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  • By Lisa Brody

Departments review long-range plans for city

On Saturday, January 26, Birmingham city commissioners met with staff department heads at their long-range planning meeting to review departmental plans for the upcoming year.

The five-year financial forecast by Mark Gerber from the finance department, assisted by representation from Plante & Moran, noted a strong forecast. Water and sewer rates are expected to increase, but only the rate of inflation, with water usage down overall. In the five-year forecast for retiree benefits and defined benefit contributions, city manager Joe Valentine said that right now there's a schedule of liabilities to that fund. “Those costs are starting to diminish. At some point, there won't be any more people in those funds,” he said.

For unfunded liabilities, Gerber said the actuaries have determined a 20-year liability, “with the best guess, in 20 years we should be paid up.”

“We are making our contributions, we are attacking that any time we can,” Valentine added.

He also said that Birmingham has reinvestment opportunities, where they are looking to reinvest back into the community, and are currently looking at the best impact to the community.

“Infrastructure does not age like fine wine. At some point, you have to replace it. Right now, we're looking at parks and parking structures,” he said, as well as addressing unimproved streets. “Service demands may exceed our current capacity. We are providing adult services, but we know we have an aging population – not just Birmingham, but the state and the country. We want to be able to address that.”

For parks, he said, there is a master plan, and they have not bonded for a park since 2002. Of particular importance is the ice arena, which has not been improved since it was built in the 1970s.

“We may be looking at a parks and recreation bond to address those needs,” Valentine said.

He also said a parking bond is likely needed for the replacement and expansion of the N. Old Woodward structure, which has 750 spaces, but needs an extra 500 spaces. “We're looking at a public/private partnership. It's a key element in replacing the parking structure, through various sources, including a parking bond.”

Approximately 22 miles of unimproved streets are on the agenda to be improved, and the issue is how to incorporate them into existing street maintenance, Valentine said.

Currently, for adult services, the city has an arrangement with NEXT, which is funded through the city's general fund. Valentine said they are looking at collaborating with other communities, perhaps having an interlocal agreement for a senior millage. “That's where we're headed in our five-year plan,” he said.

Lauren Wood, director of public services, provided a parks and recreation improvement funding update, noting they have been working on it “since your direction last March,” when a subcommittee was set up to identify 10 potential improvement projects.

It would cost $5.1 million for the ice arena improvements, which would include new refrigeration infrastructure and locker room facility upgrades; $700,000 for the implementation of the Adams Park concept plan; $680,000 for the Poppleton Park playground; $1.2 million for improvements to Kenning Park; $1.9 million to provide playground equipment and update outdated equipment at citywide playgrounds; another $500,000 to add splash pads, which Woods said is a very popular addition; phase III of Booth Park would cost $250,000, adding an entry plaza with seating and a garden; $1 million for the Rouge River Trail Corridor, providing connectivity, stone steps, retaining walls and plant materials; $525,000 for new irrigation system and cart paths at Springdale Golf Course; and $150,000 for a pickleball court.

The total estimated cost, Wood said, is just over $12 million.

Potential funding sources are grants, donations, private/public partnerships, and parks and recreation bonds.

She said they have launched a poll for people to “pick your passion,” to rank their preference.

Maple/Eton Road bridge enhancements, which is owned by CN Railroad, means they have to do the work, Wood said. “They gave us the price of $96,000 for painting, mortar patching, but nothing to the ceiling, no utility work, sidewalk repair or lighting,” she said. “Sidewalk repair would be coordinated with sidewalk repairs throughout the city,” which she estimated at $52,000.

Pedestrian lighting would be another $25,000. A mural which had been discussed “is not easy to get approvals for. We would need to apply for a right of entry permit with CN,” Wood said.

She said the earliest work could begin would be summer 2019.

City planner Jana Ecker, who gave more of a review of planning projects in process, said they are embarking on a citywide master plan project. “It's a vision of the city's plan for the future. The last time it was done was 1980, and it was projected until 2000,” she said of the new process that chose DPZ Codesign, led by Andres Duany, who did the 2016 Plan. She said public multi-day charrettes are planed for May.

Draft reports will be presented at 60 percent and 80 percent complete, before it is final.

Planner Brooks Cowan said the planning board has been working on a retail frontage study, for buildings that are not suitable for first floor retail. He said they had created a request for proposal (RFP) for a downtown review plan, but only received one applicant. Cowan also noted the city commission requested a revision, which planning had reviewed to add, from an urban design point of view, to look at increasing pedestrian activity during daytime and evenings, how to increase residential occupancy downtown, and to increase alley activation as well as how to address current buildings not suitable for retail space.

“I would orient it to how it accommodates retail space, not how it impacts the demand,” said commissioner Mark Nickita. “This isn't a demand issue, this is a physical issue. This is an analysis that is very physically-oriented. It's a summary of how our zoning works.

“Alleys – we can't ignore the back,” Nickita continued. “How can we activate that. Those are things that have to be added to the RFP. It's a repositioning that has to be done for land use.”

Planning intern Nicholas DuPuis said they are looking to have alleyways cleaned up with improved signage, proposed amendments on dumpsters, improved code enforcement to give them more tools to perform better enforcement, inventory all allowed parking spaces and delineate areas where parking is not permitted, and paving and stormwater management in alleys.

“We want to reinforce our walkable brand,” he said.

Dupuis continued with the downtown parking study, noting that Nelson & Nygard had been hired to perform the study, which grew from looking at eliminating the residential parking requirement to looking at all public and private parking in the downtown.

Assistant city manager Tiffany Gunter provided an update on the N. Old Woodward parking structure and Bates Street extension project, which had as its goal to solve a parking problem as well as to provide connectivity from Bates to N. Old Woodward, as recommended in the 2016 Plan.

She said a proposed new structure will provide 1,150 spaces, include an extension of Bates Street, a pedestrian plaza, a pedestrian bridge to Booth Park, a five-story private mixed-use building and a mixed-use liner of retail on the outside of the new parking structure. The combined retail, residential and commercial project is projected to cost $54 million, she said.

“City administration has been working to finalize a predevelopment agreement and a final development agreement with the developers,” Gunter said.

She said the due diligence process to validate the project, along with an environmental review, has been done, with staff currently preparing a timeline for a parking mitigation plan.

“The predevelopment agreement is to be finalized by early February 2019, and the development agreement is expected in March 2019,” she said. Public funding should be in place by August 2019, which project commencement planned for late fall 2019.

“If these are running on time as expected, we hope we are moving forward with this project,” Gunter said.

Valentine explained that the property will be owned by the city and the buildings leased to Woodward Bates, and they would be responsible for all leasing, not the city. The city will be funding the parking structure and part of the street.

“The cost per space will be higher than we're used to because we'll be going three stories down, there'll be amenities on the facade, the structure will be a little higher end – it's in the center of downtown,” Valentine said.

Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence said the department is looking at enhancements, including to be accredited through the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. Clemence said the department is actively working on community engagement programs, including offering a home and commercial security evaluation, “to help homeowners see how to make their homes safer.” The department's community resource officer is offering a woman's self-defense program, and continuing active shooter training with schools and businesses, including the ALICE program with schools. “We've got to get out ahead of this. We have two officers working on this,” he said.

Ingrid Tighe, executive director of the Birmingham Shopping District (BSD) said that with retail occupancy rates at 96 percent and office occupancy at 90 percent, “The BSD remains focused on continuing to proactively attract new businesses to town.”

She said they are working to stay abreast of market retail trends, notably that while some retail is closing, those that remain open are top-notch shopping centers, like Somerset Collection. She noted that, “In addition to Somerset, Birmingham, and a few other communities, prospective retailers are also considering downtown Detroit which wasn't the case a couple of years ago.”

To stay proactive for 2019-2020, the BSD is working on retail retention by offering initiatives and programs to help them thrive, including BSD gift certificates; a professional speaker series; connectivity via Oakland County Business One Stop. They are marketing in trade publications and real estate publications, utilizing targeted social media campaigns, hosting roundtable discussions, website ads to retail real estate professionals, inviting retailers from other communities, like Traverse City, to open in Birmingham, and maintaining third party assistance in retail recruiting. Tighe is also attending ICSC conferences and other real estate related conventions.

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