column: Conference center - again? My Top 5 questions about Ann Arbor's downtown development
And I didn't even write that in 2005: That's just what happened last week.
Yet there's a strange sense of "deja vu all over again" now that we have a Downtown Development Authority consultant telling us that a conference center might work on the library lot. And a hotel.
It was enough that even in a work session, Mayor John Hieftje — himself a DDA member — said he thought we'd been over the topic and agreed "it just wouldn't work here."
Or would it? Brace yourself, Ann Arbor, we might be debating that for the coming decade as the city considers selling five city-owned lots in the "Connecting William" corridor.
And as a result, I found myself considering: My top questions about downtown development.
1. Why do we let consultants tell us to do due diligence studies? Don't we think that's the place of the developer, who actually will invest in the property? The more market studies the city does, the more of the open market that passes us by. We know the city has land and we know land in and near downtown could both carry high value and create additional value. But it's not a government entity's role to define the market and what needs to be there. We can create parameters to a deal — like asking for the best submission from a developer that does not include 4-bedroom apartments for students. Or choosing to bypass the highest market value to invest in a park. We can't assume that someone will invest in land to build a new office building on a specific site just because we think that 500,000 square feet of office space fills a perceived (and momentary) need.
2. What would happen if we sold some of the downtown property to the University of Michigan? And why isn't U-M active in these conversations? OK, those are two questions, but they're related. We can't keep having this conference center and hotel discussion without real information from U-M. So much of the discussion is set up like U-M is the goose laying golden eggs of hotel-room occupants due to conferences. If we sold some of the land to U-M, we'd give up control and tax base — but also, possibly, gain a partner in harnessing what's publicly perceived as an economic engine that's would fuel a hotel and conference center. I'm not recommending that we sell the land to U-M — and I'm as concerned as anyone else about the amount of property U-M buys in Ann Arbor. But I think the concept is interesting to consider as a brainstorming device to figure out why we keep coming back to this concept.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
3. Why not experiment right now with a downtown park? Liberty Plaza does not work as a downtown "green space" — so it's not going to persuade anyone that the city needs more of it. But we're looking at years worth of decision making when it comes to all of these downtown spaces. The city simply will not act that quickly. So why not turn the Palio Lot into a temporary park as an experiment? Or the top of the Library Lot? Set up a low-overhead, 24-month plan to see what the downtown park advocates can do with the space. Call it an urban green space laboratory. We might be disappointed with the results — we might be delighted. In the meantime, we're using experience instead of concept to drive the land-use decision.
4. Why are we still talking about an Apple store downtown? Apple has been approached. Apple has rejected sites closer to campus. We might see an Apple store in Ann Arbor outside of Briarwood someday. But we really need to move our discussion about what retail will look like downtown, and what kind of store will anchor development, beyond this specific pipe dream.
5. Focusing on the future is fine, but what about right now? Liberty Plaza is begging for a solution. Main Street business owners are taxing themselves to make sure the snow gets shoveled. Ensuring enough police foot patrols, eradicating graffiti, controlling panhandling and increasing customer attraction all are issues for everyone concerned with downtown today. Creating a vision keeps our future from developing randomly. But it's painful to rehash ongoing discussions about downtown that don't seem to get resolved while other aspects of downtown continue to pose challenges that the business owners and residents feel on a daily basis.