Ann Arbor residents challenge development of high-rise on Library Lot

Sunday, March 5, 2017 - 3:23pm

The proposed construction of a high-rise on contested land in Ann Arbor provoked controversy among citizens.

The proposed construction of a high-rise on contested land in Ann Arbor provoked controversy among citizens. Buy this photo
Emma Richter/Daily

The future of a controversial high-rise plan on a contested piece of land in Ann Arbor is coming to an apex as the City Council has announced a special work session on March 16 to discuss the issue in more detail.

The real estate, located between Liberty and Williams streets on 5th Avenue, is currently a surface and underground parking lot called the Library Lane Parking Structure. Last year, City Council selected Chicago developer Core Spaces as a finalist to redevelop the property as a $10 million, 17-story high-rise. The building would include 357 apartments and 131 hotel rooms, in addition to office and retail space as well as an outdoor plaza.

However, such an ambitious project provoked ire and scrutiny from citizen groups who felt constructing another high-rise downtown was unnecessary.

Last year, the Ann Arbor Committee for the Community Commons delivered a petition to put the future of the Library Lot to the November election ballot, but it fell short of signatures. Alan Haber, the leader of the petition, has criticized the council’s decision to sell the lot and said he wanted to build a civic commons on it.

“Sometimes it seems (City Council members) would sell their mother if the price was right, and not even notice they were doing it, and they are trying to do that right now, not noticing what never-to-be center of community they are selling away,” Haber wrote in a Facebook post for the AACCC. “This citizen initiative is the alternative to 17 floor luxury hotel/condo development, Chicago style., or its successor waiting to buy it out from under us.”

Haber and others’ concerns have majority support from the community. A 2013 Park Advisory Commission survey showed 76.2 percent of respondents thought Ann Arbor would benefit from more downtown open spaces — such as a park or town square — and 41.5 percent of respondents chose the Library Lot as the best option to build such a space.

Will Hathaway, a member of the Library Green Conservancy, a group that advocates for apportioning a part of the library lot as a public open space, is one such individual. Hathaway argued that the high-rise is mired with problems, the most important being parking.

According to Hathaway, of the more than 700 underground parking spaces of the Library Lot, Core Spaces is planning to purchase or lease 196 of the spaces. However, he said 196 is not a sufficient number to satisfy all inhabitants of the high-rise, so Core Spaces is asking for another 85 parking spaces and 80 off-peak permits in the nearby parking lot on 4th Street and Williams Avenue. Hathaway argued even that is too little and would create a massive shortage of parking spots.

“The rest of the people who don’t get a dedicated parking space who are in this building are going to be in the mix with all the rest of us looking for parking spaces,” Hathaway said. “So the impact goes way beyond those parking spaces that they’re proposing to take out of the system.”

However, Councilmember Zachary Ackerman (D–Ward 3) argued the surface parking lot and 196 spaces underground were built expressly with the purpose of building a structure above it. He also noted that of the 160 spaces at Fourth and William, only 80 can only be used during off-peak hours. Therefore, Ackerman said, the real issue is the other 80 spaces, which he said is more than enough of a trade-off for the high-rise.

Ackerman noted that with the high-rise, Ann Arbor will gain a much-needed 20,000 square feet of office space for the tech community, as well as 120 apartments and 3,350 square feet of retail space. He added the benefits do not end there.

“Each of these (spaces) will help activate 12,000 square feet of public plaza that will be built and maintained with private dollars,” Ackerman said. “This is important to note because our Parks Department is already responsible for maintaining 2,200 acres of parkland with a $14 million budget that they use in its entirety every year.”

Ackerman’s assertion has some backing in Councilmember Kirk Westphal’s (D–Ward 2) comment regarding Haber’s attempt at the petition. Westphal told the Daily in June the future of the parking lot as a high-rise was decided through a transparent public process.

“Before I was involved in city government, I participated as a citizen in the Calthorpe process for downtown over 10 years ago,” Westphal said. “The state of that particular parcel has not been contentious at all for decades, so going to the voters about a single piece of property didn’t seem to be a good use of the ballot mechanism.”

Ackerman reasoned that in a state which prohibits rent control, increasing supply and competition is the best way to bring prices down for residents. He also noted that 42 of the housing units will be workforce housing, which will house individuals making $45,000 to $60,000 a year, 80 to 100 percent of Ann Arbor’s median income. Moreover the city will appropriate half of the $10 million revenue from the high-rise to the Affordable Housing Fund.

In a meeting last Wednesday, the Downtown Development Authority decided to lease the 360 parking spaces for 50 years, the minimum that Core Spaces deemed necessary. The proposal is heading to the council, where it would be approved at an undetermined date.

Hathaway also said the real estate biome around the parking lot is also problematic for building a massive high-rise. He said that the Core Spaces proposal encroaches on a piece of land the council designated as a public open space in 2014, and other developers may take Core Spaces to court in order to prevent a high-rise from casting a shadow over their planned developments.

“Part of what we’re hoping is that we can avoid this whole protracted battle over who has a legal right to do whatever they want here and here, and instead get the community to step back and say, ‘Well, what would be the best way to develop this and this and this so that it all hangs together and supports the downtown around it instead of just treating each site in isolation?’ ” Hathaway said. “It’s better from an urban planning perspective. … It’s more holistic to think about the relationship between all of these different sites and how they could knit together the downtown.”

Hathaway and Ackerman found common ground, however, in creating affordable housing for Ann Arborites with modest means.

Hathaway contended that Core Spaces may be adding luxury student housing in the building to ease the parking issue, but suggested the council apportion the land for affordable housing.

“If they use this site and a build a more modest building that included a 100 or 200 units of workforce housing, that could really help to create a more vibrant downtown,” Hathaway said. “You have people, in theory, who are the workers who work downtown living downtown, so less traffic congestion, less pressure on parking.”

Ackerman said instead of building affordable housing on the Library Lot, the council is building it across the street.

This year, the council is purchasing back this property, known as the Y Lot, for $4 million from the high-rise revenue because there was no development since selling the land in 2014Ackerman said City Council is bringing 250 units of affordable housing on the Y Lot and leftover land in the Library Lot, and contended this was a smarter way to solve the affordable housing problem.

“Talking about affordable and workforce housing only becomes lip service if we do nothing to build it,” Ackerman said. “Leaving this opportunity on the table is not just inaction on workforce housing, it's action against workforce housing.”