Meet Howard Lazarus, Ann Arbor’s new city administrator
ANN ARBOR, MI — Ann Arbor’s new city administrator is now officially on the job, and he’s busy getting to know the issues facing the community.
That includes challenges related to new development, transportation and housing affordability, just to name a few.
A retired military man and professional engineer who has worked all across the country, Howard Lazarus, 59, comes to Ann Arbor by way of Austin, Texas, where he was the public works director for the last eight years.
Even though Austin is significantly larger, Lazarus says Ann Arbor and Austin have a lot in common — both being college towns with similar values.
Lazarus previously worked as the engineering director for Newark, New Jersey, and held jobs in the military and private sectors.
From his new office on the third floor of Ann Arbor’s city hall, Lazarus serves as the top administrator of a city government with 729 full-time employees and more than $370 million in annual expenses.
During a sit-down interview on Wednesday, June 29, his third day on the job, Lazarus said he’s excited to be here. He and his wife are looking to buy a home close to the center of the city so he can walk and bike to work.
City Council members say they’re impressed with his energy and enthusiasm, and he appears to be hitting the ground running.
“I’m really impressed that he’s doing ward tours,” said Council Member Jane Lumm, an independent from the 2nd Ward.
Lazarus, who is taking tours of Ann Arbor’s five wards with council members from each ward, said there’s more development happening and more opportunities for redevelopment than he imagined, both in the downtown and other areas.
He already has toured the Nixon Road corridor, where hundreds of new housing units, including luxury condos and apartments, are planned.
With more growth, Lazarus said, comes challenges with mobility, congestion and affordability, and he has some experience with that from his time in Austin.
“Whenever you’re looking at new development, it needs to be done in a way that is respectful of what exists, and you have to make sure that we can marry public investment with private investment so that the impact on the community is not only mitigated, but it’s enhanced,” he said. “My role as the administrator really is to help facilitate that discussion.”
Lazarus said he sees opportunity for redevelopment of properties in the downtown, including surface parking lots that aren’t maximizing their potential.
“And then there areas, older neighborhoods, where homes are being sold and new homes are being built as the old ones are torn down,” he said. “You have to be careful about and be concerned about what that does to affordability.”
Lazarus replaces Steve Powers, who was Ann Arbor’s city administrator for more than four years before he left in November.
In Austin, Lazarus was responsible for a 720-person department delivering planning, design and execution of a capital improvement program with a value of more than $2 billion, and an annual operating budget of $91 million.
He also oversaw the maintenance of more than 7,800 lane miles of roadway, inspection and repair of bridges, and the planning and implementation of bicycle, pedestrian and child safety programs.
Lazarus was hired by the Ann Arbor City Council following a national search. He’ll report directly to the council.
In his biography submitted to the council during the hiring process, Lazarus said his hard work in high school earned him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, an experience that has defined his life.
He said he left West Point armed with knowledge of civil engineering and Army leadership training, setting off on a career of service to his nation.
He was an active-duty officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at various locations from 1978 to 1992.
During that time, he worked as a troop leader/commander, project manager and engineer for facilities and road construction, water and wastewater treatment plant construction, environmental remediation and general engineering/construction.
He also helped develop master plans, construction schedules and design drawings, and served as a logistics manager.
He met his wife, Carol, during his first assignment at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and they moved around, living in the Washington, D.C., area, Hawaii, Kansas, Baltimore, back to West Point, and finally Colorado.
While still on active duty, he was an associate professor of environmental engineering at West Point from 1987 to 1990.
After that, he continued his career with the Army Corps of Engineers as the deputy area engineer at the Rocky Mountain Area Office in Colorado Springs, and then as operations director at Fort Carson in Colorado.
After the first Gulf War, Lazarus took an early retirement option and sought stability for his young family through a change in career.
Lazarus said leaving active duty remains the hardest decision he ever had to make, but it gave him and his wife the opportunity to provide their two daughters with an exceptional education and childhood.
His first job after leaving active duty in 1992 was as a program and project manager for Ebasco Services, an engineering and construction company in the power engineering and delivery market in New Jersey.
He did contract work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1992 to 1996 and has experience with groundwater contamination issues, something Ann Arbor faces with the Gelman dioxane plume.
Using his master’s degree in environmental engineering and chemistry from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, a degree he obtained while still on active duty, Lazarus worked on environmental cleanups of abandoned hazardous waste sites and environmental assessments for federal facilities. He also provided engineering consulting services to the coal industry.
His career took another turn in 1996 when he received a call asking if he would be interested in becoming Newark’s engineering director.
Newark was a city in distress, Lazarus said, and the engineering department was suffering from mismanagement and corruption.
Over the next four years, Lazarus said, he and his team were able to turn things around. During that time, they completed the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Riverfront Stadium and other high-profile projects.
He said they restored the reputation of the department and laid the foundation for expansion of light rail service and construction of Prudential Arena.
“We worked with New Jersey Transit on an extension from the Newark airport to downtown,” he said of the light rail project. “I did help lay the framework for that, and that is successful and it’s up and running.”
Lazarus said he learned from his time in Newark that local government can have enormous impacts on a community’s quality of life.
After leaving Newark in 2000, Lazarus returned to the private sector, working for Shaw Environmental and Shaw Housing Privatization Ventures.
During his eight years there, he worked on outsourcing of campus functions for governmental agencies and the development of a business addressing housing and utilities privatization for the U.S. military.
From 2003 to 2005, he worked to execute a $312 million public-private development of 2,242 homes on a military reservation in south central Missouri, including affordable housing components. He coordinated design, demolition, construction, property management and community relations activities, and solicited and closed financing of $220 million in private bonds.
He eventually decided to return to public service, taking a job as Austin’s public works director in 2008. By that time, his daughters were in college.
Lazarus said the eight years he and his wife spent in Austin were exceptional, and he once again had the opportunity to turn around a troubled organization.
“The public works department when I got there had some challenges,” he said. “It had financial challenges in that its fund balances were all negative. There was a lack of confidence in the leadership. There were ethnic tensions between the Hispanic and African American workers in our field operations group, and a lot of the engineers and project managers were demoralized.”
Lazarus said community relations weren’t good, either, and there were suspicions whenever the department did anything.
“And the department was not well respected by its peer organizations within the city government,” he added. “I think we turned those things around. The department is on good financial footing now. Our street and bridge crews are well motivated. We put in a lot of effort to their training and career progression. We worked with AFSCME and we worked with the NAACP to get some help in putting in some career progression initiatives and training programs.”
Last year, he said, his department went through a process to become accredited by the American Public Works Association.
“We went through that process in a way where it engaged the entire workforce, so everyone felt a stake in the outcome,” he said.
In addition to his duties running the public works department in Austin, Lazarus served as an ex-officio member of the city’s Planning Commission, Regional Mobility Committee and Construction Advisory Committee. And for most of 2010, he was Austin’s interim assistant city manager.
Lazarus said he knows how to prepare budgets, develop personnel programs and policies, engage with neighborhood and trade associations, serve on boards of intergovernmental entities, manage relationships with elected officials, oversee information-technology initiatives, and partner on public-private ventures
He said his department in Austin executed an annual program of more than $400 million, including a $91 million operating budget, a $39 million departmental capital improvement program, and $280 million worth of work for other agencies.
He developed an $85 million program to accelerate road reconstruction projects as a means to spur job creation in Austin. He also developed and implemented an initiative that encourages Austin neighborhood groups to work with the city to advance small-scale projects of community interest, including community art, trails, community gardens, sidewalks and pocket parks.
He also was responsible for design, construction and management of a number of large-scale projects in Austin, including a $500 million water treatment plant, a $120 million downtown flood-control tunnel, a $120 million central library, a $35 million downtown wastewater tunnel and the city’s Great Streets program.
He played a lead role in developing bicycle and pedestrian facilities, leading to Austin being named a gold-level city by the League of American Bicyclists.
Lazarus believes Austinites and Ann Arborites share a common trait in that they practice “advanced citizenship” and want to be engaged with their local governments. He said he takes special interest in meeting with different community groups and those relationships have been essential in advancing difficult projects and ensuring awareness of sensitive issues.
Lazarus said he also understands the importance of town-gown relations in a city such as Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan. In Austin, he coordinated infrastructure projects with the University of Texas, including projects to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety near campus, accommodate parking needs for off-campus housing, and realign city streets for a new medical center.
In both Newark and Austin, Lazarus said he had experience working with union representatives on personnel issues.
“I also bring substantial private-sector experience to city management. While I do not believe that we should run government like a business, we can and should be more business-like in how we run our operations,” he wrote in his job application, adding he understands how to tie performance measures to spending, and analyze cost structures, overhead rates and profit margins.
Lazarus said he’s aware of the talks of a new Amtrak train station and the proposed Connector light rail system in Ann Arbor. He also has read the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority’s plan for expanded regional transit, including Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail.
“I’m excited about the idea of commuter rail,” he said. “I think that serves the public very well, as well as the Connector. And then the train station also with higher-speed intercity service can help economically for the city as well. So, those are all really exciting things to me that are on the horizon.”
Lazarus noted Austin voters refused to approve a bond proposal for a $1.4 billion light rail system in 2014.
“The city is still struggling with how to address transit and mobility,” he said. “So, I think you learn a lot from things that are successful, and I think you learn a lot more sometimes from things that have their initial challenges.”
Lazarus said he looks forward to implementing the Ann Arbor City Council’s policy direction with regard to expanding affordable housing. In East Austin, a 27-acre village of mobile and tiny homes has opened. Ann Arbor leaders have discussed the idea of allowing a tiny home village here only hypothetically.
“That’s something they built out toward the edge of the city to provide permanent supportive housing for the homeless population,” Lazarus said of the Mobile Loaves Fishes development in the Austin area. “We had initiated some conversations right before I left about trying to work with them on employing the homeless through some city entry-level jobs.”
Lazarus said Austin’s housing affordability challenges, like in Ann Arbor, are partly a function of supply and demand.
“You have 120 people per day moving into the city. You have an annual population growth in excess of 3 percent. There’s a shortage of rental properties,” he said.
“And then the stresses you have, which is similar to Ann Arbor, is you have some very good, traditional neighborhoods within walking distance of a very vibrant downtown, and that’s where people want to live … and it’s putting a lot of price pressure on properties.”
Lazarus said Austin has through its land development code tried to impose requirements for affordable housing with benefits for increased density, and that’s had some successes and challenges.
“I’ve seen the projects come through the Planning Commission process. Some of it has been successful, some of it has not,” he said.
“There are cases where the affordable housing requirement has been met through a payment into a fund, and there are some challenges with that, and some people don’t think that’s an effective way to address the problem.”
Ann Arbor is currently trying to rework its zoning code to better incentivize affordable housing as part of downtown developments, though city leaders are under the impression the same will happen here — developers will just choose the option allowing them to pay fees into an affordable housing fund.
“The benefit to having affordable units in all development is it gets you away from having large low-income housing projects, which in the past have shown to be problematic and, to be honest, contribute toward inequality in the schools, and it also tends to stigmatize the children,” Lazarus said.
“So, I think nationwide it’s been a challenge to have mixed-income developments, but there are opportunities and ways to do it by offering incentives to development and providing affordable units. The city of Austin recently put some money aside to ensure affordable units within a community are going to remain affordable.”
Lazarus said he’s looking forward to learning more about Ann Arbor’s plans for a new greenway trail through the city, what’s known as the Allen Creek Greenway, and ways to improve the existing Border-to-Border Trail.
He believes it’s important to have a well-connected system of urban trails that can help address traffic congestion and issues of air quality and noise pollution.
“In the city of Austin, I was responsible for the urban trails and for implementation of the bike program, as well as the sidewalk program,” he said. “We developed an urban trails master plan that I think was pretty leading edge in terms of defining what an urban trail is. Urban trails are important because they not only provide recreational opportunities, but they do provide a means for transportation as well, and it integrates nature into people’s everyday lives.
He added, “There are a lot of people like me who don’t necessarily feel comfortable riding adjacent to traffic, so when you look at trails and bike routes, there ought to be some physical separation, and you can achieve that a number of ways.”
Ryan Stanton covers the city beat for The Ann Arbor News. Reach him at [email protected]