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  • By Lisa Brody

Birmingham reviews, looks at city year ahead

The Birmingham City Commission held its annual long-range planning meeting on Saturday, January 27, where they discussed upcoming sewer projects, alley maintenance, a citywide master plan update, a possible bike share program, the park's master plan and parks improvement funding, parking updates, and how the shopping district is planning for upcoming road construction work in the city's downtown.

The long-range planning meeting is an opportunity each year for the city's department heads to come before the commission and describe what they have been doing in the past year, and what they have planned for the year ahead.

Finance director Mark Gerber explained that the city's five-year financial forecast is not a budget, but is based on certain assumptions which may or may not happen, “including taxes, capital outlay, etc., which will be hashed out in the budget process.”

Timothy St. Andrew from Plante & Moran presented the five-year financial forecast, telling commissioners he was here to cover the results of the planning process.

“Estimates are based on forecast assumptions,” he said, noting that the state's equalized value (SEV) for homes, which is what municipalities use to calculate taxes to be collected, have no limit on growth or decline, while the city's taxable value is limited on growth by the Headlee Amendment to the rate of inflation.

In 2017-2018, St. Andrew said, taxable value grew at 5.2 percent, and for 2018-2019, an annual increase in taxable of 5.28 is anticipated, with gradually smaller increases to 3.43 percent in 2021-2022. Personal property tax revenue is expected to decline as a result of recent legislation, he said, with small business taxpayers with total personal property valued at less than $80,000 able to sign a taxation exemption for personal property. He said the city is expected to lose about $5.1 million, or .3 percent, in taxable value as a result.

At the same time, SEV in 2019 is expected to be six percent, falling to four percent in 2022.

“Your taxable value is almost keeping up with SEV growth, which you don't always see,” St. Andrew said.

The millage rate is forecast to remain steady for the time being, “but the Headlee limit has had declines with sharp rollbacks, and management has forecast rollbacks going into the future,” Gerber noted.

The city's general fund fund balance is forecast to grow through the time period due to the increase in property values.

Department of Public Works Director Lauren Wood, along with Sarah Traxler, a consultant from McKenna, informed commissioners of an update on the parks and recreation master plan, which will be presented to the parks and recreation board on February 12.

“The plan is make it eligible for grants from MDNR (Michigan Department of Natural Resources), convey communities' values, creates a historical record, determines areas for further exploration, and is not meant to be set programs in stone,” Wood said.

Traxler said they have inventoried all of the city's parks, looked at all of the improvements since the last master plan, engaged the public and proposed an action plan of desired proposed projects over the next five years.

She said they learned from stakeholders that the city is an inclusive community that values natural area stewardship and health and fitness.

“People chose where to live by where the parks are. You're doing the right things,” she said.

Wood said an overview of projects include implementing the Adams Park RFP; installing two new pergolas at Barnum Park; enhancing playground equipment at Crestview Park; improving the baseball field at Howarth Park; proceeding with a phased implementation of the master plan at Kenning Park, including parking lot and pedestrian lighting; adding playground enhancements at Linden Park; improving the native garden and monarch butterfly vegetation at Martha Baldwin Park; doing playground enhancements and adding screening to a portable restroom at Pembroke Park; adding accessible playground enhancements and softball field improvements at Poppleton Park; updating the playground and musical equipment at Shain Park; adding shelter site furnishings and playground equipment enhancements at Springdale Park; and improving the soccer/open play field and adding playground enhancements to St. James Park.

In addition, Wood said, they estimate approximately $6 million in improvements to the city's Ice Arena, which she said is now 45 years old. They intend to seek grants, donations, public/private partnerships and bonds as funding sources.

“There are 26 parks, and many have not been touched for years,” she said.

“We're in a unique position for bonding,” said city manager Joe Valentine. “There are wonderful initiatives, and it's good timing. We have a AAA bonding, a large debt capacity, municipal bonds are attractive, our current debt is declining and coming off now, which allows for improvements to occur in the near term. Our last parks and rec bond was authorized in 2001. A $5 million parks and rec bond with a 15-year debt service would add a fiscal year milage of .17 mills onto the debt levy. The current impact to a taxpayer would be about $42.50 a year, based on a $250,000 home.”

He said they would need to approve a local ballot proposal by May 1 for it to appear on the August primary ballot, or July 31 for the November general ballot.

“We have had previous conversations about a parking structure bond – but that debt service would be paid from user fees – from revenues of the system,” Valentine explained. “It's not general tax fees like a parks and rec bond. It's an opportunity that clearly is available to us.”

Another area Wood said they are looking to enhance is the Maple/Eton bridge, which she said they hired Walker Consultants to review. The bridge itself, which was built in the 1930s and is in pretty good condition, is owned by CN Railroad, and the city is looking to make aesthetic enhancements.

“There is a lot of potential for beautification and lighting, and we can make it pedestrian-friendly,” she said. “It would make it a great gateway into the city. It's been ignored for a long time.”

To make cosmetic improvements to the sidewalk only would cost about $253,000; to the sidewalk and roadway, including LED lighting, about $393,000.

Before the city could approve a plan, the plan would have to be reviewed and approved by the railroad.

Planning director Jana Ecker informed commissioners that the city last did a master plan update in 1980, when it was designed to be a 20-year plan. There is now request for proposal (RFP) language for it to be sent out, “with a lot of parking details, infrastructure analysis, and transportation changes and analysis included,” Ecker said. “The RFP is ready to be issued in March.”

She noted that the commission updated the city's retail ordinance in the fall, and now the planning board is looking at retail boundaries. “We've discovered that many urban areas have very tight areas, usually two to four blocks,” she said. “We have a very large area, and maybe we should tighten it down, or do a secondary retail area. We're also looking at retail depth regulations. Research shows that 35-feet to 80-feet in depth would provide for quality retail,” and help prohibit desks, cubicles, meeting tables and other office equipment in windows. They are also looking at first floor lobby space of buildings built before the overlay district, or that were designed to just be office buildings.

“The planning board has asked staff t go through block by block and study, building by building, ones that may need to be grandfathered in,” she said.

As they have for several years, the planning board will continue to make alleys and passageways more desirable, and will come up with a comprehensive package to make sure they're kept up, especially regarding waste receptacles and dumpsters. She said they are looking at having them labeled and having better signage.

The city's bistro ordinance is undergoing more review, notably with the placement of outdoor dining, the maximum number of seats that can be enclosed, if there needs to be different parking requirements and restroom requirements. “We're also looking at other issues for the Triangle and Rail districts – could they be larger there because they're not in the parking assessment district,” Ecker said. “They need to improve the buildings and have to add parking.”

The city's multi-modal transportation board has been working on Woodward Avenue crossings and crosswalk standards, and will be studying bike sharing, “a program of public bikes anyone can use. It's another transportation option. It's taking off around the world, and it's going really high-tech,” she said, noting that cities like Ann Arbor, Southfield, Detroit and Port Huron have bike sharing.

“Is this something the city commission wants to do? If so, what's the next step?” she asked. “If so, there's plenty of options. We would need to do a feasibility study, which would be about $150,000.”

Ingrid Tighe, executive director of the Birmingham Shopping District (BSD), told commissioners the BSD is actively planning ahead for the Old Woodward construction project, with a plan called, “Pave the Way Birmingham.”

“Yes, we're going to go through a dusty period but we're going to have a beautiful city,” she said, which they are communicating to merchants and the public through signage and social media, and synchronizing with the city's message.

“We're holding merchant meetings on a regular basis on topics important to businesses, and emailing notifications,” Tighe said. They are also going to be promoting “Birmingham Bucks,” similar to Kohl's dollars, to encourage people to shop despite the construction

A multi-faceted marketing campaign utilizing TV, radio, magazines, newspaper and social media will be utilized. There will also be a free valet service at several locations as shoppers come into Birmingham.

“There will also be events, including a kick-off party and public art to decorate all the barricades, maybe with some professional artists, schools, community groups, where we offer prizes and juried events for families,” Tighe said. “Depending on when construction ends, Day On The Town could be an end of construction.”

Tighe also explained that the BSD had hired a new retail consultant, Bruxton, to expand the business development strategy of the city. “We want their help to expand and retain retailers, with their expertise in business strategy to provide them with help to expand and stay.

“We've chosen the new consultant with data and research analysis. They go and search for what is missing in the mix,” she said. “We're looking to implement a strong broker/landlord relationship, with an entrepreneurial wing, and connect them with resources.”

She said another marketing strategy is enticing more stores from Somerset to come to Birmingham. “We're trying to increase the attraction.”

Engineer Paul O'Meara reported on parking initiatives, suggesting that they are talking about keeping employees parking only on upper levels of parking structures, and leaving the first two levels for visitors.

He said that Lot 6, on N. Old Woodward, is under a lot of strain, needs to be resurfaced, and they are looking at options to increase parking in the lot. The first option would just resurface the lot and improve landscaping. The second would save some pine trees, move the east curb and add 14 spots. The third would add about 35 spots by moving curbs and gutters, removing old pine trees but adding bioswale which would shrink water drainage before getting into the Rouge River in the rear, and would be an environmental improvement.

He said they have worked with three churches, United Methodist, Ascension Lutheran and Our Shepherd Lutheran, which are all willing to work with a large employer to offer park and shuttle opportunities. “So far, there are no takers,” O'Meara said.

Ecker provided information on the N. Old Woodward/Bates Street extension plan, which came out of the 2016 plan, “to create another street in downtown and to ease parking,” she said. “The city came up with the idea of how to redesign this area, as a larger project than just replacing a parking deck.”

A request for qualifications (RFQ) was done earlier, with four firms/development teams responding and prequalifying in September. “They were sent RFPs, and asked to structure deals with the city, for either public/private partnerships or for a sale, and we got three back by our deadline of January 3 (2018). One dropped out, and we're reviewing them now,” she said.

The three firms are REDICO, TIR Equities LLC, and Woodward, Bates Partners LLC.

She said on Friday, February 9, the ad hoc parking committee will review the RFPs and see about setting up interviews. “Then they'll determine recommendations to the city commission, and maybe in spring 2018, with final approval by the city commission in January 2019.”

Baldwin Public Library Director Doug Koschik revealed conceptual designs for Phase II of its expansion and renovation for the library's Youth Room, planned for summer 2019 through spring 2020. As in Phase I, architects for the conceptual design are Robert Ziegelman, John Gardner and Karen Swanson of Luckenbach Ziegelman Gardner Associates.

The project, estimated to cost $2.35 million in 2019 dollars, would carry through the design of the Adult Services renovation, including exposing the brick of the original 1927 building. It would expand the Youth room by approximately 2,000 square feet, increasing the play area, story room and seating; renovate existing space, making the entire area ADA-compliant, including the book shelves and bathrooms; purchase new furniture; add an aquarium; add display cases and a separate room for strollers; and add an outdoor children's terrace and play area, as well as landscaping the exterior to integrate it with Shain Park.

“The expansion and renovation would allow Baldwin to serve its young population better and also enliven the west end of the downtown civic campus. Light would flood into and out of the building, creating a strong connection between the library, Shain Park, and surrounding buildings. Should the project move forward, the library will seek further input from the public,” Koschik said.

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