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ann arbor councilman attempts a coup

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Easthope rejects DDA parking plan

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

BY TOM GANTERT

News Staff Reporter

A City Council member says he will push to have the parking lot at William and First streets designated as future green space, a move that could throw a large monkey wrench into plans to reshape downtown Ann Arbor west of Main Street.

Democrat Chris Easthope, whose 5th Ward includes the Old West Side, said he plans to introduce a resolution at the council's March 21 meeting that would set aside the city-owned lot for a larger greenway vision being pushed by environmentalists and others for downtown.

Such a move, would "completely kill" the Downtown Development Authority's proposed plan to redevelop the west side of downtown with a new parking structure and multiuse, high-rise buildings on three city-owned parking sites, DDA member Roger Hewitt said this morning.

"When looking at all city properties, we need a real comprehensive plan," Hewitt said.

He said it would be "very premature" for the city to take the First and William lot out of the mix.

Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, agreed.

"I'd want to know more details as to why it is being brought forward now," Pollay said. "The DDA has just begun a number of public conversations. Maybe we need an opportunity to have more of these public conversations before we take a dramatic step like this."

Easthope said his resolution would also ask that city-owned park maintenance facility at 415 W. Washington St. and the fleet services building at 721 N. Main St. be set aside for the greenway. The city will vacate both facilities for a new building within the next few years. Those buildings are not part of the DDA's redevelopment plan.

Easthope revealed his plans to a reporter after attending a town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Ann Arbor District Library that attracted about 160 people who wanted to discuss plans for the so-called Allen Creek greenway and what is being seen as the conflicting plan by the DDA.

The DDA wants to use the First and William surface lot, the crumbling First and Washington parking structure and the nearby South Ashley and William surface lot as part of a three-site plan.

The most controversial part of the proposal is a plan to consolidate parking spaces from all three sites into a multilevel parking garage that would be built at First and William streets. Not only do the greenway proponents want that site for their plan, some residents of the Old West Side are objecting to a five-level parking structure being built between their neighborhood and downtown.

Meanwhile, two visions of a greenway that would follow Allen Creek from the Huron River to Stadium Boulevard have emerged.

One would involve converting hundreds of private properties over decades to a greenway.

A simplified version is being pitched by a grass-roots organization called Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway. Its plan would materialize much more quickly and calls for a greenway to go along the same path but stick to the Ann Arbor Railroad right-of-way and use three city-owned properties.

Joe O'Neal, who owns O'Neal Construction, spoke Tuesday about a greenway that would buy up land from willing sellers within 100 acres of the Allen Creek floodplain over the next 30 to 50 years.

O'Neal said he wants to set up a nonprofit land trust to buy private property when it comes up for sale along the greenway. He said private donations could be made to the land trust.

Margaret Wong, co-chairwoman of Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway, said she supports the spirit of O'Neal's vision. But, she said, her group's simplified version would be less costly because it would use the three city-owned properties and have its path go along the railroad right-of-way, next to the tracks. Wong said the only cost would be easements along the railroad that could be bought with city parks money.

"We really like the breadth of Joe's vision," Wong said. "We don't want to wait so long. We would be happy if the greenway ended up being the Ann Arbor railroad right-of-way and the three city properties. We would consider that to be a very substantial greenway."

Wong said with three city properties being available soon, now was the time to act.

Wong said if the city commits to the simplified plan, the city has the ability to negotiate with the railroad company and get grants and parks millage money to pay some of the expenses.

Tuesday's meeting was the second in two days to draw a large crowd. The DDA presented its plan to the City Council on Monday before about 110 people.

Resident Henrietta Slote attended Tuesday's meeting and said she still wanted to learn more about the DDA's proposal. Slote said she was concerned the DDA's plan to turn the First and William lot into a structure could end the larger-scale version of a greenway.

"I think the argument it could preclude a very attractive possibility in the future is very persuasive," she said.

Resident Eva Forman said she's never had to use a parking structure while downtown. She said she either parks on the street or walks from her north side home.

"Most Ann Arbor people walk," Forman said. "That's why we live in the city. So we can walk. I don't want to walk by a parking structure."

Ray Detter, a member of the DDA Citizens Advisory Council, said the DDA's plan touched upon several community goals, such as affordable housing, green space, parking and cleaning up contaminated land.

The DDA plan calls for putting private, mixed-used development - including retail, office and residential - on the South Ashley Street lot behind the former Kline's department store. The First and Washington parking structure would be sold and converted into a residential building with affordable housing for the city work force. The DDA said building heights are not set in stone, but would vary from five to 11 stories.

The parking would be consolidated at the First and William parking structure. There would be a park a little larger than Liberty Plaza along the railroad tracks at the northeast corner of First and William streets. And the DDA has said oil and gas contamination under the lot at First and William would be cleaned up under this proposal.

The DDA estimates the sale of the First and Washington parking structure and Kline lot would bring at least $6 million into city coffers. Those properties are currently untaxed because the city owns them. Once sold, they would then go on the city's tax roll. The DDA would capture most of the new tax revenue. But the city would get a portion of it after the first year.

A DDA analysis states the city and DDA would likely profit $13.9 million from 2007 to 2033 from additional parking revenue and taxes from the three-site development.

Renee Greff, owner of the Arbor Brewing Co. and a DDA board member, said the DDA is committed to finding out what the community wants to do with the three city properties.

"We are not going to try to ram this down anybody's throat," Greff said.

Tom Gantert can be reached at [email protected] or (734) 994-6701.

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