Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting (July 20, 2010): At their July meeting, park commissioners received updates on two projects that have drawn a fair amount of controversy: Argo Dam, and the Fuller Road Station.
First up was Argo, and city staff outlined details of a consent agreement signed with state regulators in May, which identifies steps the city must take to deal with safety issues at the dam. The city will be pursuing two options: getting bids to repair the toe drains on the dam’s earthen embankment; and issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for an entire embankment reconstruction. Ultimately, city council will choose between the options, based in part on a recommendation from PAC.
During public commentary, two speakers affiliated with the Huron River Watershed Council urged commissioners also to recommend getting a bid for an additional option – removal of the dam. And during a discussion after the staff presentation, commissioner Tim Berla called out the city council for not taking a vote on the dam-in/dam-out question. He said that by not voting, the council essentially made a back-door decision not to remove the dam. From an accountability standpoint, he said, a vote should be taken.
Commissioners were also updated on Fuller Road Station, a large parking structure and transit center – and possibly a train station eventually – proposed to be built on city land that’s designated as parkland. The joint project by the city and the University of Michigan was the subject of a resolution that PAC passed at its June 15 meeting, asking city council for more transparency in the process and to ensure the project results in a net revenue gain for the parks system. During the July 20 presentation at PAC, initial designs were presented and potential funding sources were discussed. Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, also told commissioners that Greyhound, which had initially expressed interest in the station, has now backed off – at this point, it doesn’t appear the bus company will use that site.
Later in the meeting, commissioner Dave Barrett gave an update on work that he and Berla are doing to assess the condition of the city’s ballfields. Some fields are in really bad shape, he reported. “It’s fair to say we have some work to do.”
Options for Argo Dam
The question of whether the city should remove Argo Dam drew heated debate last year, but was never officially decided by city council. It’s been an issue for nearly a decade, with state regulators repeatedly telling the city to make repairs to components of the dam’s site. Environmentalists have lobbied to remove the dam, which would eliminate Argo Pond and allow the river to flow unobstructed. Others – including the rowing teams who use Argo Pond for practice – have urged the city to keep the dam in place.
In May, the city signed a consent agreement with the state, laying out steps that the city must take to address some of the long-outstanding issues with the dam. At PAC’s July 20 meeting, city staff presented details of that agreement, and fielded questions from commissioners.
Argo Dam: Public Commentary
Two people spoke on the issue of Argo Dam during public commentary.
Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council and a member of the city’s greenbelt advisory commission, urged PAC members to recommend soliciting bids for removal of Argo Dam, in addition to the bids being sought for repair and reconstruction. Along with the cost of current repairs, the city will face another $250,000 maintenance cost in 2012, she said, and the question of whether to leave the dam in place will be raised every time there’s a major expense. Rubin pointed out that the rowing team at Skyline High is practicing at Gallup Pond. [Rowing advocates, including teams that practice at Argo Pond, have been staunch supporters of leaving the dam in place.] She said it’s her understanding that removing the dam would also be consistent with the consent agreement reached between the city and the state. She encouraged PAC to solicit bids for dam removal, so that the city would have that information to be able to make an informed decision on the issue.
Scott Munzel, a member of the Huron River Watershed Council’s board, told commissioners it’s clear that in the long run, removing the dam is better for the health of the river, which is the primary goal of the watershed council. Canoeing and rowing are two key uses of the Argo Pond, he said. Canoeing could continue if the dam were removed, but crew teams would need to move. However, it could be beneficial for high school students to use other locations for the crew practice, he said, making it a win-win for them as well as for the environmental impact on the river. It’s important for taxpayers and the city council to understand all the facets of this complicated issue, he said, and one of those facets is cost. He urged PAC to solicit bids for removing the dam.
Argo Dam: Background, Timeline
Molly Wade, the city’s water quality manager, began her presentation by noting that when most people think of a dam, they think of the concrete structure, like Hoover Dam. But a dam entails much more, she said, and Argo Dam has many components, including the spillway and the 1,500-foot-long earthen embankment that separates the headrace from the river.
Every three years, the state inspects the dam, Wade said. State regulators have identified the need for repair of the dam’s toe drains – the small-diameter drain pipes that were built into the embankment at roughly 25-foot intervals, to drain water from the embankment. The drainage is important because if the embankment becomes saturated, it could collapse. Many of the toe drain openings are covered with vegetation, she said, making visual inspection difficult. Some are clogged, or have collapsed.
As part of her presentation to commissioners, Wade gave a brief timeline of events leading to the consent agreement. For this report, elements of her timeline have been incorporated into a more extensive one previously published by The Chronicle:
- 2001: An inspection report from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) notes a problem with the toe drains in the earthen embankment.
- Nov. 18, 2004: As part of state inspections that occur every three years on the dam, the MDEQ sent a letter to the city that references the 2001 inspection report, which first pointed out problems with the toe drains: “The inspection report for the Argo Dam identifies problems that may threaten its safety. Specifically, the toe drains along the downstream side of the raceway canal embankment are failing. The toe drain failure is complicated by the dense growth of trees and brush on the raceway embankment and by the inability to block the flow of water into the raceway during an emergency. The toe drain system should be repaired immediately, and a means of blocking flow into the raceway canal should be devised as soon as possible.”
- 2005: The city’s capital improvement plan (CIP) includes funding to address the dam situation. An assessment revealed the presence of the purple turtlehead (Chelone obliqua), a rare plant that’s on the state’s endangered plant species list. The city is given until October 2006 to come up with a plan to protect the plant’s habitat.
- March 2006: The city’s Environmental Commission creates the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) committee.
- Sept. 12, 2007: The assessment of the dam’s condition and recommendations in the dam safety report includes: “The principal spillway and main embankment of the Argo Dam are in good condition. However, the headrace embankment is in poor condition. The dam has adequate spillway capacity to pass the design flood. The following recommended actions are listed by priority. (1.) Submit a copy of the contingency plan to block off flow from the millrace by February 29, 2008. (2.) Remove overhanging and dead trees from the headrace embankment by July 31, 2008. …”
- Dec. 26, 2007: A letter from the MDEQ includes the following: “The headrace embankment of the Argo Dam is in poor condition, and the toe drains are not totally functional. This has been described in past reports, and you have received a permit to perform repairs to the toe drain system. It is our understanding that this work has not been done yet, and discussion is ongoing regarding the future disposition of the dam.”
- March 24, 2008: A letter from the MDEQ includes the following: “One of the recommendations of this report was that a contingency plan be developed to rapidly shut off flow to the headrace in the event of concerns over the headrace. You provide this contingency plan to this office in your letter of February 21, 2008. The contingency plan lacks detail on how an actual or impending failure of the headrace embankment would be determined. … [P]lease be reminded that this headrace contingency plan is intended to be a short term plan to alleviate potential impacts caused by a headrace embankment failure. It does not address the significant structural concerns with the headrace embankment.”
- January-February 2009: City staff conduct a series of public meetings. [Chronicle coverage of a public meeting at Forsythe Middle School.]
- April 28, 2009: The final version of the HRIMP report is finished. Key conclusion: “The decision at the Argo area comes down to one of community preference. Both options will require significant investment of capital and operation and maintenance dollars in addition to staff time.”
- May 19, 2009: The city’s Park Advisory Commission recommends on a narrow 1-vote margin to recommend retaining the Argo Dam. [Chronicle coverage of PAC Argo Dam discussion.]
- May 28, 2009: The city’s Environmental Commission recommends removal of the dam. [Chronicle coverage of EC Argo Dam discussion.]
- June 15, 2009: At a work session conducted by the city council, the apparent consensus was that staff should be directed to identify questions that would need to be studied for dam-in and dam-out scenarios and to ask MDEQ for additional time.
- July 16, 2009: Ann Arbor sends a letter to MDEQ outlining specific areas of study for the dam-in and dam-out options, and asks for an extension of the deadline until April 2010.
- Aug. 6, 2009: MDEQ sends a letter in reply granting the extension, but issued a “dam safety order” which called for the closure and dewatering of the headrace.
- Oct. 5, 2009: The city formally files an appeal to contest the MDEQ order.
- Oct. 19, 2009: City council considers a resolution that stated “its intent to maintain the Argo Dam and Argo Pond for the time being and allow staff to develop and implement specific strategies to mitigate any infrastructure deficiencies with the headrace embankment and thereby satisfy the MDEQ’s requirements” and “directs the City Administrator to take actions in support of this declared intent, including identifying a timetable and necessary funding sources to support the infrastructure improvements.” They vote unanimously to table the resolution.
- November 2009: The city and state regulators began negotiating a consent agreement to address these ongoing issues. As part of that negotiation, the city installed a “stop log” to block the flow of water to the headrace.
- May 2010: At its May 3 meeting, city council approves a consent agreement with the state, which is signed on May 6. [.pdf of consent agreement] The stop log is removed and the city’s canoe livery at Argo is opened for the season.
Additional Chronicle coverage: “Dam Questions Dominate Caucus” (June 15, 2009); “Huron River of Data” (June 29, 2009); “Finally a Dam Decision on Argo?” (Oct. 19, 2009); “Still No Dam Decision” (Oct. 21, 2009) “City, MDEQ Agree: Argo Headrace Shut” (Nov. 2, 2009) and “Argo Embankment Issue Settled with State” (May 5, 2010).
Argo Dam Consent Agreement: Staff Presentation
Molly Wade, the city’s water quality manager, outlined some highlights of the consent agreement.
- Vegetation Management: Shrubs and brush must be removed from the embankment and swale – the ditch that runs between the embankment and riverbed. That work has already begun. Tree removal will also occur, but not along the river’s edge. Another element of the plan includes protecting the habitat of the purple turtlehead – the consent agreement states that “no woody vegetation removal will occur within 10 feet of the turtlehead population during the growing season.” [.pdf file of vegetation management plan]
- Isolation of the Headrace: The consent agreement allowed for removing the stop log, filling the headrace with water and allowing normal canoe livery operations to occur this season, Wade said. The stop log – essentially, a metal plate that’s slid into place to stop water flow – is kept nearby in case they need to close off the headrace quickly, she said. It must be put in place again in October 2010, but can be removed in May 2011, under terms of the agreement.
- Monitoring and Triggers: The consent agreement stipulates that the city must conduct quarterly inspections of the dam, using a licensed professional engineer. Wade said they’ve already been doing that, using qualified city staff. They must also do monthly embankment inspections while the stop log is out – those inspections are also being done by city staff. Daily monitoring of the water levels at Argo Pond are required. Triggers that require action include 1) activation of the low pond level alarm in the control room at the city’s water treatment plant; 2) certain readings taken from piezometers located in the embankment; and 3) visual signs, including seepage of water on the downstream slope, boiling near the toe of the embankment, or bulging of the embankment slope. In addition, quarterly written reports must be submitted to the state. Wade said the city turned in its first report on June 15. [.pdf file listing triggers that call for response] [.pdf of the city's June 15, 2010 quarterly Argo Dam report]
The consent agreement also requires that the city select and implement one of two options, Wade said: 1) repair the toe drains, or 2) reconstruct the embankment. The city is evaluating both of those options, she said – information will be reviewed by PAC, the environmental commission and city council, which will ultimately choose which option to implement by December 2010.
Jeff Straw, deputy manager of parks & recreation, provided more details to PAC about the two options:
- Toe drain repair: The city had originally obtained bids for this work in 2005, but they’ll be soliciting updated bids this fall, he said. This time, the scope of work will include a vegetation management plan. The repair work will include daylighting all toe drains to evaluate their condition; cleaning out the clogged drains; extending the pipe for some of the drains, where needed; and repairing the swale for better drainage and erosion control. The canoe portage and pathway along the embankment will remain mostly unchanged, he said.
- Embankment reconstruction: The city plans to issue an RFP (request for proposals) by Aug. 2, Straw said – that’s a date stipulated by the consent agreement. The scope of work will include connecting the headrace to the river and removing the portage area; improving the Border-to-Border trail connection; providing space for seating and fishing; developing a vegetation management plan; repairing any remaining toe drains; and creating opportunities for “enhanced recreation amenities.” Those might include things like a stretch of whitewater, Straw said. The dam must remain “run of the river” in this scenario, meaning that the same amount of water flow that goes into the dam must exit the dam on the other side.
Straw then laid out a proposed timeline for the process:
- Aug. 2, 2010: RFP issued for embankment reconstruction option.
- September 2010: Advertise solicitation for bids of toe drain repair.
- Sept. 15, 2010: Deadline for RFP response.
- Early October 2010: Interviews conducted with RFP respondents.
- Oct. 19, 2010: Presentation to PAC, public commentary and PAC recommendation to city council.
- Nov. 8, 2010: Presentation at city council work session.
- Nov. 15, 2010: City council selects which option to pursue.
- Dec. 6, 2010: City council awards contract and budget for work.
Straw also noted that there were some mandatory dates outlined in the consent agreement. The city must apply for permits related to the project no later than Feb. 1, 2011. Construction must begin no later than June 1, 2011 and be completed by Nov. 1, 2011 at the latest. “We’re working in a pretty well-defined timeline,” he said.
Argo Dam: Commissioner Comments and Questions
Julie Grand, PAC’s chair, thanked Dave Barrett for agreeing to be PAC’s representative on the RFP interview committee, saying there was no one on the commission who knew more than he did about Argo. [Barrett was also a member of the HRIMP committee, which evaluated the dam-in/dam-out question as part of their report.]
Noting that he had been one of the volunteers who had helped clear parts of the embankment, Barrett asked whether anyone knew how the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment (formerly the MDEQ) had made its assessment of the toe drains, since most of them aren’t visible. How many toe drains are flawed? he wondered. Wade said that no one was sure – part of the work to repair the toe drains would first entail assessing their condition.
Sumedh Bahl, the city’s community services area administrator, said one of the reasons that state inspectors believe some of the drains aren’t functional is that they can’t be seen. The city’s argument is that they must be functioning at some level, he said. Ideally, you’d be able to see them all, and see what kind of water flow is coming out of them.
Gwen Nystuen asked about the safety of the dam – she clarified that the concrete structure had been built in 1972, and that when the city built the spillway, there were no problems with erosion. When asked if there was evidence of erosion on the embankment, Bahl said there were some signs of normal wear and tear.
Sam Offen followed up by saying that there’s no evidence that the toe drains are failing. The inspectors couldn’t see the toe drains, he said, but it was also true that they could see no visible evidence that they aren’t working. That’s true, Bahl responded. He added that they were monitoring water pressure using piezometers placed in three sections of the embankment.
Offen wondered what kind of vegetation would be planted on the embankment and swale in place of the shrubs, brush and trees that would be removed. Would there be something to prevent erosion? That hasn’t been decided, Bahl said, but they were looking for an option that would be low or no maintenance. The state would have to approve whatever they choose, he said.
Offen noted that if everything goes according to plan, then construction would occur next summer. Would the headrace be closed? That depends on which option they choose, Bahl said.
Grand clarified that construction could begin before June 1, 2011. Yes, Bahl said – and the sooner, the better.
Nystuen asked for a ballpark estimate of costs for both options. Bahl said he didn’t know, but that the previous estimate they’d received for the toe drain repair was between $250,000 and $300,000. The embankment reconstruction could be considerably more, closer to $1 million. Barrett clarified that the amount for reconstruction would depend on what it entailed, and that it could be done for substantially less.
Tim Doyle asked if the second option would eliminate all the toe drains. That depends, Bahl said – the design might include some toe drains, but probably not as many as there are now.
Tim Berla said he wanted to go back to the dam-in/dam-out question, noting that the last time PAC had discussed Argo Dam, that had been the issue. [Chronicle coverage: "Park Advisory Commission: Argo Dam Stays"] Based on the presentation they’d just heard, Berla said it seemed as though council had chosen the dam-in option, since they weren’t asking for a bid on removing the dam. He asked Christopher Taylor, one of two city council representatives who serve on PAC, when the council had voted on the issue, and what the outcome had been.
Taylor said that the council hadn’t been specifically engaged on that question. They did vote to approve the consent agreement, he said, but that’s a separate decision.
Berla clarified that the state didn’t request to leave the dam in. Wade responded, saying that the state is simply telling the city to “make it safe.” Bahl added that the state has not told the city that the dam must be removed.
Berla said that everyone is interested in making the situation safe – one way of doing that would be to take the dam out. But council has effectively not decided to pursue that option, he said, noting that they wouldn’t likely pay to repair the dam if they were then going to remove it.
Council had essentially made a back-door decision not to remove the dam, Berla noted. It would be great, from an accountability standpoint, he said, if a vote were taken by council.
Nystuen returned to the issue of dam safety, saying she wanted to assure the public that there was not a real hazard with the dam. Bahl said that the only concern is with the earthen embankment – there are no issues with the concrete dam structure or the spillway.
Barrett picked up on that topic, saying that some advocates for dam removal – including the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council – had made misleading statements about the condition of the dam. It was disappointing, he said, that they’d been led to believe that the entire dam was failing, and that the “fine-line distinctions” outlined by city staff hadn’t been made clear.
Barrett asked Bahl to clarify that the city’s position is that there is nothing wrong with the dam. Bahl replied that there is no imminent danger, but that over a long period of time, there might be problems. Barrett said the same thing could be said of his house. He asked whether it’s fair to say that the dam isn’t going to collapse. Bahl said the city is monitoring for signs of trouble, and if they see any, they’ll respond. They have an emergency plan, he said.
Berla said the safety should apply to the entire dam – if there hadn’t been any risk, the state wouldn’t have required the city to install the stop log, he pointed out. He also drew an analogy to inspecting the brakes on his car. If he couldn’t see the brakes, he wouldn’t report that everything was fine. The same is true for the embankment.
Barrett noted that the term “safety” was elastic, and he asked Bahl to characterize whether the “doom and gloom” scenario was really troublesome. Is there a real threat of the embankment failing? Bahl said that if the embankment failed, releasing water from the headrace, it would be a threat – the degree would depend on the flow of the river at the time, and how quickly water was released. The city had addressed similar issues at Barton Pond in the past – because Barton Pond is so much bigger, a failure there would be much more catastrophic, he said.
Berla asked about the second option, and what might be included in it. Straw said that the RFP would be open-ended, and Bahl added that they hope proposals will present a range of ideas, at different price points.
Offen asked for clarification about how the different proposals would be presented. Wade said that for the toe drain repair, they’d accept the lowest bid. For the embankment reconstruction, the RFP committee would make a recommendation to present to PAC, which would in turn make a recommendation to city council.
Grand asked whether the city knew where the money was coming from for these various options. “We’re looking into that,” Bahl replied, eliciting somewhat wry laughter from commissioners, who’ve been grappling with budget issues. By the time one of the options is chosen, he added, they will have identified a funding source.
Barrett asked where the funds came from to repair Barton Dam. Bahl reported that because Barton generates electricity, money was used from the general fund. That’s because the revenue generated by hydropower from the city’s dams goes into the general fund, he said.
Fuller Road Station Update
Immediately following the presentation on Argo Dam, PAC members got an update on the Fuller Road Station project from Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, and Dick Mitchell of Mitchell and Mouat Architects, which is designing the project.
Fuller Road Station: Background
This project, a joint effort between the city and the University of Michigan, is proposed for a site that’s owned by the city and designated as parkland, though it’s been used as a surface parking lot – leased in part to UM – since 1993. PAC members have raised concerns over both the use of parkland for this purpose, as well as over the process that the city has used to move this project forward.
At one point, PAC considered a resolution asking council to halt the project. But following a meeting at which mayor John Hieftje made a plea for unity, the commission reconsidered. At their June meeting, they ultimately passed a resolution that asks city council to make available a complete plan of Fuller Road Station – including any significant proposed agreements, such as what the university will pay the city for use of the structure – allowing sufficient time for a presentation at a televised PAC meeting before council votes on the project. The resolution also asked that staff and council ensure the project results in a net revenue gain for the parks system.
Though Cooper has made previous presentations to PAC about Fuller Road Station, this was his first appearance before the commission since the meeting when commissioners passed the resolution calling for more transparency.
Chronicle coverage of PAC on this issue includes: “Concerns Voiced Over Fuller Road Station,” “Hieftje Urges Unity on Fuller Road Station,” “PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station,” and “Park Commission Asks for Transparency.”
Fuller Road Station: Presentation
Cooper told commissioners that a July 8, 2010 public forum on the project had been well-attended, drawing about 30 people. They presented the design concept at that meeting, he said. The city continues to work on getting funding for the master concept, he said – the master concept entails the full scope of the project, including a train station. Phase 1 of the project includes primarily a large parking structure and bus depot.
Cooper outlined several possible funding sources that the city and UM are pursuing. The Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) has requested information from the city to pursue funding for high speed and intercity rail between Detroit and Chicago, through the Federal Rail Administration. The city is working with AATA and other partners to apply for federal funding for the entire master concept – including the train station.
The first phase – the parking structure and bus depot – has a budget of about $46 million. With the train station, the entire project is expected to cost about $120 million. Cooper said they remain optimistic about their ability to move this project forward, and that it’s held in high regard by state and federal transportation officials.
The project team is meeting with the planning staff next week, Cooper said, and expects to submit formal plans in early August. At this point, there is a tentative timeline, though Cooper stressed that these dates could change:
- Sept. 21, 2010: Public hearing at the city’s planning commission meeting.
- Oct. 17, 2010: Presentation to city council at their Sunday night caucus.
- Late October: UM regents review and approval.
- Nov. 4, 2010: Public hearing at city council.
Mitchell next presented design details that focused on the first phase of the project. He described three overarching principals that were guiding the structure’s design: 1) expressing the theme of transportation, 2) creating the building as a gateway, and 3) sustainability.
The building’s first floor is “where the action is,” Mitchell said, so it’s differentiated in several ways. The ceilings are higher, and there’s a six-foot-wide brick band that caps the first floor on the exterior. Some of the openings are covered with glass that will be artistically embellished, as a public art component. [This aspect of the project was discussed at the July 13, 2010 meeting of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission.] More decorative glass is near the bike area, which is marked in the design by a large icon of a bicyclist over the entrance to the structure.
Treating the corners in a different way architecturally, and putting a marquee on the primary central stairwell, are ways that the building is marked as a gateway, Mitchell said. And elements of sustainability include using recycled materials whenever possible; installing LED lighting and motion sensors on each floor that will activate brighter lights only when there’s movement in the area; building a sophisticated stormwater retention system; and using native plants in the landscaping. There’s the possibility of installing solar panels on the building, he said, though that’s not yet in the budget. There will also be places within the structure to charge electric vehicles.
Fuller Road Station: Commissioner Comments and Questions
Gwen Nystuen began by noting that Mitchell had not presented designs for the train station. She clarified that the station would be in an area to the west of the parking structure. She also asked whether the city now planned to combine the project into one again, rather than split it into phases.
Cooper responded by giving a brief history of the project, noting that Fuller Road Station was initially conceived as the “master concept,” with the train station included – the TIGER [Transportation Investments to Generate Economic Recovery] grant they’d applied for, but didn’t receive, had been for funding of the entire project. He pointed out that an issues analysis report from March 2009 had laid out the reasons for separating the project into phases. [.pdf file of the issues analysis report]
UM had been planning to build parking structures nearby on Wall Street, but instead chose to join the Fuller Road Station project, which forced them to consolidate timelines, he said. [See Chronicle coverage: "City Staffers Brief Wall Street Neighbors"] Cooper said they continue to pursue funding for the entire project, so that future phases can be developed as quickly as they can.
Responding to a question from Julie Grand, Cooper confirmed that most of their funding applications are for the entire project. One smaller application of about $10 million for the first phase of Fuller Road Station is out to the Federal Transit Administration.
As the city thinks about the master plan for Fuller Road Station, Dave Barrett wanted to know how economies of scale factored are being factored into the project? Cooper replied that the first phase is a significant component, and there would only be a modest number of efficiencies gained, if they were to build the entire project at once.
If they secure federal funding, they’ll need to go through a design procurement process based on federal guidelines – the current designers may or may not be selected, he said. So there might have been efficiencies if they were to have done it all at once. But quite frankly, he said, without those resources, there’s not the ability to move forward on a more grand project, either for design or construction.
Cooper then explained that there are two tracks that are being discussed with MDOT and the Federal Rail Administration (FRA). One is for the environmental and design development phase – that grant application will be in the $5 million to $7 million range, he said. Though environmental studies are already underway, the project would be eligible for reimbursement for some of that, he said.
The other piece that the city is planning to apply for is an $80-90 million request for construction. In addition, they haven’t given up hope that they can secure federal funding for phase one from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. It’s a challenge to understand the requirements and timelines of the available funding sources, he said. They continue to monitor that, he said, noting again that they’ve received positive reviews from potential funding sources, though no funding has yet been awarded to the project.
Barrett said it seemed as though they were playing three-dimensional chess, and Cooper replied that it indeed felt like that.
Nystuen asked how much city money has already been spent on the project. Cooper clarified that council has approved about $600,000 for initial design work. He then identified another potential funding source, from the federal High Priority Project program. The city has been asked to submit information to this area’s congressional delegation, he said, which they’ve done. The intent would be for those applications to be included in the federal transportation bill, when the bill is developed. That would be for full funding of the master concept, he said, characterizing it as funding through a legislative process. Through an administrative process, they have an application pending with the Federal Transit Administration, and are developing grants collaboratively with MDOT: One for planning and design, and one for construction.
Nystuen said she’s never seen a basic justification for moving a train station into the parks. Cooper responded by reviewing the history of the project, going back to 2006 with the city’s Model for Mobility. It included the concept of commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit, running on the rails that the Amtrak system runs on, as well as the north/south line that’s now known as WALLY, between Ann Arbor and Howell. It also included the connector system that’s now being studied to link the various transit hubs within the city. [Chronicle coverage: "Transit Connector Study: Initial Analysis"]
City council approved the Model for Mobility, which included a recommendation to study the relocation of the Amtrak station. An external factor influenced the timeframe, Cooper said – “every now and again something happens that causes you to jump, as oppose to stroll, from decision to decision.” The issue in this case, he added, was that there was significant pressure being put upon a neighborhood – both a transportation facility and a parking facility were being considered for that Wall Street area.
The city decided to have a conversation with the university, Cooper said, to see if their mutual interests could come together – understanding that by having other public funds in the Fuller Road site, they could use that as a “local share” commitment of matching funds, used to capture federal funds. They didn’t pursue the project just to “get the dragon out of the neighborhood,” he said. They saw opportunities – the value of a train station is much higher when up to 25,000 employees can walk off of a train platform and go to their workplace. “The Fuller Road site is the only location in all of Washtenaw County that gives us that opportunity,” he said.
Cooper said he presented plans to PAC in the fall of 2009, at the same time as the city council was adopting the transportation master plan. [Chronicle coverage of Cooper's presentation to PAC at their September 2009 meeting: "City Seeks Feedback on Transit Center"] The policy, the vision, the direction had been in place, he said – those elements preceded negotiations with the university. The city then reached a memorandum of understanding with UM by the end of 2009.
Nystuen pointed out that there’s never been a public hearing about whether to put a train station in a city park. Cooper said that if you use the technical term “public hearing,” that’s correct. There were public discussions, he said, at PAC, at planning commission, at city council and at public forums. Public hearings are typically related to final formal actions, he said, and they haven’t reached that point yet. There’s been no decision to build anything in the park, he said. There has been direction to evaluate, prepare plans and begin to work toward achieving this end result. Public hearings will be properly held before approval of a project that’s still a concept, he maintained.
Tim Doyle noted that Cooper had talked about phase one and a master concept – were there other phases after phase one? Cooper said he wished they could put numbers on it, but that it’s characterized as “future phases” because the elements will come on line as the financial opportunities present themselves. He said if they’re fortunate enough to get the High Priority Project award, they’ll have enough to fund the phase one and immediately a phase two that would include the majority of elements in the master concept, including the train station. As an example of something that might come later, Cooper said that a second platform wouldn’t likely be built initially, but would be constructed when rail demand called for it.
Doyle asked if the walkway to the hospital would be in phase one. No, Cooper said, that would be in a future phase.
Tim Berla said he wanted to revisit the bicycle aspect of Fuller Road Station. For him, the best part of riding a bike is that he doesn’t have to park it some distance away from his destination. So it seems odd to have a bike station at a place that’s not a final destination. It would make sense if people are going there to catch a train, Berla said, but that’s in a future phase.
Cooper said that in the first phase, the bicycle area will contain bike lockers – it won’t be a “fully evolved” bicycle station. But they want to establish a footprint for an eventual station, to demonstrate their commitment to the bicycling community. In the future phase, the station will have showers, a bike maintenance area and other amenities. It’s a concept that works in Chicago, Minneapolis and other communities, Cooper said. In the short term, the bicycle community has an opportunity to embrace it – he noted that the Border-to-Border Trail goes past the facility, and he hoped that it would become an active trailhead for organized rides.
As far as the Border-to-Border trail, Berla said, a lot of vehicles will be coming of the Fuller Road Station, which would be right across from the trail. Obviously, he added, that’s the last thing you want as a bicyclist. It was a concern, he said.
Cooper replied that prior decisions have created toeholds for addressing that concern. The bridges on Fuller Road have an underpass for bicycles. Ultimately, when the project is fully evolved, he said, there will be grade-separated bicycle connections.
Berla then asked what would happen if they get phase one funding, but then for a long time that’s all they have – just a large parking structure and a bus station. It’s good for the university, but is it good for the community?
Cooper said he believed there’s a value to taking 1,000 spaces of parking and arraying them vertically, as opposed to the acres of land it would otherwise require. There’s no stronger champion for alternative transportation than he is, Cooper said, but the reality is that when you have tens of thousands of jobs coming into the community, those folks for the most part will need a place to park.
Ann Arbor is well above other cities, with 40% of people who live and work here walking, cycling or taking the bus to work, Cooper said. But the majority – 60% – still use cars. How can the city facilitate the economic growth needed to keep Ann Arbor vibrant and competitive, and to keep the quality of life strong, and to do it with a minimum footprint? There’s value in stacking, he said.
Another benefit is having a transit center at the edge of UM’s medical complex, where more rational transit scheduling can be done to bring employees to that site, he said. There are other benefits, Cooper said, offering to discuss the topic with Berla after the meeting.
Berla asked whether Greyhound will be located at the Fuller Road Station. Cooper said the city had initial conversations with Greyhound officials, who had indicated interest. But when they started talking about it in more detail, “they backed away.”
Nystuen said she understood that there would be 500 buses going in and out of the center each day. Cooper said he wasn’t sure about that number, but he referenced the connector feasibility study that’s underway. The study indicates that UM runs a full bus about every minute, connecting north campus and central campus. There are 40-50,000 people each day who rely primarily on public transit in the city. So the 500 number wouldn’t surprise him, he said, adding that it speaks to the need for this kind of intermodal station.
Nystuen said she was bringing it up to question what it means for this amount of congestion to be brought to the parks, which are primarily for recreation and open space. Cooper said he’d use the term “activity” rather than “congestion.” The Fuller Road system has the capacity to move vehicles in and out of the station, he said. Traffic engineers use a grade score, and existing conditions on Fuller Road are D and E, he said. [Levels of services for traffic are defined as follows: A=Free flow; B=Reasonably free flow; C=Stable flow; D=Approaching unstable flow; E=Unstable flow; F=Forced or breakdown flow] If there were no improvements, those conditions would degrade over time. But there are some concepts in a separate project that would create sufficient capacity so that it wouldn’t be a congested area, Cooper said. And even if it were congested during the peak half-hour period, he added, that leaves 23.5 other hours a day where the traffic flow would be at a very acceptable level of service.
Grand thanked Cooper for his presentation. Cooper said the commission was an important policy body, and that he’d return with future updates as the project moves forward.
Fuller Road Station: Public Commentary
Nancy Kaplan spoke at the end of the meeting during time set aside for public commentary. One thing that hadn’t been raised during the discussion about Fuller Road Station was the precedent it set, she noted. PAC is agreeing to use parkland for a parking structure that will primarily benefit the university, and not the community at large. It’s a precedent that’s circumventing the intent of the 2008 referendum that requires the city to get voter approval before selling city parkland, she said. Kaplan added that she understood it wasn’t being characterized as a sale, but that the end result is that “the land will be taken permanently.”
She noted that the issue of precedence is being cited by the mayor, who talks about the fact that the site is already being used as a surface parking lot, as an argument for building Fuller Road Station there. Kaplan was also worried about Allmendinger and Frisinger parks, which had been flagged by city staff as possible locations for parking on UM football Saturdays, though city council ultimately voted against that proposal.
Money shouldn’t be driving these decisions, she said, and parkland shouldn’t be viewed like a bank. It seems like there’s no real protection for parks, she noted.
Kaplan also reported that she had attended the July 8, 2010 public forum that Cooper mentioned in his presentation. Universally, she said, the people who attended disapproved of the design and the process. They raised concerns about traffic and were very negative about the changes that this project would bring to the Huron River valley. No one is anti-train, she said, but a station doesn’t have to go at that location. What’s more, the large parking structure is unrelated to the train station, she added – it’s mostly for the university’s benefit. She urged PAC – as the body that protect parks – to be vigilant.
Misc. Staff, Commissioner Updates
There were several updates from commissioners and parks staff.
Condition of City Ballfields
Commissioners Dave Barrett and Tim Berla are looking at the conditions of the city’s ballfields, and gave an update on that project. Barrett reported that they’ve visited most of the sites, and “it’s fair to say we have some work to do.” He said it’s not a condemnation of anyone – the city staff is doing the best they can with the resources they have. But a lot of the fields are in really bad shape and in some cases, it’s dangerous to play on them. They’ll be working on recommendations to bring to PAC, and will likely ask some user groups to attend a PAC meeting and give feedback. Berla noted that in some cases, people are going outside the city to use fields that are in better condition at a better price.
Barrett noted that for people who aren’t politically active, the parks and recreation facilities are the main place where they interact with the city. Residents are paying taxes for parks, yet they notice that the parks are looking “dog-eared.” If the city plans to ask for future millages to fund parks and rec, they need to address these issues, he said.
Gwen Nystuen asked if there were any examples of fields that were being well-maintained. Barrett cited Virginia Park, which has a field that’s graded so that rainwater runs off the field. In many other parks, rain sits in pools, making the field unusable for days.
Update from Parks & Rec Staff
Colin Smith, the city’s director of parks and recreation, did not attend the July 20 meeting, so deputy director Jeff Straw gave PAC an update on several items. Among them, he said the city had received responses to an RFP (request for proposals) soliciting a consultant to help with strategic planning for the Ann Arbor senior center. A committee would be reviewing those proposals and selecting one in the coming weeks. [The center had been at risk of closing during the last budget cycle, as the city looked to cut costs. A task force has been working to increase revenues at the center – developing a strategic plan is part of that effort, funded by a grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.]
All of the Fuller soccer fields are operating now, Straw reported, following reconstruction. The city has received positive comments from users, he said, and it looks like they’ll be fully booked going into the fall. He also reported that more people have joined the swim teams at Veterans and Buhr pools – more than 100 each, compared to past years when the teams have had closer to 70-75 participants. That’s encouraging news, he said.
Straw also updated commissioners on the city’s parking agreement with UM for surface parking lots on the north and south sides of Fuller Road. They’ll be renewing the contract for another two years, with an expected 7.5% increase in revenues, he said. Currently, UM pays about $31,000 per lot annually. Gwen Nystuen asked whether the parking agreement will be coming to PAC for review. Straw said it’s being signed, but that they can share it with PAC.
Present: David Barrett, Tim Doyle, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, Julie Grand, Doug Chapman, Karen Levin, Tim Berla, Mike Anglin (ex-officio), Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)
Absent: John Lawter, Karen Levin
Next meeting: Tuesday, Aug. 17 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]