Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Ann Arbor's new plan for municipal center

11. September 2007 • Josh Steichmann
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Thirty-seven pages of piping-hot planning action right here (pdf— look to google cache once we get spidered for an HTML conversion).

Will it be hideous? Will it be expensive? Only faithful readers with gumption for bureaucratese will know for sure!

  1. This thing looks like a giant air conditioner – a moldy giant air conditioner!

    Plus, the cost is immense.

    Is this the real proposal, or is it a classic developer’s trick: proposing some grotesque thing, and then when people freak out, proposing another plan in the hope that people will say “how reasonable!”? See Tom Gantert’s article in today’s News.

       —David Cahill    Sep. 12 '07 - 01:05AM    #
  2. But you don’t want any building, I assume. Inaction is no solution.

    What is grotesque is how the police are currently housed. It is a shameful situation. The fact that prior Councils did not address this is really sad. This is the only Council that actually has the ability to get something like this done. I am told that there is no way to renovate the current space in the basement into usable space for the police.

    The News never quotes any police who are opposed to the project. I wonder why?

    If there is respect for the police, the building will be designed and built as soon as possible.

    Let’s face the fact that this building is finally going to get built, about 30 years late. The public will have input on the design and it will finally get done.

    The people who oppose it will eventually accept the fact that it had to be done.

       —sometimes reader    Sep. 12 '07 - 02:32AM    #
  3. Sometimes reader, who told you there is no way to renovate the basement space? Why do you believe them?

    Why should we pay for a huge increase in space for the police when the force is shrinking due to layoffs?

       —David Cahill    Sep. 12 '07 - 03:08AM    #
  4. Mr. Cahill: I agree with you that there is a smaller police force than there used to be but I don’t remember any police officers being laid off in Ann Arbor. All of the reductions followed along with attrition.

    It makes sense to me that there are fewer officers for a couple of reasons. The crime rate in A2 continues to go down each year and of course the condition of the state budget and how that affects the city. I heard the head of the Michigan Assoc. of Police Officers on the radio today say that there are now 1500 fewer police officers in Michigan than on 9/11/2001. Unfortunately, from reading the Free Press, I don’t think it is because the crime rate is down in every town as it is in A2.

       —LauraB    Sep. 12 '07 - 04:31AM    #
  5. At first glance, I get the impression that the new building was designed to hide the old one. Looking at the west elevation on page 33, you don’t see any of it. Is the Larcom building hated that much? If so, why not just take it down?

       —Patrick    Sep. 12 '07 - 05:39PM    #
  6. The Ann Arbor News reported that there would be a public meeting about the courts/police building tonight. However, the City website says that meeting has been cancelled due to the “holiday.” My calendar says both Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan start tomorrow (tonight?) so yeah, this would have been a bad night for a meeting. Looks like the Leslie Park Golf Meeting is still on for tonight though.

       —Juliew    Sep. 12 '07 - 06:43PM    #
  7. I agree with David that the design is very unimaginative, it looks like the ugly building it is designed to supersede.

    I agree with Patrick that it’s hard to understand why they are keeping the Larcom building, especially if that is driving the unaesthetic sixties architecture.

    I was distressed to see on p. 10 that evidently they envisage tearing down Tio’s! Now that would be a major loss…

    I love the A2 carving on p. 16 — that’s got to stay in the plans.

    I agree with sometimes reader that it should be a no-brainer to provide the police force with decent space, and to David I say that it’s not realistic to plan to renovate an old basement into a desirable space. Who’d want to be down there? If your organization was offered the chance to be housed in a renovated 50-year-old basement, would you be thrilled?

    It does say something to citizens about the city’s lack of respect for the police force that they are stuck in the current space. Most cities seem to do better on this score than we do, is this really a useful message to be sending?

       —Fred Zimmerman    Sep. 12 '07 - 06:49PM    #
  8. The City is now telling people that the cancelled meeting this evening is back on! Apparently the meeting was cancelled so late that the architects plan to show up anyway.

    The cancellation was in both the electronic and hard copy versions of the AA News.

    This is amazing stumblebummery, especially considering that the City has a public relations czarina.

       —David Cahill    Sep. 13 '07 - 02:22AM    #
  9. The jungle drums are saying that the City Staff calls this new project the “Rog Mahal”.

       —David Cahill    Sep. 14 '07 - 03:45AM    #
  10. I have been told that the design review meeting on this project has been rescheduled for 7:00 p.m. Tuesday, September 25 at City Hall. I have not seen a public announcement of this event yet.

       —David Cahill    Sep. 19 '07 - 06:02PM    #
    by Karen Sidney

    The Ann Arbor City Council majority is rushing to approve a massive new city hall complex. City employees call it the Rog Mahal. Ann Arbor residents have been excluded from the decision process but they will get stuck with the bill, which has risen to over $57 million dollars. This is more than double the amount the the Community Security and Public Space Task Force Report suggested spending.

    There is no way to pay for such an expensive project without squeezing more money out of Ann Arbor residents. That’s because the city has only $8-$9 million set aside for this project, not the $57 million needed. The city will save about $630,000 per year in rent when it moves from the county courthouse and city center building. But the annual operating costs of the new building is estimated to be $334,000. When the additional cost of special court security are added, the total operating costs of the new building will be about the same as the present rental costs. That means the rent savings will not be available for bond payments.

    The direct way to pay for the Rog Mahal is to ask residents to approve a tax increase. That allows voters to decide whether the proposed municipal complex is worth paying higher taxes. City Administrator Roger Fraser and members of Council have refused to consider this option.

    There are also back door tax increases. Instead of a tax to pay for the building, residents can be asked for a tax to restore service cuts made to pay for the building. Suppose the city borrows the $48 to $49 million shortfall. To get $3.5 million per year for the next 30 years of bond payments would require drastic general fund service cuts. For example, $3.5 million could be found by cutting the street tree budget in half, closing all recreational facilities and laying off 20 police officers. Instead of a tax increase to pay for the Rog Mahal, taxpayers would be asked for a tax increase to hire police officers and restore funding for trees and recreational facilities.

    Another type of back door tax increase is to raise fees and divert the additional money to pay for the new building. City staff have already floated the idea of using utility fees to pay for the project by using a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes). The city water and sewer funds would pay “taxes” to the city, which would be used for Rog Mahal bond payments. Utility rates would be raised to cover the increased cost of operating the utilities. Another option is to increase the rent the city charges the DDA for the parking facilities by $3.5 million, forcing the DDA to raise downtown parking rates. Raising hourly rates by 30 cents and monthly permits by $35 would raise the additional $3.5 million.

    And there is always the possibility of selling off city assets. The city is preparing an RFP for sale of the old city yard at 415 West Washington and many believe sale of the North Main yard is not far behind. The Allen Creek watershed, Greenway and arts advocates want one or both of these sites for public uses. The value of these sites is unknown because the city refused a freedom of information request for the appraisals but the sale price won’t come close to paying for the Rog Mahal.

    Many city residents fear the city will sell off some of the golf courses. In March 2006, the city’s chief financial officer estimated that selling 22 acres of Huron Hills would raise $300,000 per acre, or $6.6 million. Council members deny sale is an option but they refuse to take it off the table. Sale of parkland requires voter approval. City officials have given inconsistent answers about whether the golf courses are park land. Even if it is considered parkland, a loophole allows the city to reclassify park land as surplus and then sell it.

    City insiders say there have been discussions of selling the Liberty Square parking structure to McKinley, which could raise at least $10 million dollars. Such a sale could be attractive to McKinley because it would guarantee spaces for its tenants, but would require the city to build a nearby replacement structure. The DDA parking fund would pay for the structure, which may require an increase in parking rates.

    A much cheaper option is keeping the city court at the county courthouse, as was proposed in 2000. Keeping the courts together will allow the city and county to share the substantial annual cost of court security. It will also avoid duplicate costs for items such as prisoner sally port and holding areas, jury assembly room and victim/witness waiting areas. While the county’s charge for courthouse rent will increase because Ann Arbor is currently getting a very good deal, it should be possible to work out an arrangement with the county that is far less than the cost of a separate city court building.

    Council, rather than the voters, will decide how much to spend for the Rog Mahal, what it will look like, how big it will be, and where the money will come from. Council will decide which city properties will be sold (requires 8 yes votes), which fees will be increased (requires 6 yes votes) and how much money will be borrowed (requires 6 yes votes). Under the City Charter, city administrator Roger Fraser decides which services will be cut when he proposes a budget. It takes 7 Council votes to change Fraser’s budget. But once the money is borrowed, the options are limited.

    At a Council meeting earlier this year, Mayor Hieftje said that going forward with a new city hall will tie the city’s hands for years to come because there will be no money to do anything else. According to the Ann Arbor News, council member Easthope says he has 6 votes to go forward with the project, even after 2 new members join council. If you want to have a say in what happens, you need to let your voice be heard.

    Forward this article to friends. It is posted to

    Write a letter to the editor

    Email council

    Email Board of Commissioners

    Attend the 9/25/07 meeting

       —David Cahill    Sep. 22 '07 - 08:29PM    #
  12. 15th District Court/Police Building Public Meeting Rescheduled for September 25.

    The purpose of the September 25 meeting is for city representatives and the project design team to review the building design and master plan with the public. Feedback will be sought from attendees on the proposed design. Additional public meetings will be held during the next six months to gain public input about this project.

       —Juliew    Sep. 25 '07 - 12:05AM    #
  13. Here is Councl member Chris Easthope’s response to Karen Sidney’s paper posted in comment 11 above. Easthope’s response was also sent to the Mayor and Council, plus Tom Gantert.


    Your continued lies and conspiracy theories are comical. Some architect
    puts a wish list of a price tag on a building and you tell everyone that
    we are about to spend 57 million? Who on council said they would
    support that amount? Name one person. You pass this information off to
    people as if its fact. You speak of efficiencies between the city and
    county court. You obviously have never toured the county court in-depth
    to see how unsafe and inefficient that building is. State prisoners are
    brought down the same hallways as victims and witnesses. No waiting
    rooms for victims and their attorneys. Small offices now serve as
    courtrooms for the 15th district court. When the 15th District Court
    moved to the county building, it was to see if the very efficiencies
    that you mention could be achieved. They were not. Our own police would
    be able to provide court security without contracting it out to the
    county. You obviously have never toured our police department to see
    what absolutely awful condition it is in, especially the conditions for
    our female officers. The city just spent almost 34 million to complete
    a new maintenance facility that combines all our street maintenance
    operations. Did you examine that project? Do you refer to that as the
    “Rog Maintenance Facility”? Do you believe that our lawn mowers and
    plows are worthy of a decent facility but our officers entrusted with
    our safety our not? Trying to scare residents about the phantom sale of
    golf courses and raising taxes whenever we can belies the fact that we
    council members are also residents and tax payers of this city also and
    care deeply what happens to it. We have a duty to maintain the
    infrastructure of the city, regardless of the perceived popularity of
    the issue. You should consider running for council or Mayor someday
    Karen, you seem to have all the answers. Our city could grind to a
    halt, services would be eliminated and our infrastructure would rot, but
    then again, you would be the subject of your own rumors and
    misrepresentations and what fun would that be.

    Chris Easthope

    End of Easthope’s response. If the $57 million project is such a fantasy, why did Council pay the architect $1 million to design it? Come to tonight’s meeting and find out!

       —David Cahill    Sep. 25 '07 - 10:53PM    #
  14. Dear Council,

    I applaud your conviction in the face of such negativity.

    We have required new civic space for decades, yet only now do we have a council bold enough to face a reluctant public and act in their best interest despite them. I have watched the development of this project in comparison to over 50 others in the Midwest and assure you that the current accusations are common. It would be easy to abandon the project at this stage in favor of inaction but we trust in your mettle as a leader to see this through.

       —Spencer Rand    Sep. 26 '07 - 06:50AM    #
  15. Once the new police/courts facility is built everyone will wonder why it wasn’t built 20 years ago and how the City worked without it. Just like the new maintenance facility.

    It is easy to gripe on the sidelines. The Council has to plan for the future and take care of the infrastructure of the City. Past Councils in prior decades clearly didn’t do this.

    When this facility is done,Ms. Sydnay and Mr. Cahill can continue to gripe to each other, while everyone else will move on.

    What City employees or police do not want these facilities?

    Before reading any more blather on this site, I recommend visiting the City Hall police facility in the basement or talking to the police.

    I notice no response to Councilmember’s reply. He is correct that all these false statements detract from legitimate discussion.

    This forum used to have more useful discussions.

       —civic pride    Sep. 26 '07 - 04:13PM    #
  16. 1. The building looks like my elementary school that was built in the 50’s and I always thought of when given the example of a building designed by a civil engineer vs an architect only for utility without and style.
    2. Instead of putting all the space intensive services, especially those that require customer parking in an area with expensive land and inadequate parking, why not move those units out to vacant office space further from downtown instead of building new. Some of the utility services need to be downtown so that customers without cars can get there, but the building department would be much more convenient on the outskirts. Housing of most of the police could be better accommodated outside of downtown also.

       —Matt    Oct. 11 '07 - 09:56PM    #
  17. I have to pat myself on the back for noticing in #7 that there was an issue with the future of Tio’s. What’s not clear from the Ann Arbor News article is just who is being disingenuous …

       —Fred Zimmerman    Oct. 12 '07 - 04:16AM    #
  18. Fred,

    I take it you’re struck by the contrast in attitudes described in today’s A2News piece, to which you give the URL, and those described in this earlier one (from 1 October 2007) courtesy of the AA District Library online archives:

    - – - – -
    Ann Arbor won’t likely use eminent domain to seize a parcel of property east of city hall that houses Tios Restaurant to secure it for a parking structure, city officials say.

    The restaurant owners don’t want to move – but they don’t own the property. And the property owners aren’t saying much.

    Eminent domain allows government units to seize private property against the land owner’s consent for public use. It usually involves taking land for highways or railroads.

    City Council Members Stephen Kunselman and Chris Easthope said they won’t support seizing the property. Easthope said e-mails some residents have received indicating the city is considering such an action are “ridiculous.”

    “That’s a heavy hand for a parking structure,” Kunselman said. “That’s not a bona fide reason to be using eminent domain.”

    Mike Zahn, one of the owners of the Tios parcel, said he didn’t have an opinion on the possibility of selling the land to the city.

    Tios owner Tim Seaver said Friday that he had about 200 signatures on a petition he started supporting his fight to keep his restaurant there. He said he doesn’t want to move his popular Mexican eatery.

    “I would have to start over completely,” Seaver said. “Once you start a business, you are known for your location.”

    City Administrator Roger Fraser said exercising eminent domain authority would “be a hard sell.”

    “We don’t have it in our tool bag of tricks to use,” Fraser said.”

    - – - – -

       —HD    Oct. 12 '07 - 05:26AM    #
  19. HD — yes … it seems odd that the original document was prepared with the assumption that Tio’s would be obliterated … one wonders on whose instructions this expensive initial planning went forward on the “no Tio’s” assumption.

    It seems like the original map showing no Tio’s was probably a “shot across the bow” by someone in the city who is perfectly prepared to used eminent domain to expand the footprint of the civic center. Which is understandable in terms of self-interest and best use of the parcel, but also eminently (so to speak) debatable on free enterprise and property rights grounds.

    I for one would be perfectly happy to see Mike Zahn (whom I’ve never met) get a premium to punish the city for these rather heavy-handed negotiation tactics. Unfortunately, the legal system doesn’t provide much recourse for Tim Seaver …

       —Fred Zimmerman    Oct. 13 '07 - 12:07AM    #
  20. I just received this from Karen Sidney:

    At last Monday’s council meeting (Oct 15) Marcia Higgins announced a special
    council meeting to discuss the police/courts building. I interpreted
    Marcia’s announcement as a meeting of the council committee dealing with
    the police/courts building, not a full meeting of council. I just confirmed
    with the city clerk that there is a special meeting of the full city council
    next monday (oct 22). The clerk said that under council rules, 4 members of
    council can call a special meeting and there were 4 signatures. The clerk
    said she expected the agenda to be on the city website in the next day or
    two and it would be published in Sunday’s paper.

    My sources indicate that the council committee recently told the architect
    to take out 25% of the cost. That would reduce the cost to about 43
    million, which is still almost 10 million over the original budget given the

       —David Cahill    Oct. 17 '07 - 05:53PM    #
  21. Has everyone seen the new Wheler facilities center? It is great to see the City building what is needed. How soon can the police/courts building actually get built? Be glad this Council can actually get things done. All complainers, please visit the police in the basement of city hall. Shameful.

       —civic pride    Oct. 18 '07 - 12:56AM    #
  22. More than the architecture, it’s a beautiful solution that re-creates a proud Civic Center lossed when the 19th Century City hall was demolished in the 1950s.

    A city with the size and prestige of A2 deserves a Civic Center that is more than a non-descript strip windowed office building surrounded by an acre of surface parking. And I would expect Ann Arbor’s citizens to invest in a centralized facility that expresses the heart and soul of The City (and investing a little extra cash in a facility as a gift to future generations). It would be great for The City to recapture what was lost 50 years ago.

    As far the aesthesis, look at the new San Jose CA City Hall (by Richard Meier)
    or The Federal Building in San Francisco by Morphosis

    These projects are hugely successful civic monuments. People remember these buildings, and they have become statements of great civic pride. Ann Abor lacks anything memorable or monumental that represent the center of a great city, and Ann Arbor IS a great City.

       —Richard Reaume    Oct. 18 '07 - 02:03AM    #
  23. While dreaming of distant community fostering buildings, the most recent pritzker winner has completed a remarkable building for the National Assembly for Wales. The entire ground floor is dedicated to public gathering and engagement.

       —Spencer Rand    Oct. 19 '07 - 08:25PM    #
  24. “Some people have dealt with the challenges of urban life by retreating as far as possible into the private realm – living in gated developments, shopping in malls, and relaxing and keeping fit in private clubs. The principal criterion for entrance into these private spaces is usually the ability to pay. If the wealthier members of society continue to retreat into private space, the public realm will suffer from a lack of investment and could increasingly be seen as a place for the ‘have-nots’. To prevent this from happening, and to maximize choice for all sections of the community, the design and management of the public realm needs to compete with the quality of the private realm.”
    -Nick Corbett : Founding Vice Chairman of the London Authorities Urban Design Forum

    Nick Corbett and Richard Rogers are not only strong proponents of urban revitalization, but have proven through construction, the effect of prioritizing public space to improve the wellness and economy of the city. I fear however, that such a priority is neither expressed nor endorsed by our tax paying public, favoring alternatively to bicker over the initial cost.

       —Spencer Rand    Oct. 19 '07 - 08:31PM    #
  25. There is a big article in December’s AA Observer about Police Chief Barnett Jones, featuring the proposed new building. Check it out.

    Jim Leonard, the reporter, interviewed me for the article. I asked him why. He said he had run across my comments on Arbor Update!

    The article says I am “one of the most vocal critics of a new headquarters”. Have I spoken before City Council? No. Have I written a letter to the editor of the News? No. Have I passed out leaflets? No. Have I picketed? No.

    All I did was comment here. So – you too can be a print media star! Just be sure you use your real name so the reporters can find you. 8-)

       —David Cahill    Nov. 30 '07 - 02:31AM    #