Council Backs Fire Chief's Recommendation, Main Street To Consider Concerts on North Ann Arbor Street

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Fire Chief Jason Sperle's words resonated with Saline City Council Monday evening.

With members of Saline Main Street sitting down with Council for a discussion about using South Ann Arbor Street for annual events such as the Salty Summer Music Series, Oktoberfest and Summerfest, the Chief of the Saline Area Fire Department spelled it out.

"The problem we have is that there are over 20 fire code violations in that block. Anywhere else in the city, we can do this.  You're asking me to look past fire codes where there's a plaque that reminds us that we lost that whole part of the city," Sperle told the group. "So I don't want to be part of history repeating itself. It's my job to point out why have issues. This isn't my personal opinion. This is fire code. Looking the other way is something I hope the City of Saline does not do. In my mind, if you look past this and someone gets hurt, that's negligence."

Although no vote was taken, every member of the city council supported Chief Sperle's recommendation against closing South Ann Arbor Street for the concert series.

It was a surprising turn of events for a city that was only weeks ago considering the closing of South Ann Arbor Street from May-October for a public square. 

Closing South Ann Arbor Street for events has been commonplace since Oktoberfest and Summerfest moved uptown from their previous locations at the Tri-County Sportsmen's Club and Mill Pond Park. To help the downtown restaurants and businesses survive the pandemic, the city last year supported Saline Main Street's recommendation to close the road for outdoor restaurant seating. The 24/7 road closure has been a controversial issue in the city. Some residents complained that Umbrella Square was often empty last year, while others weren't happy with all the traffic that detoured down other streets. Some businesses said their business was negatively impacted by the closure. But other residents want to do more to help the downtown residents. Some enjoyed the social setting in Umbrella Square. And some people see the 100 block of South Ann Arbor Street as an opportunity to create the kind of vibrant, centralized public square lacking in the city.

Until recently, there was almost no debate about popular and family-friendly uptown events like the music series, Summerfest - all activities that required the closure of the street between Michigan Avenue and Henry Street.

In fact, city council had already approved the plans for these events 2022. But this was the first time Sperle, the community's new fire chief, reviewed the plans. Sperle, who served as the Fire Marshal in Pittsfield Township and is well-versed in the fire code, said could not ignore the fire code violations on South Ann Arbor Street.

"What we have a problem with is the fact that we have a four-story building on the backside with no access and we're shutting down complete access to the building," Sperle said, speaking of the building that houses Carrigan Cafe, Excalibur barbershop and Cobblestone Rose. "If there were a paved, properly-graded parking lot or alley behind that (building), we wouldn't have this conversation. It comes down to, if we have an emergency in that building, how do we get there?

"Really, what it comes down to, in laymen's terms, is, we're not going to be able to get the fire out. People have died to make these codes what they are."

Council had questions, but they back the fire chief's position.

Councillor Dean Girbach said all four corners have been torched by fire in the past.

"This isn't something that just doesn't happen. We've just been fortunate that it hasn't happened recently. For myself, having lost someone in a fire and also having just recently experienced a fire, I'm very much in tune with what the chief is saying," Councillor Girbach said.

Councillor Jim Dell'Orco said the special events downtown were near and dear to the hearts of his family, but that he couldn't look the other way on the firecode violations Sperle mentioned.

"As someone who's personally been touched by the tragedy of what can happen when there's a fire and we can't get to the fire on time, people do die. I've experienced that first hand," Dell'Orco said.

Dell'Orco said that the music brings people downtown for the summer music series - and that the events could be held in the downtown parking lot.

Councillors Dell'Orco, Dawn Krause and Kevin Camero-Sulak have been council's most vocal cheerleaders of Saline Main Street and the organization's efforts to revitalize downtown. Krause turned to the Main Street representatives and asked a question.

"Knowing what you know, would you guys vote against your fire chief? I'm picturing a burning building that they can't get to because we shut down the street, or a firefighter somehow getting injured in the process," Krause said.

She said she'd welcome the chance to work with Saline Main Street on other locations.

Saline Main Street President Jill Durnen said the downtown revitalization would not hold the concerts in a parking lot and take away valuable parking from the restaurants. The second-best option, Durnen said, was to hold concerts on North Ann Arbor Street. The north side has hosted some concerts in years past. But there's less space because organizers want to maintain access to the parking lot. There are fewer restaurants that would benefit from the concert. On the south side, Mac's Acadian Seafood Shack,  Brecon Grille, Salt Springs Brewery and even Carrigan Cafe have patios or sidewalk cafe seating. On the north side, only Dan's has patio seating.

Main Street had been requesting continued use of South Ann Arbor Street with the creation of a fire lane. Sperle said he did not think would be enough to address his concerns.

After hearing Sperle's concerns and council's reaction to his concerns, Main Street officials seemed to accept that they'd have to find new solutions to hold their popular events. Still, they were frustrated at having their plans upended so late in the process.

Saline Main Street Director Holli Andrews said Saline Main Street needs to be brought into the decision-making process earlier.

"Any sort of planning issues should be done together. These decisions are constantly made without us at the table," Andrews said. "We make plans. We work really hard. We book all these bands. We sign contracts. And then all of the sudden we're changing gears again."

Mayor Brian Marl acknowledged the need for greater collaboration between the city and Main Street and said that was one reason he invited Main Street officials to attend Monday's work meeting.

Councillor Janet Dillon agreed. Council considers event applications from groups like Main Street and the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce in the fall. Dillon reviews by police, fire and DPW department heads should be conducted during that review to give organizers time to make necessary changes.

Marl also said the fire code issues speak to the need for Saline Planning Commission to be thorough in its review of developments.

"Decisions that were made decades in the past continue to haunt us in 2022. This issue is made worse because of poor decisions made at the planning commission level in the 1990s when the whole area was redeveloped. As I reflect back on that decision that was not evaluated and vetted - that's appalling. It speaks to the need for really thoughtful and thorough review of site plans," Marl said, adding that he thought today's planning commission was largely on the right track.

Main Street board member Katie Spence asked what happens next for the organization to proceed with event plans. City Manager Colleen O'Toole said city council would have to vote to nullify the old plans. Organizations would need to resubmit plans for consideration.

Spence said events are only a month away and Main Street doesn't want to go too far down the road crafting plans at locations that will have more fire code issues.

Sperle reiterated his support for Main Street's plans.

"It's not that I'm against you. I want you to succeed. It doesn't look that way right now but I do want you to succeed," he said. 

He said he'd spoken with Andrews about other locations and he was willing to work with the Main Street on everything it needed. O'Toole said Sperle has already looked at the North Ann Arbor Street location

Marl said council could take action on amended plans as early as its next meeting June 6.

Council's approval isn't the only concern when it comes to North Ann Arbor Street concerts.

"I want you to know that because you approve it on North Ann Arbor Street doesn't mean the concerts are going to move forward. We have to look at everything for Main Street," Durnen said. "We have four weeks to figure it all out. We may not be able to pull people together in time."

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