Councilmembers discuss recyclable disposal, new housing construction

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 11:05pm

Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, discusses the city’s recycling facility at a City Council meeting in Larcom City Hall Monday.

Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, discusses the city’s recycling facility at a City Council meeting in Larcom City Hall Monday. Buy this photo
Asha Lewis/Daily

Ann Arbor City Council representatives discussed a potential decision to transport the city’s recyclables to Lansing as opposed to redeveloping the city’s materials recovery facility at their meeting Monday night. 

Ann Arbor hasn’t had an operational MRF since 2016, when the facility was shut down due to safety concerns that emerged from overuse. In the interim, the city has been sending local recyclables 250 miles away to be processed in a plant in Cincinnati.

Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, supported the redeveloping the city’s MRF, explaining that when it was in full use, it provided benefits not only for Ann Arbor but for the surrounding region, as well. 

“Our MRF in the past has had bigger capacity than the city of Ann Arbor itself,” Eaton said. “And we took in materials from other (towns). So, having a MRF in our region allows other communities to use that facility.”

Councilmember Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, also expressed that the MRF’s reopening is the only viable long-term solution and that the greater community would prefer disposal of waste within the city, rather than its transportation to plants in Lansing or Cincinnati. 

“We were once a leader in this field… we made significant investments in our MRF,” Smith said. “We passed an environment bond in the early 90s. All of this has been the community telling us time and time again, we want to do this work here. We continue to hear that. I have heard that loud and clear on the environmental commission.”

The move to transport recyclables to Lansing was also controversial as it would contradict the city’s October decision to declare a climate emergency. Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, explained that he has received concerns from the public about the detriments transporting waste across the state may have.

“It’s been made clear to me by the community, by the numerous emails that we’ve been receiving throughout our community, that this is more than just trying to find the best cost, you know, it’s not like, getting on Amazon and looking for the lowest price,” Ramlawi said. “There are other things that we're looking for with having RAA stay our community partner.”

In addition to the discussion among councilmembers, several community activists gave their input during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Chris VandenBroek, a mechanical engineer and a lifelong Ann Arbor resident, was particularly concerned with the environmental consequences of transporting recyclables to Lansing.

“The current alternative, namely to transport recyclables to Lansing, has serious consequences of transportation emissions, increased contamination resulting in poor recovery and the burning of some materials,” VandenBroek said.

VandenBroek added that redeveloping the MRF would be a boon to the city’s economy and would be a viable investment in the future. 

“We have an opportunity to take our community and the city government’s vast and collective resources to nurture and rekindle the local MRF,” he said.

Ultimately, the council voted 9-2 to begin negotiations with Recycle Ann Arbor, with councilmembers Lumm and Hayner opposing. RAA has proposed either reopening the city’s plant or transporting recyclables to a plant in Southfield MI.

The next major topics of discussion were two proposed developments, one on 212 S. State Street and one on 616 E. Washington Street. The structure on Washington was particularly controversial, as the proposal would be the tallest building proposed in decades, and would be located only a block away from the city’s historic State Street district. 

The 19-story building would be located behind the Michigan Theater and would be the tallest building constructed in Ann Arbor since the 1960s. While the building would exceed the city’s rules on downtown building height limits, developers would be permitted to go forward with construction due to the fact that 19 of the building’s 240 units would be set aside for affordable housing. Solar panels to be installed on the new buildings will also increase the city’s solar production by 19 percent.

Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, was in support of the Washington St. development, framing it as a benefit both to students and community members.

“I’d rather provide (student) housing closer to campus, new housing closer to campus, than push students out into our neighborhoods to compete with families trying to purchase single family homes, with working renters trying to live closer to where they work, or potentially even increase the demand for new and very problematic types of developments like the cottages at Barton Green,” Ackerman said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Chris VandenBroek’s name.