Making the Call on the Library Lot

As I wrestled with the vote on Monday, for me it came down to affordable housing. As I reviewed the list of projects in the pipeline that might need money from the affordable housing fund (which is currently unfunded), I asked myself, “If I say ‘no’ to this sale and the $5 million for affordable housing, am I willing to call the people on the housing waitlist and explain to them why I voted to turn down money that would have allowed us to house them?” The issue was more complex than that, but this single question more than anything led to my vote.

As background, the proposal was for the City to sell development rights above the parking structure by the library to a private developer for $10 million. The detailed proposal is available in the Council Packet. Key details of the sale:

  • Half of the sale price are earmarked for affordable housing, and 12% of the units in the development will be workforce housing for individuals making 60-80% of the area median income (classified by HUD as low-income).
  • The developer is required to install and maintain a public park along the 5th Avenue side and operate the park under the same rules as City parks.
  • The developer will contract for 281 regular parking spots and 80 “off-peak” parking spots. 

The concerns raised about the proposal are:

  • Impact on parking (The Main Street Area Association formally raised this as a concern)
  • Some feel building is too imposing/out of scale
  • Some want more space for park
  • Impact on neighboring buildings, especially the Denali Place residential building on Liberty
  • Some worry that overhanging structure + having active use of retail on 1st floor set way back from sidewalk will limit vitality of park

The advantages of proposal:

  • $5M for general fund, $5m for affordable housing (The Ann Arbor Housing Commission has formally supported the sale for this reason, and the Executive Director of Avalon Housing has spoken in favor of it also for this reason)
  • Private funder develops, maintains, and programs park space
  • 43 units of workforce housing for people making less than 80% area median income, which qualifies as affordable housing under HUD guidelines
  • Activation of what is currently a low-activity part of downtown (except for the library), which would benefit AADL
  • Additional office space, needed downtown, not otherwise being built
  • Additional $2 Million/year in property taxes for all taxing entities to fund special ed, transit, fixing roads, County services such as community mental health services.

Leading up to the vote I wrestled with these issues. I called up people from across the community to poll their perspective from labor leaders like Ian Robinson (head of the Huron Valley Area Federation of Labor), Bob King (Former head of the UAW), environmental leaders like Jeannine Palms, friends and neighbors at our neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt. I looked for a “plan B” that credibly meets the affordable housing needs while addressing the concerns about the proposal. I prayed. I even fasted. This was a hard call  because each side has valid points and real concerns.

As you know, in the end I supported the proposal. Here are some of the reasons:

  • By historical measures, each dollar in the affordable housing fund has been leveraged 25-to-1. According to Jennifer Hall of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission “$5 million can leverage $70 to $125 million in other funding to create 200 to 500+ income & rent-restricted apartments for households at 60% AMI or less.” This calculation has likely changed with the new administration. One could argue that this change makes the impact smaller and less important or that the decrease of federal funds makes the local funding more important.
  • The parking concern is real, and with or without this proposal we need to address it. That said, I regularly see hundreds of spaces available at our downtown structures, so I think there may also be management changes that would help (though not fully solve) the problem. I think that adding capacity either in the Ann/Ashley structure or on the Klein Lot may also be needed to address the parking issues, and I have been actively discussing these options. The parking concern is a solvable problem. Furthermore, since the parking spaces leased by CORE are at 20% premium, the funds raised by the parking agreement with CORE are more than sufficient to replace the spaces they would lease.
  • Some have argued that there are other ways to fund affordable housing, either through private donations or a millage. Here are some thoughts on that:
    • How hard is it to raise $5M from private donations? If I’m reading the Avalon Housing IRS filings correctly, in 2014 they raised $266k from private donations. At that rate it would take 19 years to raise $5 (not adjusting for inflation).
    • The Friends of Ann Arbor Skate Park worked their tails off to raise funds for the park. They raised ~$100k from private sources for the park.
    • I’ve been polling people with more political experience than me about the chances of a millage. None think it would be easy, most say it would be a “big lift.” I’m putting the odds of success at around 50/50.
  • Based on these numbers, the promise of funding affordable housing through other means at this scale seems like a risky gamble—a gamble with the lives of real people who are already suffering and on the edge.
  • Some have dismissed the $5M for affordable housing noting that it is not a full and structural fix to the problem. I agree that we need a full fix. I am looking at allocating a portion of the new City general fund tax revenue for affordable housing as well as other solutions, including potentially asking for a voter-approved millage. The lack of a complete solution, however, cannot be an excuse not to act. Mother Theresa is quoted as having said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” I think that also applies to housing.
  • Some people have told me that the Main Street and State Street Area Associations oppose the project. That is not correct. Both Associations have raised parking concerns, and as I state above I believe those are real concerns and solvable concerns. But they have not gone so far as to say “vote no.” In fact, the State Street Area Association writes, “We feel that this project will be a valued addition to our neighborhood and the downtown area of Ann Arbor.”
  • The aesthetics of a tall building a very personal. Some in our community are deeply opposed to a building this tall anywhere in Ann Arbor. Others are entirely fine with it. For my part, if we are to build this tall, this is a good site to do so. The building would be in the center of the block wrapped by lower-scale buildings, thus providing a transition between the pedestrian experience at the sidewalk to the tower in the center.
  • Many have expressed their desire to see a better downtown park (I say better because of the limits of the existing downtown parks of Liberty Plaza, Hanover Square, Sculpture Plaza, and the Farmers Market). I agree. I would love for my kids to have a place to run and play outside before or after a visit to the library. I see the benefit of having the developer pay half a million to develop the park and $100k/year to operate and maintain it. By way of comparison, that $100k/year is what we pay each year for playground and neighborhood park improvements or half of what we pay for trail and pathway repairs and reconstruction. I would rather have a 3rd party fund the downtown park operations so that we can keep updating our playgrounds and repairing our trails.

It was a difficult decision as there was no way to make everyone happy. In the end, I had to choose who I would make happy. Would it be those who worry about parking? Those who don’t like the feel of a tall building in the city center? Or those who can’t afford housing in this City? I know and respect that not everyone agrees with my choice, but when I looked at it this way, it was the best choice I could make to honor Ann Arbor’s professed value of inclusion and my own commitment to justice.