Library lot petition reflects diverging visions for downtown development

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 8:23pm

Monday, a group of Ann Arbor citizens presented 5,779 signatures to City Council in a petition aimed at halting the sale of the city-owned parking lot to a private high-rise developer.

The debate surrounding the parking lot is another episode between residents who feel downtown needs to change for further growth and those who are content with the status quo of low-rise shops. Similar issues arose in 2012 with the controversial Foundry Lofts luxury apartment development. 

If City Clerk Jackie Beaudry can validate at least 4,616 of those signatures, the Ann Arbor Committee for the Community Commons can put a proposal on the November ballot to stop any sale of the city-owned lot to private developers and could instead develop a park and civic center commons.

The petition was delivered after the council voted 6 to 5 against putting the library parking lot question on the ballot in fall 2015.

Alan Haber, the leader of the petition, told the Daily he is optimistic about his prospects. Though his group has no concrete plans on what to do with the land, Haber expressed excitement about the many possibilities a win in November could bring.

“My plan is to create a situation where everyone in Ann Arbor can imagine what it is they would like as a center of their city and somehow put those ideas into a common pot, and we mix them up and see what comes out in the most beautiful way possible,” Haber said. “But the powers that be have labeled all those ideas irrelevant, so we’ve had to go through a political process.”

Haber suggested as possibilities a municipal auditorium, a museum of city history or an environmental education center.

Ten years in the making

The 2006 Calthorpe Report, a downtown redevelopment policy plan created through public design workshops, recommended the library parking lot be converted into a “town square” and underground parking space, with residential development on top.

Following the report’s recommendations, the Downtown Development Authority approved construction of an underground parking lot in 2007, but not a town square. All proposed parks were rejected and instead two proposals for hotel-conference centers — similar what is being proposed right now — were chosen. Citizen opposition prevented a hotel’s construction, and the 50-year-old surface parking lot was then remodeled as a placeholder.

Seven years later, a 2013 Park Advisory Commission survey indicated that 76.2 percent of respondents thought Ann Arbor would benefit from more downtown open spaces — like a park or town square — and 41.5 percent of pro open-space respondents chose the library parking lot in question as their first-choice spot to build such a space.

A battle of contradictions

Despite large resident support, some have reservations about the petition’s viability. City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said that though she will support either a civic center or building in the lot, the green park envisioned by many of the petitioners would be structurally difficult to build.

“For many people, what they imagine is a green park with trees,” she said. “(The surface parking lot is) a roof, and so it’s designed to hold pavement, which is a lot lighter than wet soil.”

Briere said the existing infrastructure can never house tall trees or a picnic-friendly lawn. She emphasized she would not support an impossible park any more than she would a structurally unsound building.

However, Haber claimed that there is a layer of broken rock and cement below the surface of the parking lot that can be replaced with soil.

“When they poured the roof of the top of the first floor (of the parking structure) … they have filled in 18 to 24 inches of broken rock and cement on top of the top of the parking structure,” he said. “Those 24 inches to 18 inches of rock and cement, remove that, put in some dirt.”

He also said he intends to use the Freedom of Information Act to make his claim accessible to the public.

City Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) implicitly countered Haber’s assertions, arguing the parking lot was destined to become a building 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.”

He said there is a foundation for a high-rise building embedded in the underground parking structure as per an accepted budget proposal.

“The community decided all along that this was an appropriate place to put parking underground and a high rise above, so that’s why we invested in a foundation for a high-rise building,” Westphal said. “It was decided when the underground structure was proposed and approved, because the building wasn’t proposed on top of it at the time and a foundation for a large building can go in there.”

However, Haber dismissed Westphal’s suggestion that this foundation was agreed upon democratically. He claimed that when the underground parking lot was originally developed, the developer inserted backdoor costs for building high-rises in the future.

“Into the plan for the parking structure came this plan for a foundation for a building,” Haber said. “It wasn’t approved, wasn’t public, couldn’t be FOIAed, it was under the table — corrupt, if you just want to be outlandish and honest.

“This parking structure was made with the assurance to the people that what was built underneath had no foreclosure of any possible activity or development on the top. It was an option, it was not a determination, one could call that sunk costs; they were not approved.”

Haber called the alleged dealings “sunk costs” and said the council turned its back on its constituents.

“We do not need to be strangled by the dead hand of past under-the-table city dealings to satisfy a developer and the mentality of the City Council,” Haber added.