Archive for the 'Development' Category

Jan 15 2009

Conference Center Downtown

Published by under Development,Ideas Bad,Politics

I am amazed that the idea of a conference center downtown keeps surfacing.  Rumor has it that the City and some other other influential people originally had their eyes on the the land at Huron Hills as a spot for a 400 person conference center.  The City even went so far as to have the land appraised.  When the town banded together and stopped the sale of the Huron Hills property, the focus shifted to the land above the newly approved underground parking structure on 5th Street next to the AA Public Library.  It seems to me that there are much better places to put a conference center if there is really a need for one.  Out near Briarwood Mall might be the best place.  If we as a City decide to build one it should be a joint effort on the part of the City, The State, The County and The University.   We need to start broadening our perspective and stop committing taxpayer funds to “Build It and They Will Come” concepts that could eventually cost the taxpayer more money.

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Oct 15 2008

“700 Billion Bailout, Last Gasp of Urban Sprawl” Christopher B. Leinberger

Published by under Development,Your Ann Arbor


Ann Arbor, October 10, 2008.  Speaking at the Global Urban Symposium, GUS, on the topic of “Macro-Sustainability and Walkable Urbanism,” Christopher B. Leinberger, University of Michigan professor and noted author of “The Option of Urbanism, Investing in  a New American Dream  declared that urban sprawl caused by unsustainable real estate practices (“Drive till You Qualify”) and government subsidies through agencies such as Fannie Mae, FHA and the gasoline taxes have been a major factor in the collapse in home prices, the sub-prime crisis and ultimately the global financial meltdown.

Leinberger identified two types of urban environments; Drivable Suburbanism and Walkable Urbanism.  As transportation systems drive development, Drivable Suburbanism (Think Brady Bunch) is automobile centric while Walkable Urbanism (Think Seinfeld and Sex in the City) demands a more balanced transportation plan including readily available public transit and non-motorized transportation.  Consequently, Walkable Urbanism is a much more complex (time and money translate to expensive) problem for cities to solve as the infrastructure and neighborhoods are already established. Making space for increased density creates a need for change which many communities are not ready to accept.  Brian Swett of Boston Properties a development firm in Boston, MA offered a good example when he stated that the newly opened Mandarin Hotel in Boston took 13 years to get through the permit and building process.

Leinberger elaborates on just how bad the housing market can get in an article he authored for Atlantic magazine, entitled “The Next Slum”, March 2008.   Most of the loss of property values will occur in the fringe areas in overdeveloped Drivable Suburban markets such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Sacramento and parts of Florida.  Ground Zero in the property value decline will be fringe areas without rail transit and no functional city core. 

The news is not all bad however. As smart cities successfully make the shift to more balanced transportation systems and increased population densities, property values can rapidly increase as buyers are willing to pay a premium for Walkable Urban real estate.  Washington D.C. for instance has transformed a former Low Cost Housing Project into a planned walkable community.  Remarkably, in just five years land values per square foot increased from $10 per square foot in the former rundown crack cocaine neighborhood fraught with all the social decay that is endemic in blighted neighborhoods to a thriving walkable neighborhood with a new major league baseball stadium and a new expanded Metro station.  The entire 97,000 sq foot development (two football fields) was just sold for a $69 million profit for the Metro Authority at land prices that were approaching $712 per sq foot 70 times the original values.   

Conclusion: Walkable Urbanism equal Sustainability equal Profit! 

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Oct 07 2008

Speech to City Council 10-6-2008 Brownfield Tax Credits

Published by under Development

Good Evening Mayor Hieftje and Council,

My name is Stewart Nelson and I live at 2975 Hickory Lane in Ward 2. 

      I am here this evening to offer my thanks to Councilmember Rapundalo for his work behind the scenes to modify the developer’s plans for 601 Forest. This new plan has been labeled a good compromise between what was wanted by the developer, the city, and neighborhood groups and seems to put aside the developer’s threat of litigation against the city. 

      While I applaud the gesture on the part of the developer, I suspect that his change of plans had more to do with lack of funding options due to a faulty business plan or uncertainty in the credit markets than a sudden increase in his civic pride.  You must be cognizant of that fact when you debate the issue of the builder’s request for Brownfield tax credits later this month.  I am opposed to granting tax credits to a project that probably would not be funded without them. 

      Brownfield tax credits are incentives for developers to redevelop contaminated, abandoned, blighted properties, rather than building out in the cornfields.  That certainly is not the situation on the corner of South University and Forest Ave.   While it may appear that Brownfield tax credits can generate money out of thin air producing the ultimate Win-Win situation that simply is not always the case.  Brownfield credits are only Win-Win when the alternative is the property will not otherwise attract investors or developers.  If other investors could be attracted to the property without Brownfield tax credits, the situation is truly a Win-Win situation with the City and School System the winners.   

      From speaking with other developers and lenders, I feel that in a more favorable lending environment, and a firm commitment by the City to work diligently with qualified developers the entire parcel or individual parcels could be developed with a project or projects that better fit the character and scale of the neighborhood. This plan would provide a much needed economic lift to the South University Corridor and to the City while not diverting revenue from our schools to undercapitalized developers.   

      I encourage you to vote no to the developer’s request for Brownfield credits and I encourage the public to attend the public hearing scheduled for 6:00 pm on October 13th at Larcom.    

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Aug 27 2008

Do we need a Conference Center downtown Ann Arbor?

Published by under Development,Your Ann Arbor

The Planning Commission tabled the A2D2 code amendments in May 2008 to consider public comments.  Since then, the A2D2 Steering Committee and the Planning Commission have met several times with staff to revise the proposal. 

The revised amendments are now available for review (see below). 

Changes to the May 2008 draft amendments include:

  • The zoning for the north side of East Huron between Division and State has been changed from D2 (Interface) to D1 (Core). 
  • Properties on North Division/East Ann and North Fifth Avenue that are currently zoned office and located in the Old Fourth Ward Historic District are proposed to remain as O zoning.  For the remainder of the block containing City Hall, the properties are proposed to be zoned D1.
  • Street frontage designations for several blocks have been changed to better reflect the current front setback pattern along the block. 
  • Revised side and rear setback requirements for properties abutting residential zoning districts have been added. 
  • The requirement for active uses at street level has been revised to apply to a smaller group of retail streets and include customer lobbies for banks.
  • The massing standards for several character overlay districts have been revised in allow larger tower diagonals.
  • The requirement for design review has been separated from this draft.

The Planning Commission has scheduled a public hearing and action on the amendments for Thursday, September 4 at 7:00 pm in Council Chamber (2nd floor, City Hall).  At that meeting, the Commission will consider making a recommendation on the amendments to City Council. We need to make our voices heard at this meeting. 


I am concerned about several permitted uses of land in the Core Downtown areas designated a D1 and the Interface Areas designated as D2.  (You might have other concerns like Adult Entertainment.  Hmmm?) These uses are all listed on page 7 of the revised amendments.  My major concern is a Conference Center.  I strongly believe that a large Conference Center in the City Core will negatively affect  our City permanently for the residents.  We need to discuss this use more.  A significant number of questions should be answered before we move forward such as, how large will the Center be, who will pay for the construction and operation, what other structures like hotels and parking structurse will be required among others? I don’t know any Conference Centers in the U.S. that are profitable.  Most require some form of public subsidy. All require separate parking garages.  


My recommendation is that we pull this use out of the amendments before it goes to City Council and then schedule a series of public hearings to decide whether our community wants a Conference Center at all.  


Once Planning Commission has made a recommendation on the code changes, they will be forwarded to City Council for public hearing and action. Please plan to attend this important meeting.  If you cannot attend you can e-mail comments on the proposed changes to or send them to me. 

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