“Get busy living or get busy dying” – Andy Dufresne, banker, wrongly accused, rock hound, urban planner?
I’ve been hesitant to touch this one but with the recent news that a proposal could head to the ballot in November, it’s time to weigh in. The library lot, most specifically the proposed development on top of it, is probably the most controversial item on the city’s agenda in 2016 not associated with shooting Bambi’s relatives.
To quickly bring you up to speed, the so-called library lot is the parcel immediately to the north of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library on 5th between William and Liberty. All the way back in 1991, the area was studied for a public park with mixed use development behind it. The space was still a surface parking lot when the 2006 Calthorpe Report came out and furthered the same notion, now with an underground parking garage with a “town square” and residential development above. The city actually followed through on the first part of this plan and began construction of the Library Lane Parking Garage in 2009, opening to the public in 2012. The garage goes 4 stories underground, contains 711 spaces and was built to potentially accommodate a future building above. During construction the city issued a Request for Proposals (“RFP”) for development of said building. Six proposals were submitted and the one to that rose to the top was a 15-story hotel and conference center presented by Valiant Partners out of New York. The public park space was strangely absent and the proposal was eventually shot down, mainly due to the fact that the city was financially on the hook for the conference center component but also stemming from a variety of political factors.
That brings us to present day(ish), where the city has one again issued an RFP on the library lot. The city hired CBRE to market the site (for an exorbidant fee I might add, I work in this space, that’s highway robbery) and initially received 9 proposals. This time around, projects were required to include 12,000 square feet of public space for a park or plaza. All proposals included a hotel and/or residential component ranging from 8 to 18 stories and some public space although oddly most did not include the full 12,000 square feet. These initial proposals were hewn down to 5 and then to 2 finalists in December 2015 before finally the project from Chicago-based Core Spaces was chosen as the preferred alternative in January 2016.
The city is currently negotiating the sale and soliciting public input so the project continues to evolve but here’s the basic overview. Dubbed The Collective on 5th, the project is a 17 story, 180 foot tall, 352,496 square foot building with 360 apartments, 131 hotel rooms, 3,353 square feet of retail/restaurant space, and 20,198 square feet of office space with a 12,000 public plaza out front.
Final approval of the sale and site plan is no foregone conclusion, sale of public land requires 8 city council member votes and only 7 voted to even begin negotiations of a sale. Additionally, a group of active citizens, the Library Green Conservancy, has been collecting petitions to bring the measure to a city-wide ballot in November. I generally feel we elect council members to do this work for us and make decisions based on the best information at hand while representing the needs of their consitituents. However, if there’s any chance of this going to general election, the populace needs to be educated on the facts (hence, you know, this blog).
The petitioners, led publicly by Alan Haber (and bless their hearts and their conviction, I disagree with them but this is democracy at its best), present a very simple alternative to potential signers: Do you want a downtown central park or another tall, ugly building? If you frequent the downtown YMCA, the Farmers Market or any of a number of other downtown area haunts you’ve likely seen them or been approached, as I have, several times. Faced with that basic choice, the signing residents, which skew to a grayer demographic, somewhat obviously prefer a park. What I’m attempting to do here is present the actual data points I think one needs to make a decision on a proposal such as this. Like the petitioners, I won’t try to hide my own bias but I will show the whole picture as best I can.
|Core Proposal||Library Green|
|Basics||17-story Mixed-Used Building||Public Park/Plaza|
|Public Space||12,000 SF Plaza||16,600 SF Plaza|
|Public Space Responsbility||Privately Maintained by Core||Maintained by City of Ann Arbor|
|Apartments||360 units of market rate housing not targeted at students (potential workforce housing component)||None|
|Office||20,198 SF (1 floor)||None|
|Retail||3,353 SF on Ground Floor||None|
|One Time Economics||$10 million to city plus $5 million for 200 parking spaces in garage (optional)||$0 to city, assumes majority of money privately raised to build park/plaza in future|
|Ongoing Economics||$2.5-$3M in property taxes per year, no plaza upkeep||$0 in property taxes, city plaza upkeep|
|Pros||Economics, Active Use, Need for More Downtown Housing & Hotel Competition, Privately Maintained Plaza||Larger Public Plaza, No Tall Building, Land remains public|
|Cons||Tall Building, Removal of Public Parking Spaces, Smaller Plaza||Economics, Wasted Infrastructure/Opportunity|
The root of the issue for me comes down to the public space and economics. The library lot isn’t that big, it has a parking garage below it and assorted ramps, elevators and stairwells. It can support a fairly small park that’s really more of a plaza as it’s not built to accommodate large trees or heavy sod and plantings. I’ve advocated for a downtown park in the past, we could use a public commons space in Ann Arbor, but if you’re thinking of this as a central park with all the amenities we need, I’m sorry to disappoint. This is more of an urban plaza, a little larger than Liberty Plaza around the corner which is just over 10,000 square feet. As such, with the Core Proposal you get up to $15 million dollars in a one time payment and up to $3 million per year in property taxes plus a 12,000 square foot park/plaza! The alternative is no money to the city and a 16,600 square foot park/plaza! Money certainly isn’t everything but those economics are tough to ignore. Think about our school, infrastructure and affordable housing needs.
Now if you have nostalgia for a bygone time and simply can’t stand tall buildings in Ann Arbor, I know where you’ll stand. I get it, it’s a big building. It does, however, conform with zoning height limits making it comparable to newer buildings and still well below infamous towers like Tower Plaza or University Towers. There’s actually more than a dozen buildings within a few blocks of here with 10 or more stories so it’s not as out of context as some would argue. It will also bring a beehive of activity to the heart of town, activating the park, providing permanent jobs and hundreds of patrons for local businesses throughout the downtown area.
I truly think this project is a fair compromise in regards to the park and the economics are eye popping. It’s important to remember that growing outward with sprawl is inefficient and more expensive long term and that we are restricted in that sense through our Greenbelt program. Thus, we have to increase density and grow within the city limits, namely in appropriate transit corridors and in the downtown core. If you’re simply anti-growth period, consider that Michigan state law limits property tax increases and that government expenses outstrip tax revenue without new development. Without new development we will almost certainly have to payer higher taxes or cut services. Of course, that doesn’t mean it has to be this development but we can’t stay static, you either get busy living or get busy dying. This is smart growth with multiple uses in the heart of downtown across from Blake Transit Center that also provides a public amenity. No development is perfect but this one checks a lot of boxes. It should receive a little more tweaking by planning, council and the public through this process but ultimately this should be a project that deserves to move forward.