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.

5 Comments on “About That Conference Center on the Library Lot”

  1. Peter Eckstein says:

    The citizen effort, in which Vivienne played a crucial role, was a wonderful example of how Ann Arborites can combine to defeat a misguided proposal even though it has the fill backing of City Hall. The real answer is to elect members of City Council who will scrutinized proposals carefully, especially expensive ones that put city funds at risk. Vivienne would be such a Council member.

  2. Harvey Pillersdorf says:

    The idea of a park atop the underground parking north of the AADL downtown branch, with performance space and places to rest and play appeals to me.

  3. Alice Ralph says:

    An important aspect of the effort to prevent a conference center from scarring the heart of downtown is the way citizens were united in purpose. This effort was not only to prevent something, but to preserve an opportunity for something better, something worthy of public support. Vivienne was a leader in this successful citizen-driven process (which has not quite been resolved). With electoral success, she will bring her citizen-driven leadership to Council as a thoughtful champion responsible process for an even better city we can live in together.

    • varmentrout says:

      Yes, you are right, Alice. It has not been resolved and that is our task for the next couple of years, to come up with an appropriately public-driven process to resolve it.

  4. Joe Dohm says:

    I was just at Ingall’s mall at the Townie Street Party thinking about this. Ingall’s Mall is a wonderful space, but I would love to see some similar events held on the library lot. In particular, the synergy between the library and a well designed park could be wonderful.

    As far as a conference center goes, I am not opposed to having one, but I don’t think the Valiant proposal was a good one for our city. I am thankful that Vivienne Armentrout and others were watching out for the taxpayers of Ann Arbor, not just the real estate developers or the DDA.

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