About That Conference Center on the Library Lot

“Imagine a Park” party, July 14, 2012

One of the issues that is before us in this current campaign is the fate of the Top of the Parking, or the Library Lot.  This is one of the properties being discussed in the course of the DDA’s Connecting William Street project.  My position on this is that a public open space, that would be home to active uses like performances and events, as well as for passive use to sit quietly and read a book, is a good use for the space.  I have been very sympathetic to the efforts of a citizen group,  Library Green.  They recently put on a “block party” atop the new parking structure, called “Imagine a Park”.  They have also been presenting a slide show to the DDA and in other forums to make the case for a park.  Here is a very large pdf of their slide show.  (It contains examples from other cities of similar ventures.)

My involvement with this space goes back to 2009, when I began publishing articles on my blog, Local in Ann Arbor, about straws in the wind that seemed to be leading to plans for a conference center.  The articles are in chronological order on the Library Lot Conference Center page.  That summer, I was able to obtain and publish a proposal that had been circulated secretly in city hall.  Indeed, through a fortuitous gift of FOIAs relating to the construction of the underground garage, I was able to determine that a small group of people had been working with DDA staff in 2008 to put together this proposal.  Partly, I believe, because of my continual publicizing of the issue, the city council passed a resolution putting out a Request for Proposals for the top of the parking at the Library Lot, and later it appointed an RFP advisory committee to review proposals.  Information about the RFP process and the proposals under review can be found on the city RFP website.

With the initiation of the RFP process, there was an appearance of open process.  The committee’s meetings were open to the public (though sometimes it took rather determined research to find out when) and they even held an event at the Ann Arbor District Library where the public was invited to hear presentations by the proposers.   But in fact, the public had no say at all.  No public comment was allowed at the advisory committee meetings, and though the public was invited to send comments, there was no indication that they were read.  The discussions at the meetings were blatantly biased and the committee did not even follow the limited process set up in the RFP.  One of the first actions was to summarily dismiss the two open space proposals without any attempt of evaluation.  (Description and media links here.)  It became increasingly apparent that one proposal, the one brought forward by the Valiant Partners, was “hard-wired”.  Not coincidentally, they were the proposers of the original “Secret Plan”.  The plan was to build a hotel and conference center on the Library Lot.  The hotel was to be privately operated and the conference center made the property (and the liability) of the city.  A Letter of Intent (LOI) was prepared and was scheduled to be considered, and presumably adopted, on April 19, 2011.   But a coalition of citizens rose up in opposition.  As I described at the time,

Campaign button for the community fight against the conference center, 2011

 The inexorable progress of this really appalling proposal inspired a grassroots effort that has resulted in (only two weeks after the working session) a website, a Facebook page, over 700 yard signs, and a growing list of supporters (see the home page of the website), many of whom have been working hard to lobby councilmembers, place yard signs, comment in the media, make campaign buttons, and plan for the public hearing that was to precede the council’s vote.

On April 4, 2011, the Ann Arbor City Council acted to shut down the RFP process and to dismiss the Valiant proposal.  It was over, for the time being.  I can take credit for this, because I was one of the leaders, in addition to have provided months of research and reporting.  But I wasn’t at all alone, and that was the wonderful thing about it.  There was a group of 15-50 people (some came and went at different times) who volunteered to take on many responsibilities and contributed insight, skills, and efforts. (Many of us had been meeting for a year as a group called Public Land – Public Process.)  It was truly a community outpouring, and I am grateful to have participated in it.

The effort to impose this plan on the citizens of Ann Arbor led to a remarkable uprising of civic fervor.  Its defeat felt like a victory.  But of course that wasn’t the end of the story.  The forces that were behind the idea of a hotel and conference center are still with us.  Now it appears that the concept is about to be brought forward again.

On the same night that Council laid the Valiant proposal to rest, it also passed a resolution directing the Downtown Development Authority to take charge of planning for the disposition of city-owned lots downtown.  This has been resolved into a DDA-led process, Connecting William Street.  That is too complicated to review here.  But as one step in the process, they hired a consultant to analyze the downtown for opportunities.  As stated in the report produced for the DDA,

The study objective is to identify current and future market opportunities and challenges associated with the redevelopment of multiple City-owned sites currently managed as parking lots on or near William Street, in downtown Ann Arbor.

The overall conclusion of the report was that office space was the best use for the city-owned parcels.  But wait! There was in addition a little extra report: “Lodging Analysis”.  The conclusion of this report?

Independent interviews conducted by 4ward Planning in 2012 and The Roxbury Group, in 2010, identified prospective pent-up demand for lodging and conference center space in downtown Ann Arbor – in particular, this demand is for lodging and conference space capable of handling numerous events of 500 or more persons throughout the year. Interviewees included heads of large corporations, educational and health care institutions.

The Roxbury Group’s report (also commissioned by the DDA) used interviews of a number of  “stakeholders”,  which I earlier dismissed as “boosterish”.  They were, however, detailed within the report.  This report merely says that such interviews were conducted, without specifying the participants or the questions asked.  It could be described as “I talked to a bunch of people and they all thought it was a good idea”.

So it appears that the idea of a hotel and conference center, whether on the Library Lot or not, is once again being proffered by the DDA’s committee for Connecting William Street.  It doesn’t take much imagination to suppose that a proposal will once again surface for serious consideration.

My Environmental Record

The Sierra Club endorses Vivienne Armentrout in the race for 5th Ward Council

Yes, I’m proud of that endorsement.  It is the result of a long deliberative process.  I was required to fill out a rather fearsome questionnaire.  This then went to a local committee, and as I understand it, a series of committees all the way up to the state level.  I did experience some anxiety about the result.

According to one interim message I got (sent to all candidates), the committees reviewed not only the candidates’ responses, but their records.  This got me thinking about my record as an environmentalist.

I have been an environmentalist for so long that it is part of my core identity.  I’ve always loved the natural world (don’t forget that I am a biologist).  My husband Charlie and I have always tried to live with a small footprint, with reusable goods, high-mileage cars and a low consumption habit as much as possible.  We used unleaded gas before it was required, went to a lot of trouble to recycle before it was convenient, and went to hearings on the original Clean Air Act.  My Sierra Club membership card notes “member since 1973”.

But really, aren’t we all environmentalists these days?  Everyone tries to be “green”.  Still, this has limitations. Thomas Princen made some pithy points about this in his book, “Treading Softly”.  “An economical economy, therefore, does not arise when its consumption patterns simply become greener and more environmentally friendly.”  There is much, much more, but his point is that we can’t be truly concerned about the environment and the future of the planet merely by buying “green” products. I might add, merely by espousing “green” viewpoints. So what have I done other than have friendly feelings toward the environment?

As a plant pathology professional, I ventured into controversy even as a graduate student by opposing the excessive use of pesticides.  Pesticide use is the easy way to control pest problems, but these are often very toxic chemicals.  As a professor, I taught the use of cultural and biological approaches rather than pesticide use against plant disease.  When I arrived in Ann Arbor, I volunteered with the Ecology Center (this was at a time when they actually worked closely with community volunteers in Ann Arbor rather than statewide issues with paid staff).  I was the chair of the Pesticide Task Force and gave lectures on lawn care and integrated, low-toxic pest management of pest problems.  We got the city to adopt some policies that reduced pesticide spraying and incorporated notification to individuals of pesticide treatments.

Then I was appointed to the Solid Waste Commission and quickly became its chair.  During the time I was on the SWC, we supported Recycle Ann Arbor as the city recycling provider and saw the initiation of the compost program.  We started initial exploration of commercial waste recycling.  After I was elected to the Board of Commissioners, I continued this interest and helped to keep the county’s funding for the Drop-off Center.

I discovered two new environmental passions early in my career on the Board of Commissioners.  The concept of  “sustainability” had just gained some currency and I put considerable personal effort into making this one of the BOC priorities.  I was also appointed to the Agricultural Lands and Open Space Task Force, where, after spending an intensive year studying land use patterns in Washtenaw County, we placed an item on the ballot (1998)  to support Purchase of Development Rights and other land use-related issues.  This failed after determined opposition from the development community.  But it was the precursor to the later county millage to protect natural areas (now expanded to some protection of farmland) and then the city Greenbelt program.

Meanwhile, I determined that we needed a better planning matrix to support good land use practices.  The last year I was on the BOC, I was the chair of the Planning Advisory Board as we put together the Washtenaw County Comprehensive Plan.  (You will find my name on it as the editor.)

An environmental problem that was considerably less satisfying than talking about land use came up early in my tenure as a commissioner.   It was the 1,4-dioxane contamination from the former Gelman plant in Scio Township.  I was heavily involved in this, causing a staff member to be hired who brought professional expertise to bear, resurrecting an intergovernmental partnership to address it, and obtaining funds a number of times through BOC resolution to make appeals at the state level for regulatory assistance.  (This was during the Engler administration, which was not environmentally friendly.)  Despite all our best efforts, the situation has deteriorated.  The current county website has updates.

Lately, I have been involved in efforts to protect Ann Arbor parkland from the threat of being disbursed into other uses.  (Specifically, I have opposed the use of Fuller Park for a new train station.)  Our parkland is a valuable environmental resource.  Aside from its active recreational component, it is an important source of passive recreation (simple enjoyment of natural areas).  It serves as permeable surface, air and water quality improvement, and maintenance of many plant and animal communities.  The viewscapes it provides are an important asset to the perceived quality of life in Ann Arbor.  Ann Arbor residents have frequently expressed their support of the park system by voting taxes on themselves and also raising and donating money to support individual parks.  Yet, in spite of all this, some in our government have noted the untapped wealth in our park system and sought to exploit it.  As this excellent summary by the Ann Arbor Chronicle notes, there is currently an effort to amend the Charter to prohibit leasing of parkland, a neglected area of protection.  I support this effort.

Transparency Begins With the City Council

I began in my last post to discuss open government and how it can be achieved.

One aspect of open government is what is often called “transparency”.  This means simply that governmental operations and actions are open to scrutiny.  (The opposite is “secrecy”.)

Of course, an important beginning is to have all relevant documents accessible to public view.  This has improved in Ann Arbor in recent years, but is by no means perfect yet.  Ed Vielmetti has long had a (fortunately not lonely) crusade to obtain much government information by FOIA (Freedom of Information Act).  See, for example, his weblog on the subject.

But more about that later.  The first, most important step for city government transparency is to make City Council deliberations clear and open.

How can citizens engage their government?  First, their council members are their direct line to government.  Because citizens choose them by election, Council is accountable to citizens.  But this only works if citizens have adequate knowledge and understanding of actions Council is preparing to take, and can follow deliberations on each item.

That word deliberations is significant.  According to the Michigan Open Meetings Act (this useful link also describes the Freedom of Information Act), public bodies are not supposed to “deliberate”, i.e. discuss and decide, matters before them except in public session.  There are exceptions for certain confidential legal proceedings.  In practice, many discussions occur as a matter of practicality over a cup of coffee, in subcommittee meetings, in an administrator’s office, etc.  But actual deliberation of how a vote is to proceed is not to occur in private.  The gauge usually applied is whether a quorum (usually half the number of members plus one) is present.  So in our case, councilmembers should not be meeting in groups of 6 or more without making it a “public meeting”.  The OMA then imposes specific conditions.

But let’s take it further.  How can deliberations be transparent if the council members themselves are not informed?  I have noticed a number of deficiencies in the way individual council members are informed and brought into the discussion.  As noted in AnnArbor.com’s interview with Jane Lumm, information is sometimes provided late in the day, and substantial items can sometimes appear on the Council agenda at the last minute.  For example, the meeting of November 7, 2009 (the last meeting for CM Leigh Greden, who was defeated in a primary that August), had an agenda item added at the very last minute that approved the Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Michigan to initiate the Fuller Road Station project.  By adding such a substantial item late in the day, citizens are not able to comment or contact their councilmembers and even the members of council themselves who are not within the tight inner circle where decisions are being made can’t possibly have time to make a rational decision about the issue.  Of course, citizens interested in an issue should not be required to check the agenda repeatedly the day of the council meeting, as is now sometimes the case.

I come from a different tradition, the Board of Commissioners.  There items were placed on the agenda about a week before a meeting, and the agenda was made fully public, with all relevant documents available online, days before the meeting.  If elected, I will be watching carefully to see how information on important items is transmitted to members of council and the public.