes. For rental houses though there are a lot of other considerations. Resale is one of the prime ways of making money on rental houses. Buy low, rent it for a while around the break-even point, sell high, and walk away. In my neighborhood, houses that had one or two owners from 1900 to 1990 have had a new owner every few years since 1990 with each owner walking away with $30,000-$40,000 or more per sale. After a few of these sales, rent simply no longer covers the costs of owning the house—even after adding bedrooms up to the maximum. So what happens after the owner decides the rent isn’t enough to cover costs? Well, they might try to raise the rent, but that only goes so far before they price themselves out of the market. So they sell the property and make money that way. That always worked until now. Now houses are starting to depreciate if they sell at all. Which brings us to the third way of making money on a rental property: just take a loss. Sure, most individual people don’t want to take a $2500 loss every month on a house. But if you are a company or you make quite a lot of money, that loss can actually help you make money on your taxes. So yes, there are quite a few people who would rather not rent a house than rent it for a lower amount. Reducing the rent often doesn’t help because you are losing money and having to deal with tenants and wear and tear. Easier to just take the loss.

    That seems like a much more sensible view than the idea that the new apartments are somehow inherently more expensive and that, as a result, nobody will live there.

    New apartments are inherently more expensive because land values are more expensive (especially downtown). When you are buying $250,000 houses as tear-downs (usually more than one in order to get an apartment-sized lot), go through all the development rigmarole of the city, and factor in increased supply and transportation prices, a new apartment building will always be more expensive than an existing one. It is up to the owner how that gets passed on to tenants. Ironically, while people often talk about how much new construction will help lower costs, often the higher rents charged by new units end up raising the rents of all units because it shows how much people are willing to pay.

       —Juliew    Jun. 13 '07 - 12:59AM    #
  46. Ironically, while people often talk about how much new construction will help lower costs, often the higher rents charged by new units end up raising the rents of all units because it shows how much people are willing to pay.

    But that’s in the short run and in nominal terms. If demand is increasing, unless supply increases then price will increase at a greater rate. And rents rarely if ever go down in nominal terms, their growth just slows (and goes down in real terms). Which is a tedious explanation, so it’s why I usually just say what you referred to.

       —Dale    Jun. 13 '07 - 02:46AM    #
  47. To refine Juliew’s point, higher prices for a rental property means decreased leverage for a new owner, but it doesn’t mean decreased revenue. All the prospective owner needs to do is to put down more money down up front or extend the terms of the loan so that the mortgage monthly payments remain about the same. The extreme example would be to buy a property 100% outright. In that case, the costs of the property going forward are the maintenance and property taxes, with the tenant paying the utilities. The return might not be as great as compared to before, but it’s still positive cash flow. Once times get better and the market can bear a higher rent, there is always the option of mortgaging this property to leverage the purchase of additional properties. Rinse and repeat. Of course, this takes capital, patience, and some guts to wait out these cycles.

       —jcp2    Jun. 13 '07 - 05:01AM    #
  48. It appears as though the demolition of the historic Anberay apartment building starts this week. UM’s construction update notes a “lane reduction on East University between South University and Willard streets is scheduled today through October 1 for demolition of a private apartment building. Two-way traffic is expected to be maintained though it will be shifted into the parking lane on the west side of the street. Work will not be scheduled during Move-In or on football Saturdays.”

       —robert s.    Aug. 13 '07 - 06:44PM    #