Birmingham City Commission
Seven candidates are competing to fill three four-year seats on the Birmingham City Commission in the Tuesday, November 2, election.
The names of candidates David Bloom, Andrew Haig, Stephen Konja, Anthony Long, Elaine McLain, Katie Schafer and Lynda Schrenk will all appear on the ballot.
Candidates were asked by Downtown Newsmagazine to address a number of issues facing the city and their responses appear below.
Bloom earned his undergraduate degree in economics and international business from University of Michigan, and an MBA in marketing from Michigan State University, and is a purchasing analyst at Ford Motor Company. He is a member of Birmingham Citizens for Responsible Government.
Birmingham 2040 Plan
City officials and an outside planning firm have been working on what is known as the Birmingham Master 2040 Plan, envisioning what the city may look like in future years. Among the assumptions are that 2,000 new residents will occupy approximately 1,000 new living units. The Master 2040 Plan calls for the introduction of alternative housing concepts beyond just single family, allowing for more housing diversity. Have you been following the Master 2040 Plan? What is your position on diversity of housing types suggested so far? What about the concept of “neighborhood seams?”
Yes, I have been following the 2040 Master Plan. Birmingham has had difficulty with increasing housing diversity. It has been decreasing at the lower end with attainable housing and expanding to what could be termed unattainable housing. The 2016 plan called for increasing housing downtown by incentivizing residential on the top floor, but in part because of parking requirements, what we got were large and extremely expensive housing units affordable to only a very few. Stand alone multi-family housing such as the bankrupted Forefront development on South Old Woodward, The Pearl at Oak and Woodward with rents starting at $5,300 a month for a one bedroom unit, and The Bristol at the corner of Frank and Ann being offered at $738 per square foot for a 4,000 sq foot unit are also examples. As I have publicly expressed during the planning process increasing housing density along “seams” may be good for developers, but risks harming our neighborhoods unless it is done on a very limited basis and with extremely careful planning and controls.
Unimproved Streets Plan
A special committee has been studying the many unimproved streets in Birmingham and the committee report has been accepted by the city commission but elected officials still need to vote on whether they approve of the report in order for the plan to move forward. Do you support what has been submitted to the city council? Please explain.
Our neighborhoods have been suffering and need quicker action. This plan takes too long to implement. We have a AAA bond rating for putting up parking decks downtown to support developers, but we won’t bond to get the job done sooner in the neighborhoods. That said we have some beautiful neighborhoods with unimproved streets and residents may prefer the look and character of streets without curbs and gutters and a place to park on the easement between the street and sidewalk that are absent on streets with curbs.
Outside dining year around
During the first year of the pandemic the city relaxed some of the restrictions on dining out-of-doors at restaurants but has now returned to what city ordinances provide. The city is asking the public to offer their opinions on how outside dining should be handled in the future, including whether year around outdoor dining should be allowed. Tell us how outdoor dining changed during the pandemic and what you would support for the future?
It would be nice to have more outdoor dining in Birmingham and for longer duration. We also should take into consideration the availability of on street parking and noise if the dining is near residential units. I think we should also experiment with allowing outdoor dining to take place on weekends at Shain Park on a rotation schedule and that the city look into building a pavilion along the Bates Street extension area that Birmingham restaurants can rent/use on a rotating or lottery basis. Experimentation with food trucks at our neighborhood parks, at the Farmer’s Market lot, and adjacent Shain Park lot are also a worthwhile endeavors to try out.
Expanded buildings/new buildings’ impact on parking
As new buildings have arrived and some buildings have expanded, there has been growing concern regarding the past practice of automatically allowing these buildings to become part of the current parking districts in the downtown area. How should the city be addressing this concern? Should there possibly be an impact fee on new and larger buildings to cover future parking needs in the downtown area? Can the concept of “shared parking” address some of the increased demand from new developments?
This is a great question and I am glad Downtown is asking it. One of the reasons for building and density growth downtown is that we have been giving away parking that doesn’t exist. This is continuing right now at an alarming rate. The issue is being ignored. We should not be permitting new development downtown without a required understanding and acknowledgement of where sufficient parking will be and who will be paying for it, preferably the developers. The shared parking concept – which has been discussed in terms of utilizing the same spaces for daytime commercial and nighttime residential uses - made a lot of sense pre-COVID. In a post-COVID world it may not work as well and needs to be carefully thought through.
There has not been much movement on the plans for the Triangle District in the city. Can you tell us how familiar you are with the Triangle District plans? As part of what is proposed, the plan includes two parking decks for the Triangle District. First, are they needed now and, if so, how should construction be funded? If assessing businesses is part of the funding, should businesses in the downtown area be assessed for parking deck construction on the other side of Woodward? Should the fund balance for the existing parking structures be used for the Triangle District?
Given that downtown is already overdeveloped, shifting to the Triangle District makes sense. This has been stalled for a several reasons. If taxpayers are going to fund or prefund more deck construction in Birmingham it should be in the Triangle. Having one or more decks in the Triangle could also relieve pressure on the Peabody structure and would be very useful when we need to repair or replace a downtown structure. Businesses on the downtown side of Woodward could possibly be tapped to help fund a Triangle garage where they are in proximity and it makes sense, but they should also get something in return like preferred permit pricing in the Triangle. Developing the Triangle also offers opportunity for mixed-use buildings and attempting to build attainable multi-family housing with higher density. Given the various property ownership issues in this area development will be tricky. Finding ways to connect to downtown with bridging walkways should also be explored. Engaging in one or more public private partnerships where everyone – especially the public – benefits could lead to a desired outcome. Advantages and disadvantages of using the existing parking fund for Triangle deck construction need to be thoroughly evaluated.
City of Birmingham budget
As property values rise, municipalities are prevented by the Headlee Tax Limitation Amendment from increasing revenues from property taxes beyond the rate of inflation or five percent, whichever is less. Birmingham in recent years has remained below the Headlee cap by about .3 mill. If the city does approach the Headlee cap in the future, do you think the budget should be reduced or would you favor asking voters for an over-ride on the Headlee cap?
We should do everything we can to spend carefully within our means and only consider an override as a last resort.
What do you consider your top three issues facing if elected to the city commission?
Focusing more time and effort on resident and neighborhood issues. We should be more open, accessible, and transparent to residents. We can do better. Managing the aftermath of the uncontrolled downtown building spree that was not supported with sufficient infrastructure.
What makes you qualified
I have a long and deep involvement in our community. I grew up here and attended Birmingham Schools. My involvement on the Citizens Sewer and Ad Hoc Sewer Committees resulted in improving infrastructure policy, saving homeowners millions. My analysis of the Plante Moran Police Consolidation Study revealed shortcomings that led to keeping our police department independent and our downtown station open. In 2009, I led the effort to save the Birmingham Eccentric from closure. Then I volunteered as a photojournalist and writer for several years. In 2014, I co-led the defeat of the $21.5 library demolition and reconstruction bond and spent the next six years working on the $2 million Birkerts and $2.5 million Youth Wing renovations and expansion improvements at a fraction of the bond cost. In 2019, I again helped protect taxpayers by working to defeat the $57 million NOW bond, and in Federal court successfully defended our rights to speak at city meetings. I am currently organizing and sponsoring a large art project with 40 artists from around the country to create a collaborative, 185-foot mural at the Library overlooking Shain Park. I have regularly participated in city commission, long-range planning, and budget hearing meetings.
Haig, North American Operations Strategy and Program manager at Continental Automotive, received a bachelor’s degree mechanical engineering from University of Sussex and masters in science in automotive engineering management from University of Hertfordshire. He currently serves on Birmingham’s Multi-Modal Transportation board.
Birmingham 2040 Plan
The original draft of the plan contained a vision, but not one reflecting that of the city and its residents. Residents made their sentiments clear with their feedback to the first draft. The summary of changes for the second draft as presented to the commission in April was a significant step in the right direction. Currently, smaller, more affordable houses are being demolished and replaced by large homes on small lots. These demolitions are happening at an alarming rate. Twenty-four percent of Birmingham is already condominiums and apartments. A push to create rental units is out of balance where I think we should be going. The first draft called for multi-family attached (apartments) along neighborhood “seams.” The resident reaction was almost unanimously in opposition. Birmingham is a small city that draws residents to well-established neighborhoods, each with its own character. Homeowners do not expect to have parts of their neighborhood rezoned to allow apartment buildings nearby.
Unimproved Streets Plan
Our city’s 26 miles of unimproved roads and the flooding that plagues many of them remain a nagging problem for Birmingham homeowners. There was a multi-year study into the issue that culminated in a lengthy report. However, the city still lacks a firm direction and funding mechanism to expedite the paving of these streets. Residents often differ on whether to pave with asphalt or concrete, with or without curbs. The city’s current one-size approach may not be the best approach.
We need a solution that shares the cost equitably. Property taxes for residents living on unimproved streets are assessed at the same level as taxpayers on improved streets. Residents on unimproved streets endure flooding, lack leaf pickup, and must pay for maintenance (cape-seal) of their streets. Meanwhile, their property tax dollars contribute to the repair and replacement of improved streets. Any solution needs to consider fixed-income seniors who would otherwise be saddled with expenses when they’re least able to afford them.
I live on an unimproved street destroyed by construction equipment and trucks. This issue is one I would make a priority. We cannot keep kicking it down the (wrecked) road.
Outside dining year around