Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Greenway advocates slam DDA plans for downtown parking

8. March 2005 • Murph
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Before last night’s City Council meeting, Rene Greff, Susan Pollay, and Fred Beal presented the Downtown Development Authority’s recommendations for three city-owned lots currently used for parking to the Council and a standing-room only audience. Most of those in attendance were members of Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway, and wore green ribbons to show their support for an alternative plan. Though the DDA’s proposal was separate from the meeting agenda and did not include a public input section, the plan was the topic of almost all of the open public comment session of the regular Council meeting, with six members of the Friends speaking against the DDA’s proposal to cheering and applause by the audience.

The DDA’s proposal includes relatively uncontroversial plans for two lots, calling for the 1st and Washington parking structure to be torn down and the lot sold to be developed as mixed-use retail and affordable housing, and the Klines Lot (behind Gratzi) to be sold and developed as mixed-use retail and market-rate housing. Selling these two lots would bring around $6 million in revenue for the city, would return the lots to the tax rolls, and would strengthen the downtown area by adding residents and merchants. “While most cities have to offer incentives to downtown development,” Greff said, “we have plenty of developers who are interested in our downtown area – all we have to do is get out of the way.” Where the plan met a lot of resistance, though, is on the 1st and William parking lot.

The DDA proposes that much of the 1st and William site be developed as a parking structure, consolidating the public parking from the three sites, with the southern portion turned into a park and a strip along the rail right-of-way dedicated as part of a bike and pedestrian greenway. The proposal notes that the City’s 1988 Central Area Plan anticipates this mixture of park and parking, and also would include long-overdue safety improvements along the railway and cleanup of soil contamination. The consolidation of parking, they say, is necessary to free up the other sites for development.

The Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway, though, demand that the entire 1st and William site be devoted as a large park, claiming that the downtown area already has plenty of parking (and presenting a parking utilization study (pdf) to back that assertion), stating that a “full-scale” park would better serve residents than a smaller park and a parking structure, and accusing the DDA of developing the plan secretively and with no opportunity for public comment. The DDA is seeking a resolution by the Council backing their recommendations possibly as soon as the next Council meeting, and says that public comment on each of the sites will be appropriate as each of them is discussed in detail – the current proposal is merely conceptual, they note, and does not present detailed or final site plans for any of the sites.

The meeting was fairly heated, with green ribbon-wearers loudly scoffing, laughing, and sighing as the DDA made its presentation and answered questions from the Council; at one point, as Bob Dascola, of State Street’s Dascola Barbers, stated his support for the plan by saying that “the downtown area has been in decline for many years,” and that he supports the plan to bring in more residents, who would support downtown stores, he was interrupted by an audience member calling out, “Not!”, but continued to list off a few dozen locally owned stores that have left the downtown area or gone out of business in the last decade.

The discussion showed that the issues at hand are far from clear. Some speakers felt that the 6-8 story buildings suggested by the DDA for the two developed sites were too high; Councilmember Bob Johnson (1st Ward) asked about the possibility of including all of the relevant parking underground under the proposed buildings instead of building a parking structure; and one speaker, to much applause, criticized the idea of selling land at all, saying, “Downtown land is like beachfront property – they’re not making any more of it,” and that the City should hold onto its parcels. Many of these speakers, however, simultaneously called for more downtown affordable housing, ignoring the contradictions between their other suggestions and the logistics of constructing housing efficiently.

The proposal will be discussed further at a Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the League of Women Voters tonight, 8 March, at the downtown branch of the public library from 7-8:30pm.

Greff said that the DDA’s proposal will be posted to their website soon.

UPDATE, 11:30am: The Ann Arbor News notes about tonight’s meeting at the library,

The panel experts include Fred Beal, chairman of the DDA’s capital improvements committee; Washtenaw County Drain Commissioner Janis Bobrin; Joe O’Neal, a greenway advocate, of O’Neal Construction; Barbara Murphy from the Old West Side Neighborhood Association Board; and Ed Shaffran, chairman of the Main Street Area Association.

See also,
> Michigan Daily, 8 March: City Council reviews construction plan to revamp parking structures
> Ann Arbor News, 8 March: DDA gets a mixed response

  1. Boy, those Greenway types sound like a great crowd. I’ll be sure to invite them to my next Old West Side neighborhood cookout.
       —Brandon    Mar. 8 '05 - 03:49PM    #
  2. Yep, I was definitely unimpressed with the, ah, decorum displayed by those in attendance. I think it definitely reflects better on you to politely listen to the “opposition” than to audibly heckle and show you’re not interested in listening or discussing the matter.
       —Murph    Mar. 8 '05 - 04:46PM    #
  3. Brandon—the OWS Association is foursquare behind the Friends, according to the mailing list. They’re both your Friends and neighbors.
       —Dale    Mar. 8 '05 - 07:24PM    #
  4. I’m not a huge fan of the Greenway project, but once again, the City has given no voice to the people who currently live in the downtown neighborhoods. Most residents found out about the DDA proposal when it appeared in the paper on Friday—there was no attempt to meet with anyone from any of the neighborhoods involved prior to the announcement. The City Council meeting last night was a closed meeting with no public commentary. If you are given no voice, you have to do what it takes to get noticed. Sitting politely and nodding doesn’t make the papers (or the blogs) and is often mentioned in subsequent City Council meetings as a “yes” vote from the audience. The City seems to be courting new residential and new development while giving a big “screw you” to anyone who currently lives downtown. There are compromises that could support more density, more parking, and parks/greenway but there is no way to bring those forward for consideration.
       —Julie    Mar. 8 '05 - 07:35PM    #
  5. Julie- Write a letter. Letters are a better way of getting heard than open speaking anyway.

    Greenway is dumb. More density downtown!
       —js    Mar. 8 '05 - 08:26PM    #
  6. It wasn’t a closed meeting – that implies that nobody was allowed to be there. Also, this is neither something that’s new (the DDA’s current ideas have been around for nearly a year, to my knowledge, and include now more green and less parking footprint at 1st/William than they did at the beginning), nor something that’s final; the people who are criticizing the exact layout of things are missing the point – they’re attacking things that don’t exist.

    On the other hand, I do think that the DDA has two problems. One is that the Friends have been data on parking usage than the DDA, which, in my opinion, is just plain irresponsible on the DDA’s part. They shouldn’t be proposing creating, destroying, or moving around parking if they don’t know what’s being used where and how. The second is a tactical error – they presented this to the Council without having a public forum on it first so that people knew what the proposal was really saying. A lot of the people there against it last night didn’t actually know what it was. They came with a preconceived and incorrect notion of the proposal, and didn’t change it even after seeing the actual proposal. Had the DDA done a better job of outreach (knowing full well, as they should have, that people were going to turn out like they did), that would have been less of a problem. I fear that the DDA has created a situation where the Friends will consider the only possible “compromise” to be a full park and no parking; that is, not a compromise at all. They made the Friends feel scared and caught off guard, so that the Friends are saying things like, “a small park with a building to the north of it will get no sunlight and wither and die, while a large park in the same place with the same southern exposure will get plenty of sunlight and thrive!”

    I feel sorry for whatever developer tries to come in to the Kline Lot or 1st/Washington sites – no matter how good their proposals, they’re going to catch hell at the Planning Commission and City Council for being connected, however loosely, to this proposal if the DDA and Council don’t find some way to involve the Greenway advocates. (And “involve” does not mean “cave”.) I don’t think the DDA is blameless in the uproar, but I don’t think the Friends are in the right. Parkland is not at the top of the city’s needs list.
       —Murph    Mar. 8 '05 - 11:39PM    #
  7. So Murph, when does your council campaign begin?
       —Brandon    Mar. 9 '05 - 01:14AM    #
  8. Looking back through my notes from the meeting, I think Barbara Murphy was the person with the best comments. If I got my attributions right, she was the one who called for electronic monitoring of available parking spots and signs directing people around town to the nearest empty spots in order to make more efficient use of what we already have.

    Having spent the last two hours thinking about this while washing dishes, I’d personally advocate a phased approach:

    Phase 1: tear down 1st/Washington and sell that lot for development first while developing a portion of the 1st/William lot as a linear park (not even the size in the DDA’s plan – just the bike/ped trail and a green buffer along it, so that we can start working on development of neighboring parts of the greenway). Do a parking utilization study.

    Phase 2: put in a parking information system, as discussed above, and sell the Klines Lot for development. Depending on the results of the parking study in phase one, some additional transportation support may need to be implemented. (Random ideas: lease the DTE Building parking lot and turn it into metered parking. Make The Link’s route a little larger, and put in counter-rotating shuttles to minimize time between points. Expand park and ride program. Extend metered street parking south along Main.)

    Phase 3: Profit! From selling land and increasing the tax base, that is! Do another parking study, about a year after the Kline’s Lot is developed, so that we can see how things are settling out. Figure out, at that point, what to do with the 1st/William lot, which will probably include some park and some parking. By this point, we should also have some other segments of greenway in place, and will start to be able to see how people are using it, and what activities are lacking in other locations that would be appropriate to try to support at 1st/William.

    Note that this process will take something like four to six years (and that’s optimistic, considering the difficulty of getting development approval and the time required for a proper parking study), with 1st and William neither turning into a significant park or a significant parking site until the end – a parking lot is awfully darned flexible, while both parks and parking structures are pretty permanent; it would be foolish to lock up the 1st/William site as either of these before it is clear what the city’s needs (both park and parking) for this site are.
       —Murph    Mar. 9 '05 - 02:11AM    #
  9. Brandon, I’m kind of torn. Council? Planning Commission? Start a consultancy and charge the city lots of money to do the sorts of things I’m spewing forth in the previous comment? Leaning towards Commission right now, though I have to chew through some homework backlog so that I can get around to writing up an application and chatting up Councilmembers.
       —Murph    Mar. 9 '05 - 02:15AM    #
  10. Murph, I would vote for you in a nanosecond!
       —wendyo    Mar. 9 '05 - 02:20AM    #
  11. I agree that the DDA’s biggest gaffe has been its inability to give even basic statistics on parking utilization. However, in my personal experience, parking DOES fill up in the downtown structures. I don’t drive and park downtown often, but on more than one occasion I’ve encountered a full structure. Also, there are waiting lists for the expensive, dedicated spots in the DDA structures. If we get more residential development, demand for those will likely go up, as well (at least until we get a transit/density utopia in the region). So, while I acknowledge the problem, I’m pretty much willing to go along with the idea that we ought not reduce total parking. And if we can maintain existing parking capacity while reducing the total downtown parking footprint on a site that is good for little else, while simultaneously creating opportunities for new, dense developments well – goshdarnit – it’s hard to say no.
       —Scott    Mar. 9 '05 - 03:50AM    #
  12. I have been keeping informed about the PROS plan for parks (attending public forums and commission meetings).
    The comments made during these meetings are leading me to think that all of the West Side folks that want a park are only after the resurfacing of Allen Creek. Any plan that prevents total resurfacing of the Creek AND the proposed railside pathways to make Greenways through the city will be totally rejected by the residents advocating for a park.

    This is not fair for a few reasons.
    1. The City cannot afford to make a greenbelt along Allen Creek (not to mention the costs to clean it up).
    2. The site on Washington across from the YMCA that is owned by the City is being considered for parkland. So that would make a great gathering space for West Siders.
    2. Couldn’t the Allen Creek be brought to surface in a park across from the YMCA and implemented into the construction of surrounding buildings (picture an indoor waterfall or a river under glass. I would rather see more downtown development with interesting architecture that pays homage to the Creek than another underutilized park on the West Side.
    3. West Park is the space for gathering on the Old West Side. Why aren’t people making more use of that? Instead of studying parking, perhaps we can study why more people aren’t gathering at West Park. (Maybe they can’t find parking…)
    If anyone argues that West Park is too far for them to go, I’d say that the parking structures on the East side of town are too far to park in when people are dining/shopping/sightseeing on the West Side of town!

    I would love to see a new park across from the YMCA and more dense development downtown. I am saddened when people try to be on the offense at City Council meetings before even hearing what the DDA has to say. How many of those people have been active in the Parks Commission meetings?

    On that note,
    Go Dog Parks! (any where we can get them!)
       —Lizz    Mar. 9 '05 - 05:19AM    #
  13. Lizz, your West Park question is a good one, and doubly so because, if the greenway does what is claimed, it will vastly increase people’s access to West Park – the Greenway will reduce the need for new parks by improving the accessibility of some of the ones that already exist.

    As for cost, the city does have a great big pot of money from that ballot proposal a while back. Remember that 1/3 of the Greenbelt millage is supposed to be spent inside the city, a fact that the city won’t be allowed to forget.

    I agree that people ought to attend parks meetings or, for that matter, DDA meetings, but I think there’s a matter of the effort of staying informed – in my opinion, the city’s departments are generally not very good with information flow. Why isn’t the DDA’s presentation from last night on their website (it might be by now)? Why doesn’t the Planning department post staff recommendations for proposals before the planning commission to their website? For that matter, why aren’t proposals before the planning department posted to the website when the planners receive them, so that curious urban planning students (for example) can look at them, and so that the neighbors know what’s going on more than a few days before the commission meeting?

    If Larry hadn’t just gotten himself elected County Clerk, I’d try to convince him to run for Council so that he could help them with their information issues.
       —Murph    Mar. 9 '05 - 06:03AM    #
  14. First of all, anyone who thinks the neighbors won’t get plenty of public input before this process is over is wrong.

    Second, I object to the entire idea that someone who lives two blocks west of the parking lot in question has any more right to speak than everyone else in the city. Downtown is downtown, and neighborhoods have boundaries, and at some point these people living in their very expensive homes within walking distance of Main don’t have a veto over downtown development just because they can see it from their back porches.

    I am very much in favor of a greenway as a concept. But I think that it has to be balanced against the need for more housing and retail downtown. I also think we need to stop expecting downtown to take all the density, and instead to be doing good infill projects throughout the urbanized parts of Ann Arbor. One thing for sure is that there should be no surface parking lots downtown, period. Talk about wasted space. I’d love to have a greenway that runs along the river and criss-crosses the county, but the Old West Side also doesn’t have the right to a backyard park unless it seems in the best interests of all city residents.

    I am also dismayed that the talk of affordable housing/density from the mayor and others in power seems to be mostly upscale yuppie housing/density with the affordable dropped whenever the mayor isn’t speaking on campus or to partisan crowds.
       —Matt    Mar. 9 '05 - 08:13AM    #
  15. I was at the panel discussion at the Library last night. The DDA was clearly on the defensive. Although the Friends have no parking data either, the fact that the DDA does not have parking usage data was certainly not in their favor.

    The full Greenway plan is being considered as a 50-year plan because it entails demolishing at least 122 houses plus several commercial buildings. They don’t want to “take” any of the residences so are planning to wait until they turn over. There was no mention of having worked at all with any of the railroad entities. I’m sure the Annie would like to be included in this discussion. The Friends did admit that any Greenway would really only go to Hill St. since the University owns the land past that point.

    My suggestions to the DDA would be:

    1) Build a structure on half of the Library lot (with the potential to expand to the rest of the lot if necessary). This would allow some of the lot to be open during construction, would maintain (for now) the surface lot that people seem to want, and would provide more parking. The Library lot is the same distance from Main St. as the First/William lot, but has the advantages of not being down a hill, is a known parking area, and is also accessible to the Liberty and State St. retail districts.

    2) Leave the First/William lot a surface lot for now until the Library structure is done. Then see if it makes sense at that point to make it into a park.

    3) Build the proposed mixed-use developments on the First/Washington and Klines lots. However, we need to keep in mind that mixed-use developments, especially the retail portion, have not been very successful downtown. As the DDA says on their website regarding mixed-use developments: “the DDA has participated in the creation of several important downtown projects, including One North Main, Tally Hall/Liberty Square, and the Ashley Mews development at Main/Packard.” I think the only current “retail” tenant in all of these complexes is the Comerica bank at One North Main.
       —Julie    Mar. 9 '05 - 03:49PM    #
  16. While they don’t have retail tenants above floor one, One North Main has lots of business tenants above the first floor – only the top couple of floors are condos.

    Also, I don’t think anybody is in favor of surface lots… with one vital exception – the people and companies who own them. The ones many people think of are not city-owned, and the owners are asking prohibitive prices to buy the land. They make enough money on parking to wait around for a great offer (Million dollar lofts anyone?), and meanwhile the city is left with an ugly and underutilized space…
       —Lisa    Mar. 9 '05 - 06:32PM    #
  17. Lisa, this was actually a big topic at the forum last night with many people speaking out against structures and in favor of surface lots. It tends to be generational (the older you are, the more likely you are to want to park on surface lots) and gender-based (more women than men prefer surface lots—presumably because they feel safer). This is the reason most malls have enormous surface lots instead of structures. The DDA has all the data.

    Personally, I think surface lots are a huge waste in a downtown area and would rather see structures, but you can’t just say that no one prefers surface lots when study after study shows that people do prefer them. When you are trying to bring people into your retail area, you have to keep these things in mind.
       —Julie    Mar. 9 '05 - 07:21PM    #
  18. Yes, that is a good point Julie. I think I was speaking more in terms of development groups, not citizens not liking huge surface lots. As for citizens, I think it is true that some people love structures, while others can’t stand them. I myself never park in them if I can avoid it (safety being one of the reasons), but I think I have a fondness for both parallel parking and buses that is atypical of your average Ann Arbor downtown-goer.
       —Lisa    Mar. 9 '05 - 07:38PM    #
  19. The bias towards surface lots is definitely real, both on the part of people using them (I imagine more strongly for short-term users than long-term) and for merchants, who don’t want to force their patrons to navigate several turns of ramp and several flights of stairs on their way to shop.

    If the 1st/William site does end up partially parking structured, I would advocate for something closer to three or four stories than five or six. Notice that the City owns a vacant house lot on Ashley overlooking the 1st/William site: if the top of any 1st/William structure were at about the height of Ashley St, you could put a car entrance (maybe a 1-way (in) to minimize the amount of that lot that is paved) and have the top level of the 1st/William structure act like a surface lot from Ashley – give it the openness and direct access to the street that people walking to and from their cars like for safety (visibility) reasons.
       —Murph    Mar. 9 '05 - 09:27PM    #
  20. Murph,
    Your point about the website not being a good resource for the Planning Commission is the same I had made this fall during a Parks forum because I am usually unable to get agendas ahead of their meetings as well as other important updates.
    This is an issue for the County Parks site as well. I am usually frustrated with both sites.

    I also agree with Matt that there should be no surface lots in the City . These lots could be on the outskirts, but not downtown.
    The same people that are probably advocating for surface lots around the City for the sake of safety are the same people coming into Whole Foods and screaming at me because they can’t find a parking spot in our lot! They won’t be happy unless every parking lot is like a Meijer lot where there is so much space that is never used.
    What I find interesting is that there is never a discussion of underground parking in the City at all. I know that it is expensive, but why is it never even brought up as a crazy idea?

    My reference, by the way, to the railroads as part of the Greenway idea is coming from a planning meeting where Amy Kuras of A2 Parks showed focus groups her plan to put in walkable paths (or bike paths) along the railroads of Ann Arbor. This is only one aspect of the Greenway, and it is merely in a planning stage because the railroad owners have to be on board and many are not according to Amy.
       —Lizz    Mar. 10 '05 - 05:45AM    #
  21. There is a lot of discussion of putting parking underground, however, much of the city is built on soil that will not support that sort of building. In the DDA’s plan, the development at the Kline’s lot does consist of at least one level of underground parking. That seems to be the only site of the three proposed that has the soil to support it. The First and William and First and Washington sites are likely to be too wet and too sandy.

    It is my understanding now that the “Friends of the Greenway” group which is promoting the more immediate and less-extensive greenway plan has met with the Ann Arbor Railroad (a small, very cool, profitable short-track railway and gotten some preliminary support to use the right-of-way as long as the Greenway does not use the tracks. There must be a parallel and safe path.

    Also, there have been a few comments here about daylighting Allen Creek. Allen Creek will not be daylighted. There was a group that looked in to it a few years ago, but one of the proponents spoke at the Library meeting on Tuesday and said that it was simply not a possibility. At this time, the Allen Creek corridor is a storm drain/flood plain—not an actual creek.
       —Julie    Mar. 10 '05 - 03:44PM    #
  22. Lizz, apparently the Ann Arbor Railroad has been “surprisingly” willing to work with the DDA on this plan – RRs are notoriously difficult to deal with, but apparently they’re happy to cooperate with assembling a trail alongside their RoW.

    As for underground parking, it’s being talked about. The DDA’s plan has u/g parking as part of any development in the Kline’s lot. I’ll bet that most of the proposals just submitted for the old Y lot have u/g parking (I can say for certian that 2 of them do). Almost every proposal that comes out of Peter Allen’s real estate classes has u/g parking. I was just talking to Jeff Dehring (in the parks dept.) for info for a class project, and he mentioned that somebody had proposed u/g parking under the Farmers’ Market – the problem being that you wouldn’t be able to hold Market while the site was being dug up and built under. He also mentioned a plan, back in the late 80s, to build a few levels of u/g parking under the Commie High parking/yard, across the street from the Farmers’ Market.

    So it’s being talked about, definitely. But the construction cost really is that high – more than twice the price per space than structured parking – so you have to be using the site pretty intensively to make u/g parking economically feasible.
       —Murph    Mar. 10 '05 - 03:44PM    #
  23. The DDA operates with TAX money. Those are ALL OUR TAX dollars. Since when does anybody else get to keep a portion of their tax dollars to fix their sidewalk or improve their streetscape?

    The DDA is quite a clubby little group. Not all downtown merchants belong to the DDA. The DDA doles out grants to businesses and people THEY think are worthy.

    The DDA also makes $$ from the parking structures and have an interest building more of them.

    No other business areas from Arborland to Briarwood or Pymouth Road to Packard and Platt have the money or influence of the DDA. There is very little public oversight of their business affairs as witnessed by their poor records of how many cars actually use the structures and lots. They are not subject to same rules and regulations that affect other developers and can operate with little public input or oversight.

    As active and concerned citizens we should be extremely wary of quasi public organizations that play with tax dollars, are not completely accountable and serve a small and politically connected group.
       —The Dude    Mar. 14 '05 - 11:44PM    #
  24. Dude,a few points:

    1. The DDA makes money (on a per-space basis) from street meters and surface lots, and loses money on structures (newer lots are bigger losses, due to capital debt service). One would think that, if they wanted to maximize their profit, they’d currently be proposing to tear down the 1st/Washington structure and replace it with a surface lot – not get rid of two surface lots and build a brand new structure. Attacking them over this plan can’t take that tack.

    2. The tax dollars that the DDA uses are from TIF – tax-increment financing. When new construction or renovations raise the value of downtown property, the DDA can capture part of the increase in value. The DDA’s charter expires every 15 years and has to be renewed, and I believe they are not able to carryover TIFs from a given property past the renewal. So the DDA does divert some tax money from the general coffers – call it 7.5 years worth of the non-school portion of the increase in taxes caused by downtown construction – but their projects don’t pull money from the general City budget (except by preventing it from getting there in the first place). The general rationale for allowing DDAs to do this is that downtowns are essential to the health of cities, while other commercial areas or residential neighborhoods may rise or fall in fortune with less detrimental effect on the downtown. I’m mostly sympathetic to this view, though you are welcome to try to convince me it’s false.

    3. I believe a city can set up multiple DDAs, though I don’t know quite what it takes. Before I would support one, I’d want to see a convincing argument that any of the commercial areas outside of downtown function as districts, rather than as individual businesses / malls.

    4. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that not all downtown merchants belong to the DDA. The DDA is defined geographically – are you concerned that not all of them sit on the DDA Board?

    So, yes, I think the DDA could easily make a greater effort at transparency, but I’m not going to condemn them outright. (Any entity that provides funding for the go!Pass, for example, is generally all right in my book.)
       —Murph    Mar. 15 '05 - 01:26AM    #