For Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, a project like the proposed Fuller Road Station happens “once in a lifetime” – an opportunity for the city, he says, to take a vision and make it reality in a fairly short time.
What it will take to reach that reality was the topic of a Feb. 10 public meeting on the Fuller Road Station, a joint University of Michigan/city of Ann Arbor project. Its first phase entails a parking structure with about 1,000 spaces – nearly 80% of them earmarked for UM use.
But much of the presentation by city staff and members of the design team focused on the broader goals for that site, which they hope will eventually include a train station for commuter rail.
Beyond Phase 1
Eli Cooper began his comments by putting the Fuller Road Station into the context of the city’s overall efforts to increase alternative forms of public transportation. Ann Arbor is a regional employment center, he said, but rather than invest in wider roads and more parking, the long-term goal is to leave the cars outside the city and find other ways to bring people to work.
For this, commuter rail is crucial, he said. That includes a proposed north-south rail known as WALLY, which would run between Ann Arbor and Howell, as well as an Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail, with stops in Ypsilanti, metro Detroit airport and Dearborn.
These two railroad lines cross but aren’t connected, Cooper said, so the idea was to create a local connector system. The east-west line, owned by the Norfolk Southern Railroad, runs past Washtenaw County’s largest employer – the UM medical complex, with more than 17,000 workers – so it made sense to start there. [The north-south track runs through downtown Ann Arbor.] City staff looked for a site where the concept could actually work, with major roadways and less than three acres of publicly-owned land, near the east-west railroad. Looking at the Fuller Road property, which has been leased by the city to UM since 1993, “it didn’t take a lot of thinking to say, ‘We can do this,’” Cooper said.
The concept was brought to city council, which endorsed it, Cooper said. [In May 2009, city council approved $80,000 as its portion of a feasibility study for the project. In August, council approved a professional services contract with JJR for conceptual design, environmental assessment and engineering work, and set a budget of $541,717. The council approved the master plan concept, an additional $111,228 for work by JJR, and a memorandum of understanding with UM in November.]
As for the Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail project, Cooper noted that a representative from SEMCOG recently made a presentation to the city council, reinforcing that it’s a “go project,” with a target launch date of Oct. 25, 2010. If the commuter rail takes off and several hundred people need a place to park their cars, Amtrak will feel pressure to accommodate those commuters, Cooper said. [Amtrak officials have not committed to moving the train station from its Depot Street location to Fuller Road.] Cooper said that the Ann Arbor Amtrak is the highest-volume station in Michigan, and second only to downtown Chicago along the Chicago-to-Detroit corridor.
Cooper said that 98% of commuters into Ann Arbor come by vehicle, and that Fuller Road is a major artery used by vehicles as well as the AATA and UM bus system. The Fuller Road Station will include an indoor bus waiting room and a loading platform for those buses, with the hopes of getting regional carriers – like Greyhound and Michigan Flyer – to use the facility, too. There will also be bike lockers and bike hoops in the first phase of Fuller Road Station, Cooper said. Eventually, the structure might include showers and a maintenance area for cyclists, he said.
The structure will have about 1,000 parking spaces, plus another 50 spaces in an adjacent surface lot. Cooper said the parking structure is expected to be nearly full from the time it opens in 2012 – there might be need for additional parking when the commuter rail launches, he said.
In wrapping up his presentation, Cooper described the first phase as “modest,” but said that it has already attracted attention from federal transit officials. He’s hopeful it will attract additional investment to bring the future phases into reality as quickly as possible.
What Will It Look Like?
Dick Mitchell, of the Ann Arbor firm of Mitchell and Mouat, is one of the project’s architects, and spoke about the process of designing Fuller Road Station. He began his part of the presentation with three questions that he said they hoped to get feedback on:
- Are there qualities of the Ann Arbor area that you feel could inspire design of the Fuller Road Station?
- Are there special experiences, relationships or visual images within this area of Ann Arbor that you feel could be acknowledged and/or reflected in the design of Fuller Road Station?
- Are there unique qualities about the vision for the master plan of the Fuller Road Station as both a gateway and/or transportation hub that might inspire the design of the station?
Though all of the people on the design team have been Ann Arbor residents, Mitchell said, he hoped that people from the Fuller Road neighborhood would weigh in with design suggestions, based on their familiarity with the area.
At the city council’s Nov. 5 2009 meeting, Ward 1 representative to the council, Sandi Smith, expressed her hope that the design would be significant, and Ward 2 representative Tony Derezinski echoed that sentiment, saying that it would be a welcome center for Ann Arbor.
At the Feb. 10 meeting on Fuller Road Station, Mitchell said his team had spent considerable time thinking about the site and its connection to the Huron River and river valley. Using maps of the area, he showed how the site fits into the system of city parks along that stretch and the county’s Border-to-Border trails, describing the river as “an incredible force.”
While the natural environment dominates the east and north, the more urban environment – including the “citadel-like presence” of the UM medical complex – dominates the areas to the south and west. The medical buildings, with horizontal lines interrupted by vertical spires, give the design team its “architectural language,” Mitchell said. “We don’t know what that means to us yet, but we’re pondering.”
Later in the meeting, someone in the audience asked whether the design for the Fuller Road Station would be like the parking structure at Fourth & Washington, which Mitchell and Mouat also designed. It’s going to be quite different, Mitchell responded, “but just as nice.”
Questions from the Audience
The 30 or so people who attended Wednesday’s forum, held in city council chambers, were given notecards and asked to write whatever questions or comments they had about the project. Those cards were collected and Connie Pulcipher, a senior planner with the city, read some of them to the group. Different members of the project team fielded the questions – others, particularly those related to financial concerns, were deferred. Pulcipher said that all questions and comments would be compiled and posted on the city’s website for the project.
Here’s a sampling:
Will traffic lights be added to the entrance off of Fuller Road? Les Sipowski, a traffic engineer with the city, said they didn’t believe traffic signals were necessary. Boulevards like Fuller Road have “a ton of capacity,” he said. Two new crossovers between the eastbound and westbound lanes will be added.
Will the existing soccer field be removed? No. The field to the east of the site will remain.
Will users of the nearby parks continue to have free parking? Eli Cooper said there’s a firm commitment to the parks that during off-peak hours on nights and weekends, parking will continue to be available.
What’s the likelihood that non-residents commuting into Ann Arbor will actually use alternative transit, even if this station is built? Eli Cooper said there was no research specifically tied to the use of the station, but that surveys conducted to study the feasibility of commuter rail between Lansing and Detroit indicated that people would be willing to use that form of transportation. Jim Kosteva, UM director of community relations, said the university provides a range of alternative transportation options, and that now up to 40% of employees come to work in something other than a single-occupancy vehicle. [However, efforts by the AATA over the last year to introduce express commuter bus service from Chelsea to Ann Arbor and from Canton to Ann Arbor have not been as successful as hoped in developing ridership.]
Is there evidence of future need for this facility? Eli Cooper pointed to SEMCOG studies forecasting that Ann Arbor would add 18,900 jobs through 2035. However, since the city’s population is expected to grow by only 1,800 people, he said, that means a lot of workers will be needing transportation to get from their homes to their workplaces in Ann Arbor. Jim Kosteva added that another reason for the facility is to reduce the area’s carbon footprint. He also noted that a significant number of UM employees live along the proposed commuter rail route between Ann Arbor and Detroit, particularly in the Ypsilanti area.
What plans does UM have for the former Pfizer site? Jim Kosteva said the university is undergoing a major planning effort for what’s now called the North Campus Research Complex, or NCRC, led by the Medical School, the UM Health System and the College of Engineering. As it relates to the Fuller Road Station, he said they expect the area to see employment growth, which will add to the need for transportation as people shuttle between the NCRC, the medical campus, central campus and their homes.
Will there be any private development at the site? Peer hospitals like the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic have supported nearby development of hotels, restaurants and retail, creating a real sense of place. Does the university plan to do the same near the Fuller Road Station? Eli Cooper said there were ample opportunities for that type of development in the nearby Lower Town area. Jim Kosteva said that UM is focusing on the delivery of health care. They do operate the Med Inn, he said, which has 30 rooms. Sue Gott, a university planner, added that UM’s mission is focused on academics, research and clinical care. They look to the private sector to provide other kinds of development. Kosteva then noted that the hospital’s cafeteria food is quite good.
Isn’t the proposed train service a demonstration project? Yes, said Eli Cooper, the initial service planned as soon as the fall of 2010 would be a smaller scale service. [See Chronicle coverage of the Feb. 1 city council meeting where Carmine Polombo of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) gave an update on proposed commuter rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Polombo described the initial service offerings as likely to be limited to day trips for special events, like UM football games.]
What’s the estimated increase in train traffic? The SEMCOG demonstration service will start with four round trips each day, increasing to eight over time, Eli Cooper said. He envisions the service will eventually have between 16-18 round trips daily, with three to four per hour during peak commuting times.
What will the impact be on surrounding home values – for example, on Cedar Bend Drive? Eli Cooper said that in other cities where he’s lived – New York and Philadelphia – there’s a premium associated with housing that has immediate access to rail transportation.
What’s the timeframe for the commuter rail? A feasibility study will be completed this year, Eli Cooper said. Two years after that, an environmental impact study will be conducted, followed by engineering and design for an additional two to three years. It would take two or three years to build, he said – so the entire project would likely take a decade to complete. Coming up with local funding would streamline the process, he said, rather than relying on federal and state dollars. He projected a range of three to ten years, “if ever.”
Will UM compensate city voters for the long-term use of parkland? Eli Cooper said there’s a continuing commitment to city parks, through the city’s memorandum of understanding with UM. The facility will be city-owned, he said, so there’ll be no transfer of parkland to the university. And since the parkland isn’t going to be sold, he said, it’s not necessary to bring the city charter into the discussion. [He was referring to a charter requirement, approved by voters in November 2008, that the sale of city parkland be authorized through a voter referendum.]
Has a land swap with UM been considered to compensate for the use of city parkland? The lease of the land to UM for a parking lot generates revenues for the parks system, Eli Cooper said. The project team, he added, welcomed suggestions for how they can enhance the park user’s experience. He noted that they were planning to integrate “active art” into the facility’s design, though he did not specify what that might entail.
Why will the city be getting less money from UM in the future than it does from the current annual leasing agreement of $31,000? Connie Pulcipher said they couldn’t provide the answer to financial questions that night. Jim Kosteva, representing UM, read from the memorandum of understanding between the university and the city, which states that UM will be paying 78% of a $24,846 operating cost, and that money will go to the city’s parks and recreation unit. That amount – $24,846 – will increase by 3% each year over a 30-year period. In addition, UM will make two payments of $31,057 to parks and recreation between Sept. 1, 2010 through Aug. 31, 2012 – the period of construction. [.pdf file of the memorandum of understanding] The current surface parking lot at the site has 250 spaces.
Who’s paying for all this? Eli Cooper called the financing “very much a work in progress.” The city is working with the Congressional delegation that represents this area to help secure federal funding, and is working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to find state dollars. There will also be revenue generated from users of the facility, he said, adding that more financial analysis is needed.
[According to the memorandum of understanding, UM will pay for 78% of the cost of design and construction of the facility; the city of Ann Arbor will pay 22%. According to the city's capital improvements plan, which the city council postponed for consideration at its Feb.1 meeting, the city's share of $5.36 million would come from the city’s economic development fund. Minus the city's obligation to Google for parking incentives, the economic development fund currently has a balance of around $700,000. ]
Why not have a real public hearing? The city staff has been directed by council to fully engage the public, Eli Cooper said. He has made presentations at the park advisory commission, the planning commission and city council. There are requirements related to public hearings for the environmental impact study, he said, as well as at other points in the development process.
What are the plans for public art? After the forum, The Chronicle queried Dave Dykman, a project manager for the city, about a topic raised at the Feb. 9 meeting of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission. At that meeting, commissioners discussed the possibility of an art consultant being hired to oversee the integration of public art into the Fuller Road Station’s design. Dykman clarified that the project had a line-item for public art at about $250,000. He said it wasn’t clear yet whether an art consultant would be paid for out of those funds, or whether other funding would be available.
Comments from the Audience
Several people gave comments as well. Here’s a few:
- Preserve as many trees as possible, include underground parking, and try to minimize the structure by blending it into the existing natural area on the site.
- Include a place for large meetings.
- Restrooms, showers and other amenities should be fully accessible.
- In the design, consider the entire history of transportation and the surrounding natural environment, from the beginning of time.
All questions and comments will be posted on the city’s Fuller Road Station website, Connie Pulcipher said, where other information about the project is available. She also encouraged people to sign up for email alerts from the city about upcoming meetings, or to look at the Tree Town Log, a city calendar of events and meetings.
Dave Dykman, a project manager for the city, concluded the meeting by giving an overview of the project schedule. He noted that the conceptual plan has been approved by both the city council and the UM regents.
An environmental assessment is ongoing, and is expected to conclude in the fall of 2010. Dykman said they don’t expect any significant findings, but it’s a necessary component for federal funding.
Efforts at community engagement will continue. There will be a presentation to the city’s park advisory commission at its March 16 meeting, and another public meeting similar to Wednesday’s will be held at a yet-to-be-determined date. In addition, the project will be taken to the city’s planning commission for approval, possibly this spring or summer, and there will be a public hearing associated with that process.
In the late spring, workers will relocate utilities that are on the site, including an electrical transmission line that runs above the property and a major sanitary sewer pipe located underneath the proposed building’s footprint.
Design and engineering for the project began about a month ago, Dykman said. The plan will likely be presented to city council in mid-summer, with a public hearing at that time as well. Early foundation work would start next winter, with construction through 2012.