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.