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A Win for Affordable Housing

At the last City Council meeting in January, I successfully championed a measure to significantly increase available funds for affordable housing by allocating all net proceeds from the sale of the old Y lot to the affordable housing trust fund. The Ann Arbor Chronicle, as usual, provides excellent coverage.

While many in Ann Arbor are affluent, or at least comfortable, there are also those in our community who are pushed out by our high cost of living. Supporting affordable housing is a vital need in our community.

While in the end the resolution passed unanimously, one of the questions that came up in debate was how much we should be spending on affordable housing compared and how much on cops, firefighters, and roads. Human services is a tiny part of the budget compared to safety services and infrastructure. Here is my plea to fund affordable housing, as transcribed by the Ann Arbor Chronicle:

We say one of our budget priorities is police and fire. That gets $39.5 million dollars in our budget. It’s the biggest chunk of our budget. We say it’s a priority and that’s where we are putting our money – in police and fire. Infrastructure is one of those – roads is $14 million. We say it’s a priority, we are putting most of the money in those areas. But we say affordable housing is a priority – compared to the big ones, it’s minuscule. If this is a priority, let’s fund it. When the Y came down, there were two big losses to the community. One was the hundred units.

But the other loss we heard was the one that Jennifer Hall was telling us about. We lost the site that best served our most needy community members, by providing them a site that had a safe, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week staffed front door – for long-term housing. We don’t have anything else that does that. So for people who are hard to house – fighting addiction, worried about getting abused by people in their lives – they can walk in and they’ve got somebody stopping, watching their back when they get to the door, so they don’t get bullied or re-victimized and hurt. That’s the other thing we lost.

And that is why I was so delighted when I talked to Jennifer all last week, and she said: We have a plan [for converting Miller Manor to a front-door staffed facility] … Compared to what else we’re spending, we’re not putting the same money that we’re putting onto what we’re doing on the other priorities. … It still doesn’t help us move forward in terms of providing beds for those people we heard from who don’t have a warm place to sleep – tonight or when the warming shelter isn’t open. And so I think we need to be looking for other opportunities….

When I voted yes to sell the Y site to Dennis Dahlmann, I wasn’t doing it just to get the debt off the books – that was a good thing. I certainly wasn’t doing it to help him have one more property that wasn’t going to be a hotel to compete with him. I was doing it because I thought it was going to be a path to get money to fund affordable housing. This is our opportunity. We’re not going to get a lot of opportunities like this to put some money aside for affordable housing. We’ve got the needs. The 11 of us will all have a warm place to sleep tonight. We have a responsibility to do what we can to provide that for the rest in our community. Thank you.

Where will the funds go? That has yet to be determined, but I see three top contenders:

  1. Front Desk Services at Miller Manor: One pressing need we have in this community is for housing for people who are chronically homeless. To serve this population well, however, requires a facility with a 24/7 staffed front door to protect these individuals –and their neighbors–from predatory behavior. When the YMCA operated housing, they provided this. There is a plan to retrofit Miller Manor to provide this coverage, and the revenue from this sale could help make that a reality.
  2. Affordable Housing on Platt Road: Washtenaw County has appointed a committee to review options for the old Juvenile center on Platt Road. One of the potential uses for that site is affordable housing, perhaps along the lines of Avalon Housing’s Carrot Way community. If the County decides to pursue affordable housing for that site, these funds could help Ann Arbor be a partner in that endeavor.
  3. Improve Public Housing: Congress has consistently cut Federal Funds for public housing, making it hard for all public housing providers (including Ann Arbor’s Housing Commission) to adequately maintain their public housing stock. The Housing Commission is going through a process that includes improvements to many of these projects, and it’s expensive. These funds may be able to help with that process

Apply to be on the Pedestrian Safety Task Force, deadline December 2

Pedestrian Crossing Sign_originalLast week City Council approved the creation of a 9-member Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force.

The goal here is to take a holistic look at what we can do to improve pedestrian safety. It’s inspired by the Federal Highway Administration’s guide How to Develop a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan. We are looking for people with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds to participate in the task force. Would you like to be one of them?

To apply, please fill out the Application for Membership City Council Boards/Commissions/Committees by 4pm on December 2. Submit your completed application to:

Christine Schopiery
[email protected]
Office of the Mayor
3rd Floor – City Hall
100 North Fifth Ave, PO Box 8647
Ann Arbor, MI 48107-8647
Phone: 734 794-6161
Fax: 734 332-5966

Chat with Chuck November 9

Emails and phone calls are great ways to get in touch with me (email especially since I can answer that at 11pm), some things are best discussed face-to-face.

So, I’ll be hosting a Chat with Chuck session on Saturday, November 9 1:30 to 3:00pm at Mighty Good Coffee, 217 N. Main St. Stop by and chat about whatever is on your mind.

How can we improve pedestrian safety?

The City’s Pedestrian Safety Ordinance, which requires drivers to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross the street, has been quite controversial. Sometimes the best way to deal with controversies like this is to step back and look at the bigger picture. In that, there should be two things that are not controversial:

  • The goal of a community that provides for pedestrian safety and access;
  • The responsibility that pedestrians, motorists, and the city share to provide that safety.

That’s why Councilmember Sabra Briere and I are working to develop a Citizen Pedestrian Safety Task Force that can look at the data, industry best practices, the specifics of our location, and the full toolbox of safety-enhancing techniques to propose how to meet our shared goal: a community that provides for pedestrian safety and access.

Concurrently, staff are working to secure funding for a more involved approach that would involve a technical committee and additional professional expertise. I believe the task force has value whether or not such funding is secured.

A core resource in this effort is the Federal Highway Administration’s document How to Develop a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan.

Outdoor smoking regulations

Ever have to walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke to get to where you are going? Or wait for a bus in a smoke-filled shelter?

Those are some of the complaints I’ve been hearing from constituents lately, which is why I’m working to draft an ordinance that would prohibit smoking:

  • near business entrances;
  • at public transit boarding and waiting areas; and
  • within designated areas of City parks.

The first two of these are already covered by Washtenaw County regulations, but only the County Health Officer is empowered to enforce it.

The third is based on concerns I’ve heard about smoking in parks, especially in Sculpture Plaza Park where the nearby businesses have been directly affected. I recently received an email from a constituent who used to have her office overlooking Sculpture Plaza Park, but she had to relocate when smoking increased in the park.

That said, the ordinance would only enable the administrator to declare areas of parkland to be smoke free. It would not require that he do so (though at a minimum I think our playgrounds should be smoke free), and if he did he would not need to declare all park land to be smoke free. The goal is to  allow for nuance and nimbleness in implementation.

These are the policy outlines so far, and I welcome your input to help improve the process. Please email me at [email protected], use the contact form, or call my cell phone at: 734-972-8304.

413 E. Huron: how we got here, looking forward

Last Monday was a difficult night as Council voted on site plan approval for the proposed high-rise at 413 East Huron.

Council faced a choice between what I believe were two bad options. If we voted against the site plan, the City would face a lawsuit.  I believe the City’s chance of success in a potential suit was low and our potential damages were high. A loss in court could have cost us tens of millions of dollars in monetary damages and the loss of the concessions the developer had previously made to the site plan.

If Council voted for the development, as we did, we faced the certainty of a building that is too large for the site, potential damage to one of the last remaining oak trees of the original Ann’s Arbor, and the traffic, construction noise, and other issues resulting from the building.

It was an ugly choice.

Given that ugly choice, I made the decision that I believe is in the best interests of the City: approve the proposed site plan and avoid the potential large-scale losses if we were to lose a lawsuit.

To be clear, I did not vote yes because I think this proposal is good for our community. One of the first things I did upon being elected was to meet with staff to see what could be done about this proposed building. As with many community members, I found the proposed building to be out-of-scale for the site and I found the initial design to be a visually heavy and imposing monolith.

Nor was my vote based simply on the threat of a lawsuit itself. I do believe that it would be worth the time, energy, and cost to face down a lawsuit – if I was confident that the chances of winning were decent or the potential damages low. After gathering all of the information available about the legal arguments, I did not have that confidence.

We as a community do have the ability to set objective requirements for what gets built here. When City Council revised the zoning for this area in 2009, they had the chance to set clear rules relating to the scale of development on that site. If we wanted a smaller building on this site, that was our chance to put them in place. And in fact, Council did institute new height limits, put in more stringent rear setbacks than are required for other downtown buildings, and required buildings north of Huron to be lower than those on the south side of Huron. The new requirements for this area were more restrictive than both the rules they replaced and those that cover other parts of our downtown.

Clearly, these revisions did not go far enough.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the 413 East Huron situation:

  • Rules matter. I believe this project complies with all the enforceable, regulatory aspects of our code, and that the City did not have solid legal ground to deny it. Yet I and many others feel that this building is inappropriately large and undesirable for the site. If these regulations are not providing what we as a community want, it is up to us to change them.
  • Getting the rules right is hard. While I am not satisfied with what the rules left us with for this site, I do respect the effort that went into trying to get them right. This is a complicated area to zone, as historic residential uses abut with other high-rise buildings and our urban core. The long-standing zoning decision to call for very high density development here was inherently problematic. During the A2D2 review, there was a good-faith effort to improve the previous zoning by imposing height limits, allowing first-floor retail, creating design guidelines, etc. Setting the rules involves balancing different values, perspectives, and goals. It isn’t easy, and no zoning will satisfy everyone.
  • We can do better. We have already begun a review of our downtown core zoning to better bring it in line with our community values as well as our design guidelines process. I look forward to the results of those efforts. One change I would like to see is to make our premiums more expensive. Developers are able to build larger buildings if they meet certain conditions (offer residential use, meet LEED green building standards, provide affordable housing, etc.). I believe the City should ask for more and/or offer less for these premiums. In addition, I am looking into ensuring that construction noise does not exceed OSHA volume and duration limits at the property line.

Draft 2040 Transportation Plan

The best way to have a voice on most issues is to get into the process early. That’s true with transportation as well.

The Washtenaw Area Transportation Study has created the Draft 2040 Long Range Plan to plan road repair, bridge maintenance, and sustainable transportation infrastructure.

Do you know about a road that needs some help? A dangerous intersection? Here’s your chance to have your say!

To provide a comment email WATS at [email protected] or call the office at 734-994-3127. WATS will accept comments until May 15.

Fifth Ward Town Hall May 8

2013 May Town Hall Where: Downtown Home and Garden, 210 S Ashley St.

When: Town Hall begins Wednesday, May 8, 7:00 p.m. Stop by Mark’s Carts starting at 6:30 to chat informally with Council members.

What: Discussion of issues important to the Fifth Ward. We’ll start with a discussion about the debate around digital billboards, then have open time to discuss whatever other issues are on your mind.

Who: Everyone welcome–you don’t need to be a Fifth Ward resident. Organized by Chuck Warpehoski and Mike Anglin, hosted by Mark Hodesh of Downtown Home and Garden.

Details: [email protected], 734-972-8304, visit the Facebook Event,or download the flier.

The Future of Billboards in Ann Arbor

Should billboards like this be allowed to go digital? Should they be rebuilt or removed if damaged?

Should billboards like this be allowed to go digital? Should they be rebuilt or removed if damaged?

What do you think about the billboards in Ann Arbor? Are they a useful way for local businesses and nonprofits to get their message out? Or are they an eyesore that you wish wasn’t there?

At Council we are debating amendments to the City’s sign ordinance that would include:

  • A ban on all billboards (defined as signs greater than 200 square feet), but grandfather in existing signs. Currently there are 30 billboards in the City limits and a limit of 30 total;
  • Clear regulations on changeable copy signs so that signs like gas station signs can update their price but that would not allow full-scale digital billboards;
  • Regulations on the illumination of signs.

Adams Outdoor Advertising, the largest local billboard company, would like different changes:

  • Explicit permission and regulation of digital billboards;
  • Clear permission to rebuild damaged billboards.

Here are some of the issues at play in this debate:

  • These changes in the proposed ordinance would allow the maintenance of existing billboards, but if a billboard were to be damaged it could not be rebuilt.
  • There is debate about the safety of digital billboards. Adams Outdoor Advertising cites studies saying that digital billboards are “safety neutral.” The National Highway Administration essentially says “the jury is still out.”
  • According to Adams Outdoor Advertising, there are very few locations in the city that conform to the existing sign ordinance, which makes it difficult to relocate signs from residential areas (e.g. the ones up by Knights and Aldi) to more commercial areas.
  • Some argue that billboards are an important way for local businesses and nonprofits to connect with local customers and donors, and these ordinance changes would undermine local nonprofits and economic development opportunities (you can see some letters of support in the Council packet)
  • Environmental concerns: How would the requested digital changes affect light pollution, energy use, landfill waste, and toxins?

You can read more about the issue on the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

There will be a public hearing of this issue on May 6. Please let me know your thoughts.