The War on Art

The pumpkins are just about to get smashed and dumped into the recycling bins with the leaves, so we can now all start thinking about Thanksgiving and those Puritans. They left quite a legacy, particularly here in Ann Arbor, where the city council discussions have been about decency, bad words, and protection of women. These moral considerations forced the council to vote twice on the same nomination of the same person. They must have forgotten that the Puritans were against wasting time.

Puritans were also quite disturbed by graven images and so, it seems, are some of the councilmembers. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, they have declared a war on art.

In 2007, the city council unanimously passed the Percent for Art Ordinance, a piece of legislation that the Commission on Art in Public Places (now called the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission or AAPAC) began developing around the turn of the century. Although I always like to point out how innovative our city is, this was not an innovation but had been successfully implemented in many cities, including Philadelphia, which started it all in 1959. New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Chapel Hill all have percent-for-art programs. Chapel Hill, a college town half our size, even has a Public and Cultural Arts Office.IMAG1228

Renovation of City Hall benefited from the art program when a completely uninteresting façade was replaced with an educational and functional stormwater installation and fountain designed by world-renowned artist Herbert Dreiseitl. It includes usable outdoor space and decorative plantings that change with every season.

The Puritans have spread a lot of misinformation about Percent for Art, so here is how it really works:  Whenever there is a capital improvement project, such as a bridge, water main, or street repaving, that project always has a 10% contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses. The Percent for Art is 1% of that contingency fund. It is not an extra amount added to a project, so it doesn’t make the project any more expensive. Each project is capped at $250,000 and none of the art funds come from the city’s General Fund, the money used to pay police and firefighters.

We don’t have a Percent for Art ordinance anymore. Misinformation works. First, 3rd Ward Councilmember Stephen Kunselman started talking about how the ordinance was illegal. He kept talking, even though he lacked support from anyone who was actually schooled in law. Then some misinformed people started to criticize the Dreiseitl sculpture, mistakenly saying that it was taking money away from police and fire services, and xenophobically saying that Dreiseitl was not from Michigan or even from America.

The fact that some people don’t “like” the Dreiseitl art or any of the other public art is beside the point. Public art is not there to lull people SUB-CZECH-articleInlineinto serenity with gentle colors and Norman Rockwell images of kids in barber chairs. It is meant to make you think and react, whether you “like” it or not. This concept might be best expressed by Czech sculptor David Cerny, whose installation in the Vltava River points towards the Prague Castle.

Art is part of culture and culture is what makes a city unique. If Ann Arbor had a cadre of gazillionnaires, the way Grand Rapids does, we could count on private funding for large, outdoor art installations. We do have the University of Michigan, and more collaboration between the U and the city could produce some contributions to public art, but that has not yet been a priority for either institution.

Politics is hard and you have to choose your battles. Art is not very popular when times are tough, so the council chose to throw art under the bus, which took the form of a ballot proposal that would fund art with a millage – coming out of citizens’ pockets – rather than a percent of capital projects. The council did not consult the arts community before proposing this millage and there was little time to mount a campaign in support. It doesn’t take much to mount a campaign against spending your money, so, not too surprisingly, recession-strapped voters last year voted against taxing themselves for art.

This vote gave the council an easy, but not necessarily correct, way to say that “the people” don’t want money spent on art. This past summer they got rid of Percent for Art completely, and replaced it with an ordinance that says, essentially, that art might happen in an appropriate project if someone adds it into the project cost and then gets tied to some railroad track until the council says the art is worth it. The possibility of art being included in any new city project is slim.

Councilmember Jane Lumm, from Ward 2, has declared herself to be against public art in any circumstance. She and 1st Ward Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy proposed gutting what was left of the public art fund, but their proposal was defeated. AAPAC still has about $800,000 from the old Percent for Art to spend on art projects, and they are giving thanks for that.


Westphal Can Benefit Ward 2 and the City

Ward 2 covers a large area of the city, with north-of-the-river and south-of-the-river sectors, bounded roughly by M-14, US-23, Washtenaw, and Nixon. Traffic is a big issue in the ward, but you would never know that from the general disdain given mass transit issues by Ward 2 Councilmember Jane Lumm. Lumm has voted to turn down federal money to study how to reduce traffic along what is called the “Connector,” that is, from US-23 along Plymouth Road, down Huron Parkway and eventually to State Street. Despite the fact that the city, the AATA, and the University of Michigan had already contributed to more than $600,000 spent on the first phase of the study, Lumm was the sole dissenting vote for a $30,000 expenditure to go to the next phase and look at what kind of transit makes sense for the Connector.

The need for transit is especially urgent because of the University of Michigan’s expansion into the former Pfizer property. More and more of its research faculty are moving out to the North Campus Research Complex (NCRC) and retail development along Plymouth Rd. is following. As is usual for federal grants, a local funding match is required and the University is paying the lion’s share of this.

Lumm has also voted to turn down federal money to study an improved Amtrak station, although she joined the rest of the council recently in finally voting for money to complete the study. The existing station is completely inadequate and the federally-funded study is determining the best place for a new one. There is little question that the best location would be on city-owned land in front of the University hospital, land that is leased to the University for surface parking. Lumm has joined with anti-growth advocates who claim that land is a “park” and requires a referendum vote to change its use. Of course, there was no referendum vote for the long-term lease for its use as surface parking, and the huge Fuller Park lies just across the street.

Traffic is not only an issue for Plymouth Road and Huron Parkway but also along Geddes and Fuller Roads. Second Ward residents who are tired of seeing long lines of vehicles, with one person per car, would be better served by a representative who understands transit. Planning Commission chair Kirk Westphal is running against Lumm in November and his understanding of and support for transit is one factor that distinguishes him from the ineffective incumbent.

How Good Planning Can Turn Bad

You may wonder why I illustrate this post with a scene from Act III of “La Boheme,” showing the starving Bohemians at the gates of Paris. In the 19th century, when Puccini wrote the opera, Paris had toll gates, meant to raise money and keep out scaliwags.

labohemeSome people today would have Ann Arbor follow the same concept. Ann Arbor does have determined boundaries and cannot, for the most part, expand in territory beyond the circle of the highways.

Yet, many people want to live within that boundary. In the not-so-distant past, Ann Arbor’s city council recognized that the city needs to increase residential development within the core – the downtown and near-downtown – because there is simply no place else to go. The message of the Greenbelt millage, where money is spent to purchase farmland or development rights to that land, is that it’s bad for everyone if we encourage developers to build sprawling subdivisions with cul-de-sacs on farmed or forested land.

The problem is, there simply isn’t very much empty space in Ann Arbor’s core. When the old Eaton factory on the edge of downtown was turned into Liberty Lofts, those condos sold out immediately. Grand Rapids is using old factory buildings to create a new market and foodie destination. But here, we just don’t have enough blight!

Most of the empty land in the downtown is owned by the city and used primarily for surface parking. In 2012, the Downtown Development Authority undertook a planning process, with the aid of a professional planning consultant,  to determine how best to move forward in developing those parking lots. One of them, the Library Lane lot, lies atop a brand new underground parking garage with spaces for more than 700 cars. Millions of dollars were spent to shore up most of that lot so that a large building could be built on top. That lot and the others (a large lot on Ashley Street, a small one next to the Palio restaurant, and the former site of the YMCA across from the library) are extremely valuable. The DDA’s planning process was called Connecting William Street and one would think that the city, just coming out of the recession, would be anxious to immediately start working to develop these valuable properties.

Now for Act III – the Gatekeepers! There has always been a small group of well-connected citizens in Ann Arbor that is opposed to change in any form. Some have no affiliation with and are resentful of the University of Michigan and are opposed to any buildings that might house students. Some are frightened by seeing what they thought was a small town become an urban city. Some have a financial interest in near-downtown real estate and don’t want any competition.  This small group was able to put enough pressure on city councilmembers so that the Connecting William Street study was not formally adopted by the council but was instead adopted by the City Planning Commission, whose commissioners do not run for election.

Instead of directing the city’s planning department, with its professional planners, and the DDA to work on developing the valuable city properties, the city council decided to fly one of the lots up the flagpole and hired an established but not very creative real estate broker to find a developer. Luckily, this process is mainly being run by the city administrator, Steve Powers, who will vet the proposals and make a recommendation to the council. But the council still has to choose one of the proposals.

Four out of the five proposals the administrator received for the former YMCA lot are within the guidelines of the Connecting William Street plan. They include ground-floor retail space, residential apartments, and hotel and conference space. One of them contains nothing but a dollar amount. That “proposal” is from Dennis Dahlmann, the owner of the only two downtown hotels, the Campus Inn and the Bell Tower. Dahlmann has, in the past, proposed to build a park on top of the valuable Library Lane lot, so as to make sure no one can build a competing hotel there. He has also purchased the small parking lot across from the Google offices, a location where another hotel was once proposed but quashed by the city council. It remains a parking lot.

How likely is it that Dahlmann’s no-proposal will find favor with the Gatekeepers on the city council? His campaign contributions might be illustrative. In the current or last election cycle, they have been as follows:  Sabra Briere, $500 and $250 from Dahlmann’s attorney; Sumi Kailasapathy, $500; Jane Lumm, $500; Sally Petersen, $500; Stephen Kunselman, $500; Mike Anglin, $500; Candidate Jack Eaton, $500; and Mayor John Hieftje, $1000. Campaign contributors have to disclose their occupations and Dahlmann has described himself sometimes as a real estate developer, sometimes as a hotelier, and sometimes as a businessman. Councilmembers Petersen and Kunselman have talked about drafting an ethics policy for the council, so it will be interesting to see where this fits in. It is inevitable that developers will contribute to council campaigns. It is unusual, though, for the council to have a choice to sell property to either a developer or a speculator.

The old YMCA lot is an ideal spot for a modern hotel and conference center. The new Blake Transit Center is going up just adjacent to it. Visitors to Ann Arbor could take the AirRide shuttle from the airport and have access to the whole city without needing a car. That is, unless they can’t get past the gates.