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Candidates for Birmingham commission speak out at forum

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 7, 2019


BIRMINGHAM — The Birmingham City Commission will face a number of decisions in the next four years, and many of them will have to do with the city’s downtown.

Should the buildings be made taller? Should the parking be expanded? Should future development plans be slowed down a bit so attention can be paid to the neighborhoods?

Those were some of the questions up for debate Wednesday, Oct. 2, at a League of Women Voters Oakland Area candidate forum hosted by the Baldwin Public Library. All eight candidates showed up to try to make their case to voters on why they should be added or kept on the city’s top board.

Vying for the four available seats are incumbents Patty Bordman, currently serving as mayor; Carroll DeWeese; and Pierre Boutros, currently serving as mayor pro tem; as well as residents Jake German, Brad Host, Clinton Baller, Therese Longe and Matt Wilde.

The fourth seat is made vacant by Commissioner Andrew Harris, who opted not to run for reelection.

Unimproved streets
The first topic of discussion presented to the candidates concerned the 26 miles of unimproved roads around the city. There are dozens of gravel roads in Birmingham, some with and some without curbs, that have been treated regularly with cape seal to make a smooth, dust-free driving surface.

In recent years, as many of those streets have come up for their seven- to 10-year cape seal treatment — an expense footed by the homeowners on the street — residents have requested that the cape seal be postponed in hopes of having the street professionally improved to make for proper engineering, adequate drainage, and easier access to roadside city services like sweeping, leaf pickup and other benefits.

The current Birmingham charter requires homeowners to collect signatures from a majority of houses on that street to petition the city for a special assessment district that would repair the road instead of just applying a cape seal. Since the cost falls to homeowners, many would have a lien placed on their property until the funds are collected.  

“The City Commission, about a year ago, we decided the problem with unimproved streets needed to be addressed for a few reasons,” explained Bordman. “I don’t think neighbors should be going door to door (to collect signatures). But it’s a complicated issue. (The policy) has been in place since the city was formed as a village.”

Boutros, who sits on the Ad Hoc Unimproved Street Study Committee, said he too is an advocate of taking the responsibility of filing a petition for an SAD out of the residents’ hands and making it initiated by city staff, in order to prevent animosity between neighbors. He added that the cost of improving all of the unimproved streets in Birmingham is estimated to cost well over $100 million, and the city has been struggling to figure out where to get that kind of cash.

“I know it’s a huge problem, and that cost is a large burden to families and senior citizens,” said Longe. “You get a lien on your house, and that can be scary to some people. But one of the reasons (the cost is so high) is because the city standard is concrete. Asphalt is cheaper, but the city doesn’t like it because concrete is less expensive for them to maintain in the long term.”

Wilde agreed with Longe’s statement that costs need to be brought down for residents.

“It’s not fair that our families have to pay their mortgage, two car payments and then get hit with a $30,000 lien on their house,” he said. “We can find a way, with our AAA bond rating I hear so much about, to harness it with interest rates the lowest they’ve been in almost 100 years to improve our roads.”

Clean and green
Asked how the candidates hope to promote a more green Birmingham, and hopefully move toward cleaner energy, most of the candidates agreed that the city is already a leader in recycling opportunities both curbside and at bins placed around the city’s downtown and park spaces.

“Rebuilding is less green than taking an old house and renovating it to make it livable,” DeWeese said. “Rebuilding is not very energy efficient. I think one of the areas we need to look at is finding incentives to modify houses instead of just tearing them down.”

Host agreed, saying he and his wife took advantage of federal tax credits when they put solar panels on their early 1900s home.

“All of these houses built 100 years ago are in excellent condition,” he said. “We need to incentivize with money to rehab their structure or add a structure on to accommodate that second kid or whatever their reasons.”

Host said he thinks Birmingham is “overwhelmed” with contractors and developers, and in the future those builders who want to demolish and build new from the ground up should face additional taxes.

Longe noted the potential for city services to make clean energy changes, like electric lawn mowers and golf carts on municipal courses.

Parking shortage
Just about two months after a $57.4 million parking structure bond failed with voters, the candidates were asked how they propose to move forward with alternative plans to alleviate parking shortages downtown.

Boutros, who is running as a write-in candidate, said the commission should look for opportunities beyond the North Old Woodward parking structure to erect a new deck.

“Yes, the people have spoken, and they don’t want a parking structure where it was proposed,” he said. “But we need to seek alternatives, either add stories on existing structures or I’m not opposed to private partnerships that create more opportunity than just a parking structure, like housing or retail on the first floor.”

Many of the candidates suggested the Triangle District, with space near the 555 Building, as a good place to build a new structure. Bordman, though, was quick to remind the crowd that there is currently no city-owned property available in the Triangle District or in the Rail District. Building there would involve taking space via eminent domain, and residents would have to foot the cost to pay fair market value for the land, along with the cost of demolishing the structures there.

Baller was vocal ahead of the bond vote about his dissent for the N.O.W. structure proposal, and lamented not being able to delve deeper into the topic at the forum because of time limits.

Sky high
Speaking of high interest in the city’s downtown district, the candidates were asked whether ordinances should be changed to allow for taller buildings in that area.

Most of the commission hopefuls said that situation should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Bordman suggested, for instance, that the current ordinance that limits buildings to 80 feet in height and five stories could be stretched to the same height, but containing seven or eight stories.

But why is all the focus on the downtown anyway, some candidates asked? Longe, Wilde and Baller all expressed a need for dollars to be spread into the neighborhoods.

“We shouldn’t have to pay for our roads. We shouldn’t be saying we need to get handicap-accessible play equipment,” Baller said. “We shouldn’t have to wait for a bond issue or a vote for parks. We should just get it done.”

Next’s next chapter
Also in need of attention outside the bustle of downtown is the local center for residents 50 and older, known as Birmingham Next. The nonprofit currently operates at the Midvale building, owned by Birmingham Public Schools, which donates the space as an in-kind agreement, along with utilities. As baby boomers age into senior status, the hope is that Next can grow to accommodate all of the potential new members.

But the usual question once again surfaced: Where would the money come from to do that?

“Birmingham, obviously, could spearhead the effort for the senior center, but what about Beverly Hills, Franklin and Bingham Farms, whose residents are also utilizing the facility? Obviously, it will be more costly if we do this alone,” German said. “So what’s first? Do we wait for the schools to force Next out, or do we proactively go out and look for funding?”

The candidates finished the forum with their closing remarks, and asked the audience for their vote on Nov. 5.

The Birmingham Area Cable Board taped the event, and the forum can be viewed online anytime on the city of Birmingham’s Vimeo page, as well as on the city’s cable access channel.