A Pivotal Election
A referendum on growth and a school board challenge will shape the city's future.
From the November, 2018 issue
Whose Lot Is It, Anyway?
Mary Hathaway stands on the sidewalk on Fifth Ave., staring at a parking lot that's become the most contentious piece of real estate in town. A lifelong Ann Arborite, the soft-spoken activist has worked for years to transform the "Library Lot" into a combination of urban park and town square. She visualizes "an enclosed plaza. Where people can sit down." She pictures activities involving kids and families inside, greenery outside.
Her vision competes with that of mayor Christopher Taylor. In 2017, Taylor and his allies on city council voted to sell development rights over the underground Library Lane parking structure to a Chicago company, Core Spaces, for $10 million. Core Spaces wants to build a seventeen-story hotel and apartment building that would include office and retail space--and an outdoor plaza.
On November 6, voters will choose between what Will Hathaway, Mary's son and co-organizer, ruefully calls these "warring visions for downtown Ann Arbor." Proposal A, a city charter amendment, would require that the Library Lot "be retained in public ownership, in perpetuity, and developed as an urban park and civic center commons."
Last month, Taylor sent out a mass email that described Proposal A in near-apocalyptic terms. If it's approved, he warned, "We will lose hundreds of units of new, permanent affordable housing; miss out on millions of dollars of tax revenue to support basic city services; and be forced to either raise taxes or re-allocate millions of park dollars to build and operate a failed park in the middle of our downtown ..."
Council has voted to direct half of the revenue from the sale of the lot to the city's affordable housing fund. (The rest would repay debt the city took on to repurchase the "Y lot" across Fifth after development plans there fell through.) Housing commission director Jennifer Hall says that based on recent projects, $5 million could leverage as much as $125 million in tax credits--enough to
build 200 to 500 units of affordable housing. Taylor's "failed park" alludes to his belief that without the tax revenue and activity the proposed building would provide, the park would be unaffordable and unmanageable.
Mary Hathaway replied to the mayor with a public letter of her own. "Chris, you will be relieved to know that nobody will be forced to do anything," she wrote. "The Charter Amendment will prevent the sale of public land to a private developer, but other than designating it as an urban park and civic center, Proposal A will not impose any particular vision ... The people of Ann Arbor will decide what they want their park and civic center to be."
In a city hall conference room, Taylor is polite but sometimes terse. The tall, dark-haired lawyer has been mayor for four years, following six years on city council. This last year may have been his roughest. While he beat critic Jack Eaton in the August Democratic primary, two of his council supporters were defeated, costing his side its majority. Both races were lost in the far north-side neighborhoods where hundreds of condos and apartments are under construction ("The Tipping Point," October). But the margins were very narrow, and the Library Lot barely registered as an issue. The charter amendment will be the first citywide test of how voters feel about downtown's ongoing redevelopment.
Taylor says he understands why some people don't like the changes. "I came to Ann Arbor in 1985 and loved it then," he says. But, he adds, "I love Ann Arbor now. Successful cities change. Failed cities do not change."
Much of downtown won't change at all, he adds, since historic districts protect a third of it. But "we need to grow in order to thrive.
"I think the developer is open to creating a space that's attractive on the planned plaza," he says. But, he says flatly, a park occupying the entire site "would be unsuccessful and would replicate the problems of Liberty Plaza."
People on both sides agree that Liberty Plaza, nearby at the corner of Liberty and Division, is a trouble magnet. Many of the city's marginalized residents gather there, and, while most cause no harm, there have been problems with drug dealing and occasional violence. If Proposal A passes, they "would have two parks to loiter in instead of one," says Realtor Ed Surovell. He's a member of the Ann Arbor District Library board, which has come out against the proposal.
Will Hathaway says "it's an excuse" to link a future park with a "failed" one. "It's up to the city" to make sure the parks are safe, he says pointedly. Taylor says the proposed building's plaza would be better because tenants would provide "eyes on the park to discourage misbehavior." Mary Hathaway says the park itself will attract people and provide those eyes.
Taylor says that if Proposal A passes, "it will be part of our charter ... we'll have to find the money to do what it says." But even if the proposal is defeated, Mary Hathaway says she and others will "keep pushing ... It's going to happen."
Will says: "My mother is a very determined woman."
Will the School Board Lean Left?
Peter Ways isn't on the ballot in the school board election, but the Ann Arbor Open humanities teacher helped shape the three-person slate that could change the district's direction.
"Peter and I brainstormed," says Bryan Johnson, forty-three. "Rebecca [Lazarus] we reached out to. Lucas [Cole] was a very outspoken student."
And so, for the second election in a row, school board incumbents are being challenged by candidates more supportive of the teachers' union and more critical of state mandates on student testing and teacher evaluation. Jeff Gaynor, Harmony Mitchell, and Hunter Van Valkenburgh ran last time, and Gaynor and Mitchell won. If two more challengers win on November 6, they'll form a majority on the seven-member board.
"I was involved in [the 2016] campaign," says Lucas Cole, eighteen, a Skyline High grad who now attends the U-M's Residential College. "Peter was my teacher. Hunter was my neighbor. We met with Rebecca. We shared core values about shifting the district to the left, pushing back against the DeVos agenda, fighting standardized testing and teacher evaluations."
Rebecca Lazarus, forty-four, ran unsuccessfully in 2016 as an independent. She welcomed the slate's invitation. "They had the volunteers," she says. "They had the support I didn't have last time."
The challengers want to limit state-mandated standardized tests. "The incumbents deflect too much onto the state," says Cole, when they should "admit they do have some power and they can push back and reduce the testing."
"We should follow the law" on testing, Lazarus says, but "we could be more innovative. As long as you can provide the same type of data [and] explain how you're getting [it], they have to approve it." She says the slate hasn't yet explored just how Ann Arbor might do that.
She also charges the district's data on the achievement gap between white students and most minority groups "is manipulated [to] make it appear that they have lowered the achievement gap."
In Johnson's view the present board is "being overly led by the superintendent [Jeanice Swift]. Everything is top-down."
Swift "is compromising progressive values," adds Cole. "She's not being led by a board that's against the conservative agenda, the corporatization of education."
Does the slate want to remove the superintendent? Johnson replies that they have "never discussed replacing Dr. Swift."
First-time candidate Suzanne Perkins, fifty, says she was recruited to join the challengers' slate but declined.
Her key issue is school start times. "In my opinion as a [U-M] neuroscientist, if you have one thing you could change relatively easily that would help mental health and academic achievement, it would be starting school after 8:30."
Perkins says that "testing is not inherently evil--we need to know where kids are." But, she adds, " there are far too many of them."
Christine Stead, forty-six, first appointed in 2010, is the board's current president.
She agrees there's an achievement gap but says tests are crucial in solving it: "Our teachers need to know how our kids are doing, our parents need to know, and our kids need to know."
But many teachers think the increased testing gets in the way of teaching--and don't like being judged on the results. Under 2011 state law, Stead explains, "student performance is 25 percent of their evaluation."
But not their raises, she adds--everybody gets those. "The past three years in a row we've been able to improve salaries and benefits for all staff," Stead says. "That's something no other district in this state can say."
She rejects Lazarus's claim that the district manipulates test data. "We disaggregate it the same way we've been doing it year after year after year," Stead says. "Her version of manipulation I call analysis."
Though Stead supports the other incumbents, all are running independent campaigns.
"These anti-test people, they don't look like me," says Susan Baskett, fifty-eight, first appointed in 2003. "My mother's from the Philippines, and when I go to Filipino parties, these mothers are bragging about their kids' test scores!" She says the board already is focused on the achievement gap. "Heck, you've got four African-American women on the board!"
Baskett says she's "very disappointed that a faction of the union is putting up yet another slate. You have an eighteen-year-old [Cole] who has his whole life ahead of him. You have an African-American dad [Johnson]. We need that presence on the board, but he is the spouse of a teacher. That's a conflict." (Johnson says he expects "to be held to the same standard of objectivity that current board members who have children and grandchildren in AAPS are held to.")
Jessica Kelly, forty, also supports testing. "As a special education advocate, I see the value in standardized measurements," she says. "One way we make students eligible for special ed is by showing that they aren't at the same place their peers are."
Appointed in 2016, Kelly wants the district to enroll and support "at-risk students in the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes. That's one of the most efficient and effective ways to close that gap."
Pat Manley, seventy-three, says the board has addressed the achievement gap by "putting in more programs that help the students and help the parents help the students." First elected in 2014, she says she's running again "because some things still need to be done." But her critique of the slate is blunt. "I am all about kids," she says. "In their program all I see is what's best for the adults."
For the incumbents, it's been what Manley calls "a very tough race. It's made me work harder when I'm talking to people to explain the other side."
The outcome may depend on whether the same change-hungry voters who flipped control of city council in August show up on November 6. If they do--and make it down the long ballot to the school board race--control of the school district could flip, too.
[Originally published in November, 2018.]
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