Thursday, November 10, 2022

Guest Opinion: Desolate and Uninviting—The Failure of 2018’s Proposal A and the Future of the Library Lot

Editor's note: This is a guest opinion by Daniel Adams. If you're interested in sharing an opinion, reach out to or drop us a DM on twitter.

2022 Peace Day Celebration on the Library Lot, Sept. 21. Photo Via @violinmonster

The Library Lot is a small city-owned surface parking lot just north of the Ann Arbor District Library. It sits atop an underground parking deck. The deck was specifically designed and reinforced, at significant taxpayer expense, to support the addition of a mixed-use building on top of it; it was not designed to support, and perhaps cannot reasonably be made to support, large amounts of dirt, mature trees, and vegetation. The Library Lot is less than a block away from Liberty Plaza, a pocket park in need of city attention and investment, and about a half mile from West Park, a sprawling public space next to downtown with a famous band shell that needs relocation and/or repair. It is hemmed in on three sides by other structures.

The Library Lot, in other words, is neither an obvious location for a center-city park nor the most worthy recipient of a significant city-funded capital investment. But in November 2018, Ann Arbor voters narrowly passed a ballot initiative–Proposal A–that amended the city’s Charter to preserve the Library Lot “in perpetuity” as an “urban park and civic center commons, known as the ‘Center of the City.’” While the ballot language itself was silent on who would pay for this venture, its organizers assured the public that the fundraising effort would be privately led, privately backed, and completed in time to have the park ready to dedicate by the city’s bicentennial in 2024.

Almost four years later and two years from the bicentennial, the Library Lot remains what it was in 2018: a parking lot. There are no shovel-ready designs to turn it into a park, and the money raised so far by Proposal A’s backers is not enough to properly support the creation of such designs. The task ahead–converting the Library Lot to inviting, green public space–requires the investment of many millions of dollars that the city does not have to invest and that the private sector has not volunteered to contribute.

Few have taken notice. The Council of the Commons (CotC), the city’s planning group, still meets. $40,000 in city money still sits earmarked to support design work that may never begin. Proposal A supporters, from time to time, make a special point of arranging inorganic gatherings on the Library Lot to performatively spread mulch into planterserect decadomes, and compete for shade resources next to concrete staircase enclosures.

Were it not largely hidden from public view, the price we are paying to continue to indulge in this otherwise pleasant fiction would be a scandal: millions in lost annual tax revenue; tens of millions more in lost matching affordable housing grants; hundreds of unbuilt downtown housing units; $15 million spent reinforcing a parking deck to support a building that will never be built; an inestimable amount of wasted city staff time and other public resources; and–ironically–an inviting public plaza that would likely exist on the site today, paid for and maintained at developer expense, absent the intervening event of Proposal A’s passage. The indirect human costs of waste at this scale are incalculable.

Whether evaluated against the promises of its proponents or the warnings of its detractors, Proposal A has failed–as obviously and completely as something like it can fail. It is past time to reckon with that failure; account for the damage; and make plans to change course. Changing course means repealing or amending Proposal A.

The Uncontentious History of Ann Arbor’s Most Contentious Parking Lot

Proposal A turned the Library Lot into a front-line issue in Ann Arbor’s debate over growth and development. But for decades, the redevelopment of the site into a mixed-use building was uncontroversial: broadly recommended by experts, embraced by city leaders, and proceeding–in fits and starts–without significant community discussion.

The city's efforts to redevelop the Library Lot go back at least as far as 1989, when a city-commissioned task force recommended that the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) “support and fund the hiring of a consultant to prepare a preliminary conceptual design and feasibility study for a mixed use development” on the site. That study, completed in June 1991, called for the construction of a parking lot at least two levels below grade, green space “within the front loop,” and for the “center of the block,” “as much housing as can be reasonably developed”:

An excerpt from the 1991 Library Lot study

The 1991 study was not the first to arrive at the conclusion that the most productive use of the Library Lot would be as some mixture of underground parking, public space, commercial space, and high-density housing. In October 1964, Richard Ahern, a local architect, proposed acquiring the Library Lot’s air rightsto facilitate the development of “a residential neighborhood, to be called ‘Ivy Lane,’” which would be “designed to attract . . . people who would prefer to be within walking distance of their place of employment.” The 2006 report prepared for the DDA by Calthorpe Associates came to the same conclusion, recommending that the city commission a design competition to redevelop the parcel to a “central ‘town square,’ underground parking, and residential uses.”

After decades of discussion,false starts, and careful planning, in 2018 the city stood poised to execute on this decades-old vision for the Library Lot. An underground parking deck had been built and specifically designed to support the future construction of a mixed-used residential building. A Chicago-based developer had agreed to purchase the surface and air rights above the parking deck to build a mixed-use development consisting of retail, office space, a hotel, residential units, and a 12,000-square-foot public plaza.

Proposal A and the Library Green Conservancy

Proposal A’s passage in November 2018 forced the city to cancel that contract and abandon the project. Proposal A as it appeared on the November 2018 ballot:

Shall the City-owned public land bounded by Fifth Ave, and William, Division and Liberty Streets be retained in public ownership, in perpetuity, and developed as an urban park and civic center commons, known as the “Center of the City” by adding a new section for the purpose as explained above?
Proposal A’s origin story traces at least as far back as 2009, when Alan Haber and Alice Ralph, in response toa city request for “creative proposals for the development” of the Library Lot, proposed not developing the site at all; instead, they suggested preserving it as “an urban public space, a focal place of community at the heart of downtown Ann Arbor.” Their 2009 proposalwas shot through with the same anti-development sentiment that would later animate supportfor Proposal A’s passage:
The idea of building a 15 story building on the A2C2 site, or even one half that tall, especially one dedicated to workday or occasional event use, is like landing the anvil on top of Wile E. Coyote (“Lickety-Splat”). The site area might waiver back to its knees now and then, but a full recovery or regeneration seems unlikely if like Mr. Coyote, we keep repeating the dead zone mistakes.
The city ultimately rejected Haber and Ralph’s proposal for cost-related reasons. Ward 2 Councilmember (CM) Stephen Rapundalo : “[T]hey provided no financials whatsoever - no cost estimates or even a basic description where the monies would come from.” The city’s decision seems to have stiffened community resistance to developing the site. A group of a dozen local NIMBY activists, including former CM Jack Eaton and failed mayoral candidate Eric Lipson, wrote to the city in January 2010 demanding that the City Council reconsider the Haber/Ralph proposal.

(The letter also sought reconsideration of a similar proposal by local real estate developer Dennis Dahlmann, which included a $2.5 million cash payment to the city . The activists, in their letter  characterized this as a “free gift.” An on-the-record opponent of new “high-rise apartment buildings,” Dahlmann has leveraged his influence and resources to block new developments downtown–e.g., “[Dahlmann] doesn't deny"he was trying to block a competing hotel from being built when he bought the Y Lot in 2014 . . . .”)

The Library Green Conservancy, the group that would eventually propose and lead the effort to pass Proposal A, emerged shortly thereafter. At an August 2011 AADL board meeting, the group, represented by founder Will Hathaway, his mother Mary Hathaway, and Alan Haber’s partner Odile Hugenot Haber, presented their “vision” for the site: “[A] park with a playground, fountains, a theater and a ‘beautiful room’ to hold events like weddings and community functions.”

All of that stuff costs money.

The Private Money Bait and Switch

Library Green leaders–if you ask them today–will equivocate or even flatly deny that they sold Proposal A to Ann Arbor voters as a substantially privately-funded project. Will Hathaway–Library Green’s lead public spokesperson during the 2018 campaign–now arguesthat “his group never promised to fully pay for the park/commons through private fundraising.”

This is sophistry. Yes: Library Green never “promised” to “fully pay” for the design and construction of the project. But it is beyond serious dispute that Library Green’s leadership, in response to sharp funding-related attacks by Proposal A’s leading critics: (a) denied that Proposal A would impose a significant burden on the city’s budget and taxpayers; and (b) made fundraising-related commitments that created, and were almost certainly intended to create, the impression in the voting public that Proposal A’s passage would conjure into existance a beautiful, verdant park primarily or exclusively through private donations.

During the 2018 campaign, opponents hammered the funding issue, blasting the initiative as a “reckless" waste of city resources that would, in Mayor Christopher Taylor’s words, force the city to “to either raise taxes or re-allocate millions of parks dollars to build and operate a failed park in the middle of our downtown.”

Hathaway tried to dismiss these warnings as “scare tactics” and reassure voters that Proposal A didn’t “mandate any particular project or cost.” But while the language on the ballot did not specify a project form or cost (and how could it?), the project it contemplated–creating “an urban park and civic center commons” on top of a subterranean parking deck–was an almost unavoidably complex, expensive undertaking.

An earlier Parks Advisory Commission report warned voters just how expensive this project, regardless of final design or form, would be:

Conversion of the entire Library Lot into open space, in particular green space, would require significant and costly structural modifications. Funding such a project would require multiple millions of dollars for both capital and maintenance, as well as the lost investment in existing infrastructure. . . . A sizeable park space in this location would require significant financial investment for enhanced security, daily maintenance, and staff dedicated to year-round programming.
Aside from testing the limits of the public’s credulity, Hathaway’s cost denialism put him squarely in tension with Library Green’s broader campaign messaging, which was working to elevate public expectations regarding the potential of this humble parking lot in order to win at the ballot box. Proposal A would create a “destination place to discover Downtown.” A “well-designed attraction” that would be “more than just a park.” They would “un-pave a parking lot and put up paradise:”

A proposed design for the Library Lot from the Library Green Conservancy

Paradise costs money. So at an important public town hall in advance of the vote, during which Library Green (represented by Haber and Hathaway) were sharply challenged on how the city would pay for Proposal A, Hathaway confidently proffered three potential funding sources:

You can see them in the slide below:

Three proposed funding sources for Center of the City.

To the critics who were warning that Proposal A would either hollow out the city’s parks budget or commit taxpayers to a future tax increase, Library Green’s answer was clear: No, it would not. No reasonable voter listening to Hathaway’s remarks would have assumed that the city’s general fund would ultimately be asked to supply the project’s start-up costs and serve as the backup plan if these funding sources failed. (After Hathaway’s remarks, Linh Song [now Ward 2 CM] warned that passing Proposal A would functionally force the city to consider “another millage down the road.” Listen to the audio, and you can hear someone in the audience interject “No!”)

And failure was likely, if not certain. Like the Haber/Ralph 2009 proposal that the City Council rejected over funding-related concerns, Library Green’s funding strategy was unserious, moon-shot stuff. City parks acquisition funds were only on the list to secure the necessary easements “to create pedestrian pathways,” and DDA leadership–notably Jessica A.S. Letaw and Joan Lowenstein–were actively urging the public to vote no on Proposal A.

For good reason. The DDA had invested years and $50 million constructing the parking deck, with designs to put a mixed-use development on top of it. Roughly 30 percent of the project’s cost, about $15 million, related in some way to enable this future development. Library Green was now proposing to tear up not only those well-laid plans but also the literal top of the deck itself (more on this below). Lowenstein: “The DDA is not just an ATM for any idea that comes up in the downtown . . . We built the parking garage so that we can encourage development of something on top and that something was going to be a multi-use building."

That left Library Green with the daunting prospect of raising millions of dollars from the private sector in a few short years. Library Green’s leadership assured the public that it was in the bag. Haber boasted that he had spoken to some “rich people” who were ready to commit: "So, when we talked to the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, they said, 'Very interesting. If you get approval, then come and talk to us.' Similarly, the Rotary Club . . . the other foundations and rich people with whom I and others have talked.” Hathaway’s outlook was characteristically confident: "We'd expect to work through the planning and design issues and raise funds starting in 2019 with the goal of dedicating a new park and civic center in 2024. Why that date? 2024 is Ann Arbor's bicentennial."

Frank Wilhelme, Library Green’s treasurer and a former director of development for the Ross School of Business, could not contain his excitement at the possibility of raising “serious money” for this project: "We’re going to have a participatory process. I only wished I had this kind of setup to raise serious money for a community benefit. It’s going to happen. I volunteer tonight.” You can see for yourself in the video below:

The Post-Election Pivot

It didn’t happen.

Passing a nominally green-space supporting ballot initiative in a pro-park town is easier, it seems, than convincing “rich people” to shell out millions of dollars to construct a pocket park on a concrete parking deck. As of October 2022, after four years of fundraising, the Center of the City fundraising entity has $70,000 in cash on hand to support design and development work. That’s about $17,000 per year–just enough to cover the maintenance costs on nearby Liberty Plaza ($13,000 annually). To kickstart fundraising, the CotC’s fundraising working group committed last month to a fundraising goal of $90,000> by the end of the year. To get there, they will need to raise as much money in three months as they normally raise in an entire calendar year.

The project’s original timeline–a completed park by 2024–has collapsed.  Formal design work has not even begun. Robert Black, the principal of one of the two design firms that responded earlier this year to a CotC request for information, proposed a construction timeline that contemplates “a model of the design to be displayed to the public at the start of the bicentennial year in 2024 as fundraising continues.” The other firm estimated a 10-month design process, which would push any groundbreaking into 2024–and perhaps beyond that.

Voters were never told that the project would substantially rely on funding from the city’s budget. That is what has happened. Within a matter of a few months of its passage, Proposal A’s supporters on Council began committing the city general-fund dollars to the implementation and public engagement process. Then they directed the administrator to “to include funding for the implementation of the Center of the City Charter Amendment in the FY2021 budget proposal.” To date, the city has budgeted $235,000–nearly a quarter of a million dollars, triple the amount that has been raised from the private sector–to support planning, outreach, and design work.

Even that, it seems, is not enough. At the inaugural CotC meeting in March 2021, with the city administrator in attendance, Library Green leaders needled the city's top executive for even more city financial support; without it, they explained, they could not effectively raise private funding. For his “first fundraising pitch of the season,” Wilhelme asked for a "substantial,” "bold" funding commitment from the city in order to “attract private support” for the project:

I’ve always felt that what we’re about is a partnership, a joint effort between the city, a public-private partnership, and having an amount of money–I’m not even going to hazard a guess on what it might be or what it should be–but it has to be substantial enough to attract private support and that’s one of the things I have been working on through the Library Green Conservancy. And so I would encourage us to be a bit bolder than we maybe have been in the past on these sorts of things. I know that these are difficult budget years but this is an important community endeavor and asset that we’re creating here, and I can tell you that any signal that the city could send that this is this is actually going to happen. Everything from a significant amount of money–I don’t even know what I mean by that–or getting the cars off the library lot. Let’s move toward signaling to the community that this is gonna happen. That’s going to be a positive influence on private contributions to help fund what will happen on this site. So that’s my first fundraising pitch of the season. (emphasis mine)

With their private fundraising efforts stalled and city funding drying up, Library Green leaders and supporters in the community have begun to point fingers: the DDA, the mayor, and various other folks. Sober-minded members of the CotC are getting sick of listening to it. “There is a lot of money in this town,” Haber continues to insist. Perhaps, but he is unable to convince any of the people holding that money to part with any substantial amount of it.

Will Hathaway, the Library Green leader who smugly brushed off funding-related warnings about Proposal A as “scare tactics,” parlayed his Proposal A activism in Ann Arbor (where he does not reside) into an elected (2020) position as Scio Township’s Supervisor. Between Scio and Ann Arbor, reasonable minds can debate whether Scio got the worse end of the deal: “‘You would have been bankrupt’: Scio Township hears dire warnings over finances.” “‘No incentive to remain here’: Scio Township administrator resigns.” “More Trouble in Scio: Just when it seemed Scio Township’s supervisor Will Hathaway’s political problems were receding, he got new ones.” “Political discord, turnover result in downgrading of Scio Township’s bond rating.

"The Will Of The People”: Proposal A’s False Voter Mandate

Library Green leaders and Proposal A supporters in the community commonly argue today that the city is democratically bound, by virtue of Proposal A’s passage, to make up the private-funding shortfall and substantially fund Proposal A’s execution.  But this begs the question. By conspicuously omitting, as it did, any mention of how the project would be funded (or what would immediately, naturally occur if the proposal passed), the ballot language could not measure voter support for a city-funded project, let alone create a democratic mandate for such a project.

This omission was smart politics. Parks poll wellin Ann Arbor, but measuring public support for parks, as an idea, is different from measuring public support for funding a specific park within the context of the broader, finite city budget. An oft-cited 2013 city poll asked, “Do you think Ann Arbor would benefit from having more downtown parks/open spaces?” An overwhelming percentage of respondents (76%) answered “Yes.” Not surprising.

But support evaporates when voters are asked whether they are willing to pay to construct or improve downtown parks. A 2022 city survey asked residents to “prioritize funding with your Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation tax dollars” by selecting “your top three (3) priorities for park improvements.” The top three answers: “Improve existing parks,” “Repair pathways along the Border to Border trail,” “Make parks and facilities accessible for people of all abilities.” The Library Lot option–“Support for developing [a] new downtown park at Liberty Plaza and Library Lane parking lot”--finished seventh. When the question was broken out separately, only 40% of respondents expressed support for creating a downtown park on the Library Lot with “tax dollars”–one of only two park-improvement proposals in the survey to fail to gain majority support from respondents.

The lack of public support for a city-funded park on the Library Lot is reflected in the composition of the City Council. In two consecutive elections, every supporter of Proposal A on Council lost their reelection campaigns, most by healthy margins. One of them, Anne Bannister, subsequently ran for mayor, and made Mayor Christopher Taylor’s resistance to diverting city general fund dollars to the Library Lot a distinguishing issue in the campaign: “I believe that mayors — whoever they are, whether they agree with the voters or not on a personal level — have an obligation and a responsibility to implement the will of the voters.” She was handily defeated. The council liaison to the CotC, Ward 5 CM Erica Briggs, has warned the CotC to be more realistic about future requests for city funding–that “there isn’t funding” for what they want to do.

Offering voters a park funded by DDA funny money and eager private benefactors exploited local voter affinity for green space and blunted the force of the central argument against Proposal A’s passage. But having made the strategic choice to omit the funding issue from the ballot, the victors do not get to claim an authentic democratic mandate for a city-funded project.

And what was on the ballot is, in a very real sense, what we have now. Hathaway defended Proposal A, in part, as not “mandat[ing] any particular project or cost.” The voters, it seems, have chosen “no project” and “no cost.”

An Accounting Of The Damage

Proposal A was not merely a poorly conceived, poorly executed policy failure; it has done, and is continuing to do, serious damage to the city, its balance sheet, and its ability to respond to resident needs.

Caveats are necessary here. I am not an accountant, a tax expert, or a real estate professional. Many of these numbers are estimates prepared by others. I have not analyzed how the tax revenue would be captured and allocated between different taxing authorities; that is complicatedand beyond the scope of this piece.

Even with these caveats, the numbers are enormous:


One Time Costs

Annual Costs

Project cost associated with constructing the parking deck to support a future mixed-used structure

$15,000,000 (DDA estimate)

Wasted marketing fees associated with the failed Core Spaces transaction


Lost sale proceeds

$10,000,000 (to be allocated 50/50 between City’s affordable housing fund and Y-lot debt repayment)

Lost matching low-income housing tax credits and grants

$130,000,000 (Ann Arbor Housing Commission Director Jennifer Hall)

Lost property tax revenue

$1,600,000 - $3,000,000 

(Letaw) (Taylor)

(Treedowntown) (Mlive)

Lost hotel excise tax revenue

$200,000 - $400,000 (Treedowntown) (Mlive)

Lost sales tax revenue


City funding for Council of the Commons/Center of the City Task Force work

$175,000 (2020 FY budget)

$20,000 (2021 FY budget)

$40,000 (2022 FY budget)

City staff support: Unknown costs 

Some amount of inefficiency is baked into how governments operate. But Proposal A was and is a different category altogether: a staggering, irresponsible waste of public resources and capital investments. And that’s before we even reach the contract amenities that Proposal A forced the city to forfeit: 360 multifamily residential apartments, 43 of which were to be offered at below-market rent; a 130-room hotel; and, salt in the wound, a 12,000 square-foot plaza created and maintained by the developer, at the developer’s expense, with the developer also on the hook to pay for programming at the park (not an insignificant number) and deliver to the city “a easement . . . for public use of the Plaza consistent with public use of a park.

If Proposal A had not passed, the downtown plaza and gathering place that Proposal A was supposed to create might exist today.

The Paths Forward

We have five options:

(1) do nothing;
(2) commit the city to designing, creating, and maintaining a public space on the site;
(3) attempt to productively develop the site without amending or repealing Proposal A;
(4) amend Proposal A;
(5) full repeal.

Preserve Proposal A: Options (1) and (2)

Option 1 (“Do nothing”) would leave this in place:

2020 Earth Day celebration at the Library Lot via
Scott Trudeau

Current Library Lot users tend to be either (a) Proposal A core supporters engaging in farcical park theater or (b) people parking a car. The Library Lot currently supplies parking the city does not need and common space most residents do not want or use. The events that do occur on the site are often cannibalized from other nearby common spaces and city parks.

Option 2 would “improve” on Option 1 but at a profligate, politically unsupportable cost to the city and taxpayers. The 2013 Parks Advisory Commission report determined that creating a public park on the Library Lot “would require significant and costly structural modifications” in the range of “multiple millions of dollars,” and no designs exist, after four years, to support the preparation of more precise estimates.

No definitive engineering assessment has been prepared on the changes that would be required to modify a deck built to hold cars and a building to instead support permeable earth, mature trees, and people, which are different things that impose different structural loads. Asked to opine in 2018 on the feasibility of these modifications, the DDA’s engineering consultant spitballed an array of challenges and required modifications, including the complete removal of the top of the deck and the underlying aggregate layer, the repair or replacement of the deck’s waterproofing (thereby voiding the contract warranty), and a redesign of the structure’s stormwater management system.

At the risk of stating the obvious: We cannot do this. A city with our community needs cannot invest the millions that will be required to turn this parking lot into a successful common space–common space that the city already has nearby (Liberty Plaza), closeby (West Park), and throughout the city in abundance. Even if executed well and at no expense spared, the Library Lot park seems unlikely to do better than merely replicating the amenities offered by Liberty Plaza–except perhaps worse, because whereas Liberty Plaza enjoys robust pedestrian foot traffic on its north and east boundaries, the Library Lot is boxed in on three sides by other buildings. Parks with “[b]lank walls or dead zones,” “poor entrances,” and “visually inaccessible spaces” are, according to the city’s Parks Advisory Commission, parks that tend to fail.

The city also, for the same reasons, cannot defensibly decline the millions that will be generated by the deployment of most of this space (more on that below) as a mixed-use building–as decades of planners, architects, and other experts recommended that we do. Every year that goes by under Proposal A, we are turning down millions in tax revenue that a developed Library Lot would generate.This revenue could be deployed to attack various city policy priorities: community hunger, housing insecurity, school quality, water quality, climate change, infrastructure investments, public safety improvements, and upgrades to public transit.

Budgets are moral documents. Option 1 and Option 2 are not morally defensible public policy choices.

Option (3): Indirect Challenge

Proposal A codified Library Green’s preferences for this parking lot into section 1.4 of the city’sCharter: “The City-owned public land bounded by Fifth Avenue, and William, Division and Liberty Streets shall be retained in public ownership, in perpetuity, and developed as an urban central park and civic center commons known as the ‘Center of the City’”

Some have suggested that the language that Proposal A added to the Charter is sufficiently ambiguous to permit the construction of housing on the site, provided that at least some non-de minimis section of the site is “developed as an urban central park and civic center commons,” as the Charter requires.

This option was discussed and dismissed as not legally viable in the 2020 Center of the City Task Force report:

As part of our community engagement efforts, the Task Force heard many voices calling for more affordable housing in downtown Ann Arbor. It is important to acknowledge this perspective in our report. The Task Force recognizes the urgent need for additional affordable housing in our community, but at this time, because of the wording of the Charter Amendment, creating housing on the Center of the City block is not an option. (Emphasis added)

That language, more likely than not, reflects legal advice from the city attorney’s office. In construing language, whether statutory or contractual, courts in Michigan are supposed to give the words in their text their plain and ordinary meaning. Here, the language in the City Charter commands that the “City-owned public land bounded by Fifth Avenue, and William, Division and Liberty Streets . . . be retained in public ownership, in perpetuity, and developed as an urban central park and civic center commons.”

This language arguably requires that the “urban park/commons” occupy all of the city-owned public land within those Charter-defined boundaries. So building a park on one part of the site and a residential or commercial building on another part probably would not work, and would, in any event, invite legal challenges that would frustrate any effort to market, lease, or sell any part of the property for that purpose.

Option (4) and (5): Direct Challenge; Amend or Repeal

That leaves amending the Charter to either change or repeal the language that Proposal A added.

As between the two, I am somewhat agnostic. Stripping Proposal A completely out of the Charter would restore the 2018 status quo and position the City Council, which often struggles to effectively manage and market its real estate assets, to re-engage the public and private developers without the added complexity and risk of residual Library Lot-specific constraints in the Charter.  The “in perpetuity” language, moreover, ties the city’s hands forever. As long as it remains in the Charter the city will be legally limited in how it can manage and use the space, in ways that may not be in the public’s best interests.

A straight-repeal strategy presents potential political risks. Any procedural move to reopen the site to development, whether an amendment or a full repeal, would be contested by the Library Green coalition and localNIMBYactivists. But a full repeal of their signature political achievement would be infuriating and politically mobilizing in a way an amendment effort might not be.

A well-drafted amendment might help deprive Proposal A’s defenders of political oxygen. It would also reflect a structural reality. Reserving a portion of the site as a public plaza or park has always been part of the plan, and was recommended by both the 1991 study and the Calthorpe Report. A portion of the site, moreover, simply cannot support a structure. Per UM’s Douglas Kelbaugh: “We specifically undersized the columns at the front so there would be a 10,000 to 12,000-foot plaza, and if any tall building happened it would be in the middle of the block where it doesn’t loom over the streets.”

Conclusion: The Time To Act Is Now

If there is a silver lining in this story: Proposal A seems to have mobilized a group of previously disengaged people in Ann Arbor to political action. The decision to preserve the top of a concrete parking deck as “commons” during a city-wide housing crisis was so manifestly reckless that it forced many people who thought local politics wasn’t worth their time to grapple with the fact that it very much was. This mobilization has had a dramatic, positive, nationally noticed impact on the composition of Ann Arbor’s city leadership and the quality of local policy-making across a number of different progressive issues.

But Proposal A has also been an unmitigated policy disaster for our community. The time to begin the work of mitigating the damage is now, and that means amending or repealing Proposal A. It will be a fight, but it’s a fight worth fighting. It’s a fight we can win. It will not be easier in a year, or two, or 10, and the price we will pay to find that out will be measured in the millions of dollars. We cannot afford to wait.


  1. Good job. Thank you, this is overdue.

    1. Welcome. Thanks for reading it.

    2. How/who can functionally move the repeal forward? It feels like there is desire (of course I felt that way the day after the vote) but who actually makes sense to take the lead? CM Song, the Mayor?

  2. What about a “fix the charter” amendment which would also take the requirement for pie shaped boundaries out of the charter so the students can have a seat on council.

    1. I favor the complete elimination of the ward based representation system. Scott Trudeau has written extensively about how hyper localizing representation to the ward level frustrates city-wide policy making and creates incentives for CMs to act in ways that are not transparent and do not necessarily advance city policy. Moving to at-large seats wouldn't guarantee student representation on council but it would make it at lot easier.

  3. Adam - Great analysis and proposal. Can we DM on this? My email is

    1. Oops, Dan, can we DM on this . . .

  4. Perhaps a referendum to repeal could be a repeal contingent on whether private funding emerges to create the park within some fixed number of years, after which the charter is amended to the status quo Prop A? In other words, challenge the library park advocates to put up the funds.

  5. One option would be to construct a replacement Library Building over the structure and then use the library site (former Beal house) for a park more suitable for growing trees etc.

  6. How do we motivate and galvanize the community to refurbish or relocate the skeleton of a band shell in West Park? The park is a gem in our city. Beautiful hundred year-old trees, ball fields, turtles, playground, native wildflowers. Much has been done but there is so much more. Bike-able from everywhere in the city. A disgrace in a city that purports to be all about parks

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. I've long thought the best (though very complicated) solution was this. Build a giant building on the library lot. Put retail on the ground floor and housing on the highest floors. Build the new public library on the middle floors. Tear down the current library and create a new park there.