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Ann Arbor city beat: reflecting on 2014 and looking ahead to 2015

From the retirements of longtime Mayor John Hieftje and Fire Chief Chuck Hubbard to the opening of a new skatepark and an expansion of Ann Arbors transit authority, 2014 was a year of change on the city beat.

For the first time in 14 years, Ann Arbor voters elected a new mayor, choosing Christopher Taylor for the job.

Taylor defeated three of his City Council colleagues —┬áSabra Briere, Stephen Kunselman and Sally Hart Petersen — in a hotly contested August primary race, pulling 48 percent of the vote, more than double his closest opponent, before cruising to victory in the November general election against an independent challenger.

Taylor, who served six years on council, was sworn in as mayor in November, replacing Hieftje, who stepped down after 14 years at the helm.

Three new faces — Julie Grand, Graydon Krapohl and Kirk Westphal — also joined the council.

In early November, city officials and the rest of the community were hit with the news that a city police officer had shot and killed a 40-year-old woman, Aura Rosser, during a confrontation inside the home where she lived on Ann Arbors west side. It was the first incident of its kind to happen in Ann Arbor in decades. Police said Rosser confronted officers with a knife and one fatal shot was fired.

The incident sparked protests by citizens and prompted serious discussions among council members who called for a review of policies regarding use of force, what types of training officers receive on conflict deescalation, and whether Ann Arbor should have a citizens review board to review complaints about police.

The council then voted in December to equip officers with body-worn cameras starting in early 2015.

The citys urban deer population also emerged as an issue in 2014, following complaints by residents that deer are growing in numbers and causing damage to their gardens, as well as causing deer-vehicle crashes.

The city is now spending up to $20,000 to develop a deer management plan and is considering a cull in 2015.

Frustrated with a lack of road funding from the state of Michigan, the City Council also went on record in September in support of a new countywide road tax. The county board followed by approving a one-time, 0.5-mill levy to help fund additional road repairs throughout the county in 2015, including 6.4 miles in Ann Arbor.

Another issue that captured the City Councils attention in 2014 was a proposal to ban outdoor smoking in certain public places. The new ordinance was approved in April by a 9-2 vote, effectively banning smoking near bus stops and entrances to city buildings, as well as giving the city administrator power to ban smoking in parks. A ban on smoking in 77 parks is expected to take effect in early 2015.

City officials also spent a fair amount of time discussing issues of affordable housing and homelessness in 2014. The council voted unanimously in November to partner with the county to spend up to $178,636 for an expansion of emergency shelter services for the homeless this winter, including a daytime warming center.

Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, said in November he expected the city to be more diligent about cracking down on homeless people illegally camping outside. He called attention to a homeless camp known as Camp Serenity in a private wooded area off Burton Road. The camp was later evicted, after which advocates for the homeless announced plans to recall Kunselman in 2015.

Earlier in the year, there was some focus on the fire department as Chuck Hubbard stepped down as fire chief on Feb. 1. Reports published by The Ann Arbor News in late January showed city officials had concerns about Hubbards job performance and Hubbard was cited for violations of city policy.

The Ann Arbor News also published reports in February that shed light on internal problems in the fire department.

Among the issues the fire department struggled with was getting access to certain downtown buildings to do fire inspections.

A year-long standoff with downtown property owner Ed Shaffran, who was refusing to let the citys fire safety inspectors into his buildings, finally came to an end in March.

The city announced in November that Larry Collins, who most recently worked in Florida, will be the citys new fire chief.

The citys greenbelt program entered its 10th year in 2014. The program, which is expected to continue for many years to come, has helped permanently preserve more than 4,300 acres (nearly seven square miles) of farmland and open space surrounding the city, and four new nature preserves have been established.

Another major issue that emerged in 2014 is the fact that more than 1,200 new housing units are proposed on the citys north side. That has led to serious discussions about what level of growth is acceptable.

In response to related concerns about traffic congestion at the Nixon/Green/Dhu Varren intersection, the city is planning a redesign of the intersection.

Also on the development front, news came in October that the developer behind the Packard Square redevelopment project on the former Georgetown Mall site has secured financing to move the project forward. Developer Craig Schubiner said in December he expects the project, which includes 249 apartments and 23,500 square feet of retail space, to take shape over 18 months.

The Ann Arbor Housing Commission also announced in December it has secured tax credits to move forward with a 46-unit public housing redevelopment project on Maple Road in 2015, one of multiple projects the commission has under way.

The city moved forward on a study of potential sites for a new Amtrak train station in 2014, narrowing the list to two: the existing Amtrak site on Depot Street, and a piece of Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital. City officials said in late October they were entering talks with DTE Energy regarding the possibility of using a portion of the DTE-owned property next to the Depot Street site.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority announced in early 2014 it would be putting a tax proposal on the May ballot for voters to decide whether to fund an expansion of transit services in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

Following weeks of discussion, during which the AAATAs former treasurer came out against the proposal, the millage passed with 71 percent support at the polls, and the first wave of expanded services was implemented in August. The AAATA also opened its new Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor in 2014.

The AAATA also announced in October the start of an 18-month study to determine the feasibility of WALLY commuter rail between Howell and Ann Arbor.

AAATA CEO Michael Ford stepped down in October to take a job as the CEO of the new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority. The AAATA is now conducting a national search and hopes to hire a new CEO in 2015.

The Downtown Development Authority spent part of 2014 working out plans for a renovation of the Fourth and William parking garage, submitting plans to the city in December for a multimillion-dollar project to replace the stairs and elevators at the southwest corner of the garage starting in 2015. The DDA also is considering creating a retail incubator space on the garages first floor as a future project.

The DDA also spent time in 2014 analyzing the costs and benefits of putting uniformed ambassadors on the streets of downtown. The DDA interviewed two private companies in September, but still hasnt made a decision on an ambassador program.

The DDA approved a series of downtown parking rate increases in November, the first in more than two years. The DDA also moved forward in the fall on an effort to plant 140 new trees downtown where other trees have died.

The City Council also took action in May to dedicate an extra $1 million to catch up on maintenance of trees along city streets. Council members made it known in December that tree maintenance, particularly rebuilding the forestry department, remains a priority for 2015, as does advancing the vision for the Allen Creek Greenway.

Lastly, it was another year of change in the downtown as a number of new developments moved forward in 2014, including a 14-story high-rise at 413 E. Huron St., a six-story apartment building at 618 S. Main St., a 14-story high-rise above Pizza House in the South University Area, a six-story hotel at Huron and Ashley, and new condos at 414 N. Main St. and 401 N. Fourth Ave. Most of those remain under construction heading into 2015, and even more projects are in the works.

Ryan Stanton covers the city beat for The Ann Arbor News. Reach him at ryanstanton@mlive.com or 734-623-2529 or follow him on Twitter.

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