Seven candidates and more than 30 Ann Arbor residents attended a forum of City Council candidates hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party Monday night. All the candidates who were present will be competing in the Democratic primary on August 8.
The candidates present were Anne Bannister from Ward 1, Stephen Kunselman and incumbent Zachary Ackerman from Ward 3, Jaime Magiera and incumbent Jack Eaton in Ward 4 and David Silkworth and incumbent Chip Smith from Ward 5. Jason Frenzel, the Ward 1 City Council member whose seat is being challenged by Bannister, did not attend. Because Democrat Jared Hoffert from Ward 2 is contesting independent Councilmember Jane Lumm's seat and has no Democratic opponent, he did not participate aside from providing opening remarks.
The topics of housing, development and climate action dominated the discussion, with much of the conversation focusing around the controversial sale of the "Library Lot" across from the downtown district library on Fifth Avenue to the Chicago-based development firm Core Spaces. A petition to put the sale of the lot on the ballot in November received 5,779 signatures but fell a few hundred short of success. A city-wide survey in 2013 showed that 76.2 percent of respondents thought Ann Arbor would benefit from more downtown open spaces, and 41.5 percent of respondents chose the Library Lot as the best place to build such a space.
Additionally, the sale has raised legal questions regarding the tax-exempt status of the bonds used to fund construction of the surface and underground parking lots the Library Lot currently occupies. The issue has become so divisive that Bannister said it was the single issue that encouraged her to run.
"Running for council was not something that was on my radar until about three months ago, when City Council voted to sell the public Library Lot to Chicago developers to build the 17-story tall building and lease the majority of the parking places for 50 years," she said. "I would not have supported this project, because I believe council must listen to the many voices of residents and local business who have actively been opposing this project."
A primary motivation City Council members have cited for selling the lot has been the creation of affordable housing, though it is not yet certain how much of the Core Spaces development will be designated for that purpose. In an interview earlier this month, Frenzel defended his vote to sell the lot, saying that housing price pressures were driving people out of the city.
"The thing that's lost in that conversation, though, that's really important to me, is not only are we looking at changing the way the city looks, but we are also substantively changing the people that can live here," he said. "When housing costs go up, disproportionately certain groups of people can no longer afford to be in our town: young professionals, older people and many times people of color. Allowing those housing pressures to push people out of our community is completely inappropriate in my book."
Kunselman rejected that notion, however, saying Ann Arbor's status as a university town meant getting developers to create affordable housing was not a realistic goal.
"When it comes to Ann Arbor gentrification, we have to remember that we are a global city. There's a number of students that come from around the world that will pay top dollar to live in Ann Arbor while they go to the University (of Michigan)," he said. "We are a company town, and the idea that we're going to be able to build our way out by just having more housing and bigger buildings is a mistake. It's not going to happen that way."
Responding to Kunselman, though, Ackerman pointed out that as a council member, there were actions he could take toward the end of affordable housing.
"Talking about trying to influence developers in a positive direction is not a scare tactic," he said. "We actually have a fair amount of control, and it's called zoning policy. We dictate what can be built where, what it's gonna look like and how it can be used."
Saying he would have voted against the sale of the Library Lot, Silkworth said he thought zoning decisions should be put on the ballot.
"I would like to see our downtown zoning be something our residents actually have a voice in deciding,” he said. “This is something that affects every single one of us. So I think we should put it on the ballot, so our residents are actually allowed to vote and decide what our zoning should be, what the long-term planning of our city will take. I don't believe what we're doing right now is what a lot of folks want."
But his opponent, Chip Smith, said in the almost 20 years he's worked as an urban planner, he has never seen a community that put their zoning out for public vote, as it would "make it impossible" to make changes and increase development.
On climate change, Magiera said he spent his life living out his values, minimizing his carbon emissions wherever possible.
"I'm the only candidate who actually does not have a driver's license," he said. "I don't drive at all. I actually took a bike and then a bus here and spend my life minimizing my carbon footprint in society."
Magiera also brought his own reusable water bottle to the forum, while the rest of the candidates accepted the disposable bottles given to them by the hosts of the forum. Touting his experience studying and researching climate change, however, he sparked a debate with Eaton, his opponent, on the role of a City Council member.
"Council members are policymakers,” Eaton said. “We don't do the reading and the research. We set the priorities. And those priorities have to be set in context of the full budget. We have $104 million a year that we use for operating expenses. We need an actionable plan as to how we are going to approach climate change, and then we need to put a price tag on the components of those planning elements, and then we have to set our staff loose to do those sorts of things."
Magiera held that his interest gave him an advantage, however.
"I think that we want people on City Council that are interested in these various topics," he said. "You can't know everything about everything, but I do think it's important to understand what the latest trends are in terms of urban planning, in terms of science, in terms of the environment, to understand what city staff are saying to us, and put that in context, and put forward some solutions."