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Birmingham — The heat is on in Birmingham this summer, and it’s not just the weather.

A $57.4 million bond proposal for parking development has prompted a federal lawsuit, complaints to city and state agencies and a war of political mailers seeking to sway city voters who will decide the issue Aug. 6.

The 30-year bond issue would fund replacement of a 53-year-old, 745-space parking facility on nearly four acres west of North Old Woodward near the city’s business district with a newer, bigger facility — three underground levels and six floors above ground — with 1,157 spaces.

City officials and the developer also envision a public plaza and a mixed-use development of offices, businesses and residences next door, including a Restoration Hardware gallery store.

The battle over the proposal makes Birmingham the latest Oakland County suburb to face controversy over development in or near their downtowns. 

Opponents say the project would be too costly and that, once parking spaces are allotted to the new tenants, there would be no net gain of spaces for visitors.

“One study found the current North Old Woodward parking facility could be refurbished for $6.3 million," said Brad Coulter, a city resident and former emergency manager for Lincoln Park. "Wouldn’t it make more sense to do that, and if you want a new parking facility, then build it somewhere else in the city?”

The city and the developer argue Birmingham has long needed a larger, updated parking facility on the site, as recommended in a downtown master plan adopted in 1996. According to city literature on the project, a 2015 parking study found a need for an additional 278 spaces.   

"This project is intended to be the completion of the city’s vision from 20 years ago,” said John Truscott, a spokesman for Woodward and Bates, the project developer. “It’s well-thought-out and positive for residents."

Project opponents accuse city officials of using tax dollars to promote the bond issue and trying to silence them.

At least two city residents were barred from speaking when they tried to voice their concerns at a recent city commission meeting, prompting one to report the incident to the American Civil Liberties Union as a free speech violation.

The city has stepped up an information campaign with a “Fact vs. Myths” flier, hosting public education meetings, even referencing the upcoming vote on water bills.

City resident Clinton Baller objected to what he called inappropriate behavior and unfair mailers by the city, saying officials were using tax dollars to campaign for passage of the millage.

He filed a complaint with the state elections office, which ruled that the municipal mailings were legal because their language did not specifically urge residents to vote yes or no on the bond issue.

“They used our tax money to argue against us, and that’s a violation of public trust, no matter what a bureaucrat ruled," said Baller, who heads the Balance 4 Birmingham citizens group and was denied the chance to speak at the July 8 meeting. "Birmingham residents are smart enough to see that.”

City officials said they stopped Baller and David Bloom from speaking during a public comments section because their remarks would have constituted “political speech” that is barred under a contract between the city and the Birmingham-Bloomfield Cable Board, which films and streams the meetings.

Baller himself was found to have violated the state campaign laws with the production of a “no” vote mailer that did not contain a complete identification statement. The offense is a misdemeanor punishable by fines and possible jail time, but state officials said Baller would just receive a warning.

Some residents, such as Turkia Mullin, who earlier this decade made headlines when she was fired as Detroit Metro Airport CEO in 2011 amid controversy over a severance payout, believe the city’s mailer has helped explain the issues.

In recent posts on a nextdoor.com website for Birmingham residents, Mullin encouraged other voters to read the mailer before deciding on the bond proposal. 

“I think the mailer speaks for itself,” she said in an interview. “I don’t really wish to comment on it.”

Mullin said she has no connection to any Birmingham officials or the development group, which includes Ron Boji of Boji Associates. The News has reported that Mullin, a former Wayne County economic development director, was involved in the county's purchase of an Inkster building from Boji’s group.

In an unusual move, the Woodward Bates Partnership — which obtained a formal agreement in April with the city to develop the project on nearly four acres of city land on North Old Woodward and Willetts Road — has agreed to pick up the $20,000 tab for the special election.

“A community should pay for its own election,” Coulter said. “For appearances, if nothing else. Anything else does not look too good.”

The bond would pay for related demolition, street and site improvements and be retired by revenues from the City’s Automobile Parking System and special assessments to nearby businesses. City officials say residents would not be taxed to support the project.

Not part of the ballot proposal, but discussed by city officials, is a 99-year lease for $400,000 a year with Woodward Bates, which would develop and operate the mixed-use complex of offices, businesses and residences to be built next to the new garage.

Bloom, a member of the Birmingham Citizens for Responsible Government, said despite city claims the structure will not cost taxpayers any money, “nothing could be further from the truth.”

“I have worked the numbers,” said Bloom, an auto company purchaser. “And there is no way it can sustain itself."

A rejected bidder for the project, Ara Darakjian and his TIR Equities group, has a pending lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Birmingham, city manager Joseph Valentine and city commissioner Mark Nickita.

According to the suit, the city’s bidding process was “arbitrary, predetermined and tainted by favoritism and conflict of interest.”

It seeks a judgment finding the selection process deprived the bidder of its constitutional right to due process and enjoining the city from finalizing the contract.

In the suit, TIR said under its proposal, the company would bear all expenses for construction of a parking facility and after recouping its expenses from parking fees, sell the facility to the city for $1.

Valentine defended the city's handling of the project, saying there has been no conflict of interest by any officials or others involved in it.

“There has been nothing improper about the process,” he said. “We have had competitive bidding and have been working with the winning developer for about two years. We have followed the law but a lot of misinformation has been put out by people who aren’t happy with the project.”

Parked in controversy 

Municipal parking projects in Oakland County have often been a lightning rod for controversy.

Pontiac spent nearly seven years in litigation in state and federal court attempting to demolish a city-funded 2,500-space parking structure. Two adjacent Ottawa Towers office buildings, which sued to block the plan because they relied on the Phoenix Center structure for parking, were eventually paid $7.3 million in damages to resolve legal questions.

Today, the parking facility remains partly open and in need of repairs that will require the City Council to approve up to $19 million in bonds, according to Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman. She said about 400 drivers park there daily from the Ottawa Towers, and she has opened up about half of the structure for special events.

“We are happy to have retained ownership and now must decide on how to move forward with repairs," she said.

In Ferndale, merchants have fretted over whether construction of a pending 400-space mixed-use parking lot on Troy Street, south of Nine Mile, will disrupt the local economy. The $28 million project, which will include street-level retail, upper level offices and residential development along Allen Road, is being funded by city parking revenue, DDA Tax Increment Financing and private investment.

In Royal Oak, a controversial public-private city center development has drawn fire and gone through several changes in the past couple of years. It will eventually include a city hall and police station on a surface lot next to the popular Farmer’s Market, which some believe will chase off shoppers and vendors.

Construction of a new parking deck south of 11 Mile eliminated surface parking spaces next to City Hall and also on-street parking. Critics contend it has already resulted in the loss of foot traffic to nearby businesses.

The Royal Oak project involved giving prime city land and a $5.5 million development fee to Boji and Associates, which is an equity partner in the Birmingham project.

Coulter, the former Lincoln Park emergency manager, feels the Birmingham project is being “rushed“and hopes voters will turn it down.

“If this is going to be a parking deck, why didn’t the city do an RFP for a parking deck,” asked Coulter. “Instead they did for an entire development, which limited the number of bidders …”

As for the Woodward Bates group, it would seem the bond proposal is the key to moving forward with the project.

"There is no backup plan if the ballot proposal does not pass since the city has indicated that will not bring the issue forward again," Truscott said. "It also means no RH Gallery and no creation of new public spaces."

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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