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.

Sidewalk Gaps?

SidewalkGapsAs Ann Arbor works to find and fill sidewalk gaps, the first step is to know where they are.

You can help.

City Staff used satellite data to create a preliminary map of sidewalk gaps, but the data needs human checking.

Do you know of sidewalk gaps not on the map? How about places on the map that you know are OK? If you find any, please send them to [email protected]

Downtown Open Space: A Call For Case Studies

Campus Martius Park in Detroit

Last year Concentrate hosted the president of the conservancy which developed and oversees Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, Bob Gregory.

I didn’t make it to the presentation itself, but I did watch the video (which I highly recommend). One thing that impressed me with Mr. Gregory’s presentation is that he describes the in-depth process that led to the design of the park, including exhaustive review of other urban parks to see what works and what doesn’t.

What I heard from Mr. Gregory was a strong case for the importance of getting urban open space right in terms of scale, design, and context.

As the Parks Advisory Commission explores open space in a near downtown (see Chronicle coverage), I would love to case studies of 5-10 successful urban open spaces and 5-10 unsuccessful urban open spaces so that we can explore what works and what doesn’t at a deeper level than “I like this” or “I don’t like that.” We could have both qualitative analysis as well as quantitative analysis about:

  • size
  • development cost
  • maintenance costs
  • exteranl funding
  • surrounding uses
  • Density: how many residents w/in 1/4 mile radius? How many square feet of commercial and office?
  • Open space: How much public and private open space within 1/4 mile? How much of that is green space?
  • What are the uses of the properties adjacent to the open spaces? How do they interact with the open space?
  • How does the open space relate to traffic flows (human, pedestrian)
  • What amenities are on the sites (art, water features, play equipment, etc.)

I think such an analysis would really help us understand the successes and failures of other open spaces so that we get get it right when we plan this one.