I suspect it will be a while before a reasonable number of people join this conversation, so in the meantime, it makes sense to provide some background.
First, thanks go out to Chris MacAskill, co-founder of Cake and founder of one of my favorite websites, ADV Rider. We spoke for around an hour and a half today, and it was fascinating. Chris was in the room 20-some years ago when Tim Berners-Lee pitched hyperlinks to Steve Jobs at Next. Cake is his attempt to correct many of the failings of social media. It is a work in progress, but the content on Cake is contained either in "conversations" like this, where anyone can join in, or in "panels," where only those invited may talk, but anyone can listen. Within a few days, Cake will be giving panel audiences the ability to ask questions. At some point, I hope to convene some panels to discuss the issues Birmingham faces, but Chris' advice was to start simple with a single conversation, and then see where it goes.
If you know me, you may remember the Birmingham Buzz. I edited the Buzz from 2001 to about 2006, and in its early days it featured a lively discussion board. It was a blog before blogs, and it was reasonably influential in catalyzing change in Birmingham. Several staunchly anti-development members of the City Commission were unseated, sensible development standards were restored, Booth Park was redeveloped, an Architectural Review Committee was established, the Bistro Ordinance was enacted and more -- virtually all of it as a result of work by the Buzz and its supporters.
For the past decade or more, I've been mostly quiet. I've kept one eye on city government, occasionally attending city meetings to advocate for one position or another. For example, a couple years ago I pressured the City Commission to develop standards and institutionalize its review of requests for lot combinations, which until recently were approved by staff almost as a matter of course.
More recently, the beast was stirred by the work of one of Birmingham's notorious ad hoc committees. This one, called the Ad Hoc Parking Development Committee, was charged with finding a solution to the city's never-ending parking problem. I call these committees "notorious" because with the good intent of engaging ordinary citizens in the business of the city, it invariable, well, engages ordinary citizens in the business of the city. That is, ordinary citizens with little to no expertise in the business they are asked to attend to.
Disagree with me. Please. That is the beauty of this platform. (I will try to make this invitation often.)
As will become clear in one of my already-written, but soon-to-be-republished-here pieces, the committee decided to focus on a piece of property that has stirred my passions for almost 20 years: the public land located at the north end of Bates. That land contains the N. Old Woodward parking structure, a surface parking lot and, hidden behind a fence at the north end of the property, a ravine and the Rouge River. It doesn't take much imagination to see the potential of this property. Just drive, walk or bicycle to the top of the N. Old Woodward structure and look down upon it. Now, what potential you see may depend on your point of view. A developer might see dollar signs. An outdoor enthusiast might see a good bit of nature in the heart of downtown. Somebody looking to park as many cars as possible might see a gigantic parking structure. Somebody looking for a more youthful, slightly less affluent population, might see an opportunity to build a couple hundred apartments. A downtown merchant looking to increase business might see an opportunity to dramatically expand the retail environment, bringing in lots of new customers.
You probably get where I'm going with this. Those and many other points of view are surely represented among Birmingham residents and taxpayers. But, alas, it seems only the few members of our ad hoc committee, our City Manager, and an already overburdened City Commission, have had a say in deciding what might occupy this jewel of a site.
In fact, with a master plan rewrite looming, they decided to move forward with this project -- estimated to cost around $130 million -- without subjecting it to that time-tested process. Remember the 2016 Plan? The Parks Master Plan? The Triangle District Master Plan? The Rail District Master Plan? The charrettes? Not now. Not here.
City Planner? Sidelined. Planning Board? They usually look at projects long before they hit the drawing board in earnest. But construction drawings are well underway for this project, and the Planning Board hasn't seen a thing. Residents? If they were willing to attend daytime meetings of the ad hoc committee, they could have spoken up, but few did.
One party has spoken up loudly, though. Ara Darakjian, the developer who brought Robert A.M. Stern, the world-renowned New York architect, to the table, is speaking up in the form of a lawsuit. He brings credible claims of conflict-of-interest and inside dealing against the city, City Manager Joe Valentine and City Commissioner Mark Nickita. The lawsuit is a sideshow, of course, a symptom of the slipshod way in which the city naively approached this proposed public/private partnership.
So the old beast has been stirred, and he hopes to stir others -- for and against. If this is the highest and best use for the Bates St. property, and it makes sense to omit it from the master planning process, then let those opinions be heard. Come one, come all.