Ann Arbor's construction boom: Demand prompts city to hire more development inspectors
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Ann Arbor is in the midst of a construction boom, plain and simple.
And city officials are responding to the demand with plans of hiring a new building inspector and a new plumbing inspector within the next couple of weeks.
"It's evidence of the rebounding Ann Arbor economy — large projects, as well as homeowner projects," said City Administrator Steve Powers.
With a number of new luxury apartment high-rises going up downtown, and new homes and renovations under way, the city's building department has seen an increased workload. There also are a number of commercial projects under way.
"We were monitoring the performance of our building inspection department for a period of time and the inspection wait had become unacceptable to our customers," Powers said. "We were one to three weeks out, overtime was being used, and we still weren't able to put a significant dent in the length of time for inspections and plan reviews."
Powers said the city looked at alternatives such as contracting out the work, but city officials don't see building activity slowing down, so hiring more inspectors makes sense.
Rental housing inspections and fire inspections are handled through separate city departments.
Welton said he's cautiously optimistic the increased development activity in Ann Arbor isn't stopping anytime soon.
"We wanted to make sure we weren't just spiking, but we're not — this is a steady climb that's been going on for over a year now," he said.
In addition to residential high-rises like The Varsity, Zaragon West, Landmark and Ann Arbor City Apartments — projects that are bringing literally thousands of new bedrooms to downtown right now — other big projects are driving the need for more inspectors.
That includes projects like Arbor Hills Crossing, a new shopping center under way on Washtenaw Avenue, and the pending demolition and redevelopment of the Georgetown Mall site on Packard Road for a new mixed-use project called Packard Square.
The developer of the former mall site plans to construct a four-story, mixed-use building containing 230 apartment units and 23,790 square feet of retail space.
The City Council most recently approved the 618 South Main apartments projects, which promises 231 more bedrooms on South Main Street. City officials also are expecting to see movement soon on the Near North affordable housing project near Main and Summit.
A prime piece of downtown real estate next to Sloan Plaza at 413 E. Huron St. also sold recently and there are talks of another high-rise being developed there.
But it's not just housing that's booming, said Wendy Rampson, the city's planning manager. She pointed to a number of other commercial and office construction projects under way.
That includes the Hilton Garden Inn and Townplace Suites on Briarwood Circle, the AAA Branch Office on South Main, Tim Horton's on Ellsworth, an addition to Allen Creek Preschool on Miller, the Zahn medical office on Jackson, and the Zingerman's Deli expansion downtown.
Welton said some of the projects on the city's plate right now are "pretty big deals." To put matters into perspective, he noted a mere two permits at the Landmark apartments project near South University have required more than 1,100 inspections to date.
Welton said he's encouraged by an increase in residential permits, including a substantial amount of additions and remodeling work being done in the city. He said there also have been about three to five new home starts each month in Ann Arbor.
"The thing that impresses us the most is the residential work is really on the rise — a lot of high-end additions and remodels and several new home starts," he said.
Powers and Welton both noted the building inspectors are funded by fees generated by building activity, so there's no general fund dollars used to hire the new inspectors.
"Our fund balance is large enough right now that we can afford to do this, so there's no change in fees," Welton added, estimating there's about $1.5 million available in cash reserves. He said the new inspectors will start at about $51,000 a year plus benefits.
Hiring new employees is somewhat of a rare move for the city, which adopted the philosophy of simply paying extra overtime to meet increased workload demands in other departments.
As the city has scaled back its work force over the last decade — once above 1,000 employees and now under 700 — many of those left on the job are working extra hours.
Records show the city paid out $31,560 in overtime to building department employees last year, but that's a small fraction of the $3.3 million it paid out in total overtime.
The city's planning and development services unit has a budget for fiscal year 2012-13 that includes $3,638,178 in revenue and $3,732,141 in expenses.
The budget approved in May shows 21.59 full-time employees, which is down from 34 FTEs in 2009-10, but that's not all in Welton's department.
The planning and development services unit handles rental housing inspections, construction inspections and permits. It also provides enforcement for building, housing and sign codes.
The unit's stated goals for the coming fiscal year include equipping inspectors with mobile technologies, establishing an administrative hearings bureau, instituting digital plan reviews and updating the city's housing code by Dec. 31.
The city also wants to digitize archived records for buildings, housing and planning, and switch to electronic paperless intake of construction permit applications.
Rampson said adding building staff could have the potential to shift some sign permit review and enforcement duties from a city planner to one or more of the development inspectors.
She said planners still would be involved in updating the sign ordinance and staffing the appeals board, but the day-to-day activities would be handled by a development inspector.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 8:16 p.m.
More construction suggests the need for more firefighters!
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 4:57 p.m.
XMO - Your rosy picture for continued development may soon appear as a prickly bush instead. All the present construction is speculative, meaning that no permanent long-term occupants of these structures have yet to be identified. The luxury student housing being built as Zaragon West, City Place, Varsity and Packard Mall will be challenged by a decrease in class size planned by the University of Michigan and the high rent being charged for mostly closet-sized bedrooms in suites shared by 4- to 6- students. At over $1000 per month leasing cost vacancy rates may be as high as the buildings themselves. Village Green Ann Arbor City Apartments and the new project proposed for North Main are being designed for young professionals who can afford expensive leases. These "Field of Dreams" projects are likely to decline into bankruptcy like Ashley Terrace when young professionals do not materialize in the numbers expected. But if these developments are successful financially the city is not likely to benefit financially because the primary source of city income, TIF payments, are routinely being returned to developers as reimbursement for Brownfield remediation and infrastructure upgrades. Ann Arbor residents need to wait for a year or two after these projects are completed before celebrating success. Everyone should be prepared for disappointment.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 4:49 p.m.
Construction codes and inspections save far more lives and protect more property than Firefighters and Police Officers. Think of how many people and how much time they spend at work in offices and the like, in the malls and shops restaurants and bars, all public and privately owned buildings and in their homes and for how many decades these safely built and inspected buildings exist and you might have some idea of how many people are affected by code and safety inspections. All done by public servants costing far less than Police and Fire. It costs less to be proactive and have a proper, local and unbiased public inspection service that prevents accidents and catastrophes before they happen.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 3:03 p.m.
The nice thing about all of this wonderful development is that it makes the property more valuable which means property taxes are higher so we can hire more Police/Fire etc! It is just too bad we didn't have friendlier business climate in Ann Arbor or else we would be the envy of all of Michigan! Build Baby Build!
Stephen Lange Ranzini
Fri, Jun 29, 2012 : 3:49 a.m.
All the revenue from the new buildings downtown will go to the DDA.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 4:51 p.m.
It's too bad that a few folks can't appreciate the cost/benefit of skilled professional public servants and make a fuss every time there's mention of hiring anyone except Police and Fire. And even then...
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.
I hope these same inspectors can be a part of an initiative to follow up on the hundreds of residential permits that are pulled and never closed and projects that are done without appropriate permits - neighborhoods around us are littered with half-done or permit-less projects that are sources of income for the City of Ann Arbor. Not only can these properties become eyesores (unfinished additions, siding, demolition) but they present dangers to residents in the form of fire/structural risk.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 2:53 p.m.
I am constantly asked to do work without pulling permits, business and residential, either because the homeowner doesn't want to pay the fees or they don't want to suffer the inspection schedule delays. I cannot do this without risking my license. I would guess that there is easily 10x the amount of work done without permits in this city for these reasons. Also, homeowners can pull their own permits, but often don't have the time, skills or manpower to complete the jobs, which leads to the partly finished work you see. I don't know about the hazards. And as far as the eyesore goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think the constant lane closures, dust and dirt and other spillover from this commercial development is every bit as bad as someone's unfinished siding project.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 1:08 p.m.
So while AnnArbor.com brags ... they should be digging deeper for a more substantial story.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 1:07 p.m.
I wonder with all the construction going on, how balanced is the construction crews as far as race, age, gender and class. I'm not 100% sure, but I'd guess that the young men right down the street in Ypsilanti aren't being employed at all. I would guess that most of the men working construction in Ann Arbor are older, Anglo-Saxon Americans, who don't even LIVE WITHIN THE CITY OR COUNTY LIMITS. It's sad that Ann Arbor ignores the plight of it's little brother; YPSILANTI and all it's citizens. The best an impoverished person from Ypsilanti can hope for, without a college degree, is a maintenance, janitor or driving job for the UMHS. It's sad & I don't understand how 'SOME PEOPLE' are continually shut out of opportunities ...
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 9:37 p.m.
...."but I'd guess that the young men right down the street in Ypsilanti aren't being employed at all".... ........The number one reason why the are not employed??Is because is they are not qualified to work in the building trades...The skilled trades require,education,ability, responsibility, and on going learning in this ever changing field...The apprenticeships are very demanding....So go ahead and play your Anglo-Saxon race card....THEY ARE NOT QUALIFIED !!!!
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 12:37 p.m.
Would rather see hiring more AAFD and AAPD folks.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 12:21 p.m.
It seems Ann Arbor is on a strong growth path that is not going to slow down soon. Building inspection is an essential part of keeping people safe. This move makes sense to me. We want all of these new projects to be beautiful and well built and safe.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 12:06 p.m.
How does this square with the doom and gloom of our economy we hear from the pundits, and the alleged "anti-business" atmosphere of A2? I thought nobody wanted to do business or build in A2, and that the "socialist" mentality prevented growth?
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 2:07 p.m.
This development is fostered by the student loan boom (now over $1T) and imminent bust (economic growth can't continue to grow forever and ever at pace needed to supply jobs market). 2nd wave of commercial real estate bubble burst based on the flow of student loans will shortly follow. Lrn 2 economics.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:37 a.m.
These things were supposed to have happened under the tenure of Roger Fraser, Jayne Miller and Mark Lloyd after the department was turned upside down. What happened to Trackit? The multi million dollar software "solution" that nobody except the head cheeses wanted? Money was budgeted for this. Lots of big talk by the head cheeses. Nothing happened except to destroy what was once a lean revenue generating department after attempting to turn it into a administrative heavy, big city operation based on politicians rosy development scenarios (eh Mr Mayor??)
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:47 a.m.
A big incomplete for Fraser, Miller, and the rest. "The unit's stated goals for the coming fiscal year include equipping inspectors with mobile technologies, establishing an administrative hearings bureau, instituting digital plan reviews and updating the city's housing code by Dec. 31. The city also wants to digitize archived records for buildings, housing and planning, and switch to electronic paperless intake of construction permit applications."
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:30 a.m.
I'm surprised they are adding more inspectors. In the past, extra building inspectors just move over to Rental Housing Inspections when it gets slow. Why can't they be moved back or increase the rental inspection cycle? Once these new hires get on on the payroll, you know they are never coming off.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 7:21 p.m.
Well, I beg to differ. And I do know what I'm talking about. Traditionally, when building gets slow, the Highly Certified Inspectors (mechanical, plumbing, and building) move over into rental housing. I know. I've met them. Some are still there. My point is, why can't they move back and hire a cheaper rental inspector instead?
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:45 a.m.
You don't know what you're talking about when you say that they're never coming off.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:41 a.m.
Required State certifications for construction inspectors prevent some of this. And ask yourself if you want an inspector with little or no construction experience inspecting high rise buildings? New construction inspection is far different and requires a different skillset from rental inspection.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:16 a.m.
Uh, where did all the fees go from the almost decade long building booms in the 80's and 90's? That department was sucked dry and then decimated and de-professionalized by Roger Fraser. Now look what's happening. It's the one bright spot in revenue generation. Mr Powers should be careful. Rosy predictions have a way of coming back to bite you. Just keep moving and make sure that the cash cow Building Department does not get milked too often. Everyone should know that good times don't last and it's good to save (some of the money generated to operate that department) for a rainy day. Sustainability, folks. Not boom and bust. Sustainable development for the long term.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:04 a.m.
We will see if all these new apartments and condos actually get rented or purchased after they are all built.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:26 a.m.
Rents never go down. They either stay the same or increase at a lower rate.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:18 a.m.
Maybe lower rents for the near future until demand catches up? That's usually the way it works.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:01 a.m.
Imagine how busy they would be if the city had any say whatsoever in what the U-M does.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:19 a.m.
Sadly, State law prevents this.
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 10:11 a.m.
well maybe if we were open carrying there wouldn't be as much development around hurrr!!!
Thu, Jun 28, 2012 : 11:21 a.m.
Do you mean hand guns or booze in a paper bag? From the last word of your comment, it's the latter... and a little early in the day for that, don't you think?