Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Let's Talk Conference Center

30. August 2009 • Juliew
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Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about a conference center in downtown Ann Arbor. Although there are several places to have a meeting, there really isn’t much that really fits the conference center description, especially downtown.

In addition to published reports, rumors have swirled over the years that Bill Martin wants to build a conference center on the Brown Block, but nothing has come of that so far. More recently, there was a lot of interest over plans released for a local conference center.

As so often happens in Ann Arbor, reception to the idea of a conference center has been mixed, with people vehemently in the pro and con camps. I have heard people say they think it is the worst possible thing that could happen to downtown, while others say it is the best possible way to keep downtown viable. Reaction is so mixed that one wonders if some people are thinking of a large industrial convention center like Cobo Hall or DeVos Place while others are thinking of a smaller hotel and conference center like the Fort Shelby in Detroit or the beautiful St. Julien in Boulder (built over a 650-space public underground parking structure).

Of course, left out of much of the discussion is the plans of the University. Currently, the University has some conference space, but only 21 rooms . The other Big 10 schools have at least one hotel and conference center or several hotels within walking distance of campus. The University has lots of land and infrastructure on North Campus and married student housing is not doing well. Even if the U doesn’t want to build their own hotel, there are several hotel chains that might be willing to fund much of the building costs for an on-campus conference center. Needless to say, if they do build their own conference center, the City will not benefit anywhere nearly as much as if a conference center was built on city-owned land.

So what do you think? Does Ann Arbor need a conference center? Should it be downtown? Should the University build their own? If there is a conference center, what would you like to see be part of it? If you are opposed to it, why? If you are for it, why?

  1. “Needless to say, if they do build their own conference center, the City will not benefit anywhere nearly as much as if a conference center was built on city-owned land.” Could you enlarge/explain that point, Juliew?

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 30 '09 - 04:54PM    #
  2. Vivienne –

    I can think of several possible benefits (to the City and its residents) of building a conf. center on City property rather than University – not to say that any of these would automatically accrue, of course, but the city could have better opportunity to get them.

    * Who receives the sale/lease price of land, assuming private investors foot most of the bill?

    * What percentage of the conf. center ends up taxable, vs. sheltered in the University’s mantle?

    * Is the conf. center placed such in a way that attendees can easily patronize downtown businesses, or sequestered somewhere on (North?) campus?

    * Who gets final say over the design over the conf. center, and any public amenities built into it?

       —Murph    Aug. 30 '09 - 09:48PM    #
  3. Juliew –

    Thanks for the thorough and link-tastic post!

       —Murph    Aug. 30 '09 - 09:49PM    #
  4. Murph,

    If the conference center is in the DDA district, the taxes would all go to the DDA. We’ll have to wait for responses to the RFP to see what cash value the city could receive (if we are talking about the 5th Ave/Library Lot). However, if proposers offer a package similar to the preliminary version that I read, all the cash proceeds and future taxes would be folded back into the operational budget of the center.

    Your other two points are somewhat intangible and hard-to-measure benefits, though arguably real.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 30 '09 - 10:17PM    #
  5. Agreed that the U.‘s efforts must be coordinated with the city’s here. Most (but not all) of the demands for a conference center I can think of off the top of my head are university-related.

    Julie, thanks for the link to the St. Julien—it looks like a good example of the kind of thing we should be aiming for.

    I’m not picky about the site (but see my other posts on the subject about where I personally think it should go) but I agree that taking up the entire Brown block with a conference center would be undesirable. Half the block, maybe. Again, there is no way a true “convention center” is realistic (or desirable) for Ann Arbor, unless the U. wants to build something on North Campus somewhere (or if Fingerle sells, possibly, but there are problems with that location).

       —Young Urban Amateur    Aug. 30 '09 - 10:18PM    #
  6. Vivienne –

    “If the conference center is in the DDA district, the taxes would all go to the DDA.”

    First, if a conference center is built, I think that “DDA revenues” are as or nearly as good as “City general fund revenues”, especially when compared to “no revenues”.

    Second, as you know, the Ann Arbor DDA’s TIF capture only affects initial construction value – any future increase in value is distributed per usual. Not quite the standard black hole of TIF capture from which no revenues can escape.

    As for an effectively publicly funded conf. center, with, “all the cash proceeds and future taxes would be folded back into the operational budget” – I certainly would not see this as a great deal for the City. I’d expect some public financing to be involved, but I can agree with you that an open-ended option would be undesirable.

       —Murph    Aug. 31 '09 - 03:32AM    #
  7. Yes, anything is better than no revenues, but DDA revenues are captured for particular uses and are not helpful to our current general fund deficit. They are not even used for many expenses, such as police and fire protection, that a new building would require.

    And yes, the taxes due to increase in TV after the initial year would go to the taxing entities, but that is a small increment and takes a while to build up to a meaningful number. (Lately SEV has been falling.)

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 31 '09 - 05:26AM    #
  8. Yeah, sorry for all the links. It just seemed like there were a lot of examples that were easier to link to than explain.

    I was thinking about taxes and tourism as reasons to build downtown rather than on University land. It is possible that the U would build something downtown, but I would guess North Campus would be more likely for such a facility. If they build on North Campus, they will effectively remove any tourism from downtown that might normally occur from conference events held downtown. They would have their own food, recreation, and programming.

    Ann Arbor is very underserved for hotels downtown. When we have done conferences, we have had to place guests at hotels around the city because there have never been enough rooms at Campus Inn. Then we have to shuttle guests back and forth and that doesn’t leave any time for them to shop downtown (which they do want to do). After one of these events, I was talking to a visitor who said she had been so excited to travel to Ann Arbor because she had heard about the restaurants and downtown, but that they had ended up walking to Carsons (on Plymouth Rd) for dinner every night because it was the only place for dinner near their hotel and had never gotten downtown. She said she wouldn’t be back any time soon. I know there are many events that are held at other universities or in other cities because we don’t have the facilities on campus or in the city.

    The St. Julien in Boulder is an interesting example because it is SO like our situation at the Library lot. It was built on a surface parking lot whose use had been discussed by the community for many years, it is right near the downtown shopping area, it is built on an underground parking structure, it is even across the street from the Library. What is very interesting to see is how much of a part of the community it is although it has only been there a few years. They host walks, and live music most nights, and have special holiday events like gingerbread teas for kids (and regular teas throughout the year), plus the spa. We have started staying there when we visit relatives and it is beautiful and so very Boulder. It is in start contrast to Campus Inn here which is just about as expensive, but so much less connected to the city.

    Personally, I think it is embarrassing to see how underserved Ann Arbor is for hotel rooms downtown. I would love to see at least one more good-sized hotel so when people come to visit, I can give them some options or that we could actually host a conference where people could attend sessions where they stay and then go out for dinner and shopping. It would be great to have something central, that is green, reflects Michigan and Ann Arbor, and generally is a benefit to the community that we can all enjoy. I do worry though that what will end up happening is what happens to so many other projects here. We argue something for years and then rather than getting something better, ultimately what gets built ends up being done in a half-assed way and no one is happy.

       —Juliew    Aug. 31 '09 - 07:37AM    #
  9. Juliew, I’m trying to remember what projects fit your description (last sentence of previous comment). William St. Station bombed and was never built. Any other examples?

    I’ve commented on a different thread about need for hotel rooms and conference facilities. We do have a curious gap. Wonder what the vacancy rates at the Campus Inn are?

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 31 '09 - 05:05PM    #
  10. Juliew, has any conference center that you researched succeeded in meeting its financial expectations? My impression from various things I have read is that conference centers rarely, if ever, succeed financially. Am I right or not?

    Also, if there is a demand in Ann Arbor for such a center, why has the private sector not responded?

       —David Cahill    Aug. 31 '09 - 06:31PM    #
  11. Hi David—you don’t think this is the private sector responding?

       —Young Urban Amateur    Sep. 1 '09 - 06:33AM    #
  12. Vivienne, here are a few examples of buildings:
    Police and Courts Building
    Ashley Terrace
    Loft 322
    Corner House Apartments
    828 Greene
    Zaragon Place
    The Courtyards

    David, I can’t give you financial spreadsheets. I do know the Boulderado (hotel and conference rooms) in Boulder has been operating since 1909 and has greatly expanded over the years. The St. Julien was built about three blocks away so someone thinks there is a lot of money to be made in the business. Penn State has operated the historic Nittany Lion Inn for decades (it has 223 rooms and 23,000 square feet of meeting space) and has more recently built the Penn Stater (which has 58,000 square feet of meeting space and 300 rooms) so again, that would indicate to me that the hotel and conference center business is working.

    YUA—nice response.

       —Juliew    Sep. 1 '09 - 08:04AM    #
  13. Juliew, thanks for the nice comprehensive list of recent building projects. I misunderstood your comment: “We argue something for years and then rather than getting something better, ultimately what gets built ends up being done in a half-assed way and no one is happy.” I thought you were referring to public buildings. The Police and Court building took a while to agree on the location but I don’t recall a lot of changes in the design once it was finalized. I was so unhappy about the financing that I may not have paid much attention. The others are commercially financed developments where some received public comment but there was little impact of this on the final design, to my memory. So I’m still not sure of your point.

    Regarding the “private sector responding”: I guess we’ll have to see when the proposals are submitted whether the private sector is willing to bear the expense and risk of a conference center (if we are speaking of the Library Lot site) or whether the city and other taxing entities (remember the UG parking is financed at least partly through the DDA) will be bearing the greatest burden. We’ve already pitched in $55 million of public funds for improvements and parking.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 1 '09 - 04:02PM    #
  14. YUA, with regard to the conference center proposal Roger Fraser is fomenting, it relies heavily on public funding. So I don’t consider this to be the “private sector responding”.

    Thanks for your examples, Juliew. Is there any easily available nationwide study on these centers?

       —David Cahill    Sep. 1 '09 - 05:49PM    #
  15. As Vivienne indicated, the relation between the proposed conference center and the underground parking garage needs to be clarified.

    Since the parking analysis commissioned by the DDA said there wasn’t a need for more parking downtown, I initially had trouble understanding why the garage was proposed. Is it possible that one motivation behind the parking garage was to facilitate the building of a conference center or similar facility? That’s a troubling prospect, since the garage wasn’t billed as part of such a project (not that I remember, anyway).

       —Joel Batterman    Sep. 1 '09 - 11:01PM    #
  16. Vivienne –

    some received public comment but there was little impact of this on the final design, to my memory. So I’m still not sure of your point.

    It looks like you’re taking a very narrow read of Juliew’s comment, and looking for examples of individual micro-analyzed construction projects.

    I took a more general read on her “argue something for years” comment – that we’ve put enough time and energy into discussing downtown that one would hope some consensus items would emerge that we could use to improve what happens. And yet, we have several examples that nobody’s any happier with for the effort. (I’d add Glen Ann Place and Lower Town to the list of things that nobody’s actually happy with.)

       —Murph    Sep. 1 '09 - 11:31PM    #
  17. I wasn’t quarreling, just seeking clarification.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 1 '09 - 11:38PM    #
  18. Murph’s interpretation is closer to the point I was trying to make. We do a lot of back and forth about city plans (like the Northeast Area Plan, the Central Area Plan, A2D2) and then projects go back and forth from staff, to Planning Commission, to public hearings, to City Council, to Planning, to Staff, to Council, sometimes literally for years (although usually just months) and ultimately the buildings we get are ugly, don’t fit into the neighborhoods, have bad setbacks, don’t rent, etc. I remember with 828 Greene, Planning or Council went back and forth about changing the building to make it more attractive. In the end, they added the hideous peak on the roof and a copper awning (which didn’t end up on the building). So the whole several-months process, with the input of neighbors and tabling and multiple hearings, had the net effect of making the building worse and costing time and money. Corner House Apartments and Ashley Terrace are the same way. Lots of input, lots of discussion, but in the end, ugly buildings that don’t contribute to the streetscape or conform to any of the plans we have worked on for years. The design of the Police and Courts building isn’t at all impressive at this stage. The years of discussion seem to have ended up with something that is not particularly attractive and just barely adequate for the needs of the community.

    After all the discussions, after all the plans, after all the work and time and money, we still have no design ordinances, many of our building ordinances are laughable, we have no way of preventing buildings that we don’t want, we lose most of our lawsuits. Some good things are happening, but in general, we are far behind other communities in steering our downtown and city-wide development. Even the A2D2 results, after so much input are only “suggestions.” Why are we bothering? Maybe the charm of Ann Arbor is our eclectic nature and we should just let people and developers do what they want. I can’t see that the endless discussions and lots of input on many projects are really making any of these projects any better.

       —Juliew    Sep. 2 '09 - 02:01AM    #
  19. Thanks. I don’t share this libertarian view, but I appreciate your full expression of it.

    Note that the A2D2 design workshop is Wed. night.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 2 '09 - 03:07AM    #
  20. Take away the public money and taxpayer built parking structure and see if there’s enough “private interest” to make a go of a conference center. I doubt it.

    This idea gets kicked around at least once a decade and no truly private entity is willing to do it alone without getting something in return from city hall and the taxpayers.

    This is a “feel good about Ann Arbor” project and will be done because the politicians and bureaucrats, egged on by private developers looking for the public to foot the bill, tell us it’s a great idea. We should consider ourselves lucky that they aren’t planning to build a big aquarium or our own version of Millennium Park in Chicago.

       —Rick C    Sep. 2 '09 - 04:05AM    #
  21. Vivienne, do you have your own suggestions for improving public consensus on the direction of real estate development in Ann Arbor? I know you have tried to ask here what others think.

    David—if it is the case that every other conference center has had problems maintaining solvency, then I suppose our private sector can only respond as well as those other private sectors have.

    Can it truly be the case that no conferences are worth hosting anywhere in America?

    As for anything that may or may not get built in Ann Arbor, again, I can only imagine that the U. must be made a partner in it.

    Julie—I actually think that the process has improved somewhat over the years, and I look forward to what it might finally look like using A2D2.

       —Young Urban Amateur    Sep. 2 '09 - 07:05AM    #
  22. You put a large group of people in a room and tell them to paint it any color they want…they will always paint it beige. You put one person in a room and they may dare to paint it fucia.

    The public process in private development projects is counterproductive.

       —Marvin Face    Sep. 2 '09 - 07:08AM    #
  23. YUA, I’ve been trying to restrain my pontificating on this site since I now have my own blog. (The post on “what kind of city do we want to be” has be stalled by ongoing events.) But basically I am for traditional planning approaches, including full public involvement from the beginning, with visualization of what we want our built environment to be, through supportive ordinances and orderly deliberation at both Planning Commission and Council. I’m also for clear and unambiguous law but this should be based on a zoning ordinance that truly reflects the community consensus. (So, for example, the Central Area Plan, which was arrived at by consensus, should have been implemented and supported by a proper zoning ordinance years ago.)

    We have had a bumpy ride over the past few years because there is a real difference of opinion as to the direction the city should go. This difference is based partly on economic drives (protection of property values, wish to make money in development, work for the building trades) and partly on sincere, deeply held ideals and wishes for community identity; also on aesthetic values. Our environment affects each of us on a deep physical and psychological level, and most of us are passionate about what it should be – though that picture is not the same for everyone. Part of the planning process should be to arrive at a shared image of what will surround us in daily life. (I for one would immediately attempt escape from a room painted fuchsia.)

    My objection to the way development issues have been handled is that there has been a bad mix of initiatives coming primarily from council and staff that seek to drive development in a particular direction, with a haphazard and sometimes contradictory public process. (For example, many developments were immediately approved that completely ignored the Calthorpe report, and A2D2 does not seem to reflect it very well, either.) We have not seen real leadership in the sense of bringing forth a vision that everyone can share, but rather a combination of temporizing actions and raw displays of power. This has been frustrating for everyone involved.

    Done pontificating.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 2 '09 - 01:45PM    #
  24. Vivienne, I’d hardly say I espouse a libertarian viewpoint, but on the other hand, if the system makes a problem worse, it would be smart to change it. As far as I can tell, the “traditional” approach of public input, with full discussion at Planning and then Council isn’t the norm in many (any?) other cities. Almost all the ones I have looked at have some other way of dealing with project proposals. Very few City Councils look at all the same proposals the Planning Commissions see. In Boulder and in Birmingham (MI), Council only looks at contentious developments (which I think city officials said only amounted to one or two a year!). In some cities (Kalamazoo is one), projects are approved at the staff level only. No other input. I’m not advocating that, but it is interesting to note that what we consider the norm is not the norm at all for most cities.

    I would love to have a good process that makes for a better outcome. I don’t see that we have that process currently and I don’t see that it is coming. I’m going to the A2D2 presentation, as I have for the last few years of the process, but I don’t have a lot of hopes coming from a purely voluntary list of “recommendations.”

    I do, however, agree with your post #23. I do think there is a real difference of opinion on what the city/town/burg/village/hamlet/metropolis should look like. I’m not so sure there will ever be a consensus, though, regardless of leadership.

       —Juliew    Sep. 3 '09 - 01:27AM    #
  25. Juliew, I’ve always had a lot of respect for your insights and was only responding to your comment “Maybe the charm of Ann Arbor is our eclectic nature and we should just let people and developers do what they want.” I’m sure that was actually not meant in a blunt way, but as an expression of frustration, which I share.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 3 '09 - 04:33AM    #
  26. Vivienne,

    1. I completely agree about the zoning. I thought that’s what the whole Calthorpe process was about in the first place, and yet we still don’t have a new zoning ordinance yet. It’s ridiculous. Having said that, second reading (assuming the first goes well) is on October 18. Finally!

    2. I basically agree with your process, but would also agree new, actually legalized zoning is the most important factor. And yes, it is equally ridiculous that the CAP never got new zoning.

    3. On a somewhat related note, I just got back from the Concert House presenation. I have to say that nostalga for the past is a sweet thing that I sympathize with, but, as was said at the meeting, it is virtually impossible to dictate architectural features beyond broad structural components. Nor can architectural taste and style ever really be part of a democratic process. If anyone finds this upsetting, I sympathize with them, but I don’t know what more to say. I think the guidelines are commendable in that they even have the chutzpah to tell architects (and their employers) what to do and how to do it.

    4. For that matter, this particular process has dragged on for nearly five years…draft guidelines have been posted repeatedly on the Web and made available to the public for months, even years. How much more public input do we need???

    5. Agreed about the lack of public leadership. (There does seem to have been plenty of non-public leadership on the other hand.)

    6. But I see the last five years of development in Ann Arbor as an example of what happens when you don’t have firm guidelines (or zoning) in place, and when most people don’t understand the process. Calthorpe was ineffectual without legalized language. We see the results of that, and hopefully people are finally realizing what it takes to create an environment where constructive and progressive development can happen.

       —Young Urban Amateur    Sep. 3 '09 - 05:36AM    #
  27. Here is today’s article, by Paula Gardner, on this proposed project. I am particularly interested in her report that “[City Administrator Roger] Fraser said, the city has been approached by several potential developers, in addition to the one group that spoke publicly about its plans to submit a proposal calling for a hotel and conference center.”

    That inside track is getting pretty crowded.

       —David Cahill    Sep. 3 '09 - 06:39PM    #
  28. We’ve also added a poll that relates to this topic on

       —Stefanie Murray    Sep. 3 '09 - 09:48PM    #
  29. I was hoping to see a poll on this issue, but looking at the poll question, I’m not sure it can be reduced to a simple issue of public-private partnerships or no public-private partnerships.

    A public-private partnership that included significant public benefits, not least affordable housing, I might conceivably support. But I have serious reservations about this particular partnership, especially given the unanswered questions about how and why the underground parking garage was given public funding independent of the above-ground plan.

    You might say that this potential conferenc center rests on unsound foundations.
       —Joel Batterman    Sep. 5 '09 - 04:30AM    #
  30. The article cited in #27 is well worth reading for the comments. They contain a very substantive discussion about downtown development in general that goes well past the conference center issue.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 5 '09 - 01:38PM    #
  31. But it’s just as the article stated—several such projects simply lack financing right now.

    But the deeper problem (IMNSHO) is precisely the lack of the very sort of guidelines that the city is currently trying to put in place. I suspect (but, I could be wrong) that the city has been dragging its heels here and there in order to wait until the new zoning and guidelines get installed.

    Once the new zoning and guidelines have been approved (please let it be soon!), then I expect some more activity with respect to certain projects, and a more orderly and up-front process, just like the developers want.

       —Young Urban Amateur    Sep. 8 '09 - 04:02AM    #
  32. Mike Ruppert might have some thoughts on the likelihood or wisdom of anything being built atop the underground structure. A longer clip of the movie “Collapse” is here and the trailer here.

       —Steve Bean    Nov. 13 '09 - 02:50AM    #
  33. Proposals are due tomorrow. If the rumors are true, there will be some very interesting things to debate in the near future concerning the site.

       —Marvin Face    Nov. 13 '09 - 06:40AM    #
  34. I learned one interesting fact at today’s Democratic Party meeting. The City’s request for proposals for the Library Lot forbids submitters of proposals from distributing them to anyone else besides the City. So according to the City, no member of the public (including the media) is asllowed to see the proposals.


    I sure hope blasts the proposals loose with its FOIA request.

       —David Cahill    Nov. 15 '09 - 01:03AM    #
  35. David—

    I thought there was an 11-0 Democratic majority on City Council? So let’s just have the council Dems vote to release this information immediately. Problem solved.

       —Alan Goldsmith    Nov. 16 '09 - 10:29PM    #
  36. … “forbids submitters of proposals from distributing them to anyone else besides the City. So according to the City, no member of the public (including the media) is allowed to see the proposals.



    let teh blasts begin ….

       —toasty    Nov. 17 '09 - 11:19AM    #
  37. The city has now posted copies of the proposals on its RFP website. This probably does not include the financial details.

    I have recently obtained a copy of the “secret plan” and made the text available on my blog. This does contain the financial details.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Nov. 24 '09 - 01:14AM    #
  38. While the pretty pictures are nice (I personally favor Dahlmann’s Town Square), the financial piece of each proposal is what really needs the light of day. How else are we to make an informed decision on what we want to see on our collectively-owned property? I don’t see a market for condos, hotels or conference centers. Will these proposals require additional public subsidies on top of the land, parking and structural foundations we are already providing?

       —Tom Whitaker    Nov. 24 '09 - 07:50AM    #
  39. There is a little bit of information in some of the proposals. I’m still in the process of reviewing them but a couple use those most dreaded of phrases:

    “Public-private partnership”

    (Cue the Fifth – Beethoven’s, I mean.)

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Nov. 24 '09 - 05:20PM    #