The 2018 November election will be closely watched across the country for the impact it will have at the state and federal levels, but even here in Ann Arbor, voters will have the opportunity to cast a vote with a long-lasting impact on our city. Appearing on Ann Arbor ballots is Proposal A, which concerns a city-owned plot of land, popularly called the “Library Lot,” adjacent to the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.
The Library Lot is currently a parking lot, as it has been for roughly the last 70 years. In 2009, an underground parking structure was added, which opened for use in 2012. Since that time, Ann Arbor administrators and City Council have considered various options for what to do with the land at the surface. Last year, in an 8 to 3 vote, the mayor and other members of the City Council approved the selection of a proposal from Chicago-based developer Core Spaces to buy the land and build a mixed-use building on it. Though the paperwork has been signed to execute it, the sale is currently on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by two of the other members of City Council challenging its validity. And Proposal A would only further complicate matters.
Proposal A appears on the ballot as follows:
Charter Amendment for the City-Owned Public Land Bounded by Fifth Avenue, and William, Division, and Liberty Streets to be Designated, in Perpetuity, as an Urban Park and Civic Center Commons to be Known as the “Center of the City,” by Amending the Ann Arbor City Charter Adding a New Section 1.4 to Chapter 1 of the Charter.
Shall the City-owned public land bounded by Fifth Ave, and William, Division and Liberty Streets be retained in public ownership, in perpetuity, and developed as an urban park and civic center commons, known as the “Center of the City” by adding a new section for the purpose as explained above?
The very first word identifies a key point: The proposal would amend the City Charter, the highest-level governing document of Ann Arbor and not somewhere that land use normally would appear. The City Charter is at issue here, because the normal process for land use has already been employed (resulting in the mentioned sale to Core Spaces). By amending the Charter, Proposal A would circumvent the normal process and invalidate the actions of City Council by removing their authority to determine how the property should be used. One of the reasons that land use does not typically appear in the City Charter is that it tends to change more frequently than such provisions permit — City Council regularly votes to approve leases, easements and other modifications to land use, and has bought and sold land before, unhindered by such a constraint. But Proposal A makes clear that its endurance is intentional by specifying that the Library Lot would retain its new status “in perpetuity.”
What, then, is that status? The proposal would designate the Library Lot as the “Center of the City,” an “urban park and civic center commons.” While this leaves some room for flexibility, City Council clearly does not have plans to realize such a vision (having instead made the previously-described arrangement with Core Spaces), and, more concerningly, it seems the supporters of Proposal A may not either. Leaders of the group responsible for organizing this support suggest the “collective vision” of the community will drive what is to be done with the land once it is secured in the City Charter, and that there are various opportunities for securing the necessary funding to implement this vision. But we cannot, as responsible voters, allow our city’s policy to be permanently decided based on the hope for what might be rather than the facts we have before us.
The funding that would be necessary to change the current surface-level lot to something resembling a park or commons is not mentioned in the language of the proposal, and has not been allocated or raised in the 70 years during which the property has been in its current form. Furthermore, the proposal does not address the city’s current plans for the property. As part of the sale to Core Spaces, the city would assign $5 million from the sale to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission for the purpose of supporting affordable housing elsewhere in the city, and collect $2.3 million annually in property taxes from the new owners. This revenue has no counterpart in Proposal A.
The facts we’ve laid out are among the reasons that Proposal A is opposed by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, who recognize the value of both the housing in the proposed Core Spaces development and the additional money it would provide for affordable housing, and the Board of the Ann Arbor District Library, which as the next-door neighbor to either a new building or a new park, stands to be most immediately affected. Ann Arbor urgently needs more housing, and the Library Lot is an appropriate location for this level of density. The resulting additional funding for more affordable housing efforts will ensure that the entire community stands to benefit. We oppose Proposal A, which would pull the rug out from under the careful process that led to this plan, and hope that you will consider doing the same.
Whit Froehlich is a student at University of Michigan Medical School and Austin Glass is a student at the Rackham Graduate School.