When the city built the underground Library Lane parking structure, it spent an extra $5 million on foundations to support a future building above it. Plans for a conference center there foundered on cost issues during the recession, but now the site is back in play: City council is expected to vote this month on whether to sell the air rights to Chicago-based Core Spaces for $10 million. Core wants to erect a colossal seventeen-story apartment building that’ll dominate Division and transform downtown.
But selling city property requires a council supermajority–eight of the eleven members–and three are already against it: Jack Eaton, Sumi Kailasapathy, and Jane Lumm. “I’ve opposed selling that property for this kind of development for some time,” says Ward Four’s Eaton. “I’ve been active with the Library Green group [which advocated for a park on the site] even before getting elected to council.” But to block the sale, they’ll need someone else to stand with them.
In mid-March, no one else was committing themselves either way. Asked where he stood on the project, mayor Christopher Taylor replied, “I don’t yet know where I’m going on this one.”
With more than 350,000 square feet of floor space, the “Collective on 5th” would be even larger than the controversial Foundry Lofts two blocks north. It squeezes under the city’s size limits only by counting Library Lane, a small street connecting Division and Fifth, as part of its footprint. That wouldn’t be possible if it were a public street–but when it opened in 2012, the Downtown Development Authority made Library Lane a private road. (That density bonus went unmentioned when the Observer’s Question Corner asked about the designation the following year–we were told only that it didn’t meet the city’s minimum dimensions for a public street.)
Taylor doesn’t object to its size. “I’m not going to deny it’s big,” he quips. “But big as big doesn’t offend me.”
Big offends Will Hathaway, head of the Library Green Conservancy. His group has advocated turning the entire site into a public park. Though the Conservancy now accepts that most of it will be developed, Hathaway says the Core Spaces design is “totally out of context. It’s going to overshadow everything [including] the historic buildings” on Fifth and Liberty.
Hathaway and others point out that when the city marketed the site, it created a highly unusual commission arrangement: the broker’s fee will be based not just on the price of the air rights but on the total value of the completed project. That created an incentive to bring in the biggest possible plan.
Taylor sees nothing wrong with that, either. “So they’re saying we incentivized the broker to get as much money coming to the city as possible?” he asks. “In part, our goal in selling the parcel was to maximize the money coming into the city, so we could use that money to improve basic services and enhance the quality of life.”
Taylor sees plenty of benefits to the project: “A major building at the center [of downtown] would bring thousands of people to that area and connect the two main downtown hubs. Another pro is the city does not have resources presently in its affordable housing trust fund, and this will be at least $5 million into the trust fund. And there is some workforce housing in the project itself.”
Eaton isn’t buying. “We would be spending too much money on too few. We should use our own land and build something that is affordable housing. Five million dollars won’t buy much affordable housing, and it’ll probably go into maintaining rather than adding.”
The Main St. and State St. area business associations have raised questions about Core Spaces’ request for 196 spaces in the underground lot and 165 spaces in two other structures for up to fifty years. But Taylor says that won’t figure into his decision. “The DDA has concluded that the parking system has the ability to handle it.”
Former DDA chair Ed Shaffran disagrees. “People are concerned with parking now, and with more people coming into town than ever before, what do we do next? Are we going to build a new parking structure?” The DDA’s 2015 study says the city faces a parking deficit of 860 spaces by 2019–and director Susan Pollay says it’s unclear whether that took into account spaces needed to develop Library Lane’s air rights. Yet the group has no current plans to build more parking.
Still the mayor has faith. “It’s DDA’s job to make sure the parking system is efficient and maintained in a manner that supports the health of the downtown. They’ve done a great job to date.”
If he shares none of the other objections, what is it about the project that might cause him to vote against it? “I don’t know that it stirs the soul,” he says. “The image of the building we have before us is not the final proposal. They could request a more slender, attractive project that would be in conformity with all aspects of zoning but require a height limit variance.”
Told Taylor hasn’t decided yet, Hathaway says, “That’s hopeful. Chris is a strong leader, and whatever he decides, the rest of the council majority will follow his lead. I hope he concludes it’s not in the best interests of Ann Arbor. We’d be overjoyed.”
Whatever the decision, the vote will no doubt be an issue in a pair of rematches in the August primaries: Jaime Magiera will once again take on Jack Eaton in the Fourth Ward. In the Fifth, Conservancy supporter David Silkworth, who lost to Chip Smith as an independent in November, will try again as a Democrat.
Though not entirely in favor of the current project, councilmember Kirk Westphal would like to do something soon: “We could quibble for another decade over plaza size, glass or brick, or how much parking we’re willing to include,” he says.
“Politically, it’s always easiest to kick the can down the road. But at the end of that road, we might find that nobody wants to buy land from the city anymore because we keep changing our mind.”