On Tuesday evening, way after hours at Northside Grill, a collection of city staff and city councilmembers met with around 40 residents to discuss the relationship of the University of Michigan with the city of Ann Arbor – both generally and with specific regard to the proposed UM expansion along Wall Street.
That construction is currently proposed to include an office building, parking structure and transit center. It was not news to neighbors that UM plays by a different set of rules (its own). What could have been a revelation were the general mechanisms by which city staff work in an environment where they can attempt to nudge UM to adhere to the vision outlined in the city’s planning documents – documents that were created with participation of UM staff.
So there were no magic bullets offered that could kill the parking structure component of the current UM Wall Street expansion. But the vision of a possible transit station along Fuller Road, which would include a substantial number of parking spaces serving a variety of needs, was held out as a possibility that could attract the university away from building more parking along Wall Street. That potential transit station would be nestled between Fuller Road and East Medical Center Drive, just east of Fuller & Maiden Lane.
How the City Works with UM
Craig Hupy, head of systems planning with the city of Ann Arbor, outlined for residents why the University of Michigan does not need to adhere to city-level or state-level ordinances and statutes (with respect to zoning or anything else): UM is a state constitutional entity, and as such, whatever the university does on its land is its choice. One example cited by Hupy of the disconnect between administrative control and practical consequence is the university’s fire code standards, which are administered by its own fire marshall – but the fires themselves are fought by the city of Ann Arbor.
Where the city does have some very limited leverage, said Hupy, is when the university needs access to the public right of way, which is administered (not owned) by the city of Ann Arbor: utility connections and driveway permits, for example. But here the city does not have the latitude to deny use of the right of way as a strategy for bargaining on unrelated matters. The city can simply require that the right of way is used in a manner consistent with the conditions required of any entity (including the university).
In that context, Wendy Rampson and Mark Lloyd, planners with the city of Ann Arbor, described how city staff from planning and development services and systems planning meet with university planning staff on a roughly once-a-month basis. The point of the meetings is to work through technical details. And, said Rampson, staff attempts to “influence even if we cannot require” the university to take paths more consistent with existing city planning documents.
Asked to what extent the city could prevent the university from building parking structures based on the impact to traffic, Rampson said that the city did not have the sort of leverage they had with a private developer, where approval of the project’s site plan could depend on a demonstration that traffic patterns would not be disrupted. In the case of university parking structures, the city could require infrastructure improvements in terms of widening roads or improved signaling, but the city didn’t have the ability to kill a university project on that basis. The impact on air quality was handled on a regional level, said Rampson.
A pointed question from the audience: “How often do you say to them, ‘This conflicts with the North East Area Plan’?” Rampson’s answer: Often. She characterized the monthly meetings as “frank.”
But the focus of the monthly meetings to work out technical details is on projects already in the works. And residents wanted to know to what extent city of Ann Arbor staff are included in the university’s conceptual planning – before a project is brought before the Board of Regents for approval. Rampson described how there is a sense among university planning staff that a project does not exist until it has been approved by the Board of Regents. This made them reluctant to talk about projects when they are in their nascent, conceptual stages. [This is consistent with the repeated emphasis of the phrase "regentally approved project" at a previous meeting between university staff and residents on the Wall Street expansion.]
In fact, when asked when the university began the conceptual planning for the Wall Street expansion, Rampson said, it was not clear when that might have been. At the point when the city’s Northeast Area Plan was adopted, which included participation from UM staff, Rampson said that there was no indication that the university wanted to build parking decks along Wall Street.
“The Regents are Oblivious”
Residents expressed the desire for the university to include not just city staff, but also ordinary citizens of Ann Arbor, in its conceptual planning process. Residents also expressed the sentiment that regents have little sense of the impact the university’s construction projects have on the Ann Arbor community. “The regents are oblivious,” said one voice in the audience.
Stephen Rapundalo, who was joined at Northside Grill by fellow city councilmembers Sabra Briere (who had asked for that evening’s meeting to take place) and Sandi Smith, said that the desire of greater participation by the city in university planning had been communicated to individual regents: “We have expressed the desire you have articulated.” But Rapundalo characterized the general approach of the university’s interaction with the city this way: “They come in and they lecture you.”
Some amount of frustration surfaced throughout the meeting on Tuesday evening and was reflected in the question from one audience member: “Are we going to lie down and let this happen?”
The meeting concluded with the expression of one woman in the audience of a wish for greater participation from citizens – but ultimately it was the city’s elected representatives who needed to bring specific proposals to the regents, she said. And if 100 residents needed to show up to the regents’ meeting to support them as they did that, then that’s what they would do.
Fuller Road Multi-Modal Transit Center
One of the specific proposals on the city’s side that residents wanted communicated more clearly to the university is the vision of a multi-modal transit center nestled between Fuller Road and East Medical Center Drive. The university has expressed interest, said Rampson, but is still proceeding on a parallel track to build more parking on Wall Street. The Fuller Road transit center’s relation to the university’s regentally-approved Wall Street expansion is that it would relieve some of the pressure to build parking along Wall Street that does not serve medical facilities on Wall Street itself.
This is the source of much of the resistance expressed among residents to the planned parking structures – the university’s planned structures are meant in part to serve patients on other parts of the medical campus. This, as one resident put it, is the worst of both worlds: (i) the location is far enough away from the clinical facilities that it requires a shuttle bus, and (ii) it’s close enough to central Ann Arbor to cause congestion.
Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the city of Ann Arbor, showed a sketch (prepared in-house by city of Ann Arbor staff) of what the footprint of a multi-modal transit station along Fuller Road could be like. He cast the station in the context of an overall transportation planning context that includes east-west commuter rail, north-south commuter rail, and some kind of high-capacity circulator within the city of Ann Arbor. Why do we need all this transportation? Part of Cooper’s answer had to do with one projection that sees the addition of 20,000 jobs over the next 25 years in the Ann Arbor area – a projection based on the two growth areas of higher education and health care.
As the western terminus of a possible east-west commuter rail corridor between the Detroit area and Ann Arbor, the Fuller Road transit station would, said Cooper, create demand for parking from people living to the north, the south, and further west, who would be driving to the station to get access. The Fuller Road transit station would include some 800 parking spaces to serve a range of different users – from university medical center patients to commuters. Cooper said that he’d had two phone conversations with Amtrak about the possibility of consolidating the Amtrak station (now located on Depot Street below the Broadway Bridge) with a Fuller Road transit station.
There were two questions about the siting of the Fuller Road transit station. One had to do with the possible restrictions on use of the land based on its history as a donated parcel. Cooper said that a preliminary look by the city attorney’s staff suggested that there were no encumbrances on the land. The second had to do with the environmental impact on the watershed, and where it sat with respect to the floodway. Cooper said that in terms of impervious surface, a transit station would be no worse than the surface parking lot currently at the site, which lies outside the floodway.
How soon can we expect to see east-west commuter rail? Cooper said fall 2010 is the target demonstration date for the project, which is being managed by SEMCOG and MDOT.