Competing Visions on Platt Rd.
Will the county's former juvenile detention be affordable housing, or a bigger County Farm Park?
by Patrick Dunn
From the March, 2016 issue
In the summer of 2014 Trish Heusel attended a design planning session for the former Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center site on Platt Rd. The plot, just north of Platt's intersection with Huron Pkwy., directly abuts County Farm Park. Heusel, who lives nearby on Bedford Rd., believed the natural choice was to use the site for parkland. But when she arrived at the meeting she found that option wasn't even on the table.
"Many of us went there thinking it was very open and that many ideas were going to be entertained," Heusel says. "A lot of us were extremely disappointed that all of the final designs had to have an affordable housing component in them ... It really was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will."
That prophecy was baked into the county's budget for the session, called a charrette. A little over half the $42,000 cost came from a grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA)--a grant that stipulated some affordable housing be included on the site. The rest of the cost was drawn from a $3 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Challenge Planning Grant--and developing affordable housing is a major initiative for that grant as well. No surprise, then, that the plan that resulted from the charrette included two- to three-story townhomes, single-family homes, duplexes, senior housing, and a community center--and just a slim margin of open space on the 13.5-acre property's western edge.
That's created tension between residents like Heusel, who heads a group called Citizens for Responsible Planning for Platt Road, and development proponents like county commissioner Yousef Rabhi, who calls affordable housing on the site "a no-brainer." Rabhi served on the Platt Road Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which in 2013 and 2014 laid out broad recommendations for the site--including affordable housing.
"It is not now, and has never been, parkland," Rabhi says. "For this site I think we can accomplish both having some open space and
some opportunities for recreational use but also creating an opportunity for our community to become more welcoming and more diverse."
A meandering road
The road to redeveloping 2260 and 2270 Platt Rd. has been somewhat meandering. The site once housed both the juvenile court and the juvenile detention center, but the detention center was moved to Washtenaw and Hogback in 2003, and the court moved into the downtown courthouse in 2011.
Rabhi organized the first community meeting to discuss the site's future the same year. The CAC--which included then Ann Arbor city councilman Christopher Taylor, county commissioner Andy LaBarre and then director of the county's Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED) Mary Jo Callan--formed shortly afterwards to develop recommendations on the site.
"There's a lot of thought put into what we could do there," LaBarre says. "It's not a site that lends itself to only a single use ... And we've dedicated a bunch of time and process to this because it is a neighborhood. We don't want to screw it up."
Of the charrette, LaBarre says, "whatever criticisms may exist of the process, I think the outcome was a good one." The planning session took place over three days in August 2014 at the United Way of Washtenaw County office on Platt. More than seventy-five people attended an initial "visioning session" where work groups developed ten potential ideas for the site. Architectural firm SmithGroupJJR condensed those ideas into four alternatives. Over 100 participants showed up the next day to participate in a loose voting process, placing stickers on a whiteboard to indicate whether they felt positive, neutral, or negative about different aspects of the plans. SmithGroupJJR then synthezised the responses to present the final housing development proposal, and last May the board of commissioners directed county staff to develop options for carrying out that plan.
The resulting memo detailed several options, including an outright sale and issuing a request for proposals (RFP) from prospective developers. It described the RFP as a way for the county "to have influence and a role in the manifestation of any development on the site" without having to do the development itself. But it also stated: "The most frequent desire/request of citizens and residents concerned about development at the site, is that the site be dedicated for recreational use."
The case for a park
Dan Himebaugh, who has lived on Gloucester Way just south of the Platt property since 1972, says that's what he wants. "I wouldn't care whether [the county wanted] 100 low-cost housing [units] or thirteen $1 million homes, each one on one acre, or a $13 million complex," Himebaugh says. "I'm a farm boy and I like open space. I look ahead to another fifty or 100 years. If you don't set that property aside now, when the population grows, where are you going to get the property for parks to accommodate the people?"
Former Ann Arbor city councilmember Steve Kunselman lives near the intersection of Packard and Platt. He consulted with neighbors in the area and participated in some of the planning process for the site while he was still on council. His opposition to developing the site is more forceful than Himebaugh's.
"East Ann Arbor historically has been and still is a higher density of low- to moderate-income families," Kunselman says. "And when you start talking about putting more affordable housing where there's already a higher density of affordable housing than in all of Ann Arbor, it's just another example of political elites pushing policies that enact socioeconomic segregation."
Kunselman says plenty of privately owned parcels are already primed for development, including a plot at the end of Burton Rd. near Packard and US-23 where an affordable housing project stalled out after the developer repeatedly failed to win state tax credits. "There's still a lot of other land that has yet to get developed," Kunselman adds. "And then once you get outside of Ann Arbor and over towards Ypsi and Ypsi Township, there's a ton of available land for apartment complexes."
Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation director Bob Tetens says he too would "love" to add the parcel to County Farm Park. But he also says County Farm doesn't have an "unmet need" and acquiring the neighboring site wouldn't make financial sense. The county's recreation funds are separate from its general fund, so annexing the Platt site to County Farm Park would involve some kind of purchase agreement between Parks and Recreation and the county proper. The parcel was appraised at $1.9 million in 2013. "If I was going to spend $1.5 million or $2 million on property, I could get a lot more than that five miles out of town," Tetens says. "When you're trying to be stewards of the public funds, it would be a bad investment for us."
The case for housing
While acknowledging the vocal opposition to developing the land, LaBarre says, "I don't think it's a majority. I genuinely don't know if 50 percent plus one feel that way." As the board deliberated over a resolution to develop an RFP for the site early this year, citizens spoke for and against affordable housing development in roughly equal numbers.
Among those in favor of the plan is Jeannine Palms, a former CAC member who lives on Easy St. about a mile from the site. Palms participated in the original 2011 community meeting, where she advocated for a community farm on the property. But Palms says she changed her mind as she researched income inequality in Ann Arbor. "When we weigh all the concerns and the challenges that we have in the city with affordable housing and with the prices of housing going up ... it's an ideal site for having housing on it," Palms says. "We have parks. We don't have housing for people who need it."
The county commissioners driving the plan forward say they respect the desire for more parkland, but the need for affordable housing is more urgent. Recreation is not the "best and highest use" for the site, say Rabhi. "We have an extreme problem in Ann Arbor with housing prices and cost of living being extremely high.
"We have a community that is becoming more and more exclusionary, where people who used to be able to afford to live in our city no longer can afford to live in our city," Rabhi says. "That is not the Ann Arbor that I know and love. The Ann Arbor that I know and love is one that is inclusive. It is one that is welcoming."
LaBarre says the site's location, close to both major transit routes and shopping areas, makes it a particularly ideal location for housing. And, he says, because the county actually owns the plot it can have some role in shaping its potential development. "The politically easy thing for me would be to say, 'Let's just make an extension of the park,'" he says. "I can't look myself in the mirror and say that is the best use of this land when it is adjacent to hundreds of acres of existing park and minutes away from Buhr [Park] and Redbud Nature Area and so forth. It doesn't mean that's a bad outcome, but that's not in my opinion the best outcome for the community as a whole."
LaBarre expects the board of commissioners to review a draft RFP sometime in either March or early April.
The board's resolution directing the drafting of the RFP calls for a minimum of fifty affordable units. Interim OCED head Brett Lenart says the draft will recommend that those units target households with no more than 60 percent of the county's median income: $35,500 for an individual, $40,500 for two people, and $50,600 for a family of four.
Lenart says those residents would likely pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent, in keeping with standard HUD thresholds for affordable housing, so the highest rent for those units would cap out around $750 monthly. LaBarre says affordable housing subsidies from HUD and MSHDA, as well as market-rate housing blended in with the affordable units, should help to sweeten what might otherwise seem an unattractive deal for developers.
There are still questions among the board of commissioners about how the RFP's vision would be carried out. Commissioner Ronnie Peterson says he supports affordable housing and he's "interested in the discussion"--but he's "not committed" to affordable housing on the Platt site.
Peterson wonders how the county can ensure that affordable units stay affordable, and he worries that they could end up costing the county money. "Our stream that normally happens in [state and federal] grants and funding used to be a lot more heavy than what it is today, and they've been reducing them consistently over the years," Peterson says. "So we have very little revenue source to subsidize any other major projects in county government without some other means. I would want it to stand independent on its own without ongoing assistance from county government."
By LaBarre's account, a final decision on the site is unlikely before the end of this year. "We've been screwing around on this thing for five or six years now, so we'll probably continue to go slow," he says. Even after the county makes its decision, any private development will require rezoning, which means the project would go through the city's planning process as well.
And that's just fine with Heusel and other development opponents, who seem to be sticking by the advice Kunselman gave them: "Be in it for the long haul." Heusel says she's still working to find a way for Parks and Recreation to purchase the land, or for neighbors to pay an extra tax to preserve it by creating a special assessment district for the property.
"I still think there's time," Heusel says. "We've got a lot of hope and a lot of energy, so we're going to just keep pulling to help save that land."
[Originally published in March, 2016.]
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