Two city commissions on Tuesday addressed two very different actions related to Fuller Road Station, a joint city of Ann Arbor/University of Michigan project that initially will entail a large parking structure and bus station, with possibly a train station for commuter rail years down the road.
Spurred by concerns that Ann Arbor parks are being shortchanged, members of the city’s park advisory commission (PAC) discussed a resolution on Tuesday that would urge city council not to proceed with plans for Fuller Road Station at its proposed site on city-owned land that’s designated as parkland.
The draft resolution also states that if the city council does continue with the project, the city should renegotiate the deal to get additional revenues from the University of Michigan, with those funds being allocated to city parks. The resolution calls for an annual payment of $127,500 from the university – under the current agreement, UM would pay $19,379 per year, starting in 2012.
Park commissioners didn’t take any action, and plan to discuss the draft resolution further at their May 18 meeting.
But Tuesday evening, the city’s planning commission did take action related to Fuller Road Station. They voted unanimously to amend the list of permitted principal uses of public land – specifically, changing a “municipal airports” use to “transportation facilities.” During a public hearing on the issue, several speakers – including park commissioner Gwen Nystuen – objected to the change.
It’s expected that the project – located on the south side of Fuller Road, just east of East Medical Center Drive – will be submitted by the design team on May 17 for review by planning staff. It will likely come before the planning commission at its first meeting in July. A public meeting on the project is set for Thursday, May 6 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor city council chambers, 100 N. Fifth Ave.
Fuller Road Station: Shortchanging the City?
At PAC’s April 20, 2010 meeting, Gwen Nystuen introduced a resolution to form a subcommittee that would evaluate the $46 million Fuller Road Station project. From The Chronicle’s report of that meeting:
If approved by PAC, the subcommittee would review the environmental, financial, legal, operational and visual impacts of the project, as it relates to the city’s parks and recreation program, Fuller Park, and the Huron River valley.
In 1993, Nystuen noted, there were no surface parking lots in that area, other than those around the pool at Fuller Park. Today there are several lots, including those that are leased by UM. “What are we doing?” she asked. “This is awful.” Though the city’s stated goals are to develop parks along the Huron River, she said, “we seem to be filling the space up with a big parking lot.”
The Fuller Road Station, a structure which will have about 1,000 parking spaces but the capacity to eventually contain 1,700 spaces in eight levels, poses legal questions because it’s being proposed on city land that’s designated as parkland, Nystuen said. She also cited financial concerns about how the city would pay for its share of the project. Additionally, she wondered why alternative designs – like one shown at PAC’s March 16, 2010 meeting by architect Peter Pollack – weren’t being considered.
Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, has made two presentations to PAC, but Nystuen said commissioners just listen and ask questions – they’ve taken no action. It’s been brought to them as though it’s all done, she said. Her proposal for a subcommittee would allow PAC to take a more active role in evaluating the project’s impact on parks.
Nystuen had suggested discussing her resolution at Tuesday’s May 4 meeting of PAC’s land acquisition committee, which includes all members of the commission. By that date, however, she had worked with commissioners Sam Offen and Julie Grand – PAC’s new chair – to craft a different resolution. Rather than forming a subcommittee to study Fuller Road Station, the draft resolution handed out on Tuesday aims at halting the project, or at the least renegotiating its terms. There are two “resolved” clauses:
Resolved, that PAC recommends that the City Council does not proceed in its approval of plans for the Fuller Road Station at the site where it is currently proposed.
Resolved, that if such plans are approved by Council, that the agreement with the University of Michigan is renegotiated to include a significant increase in revenue allocated to the Parks and Recreation Department. 100% of payments should come from the University of Michigan. Revenue at the current FY 2010 rate of approximately $125 per space would result in an annual payment of $127,500 to the Parks Department.
According to a footnote in the resolution, the figure of $125 per space was calculated based on the city’s current lease agreement with the university for the surface lots, but doesn’t take into account the value of (1) covered parking or (2) the university’s ability to park cars in the structure 24/7. Those two factors could increase the payment “by a substantial margin,” the resolution states.
The resolution lays out several concerns that have been voiced by some commissioners at previous PAC meetings:
- UM parking on city-owned lots is currently restricted to workday hours, but at Fuller Road Station, the university would be allowed to use the parking structure 24 hours a day.
- Fuller Road Station wouldn’t offer any amenities to users of the city parks, and parking is not one of the goals outlined in the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) plan.
- PAC has “serious reservations” about setting a precedent for agreeing to a long-term lease of parkland.
- Building a permanent parking structure on parkland raises concerns that the city is potentially violating its zoning ordinances.
- There are safety issues for park users, pedestrians and bicycle commuters, due to the increased traffic.
- The city’s parks and recreation unit will lose revenue, compared to what it currently receives from UM’s lease of surface lots along Fuller Road. Currently, UM pays the city $31,057 to lease 250 parking spaces in the “south lot,” where Fuller Road Station is planned. The memorandum of understanding with UM for Fuller Road Station calls for the university to pay $19,379, with a 3% annual increase. In addition, because of the added parking capacity at the new structure, there’s no guarantee that UM will continue to lease spaces from the city’s two “north lots” on Fuller Road, which bring in roughly $38,500 each year.
On Tuesday, Julie Grand began discussion by saying she wanted feedback from other commissioners. The first reaction from some was this: Isn’t it a done deal? Will this resolution have any effect?
Grand said that’s why there are two parts – first, urging council to hold off on approval at the current site, and barring that, at least to renegotiate a better deal to get more revenue from the university.
Gwen Nystuen noted that when the concept was first introduced to the community in early 2009, it was presented as a transit station that included some parking, with a pedestrian bridge to the university’s medical complex to the south. The idea of a train station for commuter rail was part of the original plan – it was only later that the project was split into phases, with the initial phases being primarily a parking structure and bus station. City officials hope a train station will eventually be built, but no funding has been secured for that.
The push for parking is coming from the university, Nystuen said, adding that UM had been planning to build additional parking along Wall Street, near the Kellogg Eye Center. [The Chronicle's first encounter with the Fuller Road Station project was at a Jan. 27, 2009 meeting for residents of the Wall Street area. At that meeting, Eli Cooper, the city's transportation program manager, briefed neighbors on initial plans for the transit station.]
On Tuesday, Nystuen said that the memorandum of understanding between the city and UM stated that as part of the agreement, the university would suspend its pursuit of parking along Wall Street “at this time.” But she noted there’s no guarantee, and UM might eventually build even more parking there: “They, of course, can do whatever they want.” [.pdf file of the memorandum of understanding on Fuller Road Station]
Commissioners also discussed the issue of building on land that’s designated as parkland. Grand noted that the city is allowed to violate its own zoning laws. Offen agreed, saying it wasn’t an issue of zoning but an issue of land use. Nystuen added that in the city code, parkland has a special status. The relevant section from Chapter 55 of the city code is this (emphasis added):
5:10.13. PL public land district.
(1) Intent. This district is designed to classify publicly-owned uses and land and permit the normal principal and incidental uses required to carry out governmental functions and services.
(2) Permitted principal uses. (a) Outdoor public recreational uses, such as: playgrounds, playfields, golf courses, boating areas, fishing sites, camping sites, parkways and parks. No structure shall be erected or maintained upon dedicated park land which is not customarily incidental to the principal use of the land.
Offen noted that even though the land wasn’t being sold, construction of a parking structure certainly violated the spirit of the voter-approved amendment to the city charter, which requires a voter referendum on the sale of parkland.
David Barrett asked whether it would be useful to have Eli Cooper come back to a PAC meeting and answer questions. Cooper’s past presentations to PAC had been more akin to a “magic show,” he said.
At this point Tim Berla weighed in, saying that he’d talked to Mayor John Hieftje when they’d gone out for beers at Casey’s on the occasion of Scott Rosencrans’ last meeting. [Rosencrans, who previously chaired PAC, did not seek reappointment when his term ended in April.] Berla reported that the mayor had said there’s still a lot in play in the Fuller Road Station project – it’s not a done deal. But Hieftje did indicate that the university’s participation is critical to eventually getting the rail service, Berla said.
Nystuen was glad to hear that the mayor thinks there’s room for change in the project.
Asking for A Better Deal
Saying they seemed to be in agreement that the current deal was bad for the city’s parks, Grand asked for feedback on the suggested revenue request contained in the draft resolution.
They’d settled on the $125-per-space amount because it was better than the current deal, but “not laughable,” she said. It was calculated by taking the current annual amount that UM pays the city – $31,057 – for leasing the south lot on Fuller Road, divided by the number of spaces there: 250.
Doug Chapman pointed out that the original numbers in the memorandum of understanding were based on building an intermodal station – that’s not happening at this point, he said. So it makes sense to raise the amount now, then renegotiate later if the train station is actually built.
Sam Offen also noted that given the city’s current financial condition, they need more money for parks. And with the current deal, “we’re getting short-changed,” he said. The city isn’t even keeping revenues at the same rate – they’ll be getting less money.
Offen said he’d like to see more information on rates that the university currently charges for its own parking permits, as well as rates that the city charges to park in its structures. Grand said she had that information, and would provide it to commissioners. [.pdf file of UM 2009-10 parking permits] [link to Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority website with information on parking permits]
The group also discussed the value of the land – both financially and as a community asset – as a factor in opposing the location of a parking structure at that site. Nystuen said that city staff had initially said an appraisal of the land wasn’t relevant because there was no intent to sell. However, they did report that in 2004, the property had been considered by the city for an affordable housing project and was appraised at that time at $4.25 million.
“It’s prime land,” Offen said.
The fact that it’s land along the river – the Huron River runs nearby, on the opposite side of Fuller Road – should make it inviolable, Nystuen said.
Tim Berla noted that it wasn’t as if they’re paving paradise – that happened in 1993, when the surface parking lot was installed there, he said. Grand agreed, but pointed out that a surface lot can be dug up in a day. That’s not the case with a permanent parking structure.
The commissioners voted to table the discussion until PAC’s next meeting, on Tuesday, May 18. The meeting begins at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St.
Planning Commission: The Policy, Not the Parcel
Later that day, at their Tuesday evening meeting in city council chambers, the Ann Arbor planning commission addressed a change to language in Chapter 55 of the city code, which relates to the Fuller Road Station project. Two words were proposed to be changed under (h) in the list of permitted principal uses for public land (PL):
5:10.13. PL public land district.(1) Intent. This district is designed to classify publicly-owned uses and land and permit the normal principal and incidental uses required to carry out governmental functions and services.(2) Permitted principal uses.(a) Outdoor public recreational uses, such as: playgrounds, playfields, golf courses, boating areas, fishing sites, camping sites, parkways and parks. No structure shall be erected or maintained upon dedicated park land which is not customarily incidental to the principal use of the land.(b) Natural open space, such as: conservation lands, wildlife sanctuaries, forest preserves.(c) Developed open space, such as: arboreta, botanical and zoological gardens.(d) Educational services, such as: public primary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher education.(e) Cultural services, such as: museums and art galleries.(f) Public-service institutions, such as: hospitals, sanatoria, homes for the elderly, children’s homes and correctional institutions.(g) Essential services, buildings containing essential services and electrical substations.(h) Municipal airports. Transportation facilities.(i) Civic center.(j) Government offices and courts.
PL Text Change: Public Hearing
Seven people spoke at the public hearing on the proposed text amendment, all of them raising concerns about the change.
Rita Mitchell and John Satarino read parts from the same prepared statement, representing the Ad Hoc Citizen Group for Sensible Planning. The language change will broaden the types of uses allowed on property zoned as public land, Mitchell said. Noting that the staff report explicitly mentions the Fuller Road Station, she said the goal isn’t to clear up the regulatory language, but rather to assure that the project passes muster during review by funding sources.
They cited several concerns: (1) the planning commission isn’t adequately reviewing background information in the Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) plan and project documents; (2) building structures on that site would violate city zoning; (3) the planning commission should challenge the concept of “municipal immunity,” which exempts the city from its own zoning; (4) the commission hasn’t followed a city charter-mandated process for making this kind of amendment; and (5) the commission hasn’t sufficiently defined the meaning of a “transportation facility.”
They urged the commission to table the resolution.
Gwen Nystuen, the park advisory commissioner who has been instrumental in bringing forward the PAC resolution regarding Fuller Road Station, told planning commissioners that she was mostly coming to them with questions. What is a transportation facility, she asked – are there any conditions regarding how it would function? What do they think the public’s understanding is of parks? Most people see the PL zoning and think it’s parkland, when parkland is actually a special category of the PL classification, with its own conditions, she said. How can the city legally go about building structures on land that’s dedicated parkland?
Eppie Potts said the change would open the door to any public land being used for any purpose that’s listed. She referred to it as “repurposing.” As another example, she pointed to the recent proposal by the city administrator to use Allmendinger and Frisinger parks for parking on football Saturdays. She said that the planning commission had previously approved rezoning parkland to public land, because staff had given them assurance that it would remain parkland if it were designated as such in the PROS plan. She asked them to explain why this was no longer the case for the Fuller Road Station site.
Alice Ralph told commissioners that changing a couple of words might not seem significant, but it is. She recalled listening to deliberations on the ballot language for the charter amendment to require a voter referendum on the sale of parkland. By chipping away at the language, the final version provided “little or no additional protection for parkland,” she said. The language change being proposed really amounted to spot zoning, and conflicted with the PROS plan. She urged commissioners to understand the public’s expectations – the public really does expect parkland to be used for parks.
Jim Mogensen said that the PL zoning conveyed expectations about what kinds of things will happen on that land. Public schools are on public land, but charter schools are not. The Blake Transit Center is, but the Greyhound bus station isn’t. Mogensen recalled the concepts that students in local developer Peter Allen’s class at UM had come up with to develop the Fuller Road site – he noted that their ideas entailed using public/private partnerships, and it seems that the city is moving toward that. It might end up being a way that the city deals with funding the project, he said.
Margaret Wong said she had a gut feeling that the difference between park and parking structure was getting smaller. She urged commissioners to consider unintended consequences of the change – the need for precision of language is relevant.
PL Text Change: Commissioner Deliberations
Bonnie Bona, chair of the planning commissioner, noted that generally speaking, property zoning has nothing to do with whether land is designated as parkland. Parkland is designated as such under the PROS plan, which is currently being updated.
Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, clarified the process that would need to occur to shift parkland to another use. If parkland were being sold, it would require the approval of voters. Otherwise, a park evolves based on what the community is looking for, she said, and by working its way through the parks planning process.
Regarding Fuller Road Station, the surface lot was put there about 15 years ago, Rampson said. It was a decision make by UM and the city, with input from the park advisory commission. Fuller Road Station had evolved the same way. She said there has not been a park turned over for another use. Like what? As Rampson paused to come up with an example, some residents attending the meeting called out: “a parking structure!” The example Rampson settled on was “governmental office.” She noted that the conference center at Gallup Park might be an example. [On the city's website, it's described as a meeting room.]
Wendy Woods noted that several of the speakers at the public hearing had been past or current members of the park advisory commission, as had she. Woods wondered whether the project had been vetted by PAC. She said the question was especially relevant given that the planning commission had just recently discussed the importance of communicating and coordinating among other city commissions, like the energy and environmental commissions. [Woods was alluding to an April 13 joint meeting of the planning, energy and environmental commissions. See Chronicle coverage: "Building a Sustainable Ann Arbor"]
Rampson said that presentations had been made to PAC about Fuller Road Station, to get their comments. [Eli Cooper, the city's transportation program manager, made presentations at PAC's Sept. 15, 2009 and March 16, 2010 meetings. See Chronicle coverage: "City Seeks Feedback on Transit Center" and "Concerns Voiced over Fuller Road Station"] Rampson also pointed to the upcoming May 6 public meeting as another way that public input is being sought.
Clearly, she said, the project is viewed as a continuation of the parking use that’s currently on the site. She said the language change in the zoning code is being proposed because it was pointed out to staff that transportation facilities weren’t part of the current list of permitted principal uses.
Woods asked whether the language change needed to happen before the planning staff reviewed the project – it’s expected to be submitted on May 17. Rampson said the city was exempt from zoning.
Tony Derezinski – a planning commissioner who also represents Ward 2 on city council – picked up on that comment. The basic principal is that as a city project on public land, the city is exempt from zoning. “If it comes right down to it,” he said, “this (language change) is not necessary.” It’s being done to clarify to the public what’s happening, he added.
Evan Pratt acknowledged that people had raised solid concerns that need to be discussed. The city needs to be careful in making any change. However, his view was that the commission was being asked to make a determination on policy, not on a specific parcel. In addition, the city has gone above and beyond what it’s required to do, given its exemption from zoning, he said.
Parkland is protected by virtue of its principal use, Pratt said, but in the case of the Fuller Road Station site, its principal use is parking – UM leases the lot for its employees. He didn’t feel that by moving forward they would be opening up the parks to be used for any purpose. Decisions are made project by project, he said, parcel by parcel.
Erica Briggs agreed that a lot of legitimate concerns had been brought up – some that likely couldn’t be resolved at this meeting. Among them was an expectation that parking structures wouldn’t be built on parkland. Obviously, the language change they were voting on was designed to facilitate the Fuller Road Station, she said. A parking lot has been tolerated because it’s reversible – a parking structure is not. She recalled that at a previous meeting, commissioners had been assured that if public land was designated as parkland in the PROS plan, then it was protected. Now, that doesn’t seem to be the case, she said, and they should openly address that.
Jean Carlberg said the term “transportation facilities” made more sense than the outmoded “municipal airports.” The change to her seemed unrelated to the Fuller Road Station project. It seemed that many of the people objecting to the word change believed that if the language wasn’t altered, it would somehow hamper the project, Carlberg said. She didn’t believe it would matter one way or another: “That train has left the station and is on its own track.”
Diane Giannola agreed, saying she looked at it from a bigger picture perspective. The new wording allows the city to put a bus station or other transportation facility on any piece of public land. It allows more flexibility, and isn’t tied directly to Fuller Road Station.
Woods said it was difficult not to link the wording change to Fuller Road Station – the project was specifically cited in the staff report, she noted. [The staff report states: "This proposed amendment would ensure that projects such as Fuller Road Station are consistent with the permitted principal use section of the PL zoning district."]
Bonnie Bona said it wasn’t in the planning commission’s purview to deal with restrictions on the uses or sale of parkland – that’s up to the park advisory commission and city council. She voiced support for the term “transportation facilities,” especially since the city was moving into a time when there would be more alternative transportation options. She’d like to keep the definition as open as possible, she said.
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to change “municipal airports” to “transportation facilities” in Chapter 55 of the city code. The amendment will next be considered for approval by city council.
Public Commentary: Coda
During the time set aside for public commentary at the end of the meeting, three people again addressed Fuller Road Station.
Acknowledging that it wouldn’t make any difference, John Satarino said he wanted to correct some statements that planning commissioners had made as motivations for their vote. It was never intended for the parking lot at Fuller Road to be permanent, he said. In fact, the university coerced the city into providing the parking lot there, he said, as part of a land swap deal to save some centuries-old burr oak trees near a planned expansion of the VA Medical Center. [The headline of a June 26, 1993 Ann Arbor News article states: "Oak trees to be spared from ax – A request from U-M officials for a temporary parking lot may be the key to saving condemned burr oak trees." The article describes negotiations between the city and university as "tortuous."]
Regarding principal use, greenspace just sitting by itself is a principal use, Satarino said – a very special one. Parking is secondary. He said he was also bothered because he didn’t feel that commissioners had read all of the available information on the project. To make it easier to get federal funding, the city needs the land to be given status as a transportation center on public land. The wording change in the city code is very clearly a device to get that, he said.
Lou Glorie said it seems like parkland is being dissolved into public land.
Rita Mitchell argued that the commission’s action affected precedent. The parking lot at Fuller Road was once a park. Think about what this means for the future of Allmendinger and Frisinger parks, she said. It might not happen now, but what about in 15 years, if the university decides it needs more parking for Michigan Stadium? Parkland should be thought of as a principal use, and that should lead the city’s thinking as they move into the future.
Commissioner Response to Public Commentary
Bonnie Bona asked Erica Briggs to report to the PROS plan committee the concerns that had been raised that evening. [Briggs is the planning commission's representative on the PROS plan committee.]
Bona asked what the timeline was for putting together the PROS plan update. Briggs reported that the staff is doing a survey to seek public input. [An online version is available here.]
Wendy Rampson said that Amy Kuras, the city parks planner who’s leading the update efforts, hopes to meet with the planning commission as a focus group on the PROS plan, perhaps at a June working session.